Ideologies and Forms of Leisure and Recreation in Victorian Manchester

by Beata Kiersnowska (Author)
©2017 Monographs 338 Pages


This book analyses certain ideologies which governed the middle class’ hegemonic approach to leisure in Victorian Manchester. The study presents different forms of leisure, recreation and entertainment in the city. The author also examines the reasons for the support and financial involvement of Manchester bourgeoisie and its municipal authorities in their development. The analysis covers a wide range of cultural practices and activities, such as institutions and activities promoting intellectual and moral development, family recreation and entertainment, as well as activities and facilities improving health, physical and moral condition of the Mancunians, and sport.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Contents
  • List of abbreviations
  • List illustrations
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Manchester – the first modern city of commerce and industry
  • 1.1 Early industrialisation in the Manchester area
  • 1.2 The myth of Cottonopolis
  • 1.3 Radical Manchester
  • 1.4 Manchester in literature and travel accounts
  • 1.5 The rise of a metropolis
  • 1.6 ‘Manchester men’ and their true character
  • Chapter 2: Manchester – the cultural and leisure capital of the North
  • 2.1 Elite cultural institutions
  • 2.2 Commercial leisure amenities
  • Chapter 3: Rational and moral recreations as instruments of cultural hegemony
  • 3.1 Social and cultural risks of urbanisation
  • 3.2 The rationale for rational recreation
  • 3.3 Educational recreations for social citizenship
  • 3.4 Family at leisure and the cult of domesticity
  • 3.5 Censoring pleasures
  • Chapter 4: Health of the nation: outdoor recreations and sport
  • 4.1 The health of the nation
  • 4.2 ‘Lungs of the city’: public parks and playgrounds
  • 4.3 Holidaymaking: country walks and seaside trips
  • 4.4 Building manliness and muscularity
  • 4.5 Sport in building communal identity and loyalty
  • Conclusions
  • Bibliography

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List of abbreviations

Art Gal. Com. Rep Report of the Art Gallery Committee

City Art Gal. Curat. Rep. Report of the Curator of the City Art Gallery

let. to Art Gal. Com. letter to the Art Gallery Committee

MBC the Manchester Borough Council

MCC the Manchester City Council

MPC the Manchester Parks Committee

MPCC the Manchester Parks and Cemeteries Committee

MPPC the Manchester Public Parks Committee

MSS Cond. Work. Cl. Report of a Committee of the Manchester Statistical Society on the “Condition of the Working Classes in an Extensive Manufacturing District in 1834, 1835, 1836”

MSS First Rep. First Report of the Manchester Statistical Society

MSS St. Ed. 1834 Report of a Committee of the Manchester Statistical Society on the “State of Education in the Borough of Manchester in 1834”

PNSC the Parks Nuisances Sub Committee

PPCSC Public Parks and Cemeteries Sub Committee

Sub Com. of MPPW rep. report of the Sub Committee of the Manchester Public Parks and Walks

RMI col. let. Collection of letters of the Royal Manchester Institution

The MCLGA The Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser

The MEN The Manchester Evening News

The MET The Manchester Examiner and Times

The MWT The Manchester Weekly Times

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List illustrations

Fig. 1 An outline of lectures at Manchester Mechanics Institute (Greater Manchester County Record Office)

Fig. 2 A programme of a Penny Reading event, Hulme, Manchester (Greater Manchester County Record Office)

Fig. 3 Whitworth Park, Manchester 1880 (Supplement to The Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 16 Feb. 1889)

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Leisure and relaxation are an “arch-human phenomenon” inseparable from human experience irrespective of temporal and cultural considerations. As such, they have been the focus of attention of intellectual reflection from classical times to the present.1 Apart from the basic function of regenerating one’s physical and mental condition after a period of intensive work, they play several social and cultural roles. They provide human beings with an opportunity to achieve a sense of well-being, to express emotions, to display social status and identity, and to foster social bonds. The study of forms of leisure and recreation in their social and cultural context offers an insight into the nature of the people and the character of the nation involved in them. As Joseph Strutt, an 18th-century English antiquarian and writer observed:

In order to form a just estimation of the character of any particular people, it is absolutely necessary to investigate the Sports and Pastimes most generally prevalent among them. War, policy, and other contingent circumstances may effectually place men, at different times, in different points of view, but, when we follow them into their retirements, where no disguise is necessary, we are most likely to see them in their true state, and may best judge of their natural dispositions.2

Thus, the analysis of the recreational practices of a certain nation provides useful information about its mores and social relations.

