Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Holidays, pubs and popular culture

The seaside holiday may be a dubious contender for inclusion in urban popular culture for it represented escape from the city.  But the manner of that escape suggests that urban popular culture was transposed to the coast.  The history of the seaside holiday was not something initiated by the middle-classes and imitated by the working-classes.    Escape to the sea by workers preceded the coming of the railway.  The major increase in demand, however, came only in the late- nineteenth century and it was only then that the seaside holiday became a recognisable part of urban popular culture though there were regional variations.  The week at the seaside that many working-class Lancastrians had come to enjoy by the 1880s was unique; elsewhere the day trip was the norm.  The expansion of demand can be seen in the increasing number of visitors to Blackpool in season: it rose from 1 million in 1883 to two million ten years later and to 4 million in 1914.,

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Crystal Palace, c1905

Spectating at professional sport was already common by 1850 and to some extent what happened after was a switch from one sport to another.  Rowing ceased to be a major spectator sport and amateur athletics could never claim the crowds of the professional pedestrianism that it replaced.  Football, on the other hand, attracted numbers that rose from the late-nineteenth century to 1914 and beyond.,   The average football cup tie attendance rose from 6,000 in 1888-1889 to 12,000 in 1895-1896 and to over 20,000 in the first round in 1903.  In 1908-1909, in the English First Division 6 million people watched matches, with an average crowd size of 16,000.  It was, of course, dominantly a male pastime and it was regionally concentrated in the Lowlands of Scotland, northern and Midland England and to a lesser extent London.

The pub had close ties to this commercialised aspect of urban popular culture.  It was itself a commercial undertaking, increasingly under the control of the major brewers.  It was the main location of what was by far the largest single item of leisure expenditure, alcohol.  Despite this, the pub also managed to be the main organising centre for the self-generating culture.  Publicans were often sponsors of activities that they viewed simply with an eye to profit and some of the activities were on a large scale.  In addition, the pub offered a space for socialising and clubs of all kinds met in pubs.  The community generated by the pub expressed itself in the annual outing.  Above all, within the pub men could take part in a range of competitive activities: darts, draughts, bowls and card playing and gambling of all kinds. 

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Members of Bedale Brass Band, c1900, Bedale Museum

This participant competitiveness was indeed a key feature of urban popular culture and its significance is grossly underplayed in those accounts that focus exclusively on music hall, cinema and spectating generally.  As communications improved many of these competitions became regional and national.  Brass bands, for example, were competitive from their beginnings on a significant scale in the 1840s. 

The urban popular culture focused on the home and the street offered different kinds of satisfaction to a different part of the population.    The dominant masculinity of the world of participant competition had its parallel in an equally dominantly female world.  Most working-class women were confined, for their leisure as for their work, to the home and the street and there is increasing evidence from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries that they created their own separate female culture there.  It remains to be established when such a culture can first be identified and when it began to wither away, but there is enough to suggest that it existed as a key component of the ‘traditional working-class culture’ from 1870 to 1950.  Whether it can be called leisure culture is dubious: it was essentially a female network of support based on the separation of male and female world after marriage.  The distinction between the three dimensions of urban popular leisure culture has value to the extent that it identifies different and mutually exclusive worlds of leisure.  Popular urban leisure was to a considerable degree fractured along lines of gender.

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