Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Victorian life and leisure

In addition to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, have consulted the following books for this post:
Judith Flanders, Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain (London Harper Perennial, 2007)
Ruth Goodman, How to be a Victorian (London: Penguin, 2013)
G. R. Searle, A New England? Peace and War 1886-1918 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004)
F.M.L Thompson, The Rise of Respectable Society: A Social History of Britain, 1830-1900 (Fontana 1988)

A drawing of Blackpool Tower
1893, the year before it opened

Living standards

Between 1882 and 1899 prices fell while wages rose, bringing about an improvement in average real wages of over a third, and increasing the disposable income of the housewife.  The better-off working-class families were able to purchase a more varied range of foodstuffs, including meat as well as bread. Alcohol consumption was falling from over 15 per cent of the family budget in 1876 to under 9 per cent in 1901. Health also improved, as most communities now had access to clean water, though TB remained the main killer of the adult population.

The demon drink

During the nineteenth century drinking habits changed dramatically. In the eighteenth century taverns and inns were places where all classes drank, if not necessarily together and public business was transacted. By the 1850s no respectable middle-class man would enter a public house. Propertied men had their clubs and the middle-class home was increasingly comfortable. But the pub was a great attraction for the working man, providing him with comradeship and conviviality away from his small, crowded home.

In the budget of 1830 the duty on beer was abolished and beer remained duty-free until Gladstone’s 1880 budget. This meant that any ratepayer, on payment of an annual duty of two guineas, could obtain direct from the excise a licence to sell beer on or off the premises. The prevalence of cheap beer gave a spur to the temperance movement - the word ‘teetotal was coined in 1834 - but drink remained of central importance in the popular culture. 

The Farriers' Arms, Rotherhithe
a Victorian beer-house

The licensing act of 1872 made all drinking houses, beer-houses as well as public houses, subject to magistrates’ approval. By this time the number of beer-houses had peaked at around 50,000, declining to about 40,000 by the end of the century. They were distinct from the older and more respectable ale-houses. Publicans were seen as solid citizens, the owners of beer houses as disreputable and possibly criminal. 

The act of 1830 allowed beer houses to open on weekdays from four in the morning until ten at night, with two short drinking periods on Sunday afternoon and evening. This was a novelty as public houses were able to stay open as long as the publicans chose. From 1854 similar legal restrictions were applied to public houses. The new curb on drinking led to riots in Hyde Park in 1855, after which the government increased Sunday drinking times.