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.

The 1872 Act slightly reduced Sunday drinking time and introduced statutory weekday closing times for all public houses alongside those that already applied to beer houses. Again there were massive protest, and the police were called out in Ashton and Maidstone. One of the first acts of Disraeli’s government, elected in 1874, was to reward the publicans with an extra half hour on the day. The Tories were now identified as the party of the brewers. 

A Band of Hope member's card, 1870
The temperance movement was increasingly
associated with the Liberal and the Nonconformists

Patterns of work

In many respects the early Victorian work pattern followed that of pre-industrial Britain. The average working day could be up to twelve hours long, but individual working days varied in length. Sunday was usually a day of rest for most people. The old habit of keeping ‘Saint Monday’ persisted and people often turned up late for work on that day, while working long hours on Thursday and Friday.

As the century progressed, working hours became more regular and workers were fined or even dismissed for turning up late on Mondays.  Even so, as productivity increased the trend was towards a shorter working week and the Saturday half day became more common.  The pattern of the week changed, as the workers exchanged the relatively leisurely Mondays for free time on Saturday afternoons.

The rise in living standards and the increased availability of leisure led to the creation of a distinctively organised ‘leisure industry’ that transformed many areas of social life.

Bank holidays

In 1871 the Liberal MP John Lubbock drafted the Bank Holiday Bill, which declared that certain days throughout the year were official holidays (when banks and offices closed). This introduced the first secular day of leisure in British History, popularly called St Lubbock’s Day in his honour. The intention was to provide relief for over-worked bank clerks and other white-collar employees, and initially they were not popular with the manual workers who claimed that their pay was being docked by enforced leisure. However the bank holiday became established and by the 1890s half a million Londoners each year took advantage of it to visit the coast or the countryside.  The speed of railway transport now meant that people could quickly travel to the seaside, and seaside resorts expanded and changed their character. 

The seaside

At the beginning of the nineteenth century seaside holidays were for the wealthy few. (See here for the reasons for the popularity of sea-bathing in the eighteenth century.) Resorts such as Brighton, Weymouth and Scarborough grew up to cater for genteel society in pursuit of the fresh air that was thought to be the key to good health. These early seaside holidaymakers entered the sea through bathing machines. The men usually bathed naked but the women wore special garments to preserve their modesty.  From the middle of the century the machines were replaced by bathing huts, small wooden sheds on wheels, fitted with a set of steps at the front. Aided by a ‘dipping woman’, the bathers descended the steps into the sea.  From the start of the 1870s, however, naked bathing was discouraged and men were forced to cover up. Men and women now bathed together. At the same time other amusements were developing as promenades were built, and bandstands became popular. 

The creation of bank holidays and the availability of cheap railway fares brought a further change to the seaside, as new resorts like Skegness and Blackpool sprang up, and new amusements and facilities catered for working-class people. By the end of the century there were as many as forty-eight large coastal resorts with a combined population of 900,000.  In the 1890s two million trippers visited Blackpool. In response the middle classes sought to isolate themselves from the new ‘vulgar’ resorts: Margate had its exclusive quarter in Cliftonville, Blackpool in Lytham St Anne’s. 

The Indian Lounge
Blackpool Winter Gardens

Blackpool and Southend offered a range of new attractions for their working-class clientele, making sea bathing less important (though it was still popular).  In 1878 the Blackpool Winter Gardens opened, and attraction that combined music hall, variety and dancing.

The top lift, Blackpool Tower, 1895

Blackpool Tower, built at a cost of £290,000, was opened to the public on 14 May 1894. Modelled on the Eiffel Tower, it rises to 518 feet. When the tower opened, 3,000 customers took the first rides to the top. Tourists paid sixpence for admission, sixpence more for a ride in the lifts to the top, and a further sixpence for the circus. 

Music halls

The music hall originated in the ‘free and easies’, communal amateur sing-songs attached to public houses.  There was often a token piano to aid the singing, and increasingly professional singers were brought in. One of the best known of these saloons was the Eagle or Grecian in the City Road.

The Eagle Tavern, c. 1841

From 1832 it advertised a garden, an orchestra and dancing. By 1837 it had been remodelled with a pit and boxes and performed a wide repertoire from comic songs to Rossini overtures.  

The Canterbury Music Hall
c. 1856
Public Domain
The Theatres Act of 1843 ruled that theatres could no longer serve alcohol. This loosened the link between music halls and public houses and led to the creation of purpose-built music halls. It is generally accepted that Charles Morton’s Canterbury Music Hall in Lambeth, opened in 1852 as an extension to the Canterbury Arms tavern, was the first purpose-built music hall. It seated 700, with an admission charge of sixpence, and a refreshment stall inside. In 1860 Morton leased the Boar and Castle tavern in Oxford Street, and on its site built the Oxford Music Hall, ushering in the age of the grand music hall.  

From the 1870s music halls became increasingly elaborate as supper tables gave way to fixed seating and grand stages with proscenium arches, with the performers increasingly professionals hired from outside.  From pub sing-songs, they had become theatres and had lost their connection with alcohol. By the 1880s many of the halls became grouped into profitable theatre chains across the whole country.  

By the early 1890s about 45,000 people were crowding into London’s thirty-five biggest halls. Theatres like the London Palladium, which opened in 1885, catered for all classes, including the Prince of Wales who was an enthusiastic patron of music halls. In some halls the prices ranged from sixpence to two guineas. 

