Leisure studies, leisure history and the meanings of leisure

Here, our previous chair, Prof Bob Snape, offers a look into leisure studies, history and the meanings of leisure. Bob’s book, Leisure Voluntary Action and Social Change in Britain 1880-1939 is now available from Bloomsbury books.

By Prof. Robert Snape

Leisure history has always been an important though relatively minor interest within leisure studies.  In both cases the idea of a work-leisure relationship was a factor of origin. For much of the twentieth century leisure was not a field of historical investigation, although general social histories often included accounts of sports, games and pastimes. The emergence of an identifiable field of the history of leisure owes much to Keith Thomas’ seminal publications on work and leisure in industrial society,[1]published in the mid-nineteen sixties. In the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties this field began to expand with the publication of significant works, for example Peter Bailey’s Leisure and Class in Victorian England, Hugh Cunningham’s Leisure in the Industrial Revolution and Stephen Jones’ Workers at Play: a Social and Economic History of Leisure, 1918-1939.[2] In accordance with contemporaneous interests within leisure studies, these were largely concerned with social class and social control. Many included the word ‘leisure’ in their title. However, if we accept – and not everyone does – that several contributions to the historiography of leisure have been written as histories of sport, tourism, gender, or specific forms of leisure such as the cinema and dancing, then the field expands considerably. The current rate of publishing suggests that leisure history in the wider sense remains a field in rude health.

However, the cultural historian Peter Burke has argued that leisure was in fact a modern invention. This might seem a surprise to philosophers and classicists but the point he was making related to the difficulty of imagining a continuous history of leisure reaching back into the middle ages when activities we would now consider to be leisure, for example hunting and gambling, were not at the time conceptualized as part of a larger entity called ‘leisure’.[3]The emergence of ‘leisure’ he argued, was part of a process of industrialization and modernization. This contains much truth and it is possible to extend the argument a little further by suggesting that a modern social science –influenced idea of leisure did not become established until the closing decades of the nineteenth century. The Victorians commonly used the phrase “at leisure” in referring to time at one’s disposal while using other terms – recreation, amusements, pastimes or games – to refer to activities. This is, it must be noted, a generalization, but perhaps contains enough truth to support the following argument that the social meaning of leisure in 1850 was not the same as that in 1930.

As the social problems associated with industrialization and urbanization became apparent in the early nineteenth century there emerged a discourse of social reform. Leisure (as we understand it) was important to this and efforts to reform popular culture through philanthropy and rational recreation have been well- documented. However with the mid-century development of Christian Socialism and the social awareness instilled through Chartism it became clear that social problems required social solutions. An important but widely overlooked theorist of leisure was William Morris who, building upon the social criticism of John Ruskin, argued for the reform of mechanized industry to allow more time for leisure to the working man and woman. This was to be used for self- development or directed towards the good of the whole community.[4]As demand for social reform grew, so did the need for theoretically informed social work to replace charitable philanthropy. Late nineteenth century social documentation revealed high levels of poverty and cultural deprivation in many British cities and towns. Leisure practices were seen as part of this wider social problem; leisure was thus conceptualized not only in terms of the individual but of the economic, social and cultural environment.

The publication in 1883 of Andrew Mearns’ The Bitter Cry of Outcast London became a clarion call for intervention.[5] Christian and Fabian socialism, the settlement movement and temperance organizations were important informing forces of social reform. Of particular influence was social idealism, a branch of social philosophy associated with Thomas Hill Green and the University of Oxford’s Balliol College. Social idealism challenged classic Liberal principles of the supremacy of individual rights and the laissez-faire utilitarian understanding of leisure as untrammelled individual freedom to pursue hedonistic pleasure and offered instead one of leisure as virtuous activity towards the common good.  Similarly, voluntary action in the service of the community was re-defined as not simply an act of kindness but a moral responsibility; in Green’s expression, “my duty is to be interested positively in my neighbour’s well-being.[6]Green’s social idealism was enormously influential and contributed to contemporary ethical ideas about community and leisure. Drawing from Aristotle and Plato it saw leisure as distinct from recreation and promoted the use of leisure as activity devoted to the well-being of the community; this could, for example, include helping to run community organizations or supervising lads ‘and girls’ clubs. Green was strongly associated with the new liberalism which articulated the social good above private gain. John Hobson, a leading new liberal figure of the Edwardian era, argued that the unequal distribution of leisure was a social injustice and was one of the first British writers to promote Veblen’s analysis of the consumption of the leisure class. Drawing from Veblen, Hobson articulated a case against the British leisure class as anobstacle to structural social reform. Like Bernard Bosanquet, a disciple of Green, Hobson pointed towards a social idea of leisure as a democratically distributed common good. Through policy discussiongroups, ethical societies and an emerging discourse of social work, leisure was gradually assimilated into theories of social policy.

