Wednesday, 7 March 2012

A leisured class?

How did people spend their leisure time? Leisure time can be seen as free time, time in which the individual is relieved from the pressures of work and other obligations, the choice of how to spend leisure time can be seen as distinctly personal. However, some would argue that to some extent it is not a personal choice and so is not in any positive sense leisure, but merely adherence to social custom or obligation. Choice is constrained by material circumstances and by the availability of facilities, but within those constraints on this argument, there is nothing to stop the chimney sweep fox-hunting or the peer attending the music hall. It is the beauty of leisure that it enabled individuals to escape from the pressures that otherwise circumscribed their lives.

This idealist approach to the study of leisure may recommend itself to philosophers, but to historians it has rarely seemed to accord with reality. Many have suggested that the key analytical tool for the study of leisure is the distinction between the rough and respectable. The implication of this distinction is that the respectable of all classes had more in common with each other than they did with the rough members of their own class. This distinction is, as we have already seen, is a simplistic one and may beg more questions than it answers. With some activities, of course, there is no difficulty but with many other activities, going to the theatre for example, there may be some disagreement about whether it is rough or respectable. The rough/respectable division is in fact an extraordinarily crude tool for the description of social reality; the fact that contemporaries made the distinction is, of course, of interest, but in adopting it themselves historians have confused the history of moral fears with the history of lived experience.

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Gustave Dore, The Epsom Derby- Arrival of the Well-to-Do

The latter can best be approached through a culturalist analysis. Leisure activities did not float freely above the world of work and daily life; on the contrary, they were intimately related to and derived from that world. Boundaries of class, of gender, of age and of geography were therefore likely to be reproduced in leisure. Leisure activities may themselves have reinforced or shifted those boundaries and not merely passively reflected them. The issue, therefore, is not one of leisure per se but of different leisure cultures that were not hermetically sealed against each other but overlapped and influenced each other. Nor were any of these cultures ever static; they were constantly changing, both in themselves and in relation to other cultures.

The phrase ‘the leisured or leisure classes’ can be traced back to the 1840s and may well have existed earlier. In 1868, Anthony Trollope was confident that England possessed:

...the largest and wealthiest leisure class that any country, ancient or modern, ever boasted. [1]

At the end of the century Thorstein Veblen subjected them to the most trenchant analysis they would ever received in his 1899 The Theory of the Leisure Class.[2] He argued:

The fundamental reason for the development of a leisure class was that only in conspicuous leisure and in conspicuous consumption could the wealthy achieve the status they sought. [3]

The critical word here is ‘conspicuous’. Leisure for the leisure class was not something carried on in private; its function, to establish status, demanded that it be seen both by fellow members of the class and by an envious or admiring excluded public. Since the function of that display was so fundamental to its social position, it is difficult to determine whether there was any separation of work and leisure within the class. Since by definition, though with some qualifications that will come later, they did not work in any sense in which the rest of the population would understand work, it followed that their duties and obligations in life lay in a highly ritualised leisure whose demands they often bemoaned.

The leisure class existed at the level of the nation and of the provinces. At the national level it could be most readily observed in the London Season and until the 1880s, this was as much a political as a social occasion. In the circumscribed political world of the nineteenth century the numbers involved were relatively small, perhaps 500 families compared to the 4,000 families who participated in the more purely social London Season of the late nineteenth century. Until then entry to London ‘Society’ was carefully guarded and its social functions were mostly private. Thereafter, it became easier to but one’s way into ‘Society’. [4] This reflected a change in the nature of the leisure class. It became less easy to identify a class whose members manifestly did not work; by contrast, public attention began to focus on the plutocracy whose male members worked, but so successfully that they could spend their fortunes in their leisure. The London Season formed one clearly demarcated phase in the annual life of the leisure class; the remainder of the year was centred on the country houses in a mixture of activities some of which were thoroughly exclusive while others entailed a carefully calculated patronage of more popular occasions. [5] Shooting was the most exclusive of sports while foxhunting was, in ideology at least, open to peer and peasant. In the late nineteenth century, as in London Society, the plutocracy began to supplant the aristocracy as its leaders.

From the mid-eighteenth century the London Season had its provincial counterparts. There existed in the larger provincial towns, perhaps particularly in southern England the ‘urban gentry’ who in a modest way provided the lower echelons of the leisure class. After 1830, such people living on income from capital tended to gravitate towards the spas and more select seaside resorts. They were disproportionately female and old. In contrast to the national leisure class, there was neither firm structure to their year nor any flamboyance in their leisure. They maintained their status by careful observance of the formalities that helped to distinguish them from those who had to work for a living. In the later nineteenth century a new category, the retired, began to fuse with this older, modest, provincial leisure class, to form a substantial proportion of the population of the southern and coastal towns in which they congregated.

