Decorative Initial After 1850 the Victorian middle class increasingly shaped the idea and practice of leisure as direct responses to its fears of political instability in the form of Chartism and labor unrest and appalling problems of public health. In fact, near the end of the century, the poor health and general physical condition of the urban poor became obvious when around one third of recruits proved unfit for service during the Boer War.

Victorian middle class opinions travelled both upwards and downwards in the social scale. Coupled with the ethos of productivity and a new moral role of respectability and self-justification, the powerful middle class sought to reform classes above and below it in the social and economic scale while formulating new leisure activities of their own. Leisure for this class had to be not only respectable but also productive — good both for the soul and for the country as a whole. Leisure and recreation above all had to be rational. Bailey argues that "the mid-nineteenth-century Victorian middle class has been suspicious of the moral temptations of a beckoning leisure world, but had learned to assimilate it to their culture by devising suitably brisk and purposeful recreations," supported by an army of ramblers and hikers. New athleticism was their creation, it was justified as a proper pursuit for the dutiful citizen.

A contemporary sociologist described middle-class leisure as "conspicuous consumption" — a form of keeping up with the "Victorian Joneses" that bolstered middle-class moral authority while acting as a transforming agent for the rest of society. The best example of this phenomenon appears in the walk in establishing town parks, coupled with the added respectability of the wife and children; these parks were mainly supplied by middle-class local government, council members, or individual philanthropic endeavours. The growing respectability and popularity of the seaside enabled a similar projection of social idealism, although the patronage of the gentry, including the Prince of Wales at Brighton seaside, made such these activities less — rather than more — acceptable to this new class.

If the middle class was receptive and supportive of economic laissez-faire, it had no such ideal about leisure. Legislation, local government initiatives, and policing had their roots in active rational recreational forces, endeavouring to re-establish through leisure a moral and codified framework which would stabilise and transform society. Facilities for mental improvement were similarly developed with middle-class assistance. Simple academic instructions and debates were provided on an mutuality basis or by the new working men's clubs, institutes and a wide variety of Friendly societies. Many industrial employers used mental improvement to serve the purpose of work, and Robert Owen in New Lanark and the Strutts of Belper, for example, provided musical instruction for their employees.

Money was another important factor in leisure, and the middle class used its business and organisational skills to great effect to establish clubs. Pooling together members' resources enabled the purchase of grounds and buildings for leisure activities; golf, cricket, rugby, and tennis clubs all examplify this trend. Public liability legislation further encouraged these developments. What can be any more middle class than the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis and Croquet club?

Football is a classic example whereby the notion of rational recreation transformed a traditional rural leisure activity. Football was codified with the ideological objective of engendering the principles of obedience to given rules, discipline, hygienic living, teamwork, masculinity, and a projection of a national identity. Ordered football was meant to gather society together in a common pursuit, bringing together players and gentlemen alike. This did not to take into account of working class agency that localised the sport, introduced the concept of passing the ball, produced individualism and claimed it as there own. Early football grounds were provided by and for local industries or middle-class associations such as Sunderland's teachers. But as the popularity and its commercial potential became apparent, grounds and stadiums developed at a rapid rate, whereby nearly every town, city or village in Britain boasted a purposely constructed football ground or stadium.


Bailey, P.C. Music Hall The Business of Pleasure. Milton Keynes: Open University Press. 1986.

Bailey, P.C. Leisure, Culture and the Historian. Leisure Studies 8 E.& F.N. Spon Ltd. 1989. Pp. 109-122.

Cunningham, H. Leisure in the Industrial Revolution c1780-c1880. London: Croom Helm. 1980.

Cunningham, H. Leisure, in The Working Class England, 1875-1914. London: Croom Helm. 1985.

Leader, A. Culture Theory and Popular Culture. Brighton: Harvester/Wheatshed. 1974.

Lowerson, J.& Myerscough, J. Time to Spare in Victorian England. Harvester Press. 1977.

Robbinson, K. Nineteenth-Century Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1988.

Thompson, E.P. Customs in Common. Chapter 8 "Rough Music." Pp. 497-531.

Walton, J.K. The English Seaside Resort. London: St. Martins Press. 1983.

Last modified 1996