After the First World War demand for radical social reconstruction was high. There was no appetite for a return to the status quo of the pre-war era and new social thinking flourished. This demanded more time for leisure and better provision of facilities. The National Council of Social Service, established in 1919, shifted its primary focus from the relief of poverty to the well-being of the community and saw leisure as a sphere of community-building and well-being. Its first conference, held in Manchester in 1919 adopted the theme ‘The Leisure of the People’. Churches and religious organizations too adopted a refreshed approach to leisure as a positive social good, notably through the Conference on Christian Politics, Economics and Citizenship in 1924. A significant body of work on leisure was published in the inter-war period which has sadly been largely ignored by leisure historians and indeed leisure studies generally. Amongst the most interesting contributions were those of Cecil Delilsle Burns, Stevenson Lecturer in Citizenship at the University of Glasgow, whose books and BBC wireless talks on leisure opened, and attempted to address, questions of leisure and civilisation. Unlike some critics, for example the Leavises, who saw mass culture as a threat to civilisation, Burns welcomed it as a new shared experience which brought people closer together and observed the capacity of new forms of leisure, such as rambling, worker theatre and fashion, to challenge social norms. In his monograph Leisure in the Modern Worldhe argued that a new leisure couldmake new men and women, renewing society from within and producing a distinctly modern civilisation with no leisure class.[7]Doubtless plenty of this was idealist if not utopian but that does not diminish Burns’ importance in bringing leisure into a field of public discussion and debate. Idealistic thinking was not in any case divorced from practice. Ernest Barker, a classicist, who was Chair of the National Council of Social Service Community Centres and Associations Committee, interpreted the new housing estate as a Greek polisor unit of social life with community associations and a Community Centre nurturing a spirt of voluntarism, creating a cultured community life to which the use of leisure was central. By 1939 leisure had become firmly established as a sphere of both private and social life, a fact reflected in the 1938 Holidays with Pay Act.[8]In practical terms, advances were limited due to lack of money, a shortage of playing fields and widespread and in some cases prolonged unemployment. This should not however detract from the progressive theorisation of leisure as something distinct from recreation or amusement and of significant potential social value. Many other voices contributed to the debate, including the working men’s club and Clarion movements, worker sport organizations, the radical Kibbo Kift and the socialist Woodcraft Folk, and an extensive array of voluntary organisations concerned with leisure, youth organisations and religious bodies.

Leisure, Voluntary Action and Social Change in Britain 1880-1939 explores the development of social thinking on leisure and the twin shift from charitable philanthropy to social work and from rational recreation to leisure.  It reveals a public discourse of leisure as a social good and a positive force in social policy that has remained largely neglected.  Modern meanings of leisure were forged in terms of community well-being, democracy and social justice; as John Hobson argued in 1929, leisure was a form of communal wealth that should be equally distributed as the “opportunity of opportunities” for personal development and human enjoyment.[9]This proposition remains just as relevant today; arguably even more so in a time of neoliberal employment regimes and a paucity of leisure policy in government circles.

[1]Keith Thomas, ‘Work and Leisure’, Past & Presentno. 29, 1964: 50-66; ‘Work and Leisure in Industrial Society’, Past & Presentno. 30, 1965: 96-103.

[2]Peter Bailey. Leisure and Class in Victorian England: Rational Recreation and the Contest forControl, 1830-1885. London: Methuen, 1978; Hugh Cunningham. Leisure in the Industrial Revolution, c.1780-c.1880. London: Croom Helm, 1980; Stephen Jones’ Workers at Play: a Social and Economic History of Leisure, 1918-1939, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 1986.

[3]Peter Burke The Invention of Leisure in Early Modern Europe’, Past and Present, Volume 146, Issue 1, 1 February 1995, Pages 136–150

[4] William Morris. ‘How we Live and How we Might Live’. In News from Nowhere and Selected Writings and Designs, edited by Asa Briggs, 158-178. 1888. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962;

Morris William. ‘Useful Work versus Useless Toil’.   In News from Nowhere and Selected Writings and Designs, edited by Asa Briggs, 117-135. 1888. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962.

[5]A. Mearns and W. C. Preston, W.C. The Bitter Cry of Outcast London. London: James Clarke & Co, 1883.

[6]T.H. Green Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligationorig. 1882; London: Longmans, Green,1941, 246.

[7]Cecil Delisle Burns Leisure in the Modern World,London: Allen and Unwin, 1932.

[8]Sandra Dawson ‘Working-class Consumers and the Campaign for Holidays with Pay’, Twentieth Century British History, Vol. 18, No. 3, 2007, pp. 277–305

[9]John A. Hobson, Wealth and Life. A Study in Values. London: Macmillan, 1929.


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