Contemporary anthropologists connect the beginnings of leisure with the very origins of human culture 2.5 million years ago and the beginnings of abstract thinking.3 A real dynamism in the evolution of leisure activities was attained with the beginnings of the Homo sapiens era about 70,000 B.C. and the ← 13 | 14 → creation of cave and utilitarian art, technology and the first forms of recreational and religious practices.4 Jay Sanford Shivers notes that

recreational experiences, in some form, were a direct outgrowth of the possession of leisure. There are indications that preliterate societies used leisure and recreational activity as both an instructional vehicle as well as a monument to human beings’ aesthetic and creative tendencies.5

Some scholars believe that our sports and pastimes arose from primitive man’s urge to satisfy their basic personal needs, “stimulate their wits” and do what was “necessary for survival”.6 Others observe that in the past recreational activities were often linked with religious celebrations involving whole communities. More recently, however, the social space once occupied by recreation connected with different forms of worship has been largely taken over by lay leisure and culture industries.7 Irrespective of these transformations, various forms of leisure and recreation have been present throughout the development of human culture, providing humankind with opportunities for self-expression and self-realisation.

Relaxation connotes fun, play and the pleasure of being involved in activities that do not designate work. Hence, it is closely connected with leisure, defined as “freedom or spare time provided by the cessation of compulsory activities”8 or “discretionary time to be used as one chooses”.9 It consists of activities in which individuals indulge out of their free will without external compulsion and for reasons discretionary to them, such as amusement, participation in social life, broadening knowledge, exercising body or displaying creative capacity. ‘Recreation’, nowadays often used synonymously with ‘leisure’ and implying refreshment, derives from the Latin verb ‘recreo’ meaning restoring one’s health. According to ← 14 | 15 → Webster’s Dictionary, to ‘recreate’ means to “renew or enliven through the influence of pleasurable surroundings; to refresh after wearying toil or anxiety, usually by change or diversion”.10 These definitions are supplemented by Grant Cushman and Allan Laidler, who see recreation also as “a social institution, socially organised for social purposes”.11

The English language is rich in words related to leisure and recreation, but their meaning is frequently imprecise and overlapping. ‘Pastime’, ‘play’ and ‘game’ – terms synonymous with ‘relaxation’ – have a common denominator. The historic Webster’s 1913 Dictionary defines them as “diversion, amusement, frolic, sport”. ‘Sport’ falls within the same category as “that which diverts and makes mirth, pastime, amusement”. It encompasses a range of activities, such as “field diversions”, e.g. fowling, hunting and fishing, but also racing and games.12 Nowadays, the term ‘sport’ is used in a different, much narrower sense but to Joseph Strutt, the author of an ethnographic history of England’s long leisure tradition published 200 years ago, ‘sport’ denoted a wide range of activities, including theatrical performances and dances.13 For a person born and educated in Victorian England, like Peter McBride, the author of The Philosophy of Sport, ‘sport’ covered activities, such as card games, falconry, dog-fighting, bear-baiting, game-stalking etc.;14 in other words, those activities that no longer fit into the category of sport. Another example of terminological confusion is the essay on “Recreation and Games” by I.J. Pitman, for whom sport’ was in fact an umbrella category covering all others denoting recreation, play and pastime.15 A change in the perception of leisure activities as more specialised occurred in the second half of the nineteenth century. For instance, as a result of the specific socio-economic circumstances and England’s sporting revolution, sport ceased to be primarily associated with field pastimes and became associated with athleticism, athletic competitions ← 15 | 16 → and sportsmanship.16 Thus, the old terms of ‘manly games’ and ‘healthful recreations’ were replaced with ‘sport’ implying physical exertion and outdoor team games.17 Modern historians of sport, recognising sport’s complex, multi-layered structure, make a clear distinction between ‘game’, ‘play’, ‘contest’ and ‘sport’. Cultural historians, on the other hand, often resort to the earlier concepts of ‘recreation’, ‘diversion’, ‘sport’ or ‘exercise’ as used by the contemporaries.18

For the sake of the present argument, involving a historically distant epoch, it seemed more appropriate to adopt a broader understanding of leisure and recreation, closer to the conceptualisation by the studied historical ‘actors’ and yet not at odds with contemporary definitions, as time free from the rigours of paid employment filled with activities undertaken by individuals for relaxation, physical well-being, pleasure, amusement and personal satisfaction. However, the central hypothesis of the present study required a limitation of my scope of interest to those leisure and recreational pursuits that were also becoming organised for specific social purposes and that emerge from the archival sources as areas most affected by systematic public policies and operations implemented in the studied time and place.