The music hall created its own stars. In 1866 George Leybourne became famous with ‘Champagne Charlie’. The song celebrated the life of the ‘swell’ – the flashy clothes and women, the broad check suits and the expensive drinks of the man about town. He has been seen as the lower-middle-class young man with the ‘cheek’ to ape his betters.He earned £1, 500 a year and his lifestyle came to fit his song. He dressed as a 'swell' offstage and his copious public  consumption of champagne was paid for by a wine merchant to advertise his wares.  He died indebted, possibly from cirrhosis of the liver, in 1884.

In 1885 Marie Lloyd became famous with her song ‘The Boy I love is up in the Gallery’. Some of her most famous songs were grounded in the reality of poverty. ‘My Old Man’ is about a wife forced to do a moonlight flit because her husband cannot afford to pay the rent. 
Marie Lloyd on stage
in the 1890s
Public Domain


Cheap and efficient transport made a major contribution to the development of spectator sports, especially football.   The Football Association was founded in 1863 and the FA Cup in 1871-2. By the 1880s special trains were laid on for ‘away’ games. 

The original purpose of organized football was to enable former public-school pupils to play one another when they met at university or in ‘old boy’ matches. The game then diversified, spreading through the industrial cities, often promoted by the churches or employers.  Aston Villa, Fulham and Barnsley originated with a church or chapel, while Arsenal, Liverpool, Coventry City, Manchester City and West Ham began as works’ teams. 
The Royal Engineers FC

As early as the late 1870s the game was breaking away from the control of the elites. In August 1877 the working-class members of the football club attached to Christ Church, Bolton, broke with the local vicar and made their way to a nearby pub, where they founded Bolton Wanderers. 

At first it was difficult for the teams to find somewhere to play. Many towns set aside public land for matches. The bigger clubs then restricted access to matches by enclosing the playing area and charging entrance fees. The standard charge was 6d for big matches, a sum within the budgets of better-paid workers. The money enabled the clubs to buy players, many of them from Scotland. The logical consequence of these developments was the institution of the Football League in the 1888-9 season. 

Initially the referee controlled the game with a flag, but after the invention of Joseph Hudson’s cylindrical Airfast whistle, which became widely used among the police, it became popular with referees.  In 1889 goalposts acquired nets, when a Liverpool engineer, John Brodie, persuaded the FA to try them out. Pitch markings took their modern form in 1902.

By the end of the century, therefore most of the features of the modern game were established. Within thirty years football had changed its nature from a game controlled by ex public-schoolboys to a professional institution, financed by business and ticket receipts, while to the dismay of many of the early promoters of the game, the number of spectators greatly exceeded the number of players.  The former public-school pupils had by this time lost interest and turned their attention to Rugby Union, while, following the ‘great schism’ of 1894 the northern working classes followed Rugby League.


The rise in real wages, seen in the growing popularity of holidays, gave large sections of the working class a surplus. This was not a large sum of money for individual households, but collectively it created a revolution in retailing. Cheap imported foodstuffs transformed shopping habits. 

The multiples: The late 1870s saw the emergence of multiple stores such as Lipton's and Home and Colonial, which through bulk purchases, were able to undercut many small shopkeepers. Unlike the earlier Co-operative movement, they operated with the profit motive, but like the Co-operative they sold goods at fixed prices and refused credit. 

Lipton’s shops stocked a limited range of goods – bacon, ham, butter, eggs, and cheese.   His goods were cheap because of the rapid turnover, low profit margins and low overheads. In 1889 Lipton's entered the tea market. They owned the tea-estates in Ceylon, and their tea was sold in identically branded packets at all their retail stores. They were able to slash the price of tea from between 3s and 4s per pound to between 1s. 2d and 1s. 9d. Their slogan was 'Direct from the tea gardens to the tea pot.' 

More than any other store, Lipton's symbolised the growth of mass retailing. Thomas Lipton had started off with a single shop in Glasgow. By 1898 there were some 250 more or less identical shops throughout the United Kingdom. In the same year Lipton was knighted by the Queen.

The department stores: Department stores can be dated to the late eighteenth century, but they began to flourish in the middle of the nineteenth century when all British cities had flourishing department stores. By 1900, London, Glasgow and Liverpool were the three largest shopping centres in the country.

In 1856 David Lewis set up his store in Liverpool at a time when the Crimean War and the development of the American Midwest was bringing big business to the port.   In 1864 he began to sell women’s clothes, followed by shoes, perfumery, layettes, umbrellas and patent medicines. In 1879 he added a tobacco department and in 1880 school slates, watches, stationery, books and sheet music. He bought up his rival, the Bon Marché, and became one of the most successful department-store entrepreneurs of the nineteenth century.  Other stores were equally innovative. Whiteley’s of Paddington included an estate agent and a hairdresser’s. 

Glasgow’s most successful store was Wylie and Lockhead, which began business as an undertaker's and then diversified. In 1855 it installed the first lift.   The store introduced the novel idea of ‘flats’ where areas were decorated as if they were individual rooms in a private house.

When Gordon Selfridge opened his store in 1907 he was therefore building on over a century of innovation.


The rise in real living standards in the second half of the nineteenth century made it possible for working-class people to enjoy a greater range of leisure activities than any preceding generation. As entrepreneurs responded to demand, leisure became big business.  Rising middle-class incomes and an improved transport system helped create the department store, which offered a range of products under one roof and transformed the experience of shopping.

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