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Such people had little in common with the national leisure class, and it may be questioned whether they should be included within the leisure class at all. It was luxury and its overt enjoyment, not modest affluence, which characterised the leisure class in its higher reaches. One mark of that luxury was the role accorded to women. Within the leisure class it was always legitimate for a man to have certain duties that were scarcely distinguishable from work, like running an estate. Indeed by 1870, it became possible for them to be more obviously part of the world of work and most obviously in the City of London. Women, however, apart from duties as hostesses, had to be kept rigidly separate from any money-making activity. Other social classes might emulate or aspire to the luxury of the leisure class. Even as far down the social ladder as the upper working-class, it was a mark of status that a woman should have no employment; clearly, however, such women did not fall within the leisure class. What could not be prevented was the copying of the manners and dress of the leisure class by those without the means to sustain the life-style.

[1] Trollope, A., (ed.), British Sports and Pastimes, (Virtue & Co.), 1868, p. 18.

[2] Tilman, Rick, Thorstein Veblen and His Critics, 1891-1963: Conservative, Liberal, and Radical Perspectives, (Princeton University Press), 1992, is a good critique of Veblen’s ideas.

[3] Cunningham, H., ‘Leisure and culture’, in ibid, Thompson, F. M. L., (ed.), The Cambridge Social History of Britain, 1750-1950, Vol. 2, p. 290.

[4] On this see Pullar, Philippa, Gilded Butterflies: The Rise and Fall of the London Season, (Hamish Hamilton), 1978, and Davidoff, L., The Best Circles: Society, Etiquette and the Season, (Taylor & Francis), 1973.

[5] Mandler, Peter, The fall and rise of the stately home, (Yale University Press), 1997, Sykes, Christopher Simon, The big house: the story of a country house and its family, (HarperCollins), 2004, Gardiner, Juliet, The Edwardian country house, (Channel 4 Books), 2002, and Wilson, Richard, and Mackley, Alan, Creating paradise: the building of the English country house 1660-1880, (Hambledon), 2000.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Reforming or re-forming leisure?

There was a strong impression among some contemporaries that the attempt to abolish certain pastimes had done more harm than good because it had resulted in the working-classes being left with very few outlets for leisure, other than those of a debased kind. Drunkenness, violence and fornication, it was claimed, were on the increase. This alarm that moral standards were declining combined with the fear that the social stability of the country was being undermined. The MP, Robert Slaney, argued that it was the duty of those governing the working-classes to provide suitable alternative recreations for those people who otherwise will fly to demagogues and dangerous causes.’ [1] By the 1830s, there was a growing sense among reforming and Evangelical groups that, though the working-classes seemed to have an inbuilt disposition towards spending any free time they had in sexual excesses, gambling and drinking. The middle and upper-classes were not entirely free from blame or responsibility for this situation.

There were several reasons for this feeling of guilt. Urbanisation and enclosures, it was argued, had resulted in a loss of public open spaces and footpaths and hence restricted the scope of working-class leisure time activities. As a result they were driven from comparatively healthy outdoor pastimes towards the numerous temptations offered by drinking houses. It was not until the opening of the Birkenhead and Manchester parks in the 1840s that serious consideration was given to setting up places of amusement within the parks themselves for the playing of games and sports. [2] It was not until the 1850s and 1860s and in some places the 1870s, that municipal parks were established in most provincial towns and cities. Nearly all the places of cultural improvement from which the working-classes could benefit -- art galleries, botanical gardens, libraries and museums -- were denied to them, either because they could not afford the subscriptions or entrance fees or because they were, if not positively excluded, at least not welcomed. Both the Museums Act of 1845 and the Public Libraries Act of 1850 [3] gave local authorities permission to build museums and libraries out of public funds. By 1860, however, only 28 library authorities had been set up. The lower classes had been influenced and harmed by the lax manners and moral of their social superiors. It was the duty of the rich, Hannah More and others argued, to set a wholesome example to the poorer classes through their own behaviour and this was not being done.

The early Victorians were genuinely concerned and bewildered about how leisure time should be used. For one thing leisure was often associated with idleness, so while it was recognised that spare time could bring benefits it was also acknowledged that it had its dangers. In a society where the gospel of work was so deeply ingrained and its virtues so vigorously extolled, it was perhaps inevitable that leisure time should be regarded with suspicion. Leisure requires time. Though there are problems in trying to assess working hours historians agree that there was an extension of hours in the early nineteenth century. [4] Factories imposed a twelve or thirteen hour day as opposed to the ten-hour norm of pre-industrial society. The factory movement may be seen as sanctioned and motivated by a desire to return to the norm, an achievement symbolically if not actually achieved in the Ten Hours Act of 1847.

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Coalminers, whose hours in the eighteenth century were relatively short, six to eight hours a day, were by 1842 nearly all working a twelve hour day with only short breaks for refreshment. Agricultural workers too suffered an increase in hours in the 1830s. In mining, agriculture, domestic service and the ‘dishonourable’ sections of the artisan trades and in all domestic work, the eighteenth century norm had been breached and hours were longer.