Contrary to popular belief, pastimes are not entirely self-determined and spontaneous activities. According to the cultural philosopher and historian Johan Huizinga, “games and plays were essential and archetypal elements of human world, i.e. the world of culture”.19 Human playful tendencies endowed with specific meanings influenced, to a different degree, many institutions and aspects of culture with which we are familiar nowadays, e.g. morals, language, law, art, myths and religion.20 Like all cultural practices, they have always been patterned and subjected to regulation. Depending on the circumstances, they have been either ← 16 | 17 → encouraged or limited by various social, historical and environmental factors, and participation in them involved the knowledge of and respect for many rules, rituals and conventions. Thus, although leisure experience is generally perceived as undertaken freely, it is rarely organised by individuals as they wish and must be viewed in the historical context in which it takes place.

With reference to the above theoretical constatations, I focus in the present study on Manchester in the Victorian period with a twofold purpose. I intend to offer a view of those mass leisure and recreation practices in the city across the class spectrum that were gradually assuming an organised character, paying special attention to the forms that were new, unique and meaningful to the contemporary urban communities. In doing so, I also wish to test the hypothesis that the new urban middle class of 19th-century Manchester was pursuing an ideologically motivated public policy of disciplining and controlling the city workforce by influencing and regulating their leisure activities. I would like to identify those ideologies, the motivations behind them and their actual social and cultural impact.

Two big blocks of general intellectual reflection and scholarship on leisure and recreation inform the present project in Victorian English cultural history. The first such area is the philosophical thought since antiquity on leisure and recreation as vehicles for human moral and intellectual development particularly influential in 19th-century England. In ancient Athens a belief in the importance of equal development of mind and body fuelled philosophical thought on the role of education and leisure. Plato and Aristotle, whose concepts of leisure as a positive aspect of human existence became central in nineteenth-century Britain, and other industrialising nations, shared similar ideas on the role of recreation. Plato maintained that leisure correctly used, i.e. filled with actions cultivating the mind and enhancing maturity, provides a means of fulfilment and development for each human being. While moderate entertainment is a source of pleasure, it is at the same time an integral constituent of the work–rest cycle and has a physiological function of relaxation and the renewal of energy after work.21 He emphasised the role of play in the healthy physical and social growth of children. Therefore, education should be compulsory and begin “with the right direction of children’s sports”, as “The plays of childhood have a great deal to do with the maintenance or nonmaintenance of laws”.22 Thus, proper balance between spiritual and physical development in education and leisure was vital in preparing man to be ← 17 | 18 → part of society and instilling respect for its laws. Aristotle interpreted leisure as a source of happiness and considered it the property of all civilised human beings. Rather than being an occasion for idleness, leisure allowed people to cultivate reason, their most divine characteristic.23 His ethical ideas, particularly those on moral virtue as a relative mean between the extremes of excess and deficiency, self-discipline, moderation, justice, fairness and the use of reason in pursuing one’s desires, influenced Christian philosophy in the Middle Ages and found their resonance in the attitudes to leisure and the development of sports ethics in Victorian Britain. It appears that Aristotle’s views found some reflection in Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism, a philosophy popular in the early-Victorian period. This seemingly hedonistic philosophy in fact advocated a strict moral code, restraint, self-control, and reason rather than passion. Only adherence to such virtues was supposed to lead to happiness. Therefore, the utilitarians were hostile towards those leisure activities, for instance some traditional pastimes, which were likely to lead to excess and a loss of self-control through gambling and drinking.24 The Aristotelian concept of leisure and recreation continued to influence the English post-Victorian philosophical approach to recreation, for instance having some bearing on Bertrand Russell’s approach to this problem.25

The second rich background area of scholarship relevant to the present project is the vast historiography of leisure pursuits in England across many epochs, especially the works on the complex interaction of leisure and recreational practices with different social institutions and systems, particularly with religion, morality, politics and public order. The character of these relationships varied. In some periods certain forms of recreation, like various combative exercises developing military skills, were actively encouraged by the state authorities as serving the collective national interest. Others, especially those involving frivolity, drinking, gambling or violence, would become the target of attacks and bans on moral and religious grounds. One reflection resulting from a very general survey of this vast historiography and many literary texts is that despite various institutional attempts to regulate or curb certain pastimes and recreations, the elite noble and useful recreational activities usually coexisted with the common ignoble and lowly ones, as ludic attitudes and a propensity for fun and sporting endeavour were strong among the English. ← 18 | 19 →

