Thursday, 26 April 2012

Perceptions and realities

The government has had a bad time since the Budget and much of it has been of their own making.  Whatever the justification for increasing the tax on pasties or equalising personal allowances freezing them for pensioners until the rest of us catch up, and there certainly is justification, the ways in which both issues were handled has been a public relations disaster.  The petrol fiasco was entirely of the government’s making.  Again whatever the justification for the government planning for a strike and it would be a poor government that did not put contingency plans in place just in case, the message that individuals should fill up their jerry cans and store them in their garages was crass stupidity and, whatever the government says, led to panic buying on a massive scale.  Pasties, pensioners and petrol all give the impression that the government is not simply slipping up on banana skins but actually putting the banana skins down themselves.  The electorate can accept a government that puts forward difficult measures, they may not like them but are generally prepared to accept them.  But a government that has become the butt of widespread public ridicule and gives the impression of being helpless and hopeless, rapidly loses any popular legitimacy.  If people think that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are ‘two posh boys who don’t known the price of milk’, then it becomes very difficult to put forward serious solutions to our undoubted problems. 

The experience of past governments clearly suggest that if a government sinks so low in public esteem then it is extremely difficult for it to recover.  This happened to John Major in the mid-1990s and Gordon Brown after 2009 and both lost the next general election.  In both cases, there was also a widespread belief that their policies would not resolve prevailing economic problems, despite a recovering economy in 1997 and the situation is now far worse than it was in 1997 or 2010.  The problem for the present government is that their deficit reduction plans and economic policies are perceived not to be working.  Economic growth, promised from its outset, has not occurred and now that we are in a double-dip recession, achieving the growth essential to economic recovery.  So not only is the government seen as laughable by many, it appears that the wheels have fallen off of its economic plans and, as they have consistently stated ‘there is no plan B’. 

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

A Penal colony

Six years after James Cook landed at Botany Bay in 1770 and gave the territory its English name of ‘New South Wales’, the American colonies declared their independence and the revolutionary war with Britain began. Access to America for transported convicts ceased and overcrowding in British gaols soon raised official concerns. In 1779, Joseph Banks, the botanist who had travelled with Cook to NSW, suggested Australia as an alternative place for transportation. The proposal was repeated later in 1783 by James Matra, who had also sailed on the Endeavour. [1] The advantages of trade with Asia and the Pacific were also raised, alongside the opportunity NSW offered as a new home for the American Loyalists who had supported Britain in the War of Independence and who found themselves dispossessed. Eventually the Government settled (although not without criticism) on Botany Bay as the site for a colony.[2] Secretary of State, Lord Sydney, chose Captain Arthur Phillip of the Royal Navy to lead the fleet there and to be its first governor. He was responsible for keeping law and order, entitled to grant land, raise armed forces for defence, discipline convicts and military personnel and issue regulations and orders. As the colony grew, he could raise taxes through customs duties.

The critical question facing those who arrived in Australia in 1788 was how do you establish a society from scratch and how far was it possible to transport political and social structures as well as convicts? What they found shocked them. The colony represented an inversion of the accepted order of things. It was to be built by Britain’s discards. Members of the First Fleet seem to have been unprepared for the changed seasons, but creatures like the black swan, both the same as, and yet opposite to, the northern white swan, neatly conformed to some of the early theories about what a world upside down might contain. Similarly, being dark-skinned unlike the pale Europeans, it was assumed that the indigenous peoples also had the opposite of ‘civilised’ European values. Creatures like the kangaroo and platypus, however, were much more disturbing, hinting at perverted rather than inverted forms of nature. Interestingly, John Hunter attributed these supposed freaks of nature to a ‘promiscuous intercourse’ between species that served to infect the country and compared it with the moral contagion represented by the cargo of convicts. [3] From a social perspective the ‘proper’ order of society was overthrown, as convicted felons became founding members of a new society. While few became as wealthy as the emancipist merchant Simeon Lord, many came to hold positions of authority and to enjoy greater prosperity than they could have known back home. Most importantly, for the indigenous inhabitants of the country the arrival of an entirely alien culture represented disaster. Transformed from custodians of their ancestral lands, enjoying a rich material and spiritual culture, to dispossessed ‘savages’, their world was indeed turned upside down.

