Popular Leisure and Industrialisation: Kenneth J. Baird Examines Change and Continuity in 19th-Century British Social History. (Talking Points)

By Baird, Kenneth J. | History Review, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Popular Leisure and Industrialisation: Kenneth J. Baird Examines Change and Continuity in 19th-Century British Social History. (Talking Points)


Baird, Kenneth J., History Review


Contemporaries and historians have noted the transformation which took place in popular leisure activities in the first half of the 19th century and have generaly indicated that industrialisation reduced the time and space available for recreation as well as fundamentally altering popular amusements. Contemporaries especially remarked that the traditional, communal celebration - such as the parish feasts and fairs of the 18th century - were replaced by noisy, drunken and violent amusements, almost all of which centred on the public house. However, this view is simplistic and requires considerable qualification. Although industrialisation and urbanisation transformed popular leisure activities, there was also a degree of continuity. Furthermore, and even more important, the extent of industrialisation and urbanisation was not as great as the historiography has suggested. Consequently, although there was considerable qualitative changes to popular leisure, there was rather less quantitative change.

But before going on to discuss popular leisure in the first half of the nineteenth century, it is important that some attempt be made to define the term `popular leisure'. No definition can be perfect, but for the benefit of this article the term will be applied to that portion of time or activity which is spent out of work by those, from unskilled labourer to artisan, who were engaged in manual work. In addition, this article will focus on communal pastimes rather than private or sporting leisure activities.

Industrialisation: Extent and Effects

Any attempt to assess the extent of change in leisure in the first half of the nineteenth century is complicated by the nature of the evidence. Working-class leisure came to be regarded by middle-class contemporaries as a problem and, consequently, was the subject of much polemic debate. This polemic has effected our understanding of the debate since much of the evidence was recorded by middle-class observers who either had imprecise knowledge of the subject or their own axes to grind. Many of those observers therefore tended to highlight what they perceived as the `evils' of working-class leisure. Much of the evidence can therefore be exaggerated, biased or based on value judgments, but it is nevertheless assumed to contain an element of validity.

One of the major themes which the historiography addresses is that of the effect of industrialisation on leisure time. Most historians have claimed that there was a considerable change and that the new industrial conditions had effectively eroded the industrial population's free time, while mechanisation had simultaneously imposed a punitive working week on the labour force. `Prior to industrialisation the work pattern was characterised by alternate bouts of intense labour and idleness', as individuals were able to determine how much work they actually needed to do. This led to a very irregular work pattern, with holidays being taken whenever it suited the individual. Monday, in particular, was taken as a holiday and celebrated as St Monday. The calendar provided many more holidays, such as wakes and fairs which could last up to a week, and groups of workers kept their own saints' day, such as the woolcombers with their Bishop Blaise celebrations. The hours which were actually worked were not regular, although a (very) rough average which became established in the mid-eighteenth century was for a ten-hour day.

The onset of industrialisation and mechanisation apparently caused a considerable change to these practices. Early industrialists often believed that leisure for their workforce was unnecessary and expensive and they therefore increased the time and regularity of work. Cunningham has argued that the imposition of work discipline was easiest where labour was weak, and he cites the example of the cotton industry where mechanisation and weak labour had the greatest impact. `In the cotton industry, the operatives, lacking a custom of their own to refer to, were unable to resist the imposition of between 12 and 13.

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