The emergence of Puritanism in the 16th century and its growing influence in the government and society made many sports and other leisure activities “a focus of moral discourse and contestation concerning [their] salutary and harmful societal characteristics, especially if done to excess”.26 Vehement Puritan resentment of any form of popular amusement which could divert an individual from the “ordered life of the saint”27 and profane ‘Lord’s Day’ observance fuelled the Sabbatarian movement and involved the state in a debate about Sunday recreations. Thus, Elizabeth I succumbed to the pressure of religious zealots and passed an edict28 banishing “all heathenish plays and interludes […] upon Sabbath days”.29 James I, on the other hand, took a contrary stance siding with the people of Lancashire enraged by restrictions on popular Sunday recreations imposed by the Puritan-dominated authorities and issued in 1617 the first document protecting people’s right to leisure. The regional Declaration of Sports, followed a year later by the nationwide Book of Sports presented the official view of the crown on the matter of Sunday recreation and made leisure an element of state policy.30 It was also a powerful legal tool against those who wanted to curb Sabbath recreations.31 During Cromwell’s Protectorate Puritan austerity and moral zeal inspired repressive legislation, known as the ‘Blue Laws’, retarding free development of sports and recreations for years to come. The brunt of the attack was against those leisure activities which encouraged “spontaneous expression of undisciplined impulses, […], awakened pride, raw instincts or the irrational gambling”.32

The end of Puritan rule brought considerable relaxation of the attitudes and laws pertaining to leisure and recreation. It does not mean, however, that Puritan influences completely disappeared. On the contrary, the strict Puritan moral code, asceticism and suspicious attitudes to unsupervised leisure penetrated into Evangelicalism, a religious movement founded in the mid-eighteenth century by John ← 19 | 20 → Wesley. After Wesley’s death the movement transformed into a dissenter sect of Methodism but the evangelical ideas continued to fuel the minds of many wealthy and powerful members of the Anglican middle class in the early-Victorian period. These ‘Anglican evangelicals’, to use Nancy Fix Anderson’s term,33 viewed any activity that was a distraction from religious concerns as conducive to sin. The brunt of their attack was launched against games and recreations involving gambling, drinking and sexual liberty. Their fiercest campaign against the violations of the sanctity of Sabbath ended with a victory when Parliament passed the Lord’s Observance Act in 1780 banning all entertainments on Sunday.34 The ban remained in effect throughout most of the Victorian period and constituted a major obstacle for social reformers promoting rational recreation and sport among the urban working class. The advocates of organising cricket and football matches in public parks and of opening museums and art galleries on Sunday often had to deal with strong opposition from the Sabbatarian section of the local authorities and society.

This brief and perforce selective historical survey demonstrates that endeavours to control and regulate leisure and recreation were not a novel nineteenth-century phenomenon in England but had a well-established history. However, the novelty about Victorian Britain consisted in the type, scale and speed of unprecedented socio-economic industrial transformations amid which such attempts were taking place, and the unique approaches and strategies to influence leisure practices of the new social classes, particularly in the new urban centres.

The nineteenth-century industrialisation and urbanisation caused dramatic changes in the environment and the character of leisure and recreation available to the masses. Some old rural forms of recreation were transplanted to urban conditions, new ones were emerging, while some others were disappearing. At the same time, leisure practices of the population were now interacting with other aspects of the industrial civilisation and urbanisation. Leisure time and its content, particularly of the working class, was the target of legal regulations and became the subject of philanthropic concern and a heated social debate. In pre-industrial times leisure was strictly the domain of the upper classes, referred to in social sciences as the ‘leisured classes’ due to the fact that their defining feature was freedom from paid work and other economically productive occupations. The notion of the leisured working-man was unknown and such condition for the un-propertied classes implied idleness, unemployment and poverty. In the pre-industrial period, work and home were not spatially segregated and, ← 20 | 21 → therefore, the boundary between work and leisure was blurred. Popular culture and recreation both in rural and small town communities were rooted in the agricultural calendar, with its seasonal holidays and festivals. The advent of industrial capitalism led to the demarcation between what constituted work and leisure, and the separation of living and working spaces. Yet, leisure remained a function of work. Industrialisation also created new problems concerning the control of time, both in and outside the workplace. The new phenomenon of the leisure time of the labouring classes quickly came to the attention of the middle-class manufacturers and social reformers, who recognized it as a sphere that demanded their intervention and guidance. Koshar argues that two related struggles emerged as the consequences of industrialisation: that over the length and intensity of work time, and that for the control over the leisure activities of the working population.35 In Victorian Britain, the country that experienced those dilemmas the earliest of all other European nations, debate concerned not only the content of leisure, but also a policy of promoting desirable forms of leisure by providing and regulating recreational spaces, amenities and events.

