Fun and Laughter in the Victorian Era; History Laura Davis Looks at a New Book Which Destroys the Myth That 19th Century Life Was Dour and Oppressive

Article excerpt

Byline: Laura Davis

CHILDREN running barefoot through streets filthy with debris, bawdy prostitutes selling favours to avoid the workhouse, austere philanthropists donating purses to bleak orphanages.

These images, all associated with the Victorian age, paint the period as a dark one, characterised by poverty and unforgiving of those who broke the rules.

Yet it was also an era of great fun - as a huge variety of forms of entertainment exploded into existence. Despite their dour frock coats and stifling corsets, the Victorians were as excited about a theatrical spectacle as we are about the release of a Hollywood blockbuster today.

They looked forward to a day at the races with the same enthusiasm as we await a Derby football match, and tickets to a classical music concert were as sought after as the latest MP3 download.

"I know there was awful, awful poverty, but what was so good about the Victorians was that it was such a hopeful time. You could become anything. It was the last time I think that progress was seen as unreservedly good," explains Judith Flanders, author of Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain.

"When I went to school, we learned about the industrial revolution and how it brought steel and steamships and dark satanic mills and, of course, it did do all that. But it also brought an incredible period of entertainment, light and colour into people's lives.

"If it wasn't for the Victorians, we wouldn't have department stores, we wouldn't have theatre in the same way. There were virtually no public concerts before the 19th century. It just all arrived at once - it must have been just mindblowing."

Liverpool's status as a port accelerated the progress of the city's leisure industry. In many ways, it was second only to London in terms of its theatres, music halls and sports venues.

"Liverpool was really interesting because it was very typical of the time but the situation was magnified because of the port. The opening up of the American West really created a huge boom in Liverpool so the infrastructure of transport developed very early in the city. It was that infrastructure that allowed all the entertainment to happen. It didn't just take musicians from Manchester to Liverpool to play, it also took the audiences," explains Judith, who will be appearing at the Chester Literature Festival next month.

So in an era when just one in 10 people owned a knife or fork and five out of six people did not own a cup, Liverpool was one of the few cities to boast a Panorama - a 360°' cinema screen - a century before Disneyland Paris got in on the act.

"Originally, they showed things like local scenery but, very quickly, they became ways of showing topical events, battles, natural disasters or shipwrecks. It was a very, very early form of news reel and again it was because of the port. The news came in very quickly and there was a huge audience that wanted to see them," explains Judith.

Sadly, because the circular shape of the building that housed the screen meant it was difficult to redevelop, when Panoramas went out of fashion, it was demolished.

One organisation founded during the Victorian Era that still exists, although not in its original building, is the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

Constructed on the same site it stands on today, the Philharmonic Hall opened on August 27,1849, and was described as "the best in Europe" by the renowned conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, before being destroyed by fire in 1933. It was replaced by the current art deco building designed by architect Herbert Rowse, completed in 1939.

Judith believes the influx of Germans to Liverpool during the 1800s was responsible for the orchestra's following during the last half of the 19th Century

"There was a very big German immigrant community and they were desperate for music. …