After 1850, the campaign for the nine-hour day started in the building trade, but success was limited until the economic boom of the early 1870s when most organised trades were able to breakthrough to a 54 hour week and by and large were able to maintain than position in the subsequent depression. The campaign for the eight-hour day was even longer in gestation than that for the nine-hour day. Despite all the pressure mounted in the 1890s and beyond, reduction in hours was insignificant on a national scale until 1919 and 1920 when seven million workers obtained reductions. Collective bargaining was unquestionably the chief means by which hours of work were reduced. Parliamentary action was of marginal importance by comparison. In the nineteenth century, it was never used overtly to control the hours of adult males. The key breakthroughs were achieved without parliamentary aid and acts, such as those in 1874 (reducing the hours of factory textile workers to 56 and a half), 1902 (a further reduction of one hour a week for factory workers) and 1909 (restricting underground work in the coalmines to eight hours), had only a marginal effects on the overall national statistics. [5]

If some regularity had been introduced to the working week by 1900, can the same be said for the working year? There had been a sharp decline in the number of holidays that were recognised and observed since the seventeenth century. They continued to be observed, with some regional variation, around Christmas or New Year, at Easter and Whitsuntide, at the local fair, feast or wake, and to some extent on such national days as the 5 November and Shrove Tuesday. They were not yet holidays with pay but their existence established a precedent that others later could follow. It was in the areas where holidays were measured by the day that the Bank Holidays Acts of 1871 and 1875 were of most significance. [6] They were not the first legislative recognition of holidays, which was included in the Factory Act 1833 but they were the first in which the state’s intervention was widely recognised and applauded. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries employers increasing conceded holidays to their workforce. Brunner Mond, Lever Bros., the Gas Light and Coke Company, the London and North-Western Railway Company and the Royal Dockyards had done so by the 1890s. In 1897, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants negotiated one-week’s paid holiday after five years service. Other unionised workers, in coal and iron, for example, were putting forward similar claims before 1914.

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The hours of work for the working-classes are relatively easy to establish in comparison to those of the middle-classes. There are no national statistics and only the most scattered and perhaps unrepresentative data. Three trends may be distinguished. First, within the professions and the civil service hours were relatively short and imprecise until late in the nineteenth century, perhaps six hours a day. In the private sector, clerks worked rather longer hours, generally 40 hours per week in five days. Secondly, among businessmen, the days of long hours occurred in the first half of the nineteenth century and by 1900 they too began to internalise the 9 to 5 norm. Finally, at the lower end of the middle-classes, amongst shopworkers, hours were notoriously long and remained so. After over fifty years of effort to curtail hours, a House of Lords Select Committee in 1901 could only confirm that many shops were working 80 or 90 hours a week. Pressure from the Shop-Assistants Twelve Hours’ Labour League, founded in 1881, and from the Early Closing Association did result in some improvement but the shift towards a legislative solution was only very partially successful. The 1911 Act did, however, enact a half-day holiday. As far as annual holidays were concerned the middle-class workers undoubtedly had the advantage and in 1875 the Civil Service Inquiry Commission indicated that clerks working for insurance companies, solicitors, banks, railway companies and the civil service were at getting at least two week’s holiday a year. They had achieved this some seventy-five years before the bulk of manual workers.

[1] See, Richards, Paul, ‘R. A. Slaney, the industrial town, and early Victorian social policy’, Social History, Vol. 4, (1979), pp. 85-101.

[2] See, for example, Elliott, Paul, ‘The Derby Arboretum (1840): the first specially designed municipal public park in Britain’, Midland History, Vol. 26, (2001), pp. 144-176, Taylor, A., ‘‘Commons-stealers, land-grabbers and jerry-builders’: space, popular radicalism and the politics of public access in London, 1848-80’, International Review of Social History, Vol. 40, (1995), pp. 383-407, and MacGill, Lynn, ‘The emergence of public parks in Keighley, West Yorkshire, 1887-93: leisure, pleasure or reform?’, Garden History, Vol. 35, (2007), pp. 146-159.

[3] On libraries, see, Hewitt, Martin, ‘Extending the public library 1850–1930’, in Black, Alistair, and Hoare, Peter, (eds.), The Cambridge history of libraries in Britain and Ireland: Vol. 3: 1850-2000, (Cambridge University Press), 2006, pp. 72-81, Peatling, Gary K., ‘Public libraries and national identity in Britain, 1850-1919’, Library History, Vol. 20, (2004), pp. 33-47, Johnman, W. A. P., and Kendall, H., ‘A Commission Appointed to Inquire into the Condition and Workings of Free Libraries of Various Towns in England (1869)’, Library History, Vol. 17, (2001), pp. 223-238, Fletcher, J., ‘Public libraries, legislation and educational provision in nineteenth-century England’, Journal of Educational Administration & History, Vol. 28, (1996), pp. 97-113, and Sturges, Paul, ‘The public library and its readers 1850-1900’, Library History, Vol. 12, (1996), pp. 183-200.

[4] Hopkins, E., ‘Working hours and the conditions during the Industrial Revolution: a re-appraisal’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., Vol. 35, (1982), pp. 52-66.

[5] Johnson, Paul A., and Zaidi, Asghar, ‘Work over the life course’, in ibid, Crafts, Nicholas F. R., Gazeley, Ian, and Newell, Andrew, (eds.), Work and pay in twentieth-century Britain, pp. 98-116.

[6] See, Smart, Eynon, ‘Bank holidays...and much else’, History Today, Vol. 21, (12), (1971), pp. 870-876.