The present study is theoretically located within the interdisciplinary field of cultural studies and linked with this school of thought by its interest in the political dynamics of culture.36 It concentrates on how the cultural practices of leisure in the specific place and time related to the wider systems of power operating through the social phenomena of ideology and class structure. The argument is based on the central assumption that the growing economic influence and political power of the urban middle class in nineteenth-century British industrial towns endowed it with the desire and instruments to extend its dominance onto aspects of life other than production, commerce and local government. It became equally important to exercise control over cultural life and its many practices by designating some as ‘high’ and others as ‘low’. Pierre Bourdieu37 argues ← 21 | 22 → that such cultural hierarchies tied to a specific social class help to maintain or even reinforce social order with its divisions and inequalities. Certain attributes of these cultural hierarchies, e.g. taste, status or distinction, demarcate and sustain social boundaries between classes.

Hence, cultural pursuits during one’s leisure time are only superficially free activities not directed by any rules or ideology, but in fact leisure is a field of exercising power and control. Consequently, recreational activities are subjected to a tight rigour of compliance to imposed rules, accepted modes of behaviour and purposes introduced by the dominant class and reflecting its ethos.

Bourdieu’s views echo Antonio Gramsci’s concept of bourgeois cultural hegemony,39 which posits that the ruling class reproduces its dominance by imposing certain cultural norms meant to be consensually accommodated by the rest of society and regarded as natural or innate. As a result, an ideological harmony is achieved, whereby the whole society follows a common accepted set of values and tenets – an ideal of civil society. Gramsci argues that these norms should be recognised as artificial social constructs used by one dominant class as mechanisms of social control and prevention of protest. Only discovering their philosophical basis will enable the working class to liberate itself from the political and cultural domination of the bourgeoisie and build its own culture, distinct from that of the ruling class.40 In his seminal work on the relationship between class and leisure, Peter Bailey warns that one of the dangers in applying the theory of cultural hegemony is that it may lead to the presumption that the dominant group maintains complete control over the subordinate one. Gramsci himself assumed that the controls were never complete as the subordinate social groups may variously respond to the attempts of infiltration on the part of the dominant culture: accommodate it, negotiate and modify its influence or even openly resist ← 22 | 23 → the imposed cultural model. Bailey subscribes to the views of the recent interpreters of Gramsci’s theory41 who claim that it

“is more than just social control […], for it renders class interaction as an historically specific process which operates not through the formalised apparatus of social engineering, but through the concrete experience of culture as a dynamic ensemble of practices and relationships.”42

R.J. Morris, who maintains that the growth of civil society in Britain’s industrial cities of the Victorian period involved bargaining of interests – economic and cultural – of various social classes and allowed negotiation of conflicts, supports Bailey’s reading of Gramsci’s theory. Thus, although the process aimed at instilling dominance, it did not rule out cultural variety.43 Regardless of whether we adopt an orthodox Marxist or a less doctrinaire approach to Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony, his views on culture as an area of exercising social control and instilling a system of shared values and moral norms have been applied in this study, as helpful in elucidating the attempts of the Victorian middle-class reformers to regulate the working-class leisure practices according to their own ideological systems. The ‘bargaining’ element in hegemonic practices also allows for an explanation of the reasons for the successes and failures of such practices.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (July)
Relaxation Industrialisation Amusement Pollution Middle class Utilitarianism
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 338 pp., 3 ill., 1 table

Biographical notes

Beata Kiersnowska (Author)

Beata Kiersnowska is assistant lecturer at the Institute of English Studies at the University of Rzeszów. Her academic interests include leisure studies and sport, especially during the Victorian period.


Title: Ideologies and Forms of Leisure and Recreation in Victorian Manchester
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340 pages