Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Other suppliers of leisure

There was much self-made leisure, whether communal or associational on the one hand or personal and family based on the other.  In its communal or associational forms it was a major means of supply of leisure for the middle-class urban culture, typically in the form of subscription concerts and libraries and of clubs, for example, for chess.  In Bradford in 1900, for example, there were 30 choral societies, 20 brass bands, an amateur orchestra, six concertina bands and a team of hand-bell ringers.  In Rochdale, and elsewhere, the churches and chapels were crucial suppliers of leisure up to 1914 with their young men’s and ladies’ classes, their debating societies and numerous other activities.    Much leisure within the family relied on commercial sources of supply, of games, pianos, books and a huge array of hobbies.  In music and hobbies in particular, there was considerable activity in working-class homes: by 1910 there was one piano for every fifteen people, far more than the middle-classes could absorb. 

Voluntary bodies and philanthropists were key agents in the supply of leisure for others.  They were less single-minded than the state, but as with the latter the supply of leisure fell into two groups, a negative controlling one and a positive supply one.  Into the first group fell organisations such as the Vice Society (1802), the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (1824), the Lord’s Day Observance Society (1831), numerous temperance and teetotal societies and the National Council for Public Morals (1911).  The second group included philanthropists and employers who funded parks, libraries, brass bands and football clubs, the Mechanics’ Institutes, the Pleasant Sunday Afternoon Association, the Girls’ Friendly Society (1874) and the Boys’ Brigade (1883).  What united these two approaches was a concern to direct and mould other people’s leisure by control of some sort over its supply.

The hope of weaning people away from bad habits by the provision of respectable alternatives initially became important during the 1830s.  The solution was ‘rational recreation’, quiet and elevating pursuits, modelled on the best contemporary middle-class practice.  As a result, not only would the bad habits themselves disappear or at least diminish, but in the process people, largely men of good will from different classes would meet fraternally and come to understand each other’s point of view.  The amount of leisure provided was enormous.  Parks, libraries and similar institutions were frequently the outcome of philanthropy.  In Glasgow, for example, where ratepayers on three occasions in the second half of the century refused to fund a public library, Stephen Mitchell, a tobacco magnate, left £70,000 for a library that opened in 1877.  In Manchester, T. C. Horsfall raised the funds for an Art Museum opened in 1884.  Bristol acquired a municipally owned museum, library and art gallery between 1895 and 1905, all through private funding.  Much church and chapel activity was organised from above for people deemed to be in need.  Of these, the most important were the young.  The real problem arose when they left Sunday Schools and it was partly to keep a hold on these children that William Smith established the Boys’ Brigade in Glasgow in 1883.  Thereafter uniformed youth movements, particularly for boys, attracted a high proportion of the youth population.    The Boys’ Brigade had its denominational rivals and from 1908 faced serious competition from the Boy Scouts.  By 1914, between a quarter and a third of the available youth population was enrolled in a youth movement.


Lenton’s Boys’ Brigade, Nottinghamshire, c1900

The provision of leisure probably served females less well than males, doubtless in part because the former were thought to pose less of a problem.  The Girls’ Friendly Society, formed in 1874, was predominantly rural and Anglican in outlook and many of its members were young domestic servants.  Two further organisations came into being to meet their needs as they grew older: the Mothers’ Union founded in 1885 expanded to 7,000 branches by 1911 and the Women’s Institutes begun in 1915.

Finally, leisure was supplied on a commercial basis.  Commercialised entertainment played an increasingly significant role in the supply of leisure between 1830 and 1914.  In 1830, it was provided largely for the middle-classes but diffused itself into the working-classes by the 1870s and to the masses by 1914. There was a shift in the nineteenth century from the patron-client relationship that characterised the employment of professionals in cricket and music in 1800 to an employment relationship more akin to that of the industrial world.  This was in part because of the seasonal nature of much of such employment, but also because of the lack of control over entry to leisure jobs. The numbers employed were growing, certainly after 1870.  Between 1871 and 1911, the population of England and Wales rose on average by 0.8% per year and the number employed in the arts and entertainment by 4.7% per year.  The number of actors and actresses peaked in 1911 at over 19,000, having quadrupled in the previous thirty years.

In nearly every section of the leisure industries there were attempts to raise the status of entertainers.  The outcome was the achievement of stardom for the select few while the rank and file had to be content with wages at roughly semi-skilled level.  The best actors and actresses were already getting £150 per week in the 1830s.  In 1890, at least ten jockeys were earning £5,000 per season and the better professional cricketers were earning £275 per year.  Between 1906 and 1914, the wages of performing musicians doubled reaching £200 per year.  The best professional footballers could not earn high wages: the Football Association set the maximum wages at £208 per year and only a minority got that amount.  On the whole, however, complaints about wages and conditions of service within the entertainment and sports world were muted.  The lure of acceptance as a profession, the hope of stardom for the individual and the sense that to be in entertainment was unlike any other job, for the most part curtailed any open conflict.


The importance of leisure in giving people a sense of national and social identity is matched by a greater significance placed on leisure in people’s individual life-choices and priorities.  Leisure preference is normally assumed to have been a feature of pre-industrial society and could not survive the greater emphasis on consumerism of an industrialised society.  Between 1830 and 1914, as hours of leisure grew longer, leisure activities took on a more central role in people’s lives.  It is not surprising that ‘rational recreationalists’ wanted to ‘control’ what people, and especially the working-classes, did in their spare time.  They were successful, to a degree, in mitigating the worst excesses of pre-industrial leisure with its potential violence and cruelty.  Yet the persistence of large-scale spectating, especially of football and horse-racing showed the limits of that success.  Alcohol and gambling remained key working-class leisure activities and, despite increased controls by the state, continued to play a major part in defining working-class consciousness throughout this period.  Leisure was in 1914, as it had been in 1830, largely male-dominated and escapist.

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