Many convicts began their servitude during transportation. Convicts entered upon what some call a ‘repressive penal system’ through their incarceration in the hulks while waiting for transportation to occur.[4] The problem with this journey was that ‘no vessel was specially designed and built as a convict ship’.[5] Usually the voyage, during which many convicts died, ‘took eight months, six of them at sea and two in ports for supplies and repairs’.[6] During the voyage of the Second Fleet, ‘26% had died, and 488 were landed sick from scurvy, dysentery, and infectious fever’ and after landing, ‘the total of deaths increased by fifty’.[7] Though this was an extreme example, typically conditions during voyages were poor. Many of the weak died before they reached the penal settlements. John White saw ‘a great number of them lying, some half and others nearly naked, without either a bed or bedding, unable to turn or help themselves’. Often if convicts survived the voyage, ‘coming into contact with fresh air, men fainted and died when being taken on shore to the inadequate hospital’.[8]

The 1828 census claimed that ‘emigrants were so far a small minority...that New South Wales had fewer than 5,000 people who had come voluntarily in a population of 36,598’.[9] However, within twenty years, this situation dramatically changed and the 1851 census showed that there were ‘about 80,000 convicts and former convicts still alive and living in Australia but that they were only about one in five of the white population.’[10] Despite the shift from convict to free settlers, around 400 convicts were sent to Australia each year between 1793 and 1810 and more than a thousand a year by 1815. This increased to some 2,600 a year from 1816 to 1825 and nearly 5,000 a year from 1826 to 1835. [11] During the eighty year operation of this policy between 150,000 and 160,000 convicts were transported; about sixty per cent were English, thirty-four per cent Irish and five per cent Scots. 60,000 were transported to NSW from 1788 to 1840 and briefly in 1847, 75,000 to VDL (1803-1853), 1,750 to Victoria (1844-1849) and 10,000 to Western Australia (1850-1868).[12]

Once the convicts entered Australia, they were assigned one of two types of services depending on the severity of the crime committed and the skills the convicted maintained. If the convict survived the journey, he was retained in either ‘government service’ or ‘assigned as labour to a private land owner’. If convicts were retained in government service, they either entered a ‘labour gang in which a variety of tasks on public works’ were completed or in an ‘iron gang which is forced labour while wearing chains fastened to the ankles and waist’. [13] Government convicts were provided with accommodation by their employers and had to be housed by the government. Accommodations in these camps sometime consisted of ‘small shells on wheels in which twenty men slept’ that could be ‘moved elsewhere when the immediate job was finished’. Both the labour gang and the iron gang were employed in areas known as ‘stockades’, which were ‘surrounded by a high stacked fence’ and usually ‘deep in the bush and guarded’. [14] The public work achieved by these ‘convict gangs’ was substantial. These gangs did more than build roads in the 1840s they ‘carried away the whole of the top of Pinchgut Island in Sydney Harbour and prepared the site on which Fort Denison was subsequently constructed’.[15] Convicts assigned to private land holders held different jobs from those in government service. Many convicts were sent to farms to help landowner cultivate and increase the value of his land. They worked as ‘agricultural labourers, they cleaved land, constructed bridges, made salt, produced bricks and mined coal’. [16] These convicts often learned a trade that could be useful once they were freed. Convicts of farm labour were not necessarily treated better and worked just as hard as the convicts in governmental servitude.

