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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Rational recreation : the social control of leisure and popular culture in Victorian England, 1830-1885 Bailey, Peter Cecil


The thesis examines the transformation of popular leisure in mid-nineteenth century England, with special reference to the various schemes of 'rational recreation' whereby social reformers attempted to control the content and direction of cultural change. The movement aimed to improve the conduct of working-class leisure in such a way as to promote moral progress and class reconciliation. Through the philanthropic -provision of new recreational amenities and the fraternal encouragement of middle-class superintendants, the workers were to be immunised against the corruptions of their own culture and instructed in the social values and disciplines of their betters. After giving account of the state of popular recreations and the genesis of the reform design in the 1830s and-'40s, the thesis examines the developing concept and performance of rational recreation in the context of the rapidly expanding new leisure world which overtook Victorian society from the mid-century on. Following a consideration of the changing practice and rationale of leisure among the middle classes and the implications for social reform, the thesis looks at the increasing activity and debate in reform circles in these years, and examines the influence of rational recreation on working-class culture in three specific areas: the reform experiment of the Working Men's Club movement; the promotion of organised games and the new athleticism; and the emergent mass entertainment industry of the music halls. The study is based on extensive reading in contemporary periodicals, the specialist press, government reports and social commentaries on working-class life, and draws on local evidence from Bolton, Lancashire. Rational recreation enjoyed some success, but working-class leisure retained a strong class identity and resisted any comprehensive conversion to the bourgeois value system. While recognising that popular recreations increasingly conformed to the patterns required by a maturing urban industrial society, the thesis concludes that such adjustments owed more to an internal process of largely autonomous adaptation and growth in working-class culture than to the direct influence of reformers who were, in any case, ill-equipped to overcome the social distance between the classes which remained a pronounced feature of English leisure.

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