Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Middle-class urban culture?

By contrast, urban middle-class culture, in its origins, was distinctively provincial. Until 1800, it was a culture that was more obviously urban than middle-class, expressing many of the values of the urban gentry, who themselves, may be considered as part of the leisure class and its aristocratic way of life. It was inherently social rather than intellectual. Its existence can be documented from figures of theatre building: only ten purpose-built theatres were erected in the larger provincial towns between 1736 and 1760 but more than a hundred were built between the 1760s and the 1840s. [1] The music festivals in the provinces are another indicator. In London it was not until the 1830s that the patronage and market for classical music passed from the aristocracy to the upper middle-classes; the provinces can be said to have led the way. [2] The new culture was visible too in the classical style of its architecture and in the design of squares and boulevards that were emphatically the territory of the aristocracy. For this culture was unashamedly exclusive.

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, the intellectual dimension of this urban culture became more pronounced. So also did its masculinity. [3] Like-minded men turned typically to the club or society as a forum within which they pursued their interests. If this culture is projected forward into the second quarter of the nineteenth century, its leaders can be seen turning away from a provincial pursuit of high culture towards a direct concern with the social and political problems of their own towns: they formed statistical societies and diffused useful knowledge. They became a culture anxious to influence the ways of life of the working-classes from their narrow but powerful middle-class bridgehead and were increasingly concerned with the supply of leisure to others than with the enjoyment of it themselves.

The emergence of this male, intellectual, socially concerned and distinctly middle-class urban culture marked part of the wider challenge to the lack of seriousness and the frivolity of the urban gentry. The interlocking impact of evangelicalism, the French Revolution and British radicalism posed a threat to the essence of eighteenth century urban culture: its urbanity, its stress on manners and behaviour as opposed to feeling. The shock waves were to be felt far into the nineteenth century in two particular forms. First, particular activities, theatre-going for example, or novel reading or cards or even cricket, now had to be scrutinised to see if they served any purpose that God, rather than Society, would approve. Many such activities ceased to be ‘respectable’. Secondly, the sociability that had been so highly prized in the eighteenth century ceased to be a virtue. The attraction of a life lived in public within a defined and exclusive society gave way to an emphasis on domesticity. The effect, undoubtedly, was to shift the emphasis of middle-class urban culture away from sociability towards domesticity, and away from frank enjoyment of leisure towards a more calculating performance of duty, towards a ‘rational’ view of recreation.

This ‘call to seriousness’ began to be relaxed after the middle of the nineteenth century. In the 1860s and 1870s the press and pulpit endlessly discussed the legitimacy of this or that activity and of leisure in general. The official view was that the purpose of leisure was to re-create a person for the more serious business of life, work. Recreation was only necessary for those who worked and was justified not for its own sake but for its ulterior purpose of re-creating men for work. Under this umbrella, however, more and more activities became legitimate and were doubtless enjoyed for their own sake. It was in physical activity, however, that the change was greatest. Sport conjured up images of an aristocratic style of life and gambling, or the corrupt seediness of pub-based prize fighting. Middle-class urban culture, especially the public schools, was able from 1850 to transform the nature and image of sport. Sport encouraged qualities of leadership; it took boys’ minds off sex was the best training for war. [4] As rules were drawn up and enforced, sport became increasingly an analogy for middle-class male life: a competitive struggle within agreed parameters. The middle-classes not only imposed a new ideology on sport; they were also in the period up to 1914 the chief beneficiaries of the expansion of facilities. There can be little dissent from the view that up to 1914:

...the sporting revolution belonged, in the main, to the middle-classes in their leafy suburbs. [5]

Middle-class urban leisure culture, then, was a shifting entity. An eighteenth century urban pursuit of pleasure turned in the nineteenth century to an anxious scrutiny of the legitimacy of particular pursuits and to a corresponding emphasis on domesticity rather than sociability. Gradually there was a relaxation, but it occurred within the safe boundaries of school and suburb. Indeed the most obvious and continuing thrust of the culture was towards social exclusivity. Within the wide middle-class boundary, lines to demarcate status were carefully drawn and upper and lower middle-classes would never meet in leisure. What they had in common was an attitude to leisure and a view of its social function: in leisure people could meet others of similar social status in environments, whether public or private, that were in accordance with the canons of respectability of the day.


[1] See, Garlick, Görel, ‘Theatre outside London’, and Schoch, Richard W., ‘Theatre and mid-Victorian society’, in Donohue, Joseph, (ed.), The Cambridge history of British theatre: Vol. 2, 1660 to 1895, (Cambridge University Press), 2004, pp. 165-182, 331-351.

[2] Dale, Catherine, ‘The Provincial Musical Festival in Nineteenth-century England: A Case Study of Bridlington’, in Cowgill, Rachel, and Holman, Peter, (eds.), Music in the British provinces, 1690-1914, (Ashgate), 2007), pp. 325-348, and Sprittles, Joseph, ‘Leeds musical festivals’, The Thoresby Miscellany, Vol. 13, (Thoresby Society), 1959-63, pp. 200-270, provide good case studies.

[3] Danahay, Martin A., Gender at work in Victorian culture: literature, art and masculinity, (Ashgate), 2005.

[4] Lowerson, John, Sport and the English middle classes, 1870-1914, (Manchester University Press), 1993, Huggins, Mike, ‘Second-class citizens? English middle-class culture and sport, 1850-1910: a reconsideration’, International Journal of the History of Sport, Vol. 17, (2000), pp. 1-35, and Lowerson, John, ‘Sport and British Middle-Class Culture: Some Issues of Representation and Identity before 1940’, International Journal of the History of Sport, Vol. 21, (2004), pp. 34-49.

[5] Meller, H. E., Leisure and the Changing City 1870-1914, (Routledge), 1976, p. 236.

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