Much of the operational administration of the penal system was in the hands of the guards.[17] Unfortunately, ‘the almost total absence of a properly qualified class of persons to fill the situation of superintendents and overseers of probation gangs’ left the colony with many unqualified guards.[18] They came from a ‘lower class of society, from the slums of the cities’ and often used their position as a way of making money and emigrating to a new society. In many respects, the guards were ‘no better and no worse then the men they guarded’ and were ‘victims among victims’ since their lives were also ones of servitude as guards of the convicted. [19] The convicts lived under almost constant ‘scrutiny’ and often the ‘convicts worked and sweated inside as the guards remained outside’ while watching over the convicts.[20] Exploited, abused and subject to arbitrary injustice, it is hardly surprising that some convicts fought back while others ‘bolted’ swelling the ranks of the bushrangers.

Freedom was usually granted to those who had either good behaviour or completed their sentence. There were two kinds of pardons that a convict could receive. The first pardon was ‘absolute’ meaning the sentence was finished and the convict was free to go. The second was ‘conditional pardon’ meaning ‘conditional on never returning to British Isles’.[21] In Great Expectations, Magwitch was granted conditional freedom and knew that his return to London to see Pip would eventually lead to his death.

I was sentenced for life. It’s death to come back. There’s been over much coming back of late years, and I should certainly be hanged if took.[22]

This created a distinction within the convict community between those still under sentence and those who had been pardoned who could leave the colony and return to Britain and those who had been pardoned and could not. This created a chasm between the freed felon or emancipist and the free settler in the nineteenth century. Then, ‘respectable people worried about the future of a community composed so largely of men and women who belonged in it because they had been caught stealing.’ The idea behind this belief was the morals or lack of morals of the free convict. This is definitely a legitimate concern. Macquarie, the governor of NSW declared in 1821, ‘New South Wales should be made the home and a happy home to every emancipated convict who deserves it’ and that ‘once a man is free, his former state should no longer be remembered’. [23] In fact, the word convict was to be ‘forbidden from general discourse’ as freed convicts did not want to be reminded of their former servitude.[24] According to the 1828 census, freed convicts accounted for nearly half of the free population and Australia was in serious need of free immigrants to settle in Australia. The ‘imperial government decided in 1831 to stop giving land away to settlers, and to sell it at not less the five shillings an acre, and to use the money from land sales for the fares of immigrants’.[25]


[1] Frost, Alan, The Precarious Life of James Mario Matra: Voyager with Cook, American Loyalist: Servant of Empire, (Miegunyah Press/Melbourne University Press), 1995.

[2] For discussion of the contested reasons behind settlement at Botany Bay, see below pp. 62-69.

[3] Bach, John, (ed.), An Historical Journal, 1787-1792, by John Hunter: An Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island, (Angus and Robertson), 1968, pp. 47-48.

[4] Connah, Graham, The Archaeology of Australia’s History, (Cambridge University Press), 1988, p. 50.

[5] Bateson, Charles, The Convict Ships 1787-1868, (Brown), 1959, p. 68.

[6] Inglis, K.S., The Australian Colonists: An Exploration of Social History 1788–1870, (Melbourne University Press), 1974, p. 6.

[7] O’Brien, Eris, The Foundation of Australia: A Study in English Criminal Practice and Penal Colonisation in the Eighteenth Century, (Sheed and Ward), 1937, rep., (Greenwood Press), 1970, p. 168.

[8] Ibid, O’Brien, Eris, The Foundation of Australia, pp. 168-169.

[9] Ibid, Inglis, K.S., The Australian Colonists, p. 14.

[10] Ibid, Inglis, K.S., The Australian Colonists, p. 15.

[11] Ibid, Inglis, K.S., The Australian Colonists, p. 8.

[12] On convict society, see below, pp. 220-228.

[13] Ibid, Connah, Graham, The Archaeology of Australia’s History, p. 51.

[14] Ibid, Connah, Graham, The Archaeology of Australia’s History, p. 55.

[15] Ibid, Connah, Graham, The Archaeology of Australia’s History, p. 57.

[16] Ibid, Connah, Graham, The Archaeology of Australia’s History, p. 51.

[17] See, Robbins, W.M., ‘The Supervision of Convict Gangs in New South Wales 1788-1830’, Australian Economic History Review, Vol. 44, (1), (2004), pp. 79-100.

