Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Developing urban popular culture

Urban popular culture in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries developed three important dimensions. First, it was a mass culture that permeated across communities. There were activities that people paid to attend as spectators, audience or readers. This included theatres, circuses and fairs and later in the century, music halls, professional football, horseracing, the popular press, seaside excursions and cinemas. [1] This was a commercial leisure in which the size of crowds with consequent financial returns was important to pay the stars and professionals. Secondly, people generated leisure activities within their own communities. There might be some commercial or voluntary input in providing facilities but activities were of and for the people. The pub played a pivotal role and was the location for much more than the consumption of alcohol. The activities included brass bands, mass choirs, flower shows and the allotments that provided the basis for them, fishing and pigeon fancying. Competitiveness was one of the hallmarks of this type of culture: pub against pub, club against club; stars and professionals were absent; there was little formal separation of performers and spectators; and, the participants were mainly adult males.

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London recreations - tea gardens, Cruikshank, George

Finally, for women the focus was not on activities, but on space, in particular the space of the home and the street. Women’s leisure was not seen as leisure but something that accompanied work. In its more social aspect, in the street, its most typical form was chatting, was not distinguished from other forms of talk and was a culture heavily based on a sense of neighbourhood.

After 1830, a print culture developed that complemented and eventually superseded the existing oral popular culture. Events were advertised in print and news was conveyed in print. The expanding newspaper press of the eighteenth century had reached a largely middle-class audience primarily because of cost, but during the first half of the nineteenth century, a new literate popular culture emerged grounded in the radical and often ‘unstamped’ press and in the growth of melodramatic ‘penny dreadfuls’. It is difficult to establish an accurate profile of the readership of this expanding quantity of print by age, gender and class. Men, until after 1870, had a higher rate of literacy than women and they may have had easier access to literature. They were probably the main readers of the popular Sunday newspapers that by 1850 were read by one adult in twenty; for Sunday was much more a day of leisure for men than women. [2] Sporting literature was a genre of popular literature, and with its emphasis on ‘manly’ sports, also reached a dominantly male audience. Similarly, participation in and spectating of commercialised sports was largely, though not exclusively, male. Horseracing was immensely popular despite attempts to control its spread by law.

After 1850, figures for attendance become more reliable and their general trend is upwards. Music hall was the first new form of entertainment to make its mark. [3] Charles Morton’s opening of the Canterbury Hall in Lambeth in 1851 was to gain him immediate and retrospective attention, but there were important precedents in the saloon theatres that had flourished since the 1830s and in the ‘music halls’ that already existed in the larger provincial towns.

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Weston’s Music Hall, c1880

What is striking about the 1850s and 1860s was the multiplicity of forms in which people could experience what was eventually to become standardised as ‘music hall’. The focus on songs has distracted attention from the range of entertainment on offer in the halls; dance, acrobatics, mime drama and clowning as well as the occasional associated facility a museum, art gallery or zoo, were part of the ‘variety’ of the halls from the beginning. The emergence of music halls that were architecturally similar to theatres came relatively late during the second great wave of music hall building in the late 1880s and 1890s when chains of ownership were becoming common. It was in the 1890s, too, that there was a partially successful attempt to win middle-class audiences. Cinema can be seen as superseding music hall as the most popular form of mass entertainment, but there was a long period of overlap. Music hall was indeed the commercial cinema’s first home. From 1906, onwards, however, cinemas acquired their own homes, some 4,000 of them by 1914. [4] Until 1934 we can only guess at the number of admissions but an average of 7 or 8 million a week seems plausible in the years immediately before 1914 or 400 million admissions a year.


[1] See, Russell, Dave, ‘Popular entertainment, 1776-1895’, in ibid, Donohue, Joseph, (ed.), The Cambridge history of British theatre: Vol. 2, 1660 to 1895, pp. 369-387.

[2] See, Kamper, D. S., ‘Popular Sunday newspapers, respectability and working-class culture in late Victorian Britain’, in Huggins, Mike, and Mangan, James Anthony, (eds.), Disreputable pleasures: less virtuous Victorians at play, (Cass), 2004, pp. 83-102, and ‘Popular Sunday newspapers, class, and the struggle for respectability in late Victorian Britain’, Hewitt, Martin, (ed.), Unrespectable recreations, (Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies), 2001, pp. 81-94.

[3] On music generally, see, Russell, Dave, Popular Music in England 1840-1914: A Social History, (Manchester University Press), 1987, 2nd ed., 1997. Bratton, J. S., (ed.), Music hall: performance and style, (Open University Press), 1986, Till, Nicholas, ‘“First-Class Evening Entertainments”: Spectacle and Social Control in a Mid-Victorian Music Hall’, New Theatre Quarterly, Vol. 20, (2004), pp. 3-18, Scott, Derek B., ‘Music and social class in Victorian London’, Urban History, Vol. 29, (2002), pp. 60-73, and Kift, Dagmar, The Victorian music hall: culture, class and conflict, (Cambridge University Press), 1996.

[4] Much of the research on early cinema is in the form of studies of particular localities or entrepreneurs but see, Hiley, Nicholas, ‘“Nothing more than a ‘craze’”: cinema building in Britain from 1909 to 1914’, in Higson, Andrew, (ed.), Young and innocent? The cinema in Britain, 1896-1930, (University of Exeter Press), 2002, pp. 111-127, and McKernan, Luke, ‘A fury for seeing: Cinema, audience and leisure in London in 1913’, Early Popular Visual Culture, Vol. 6, (2008), pp. 271-280.

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