[18] Brand, Ian, The Convict Probation System: Van Diemen’s Land 1839-1854, (Blubber Head), 1990, p. 14.

[19] Lagrange, Francis, Flag on Devil’s Island, (Doubleday), 1961, pp. 174-175.

[20] Ibid, Lagrange, Francis, Flag on Devil’s Island, p. 191.

[21] Ibid, Connah, Graham, The Archaeology of Australia’s History, p. 51.

[22] Dickens, Charles, Great Expectations, (T.B. Peterson), 1861, p. 118

[23] Ibid, Inglis, K.S., The Australian Colonists, p. 13.

[24] Ibid, Inglis, K.S., The Australian Colonists, p. 14.

[25] Ibid, Inglis, K.S., The Australian Colonists, p. 16.

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.

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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.

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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.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Leisure and the state

Leisure activities were made available in four main ways and as a result provided employment in leisure.  First, the state, whether at local or national level, both created a legal framework and acted as a direct supplier. In the first half of the nineteenth century, its main concern was to control supply, chiefly by licensing, but later its role was more positive and it became a direct supplier of such facilities as parks, libraries and playing fields.  This interpretation provides little to explain the motives for its intervention in the supply of leisure other than dividing its activities into two separate spheres, negative control and positive supply.  One such motive was prestige that entailed support for both the production of high culture in the present and the preservation of the high culture of the past.  By the 1830s, state aid was necessary to maintain or at least subsidise museums throughout the country and from the 1860s governments drew back from subsidising high culture.  Public funding required more justification than had the royal patronage that dominated support for culture in the first half of the nineteenth century.  The public could not be denied right of access.  In 1810, admission to the British Museum was made free and unlimited with dramatic impact on the number of visitors: in 1824-1825, this stood at 128,000 rising to 230,000 in 1835 and 826,000 by 1846. These figures lead into the second motive that governed state supply of leisure, a concern for public order and social harmony.
It is, however, easy to exaggerate the amount of state supply.  The typical pattern was not for the government of the day to take an initiative, but for a pressure group within Parliament to be appeased by the appointment of a select committee.  The outcome tended to be permissive legislation that local authorities could implement if they wished.  Central government provided a legal framework within which museums or libraries could be built and run out of the rates but it was as concerned to protect ratepayers as to encourage the provision of a facility.  Not surprisingly, buildings were often slow to appear on the ground.  Until 1914, libraries stemmed more from philanthropy than from rates and even at that date were within reach of only 60% of the population.  The same was true of museums and parks.  Local authorities played an increasingly important role and shared the same motives as central government: a concern for prestige, in this case in relation to other local authorities and a worry about social order.    But they added to them a more compelling motive, a desire for prosperity.  Seaside resorts led the way after 1875, investing in sea defences, promenades, piers, golf courses and concert halls in an attempt to improve their attractiveness to potential visitors.
A major element in the state’s supply of leisure was its concern to control and monitor the use of space.  The home, as a private space, was beyond its physical reach.  However, licensing of retail outlets for the sale of alcohol was the state’s major intervention in the leisure market and was intended to preserve public order and provide some means of monitoring the leisure of the poorer sections of society.   Public parks, museums and libraries were supported precisely because they were public, open to scrutiny and controlled by bye-laws.  The space provided by theatre, music hall and cinema was potentially more dangerous, but the power or threat of licensing of both building and activity made them relatively acceptable.    The censorship of both plays and films ensured that public entertainment adhered to acceptable moral and political values.  Fire regulations, for example those imposed on music halls in 1878, not only reduced the dangers of fire, but drove many of the smaller, less salubrious halls out of business.  In the cinema, the industry formally established its own form of censorship in 1912 with the British Board of Film Censors.    In horse-racing, by contrast, the government banned off-course betting in the Street Betting Act of 1906.    It was, however, leisure that took place outside these spaces that posed the threat; streets, rivers, canals and privately owned rural areas were spaces where there was almost constant feuding between the state and the people.

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.