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How respectable was the Victorian middle class? In spite of the period's identification as 'marking the emergence of a recognisably modern culture' and a 'new leisure world', there has been little exploration of this question. [1] Focus has been almost entirely on those more ordered and rational middle-class recreations seen as reinforcing the work ethic, thrift and respectability. [2] There has been little interest in middle-class leisure once the focus moves away from more formal, institutional and respectable recreations.

Yet leisure was contested cultural space. It was an arena where ideas about class, gender and ethnicity were articulated, debated and developed. Notions of class and class relationships have often been empirically linked by historians to the concept of respectability. Indeed, some historians have preferred to use respectability rather than class as a way of explaining the nature of social and political divisions and modes of social integration in Victorian Britain. Respectability, many have argued, was a sharp line of social division, consolidating bonds between middle and working-class respectables, in order to reform now distanced working-class roughs. [3] Others have found it more problematical because of its links with theories of embourgeoisement and the role of the labour aristocracy. [4] Use of the concept, however, helps to draw out more clearly the ways in which cultural factors contributed to both these developments within the working class. Even historians adopting a culturalist approach, however, have seen the middle classes as respectable. Cunningham, although seeing any rough/respectable division as "an extra-ordinarily crude tool for the description of social reality" has used culturalist analysis to develop notions of leisure cultures to describe different ways of life, and sees Victorian middle-class culture as a shifting entity but with a consistent attitude to leisure which was socially exclusive. He sees it as having a seriousness of approach, with the key function of 're-creating men for work', and establishing 'respectable credentials'. [5]

However, whilst respectability may have had ideological power, we need to question critically both the extent to which such beliefs were actually held and some of their impact, and explore the notion and significance of an unrespectable set of middle-class values. The historiographic investigation of Victorian values has already shown that they were contested, and that Victorian society was large, ramshackle, complex and diverse, embracing a multiplicity of cultural traditions. [6] Peter Bailey has argued powerfully that working-class men and their families for whom respectability was a staple and regular way of life were "rarer birds than contemporaries or today's historians have allowed." [7]

But Bailey's argument raises a major and equally significant question concerning the extent to which the ideology of respectability was universally accepted at all times into hearts and minds, as a lived code of values, across the whole range of the middle classes. Clearly, there were many for whom respectability was all-encompassing in private as well as in public life. There is plenty of evidence that much middle-class life was relatively sober, hard working, law abiding and pious. Nevertheless, there were others, although their numbers are as yet unclear, for whom there was a significant degree of instrumental manipulation of the role. For such groups or individuals respectability was practiced in a much more limited sense: limited by gender, by age, by situation and by role, so that there could be different modes of behaviour within a single life style, at different times and in different contexts. Not all the middle classes wanted to join the temperance movement with its rallies and pledges, or the emer ging 'amateur' sporting establishment. Nor did all wish to keep themselves morally distinct from the lower orders. The provenance of leisure historiography as an offshoot of labour and cultural studies has obscured our understanding of the place of less respectable pleasures in the middle-class Victorian world.


First however we need to examine the ideology of respectability itself. The Victorian middle classes themselves were certainly keen to foster notions of respectability, and it had two major rhetorical thrusts. The first was hegemonic, stemming from middle-class fears of leisure's moral misuse by workers and predominantly targeted not at themselves but at the workforce, most especially to encourage the emergence of the 'respectable working-man'. A second thrust was a generational one, aimed at discouraging middle-class youth from more sinful pleasures and curtailing potential leisure freedoms.

Whilst respectability was an extremely powerful rhetoric, active middle-class moralists and social reformers were always a small, although highly vociferous, minority. Their views were often shaped by evangelicalism, which saw the pursuit of pleasure and personal gratification as sinful, and duty and responsibility as central. 'Respectability' was "a creed and a code for the conduct of personal and family life," one which supposedly applied to all classes. [8] Both non-conformists and Anglicans focused on sin, guilt and the possibility of redemption. Internal systems of checks and the external support of the clergy gave rules of conduct which helped the living of a spiritual life, while the family was central to the struggle to reform morals and manners. But non-conformist evangelicalism had a dwindling membership by mid-century despite the high proportion of upper middle-class members in its congregations, even though their views acted as a very useful and continuing rationale for notions of social control, rational recreation and social Darwinism.

Support was also drawn from the moral wing of mid-Victorian Liberalism, appealing to temperate, self-improving, respectable, and socially responsible citizens of all classes in the interests of progress, and attacking reactionary defenders of the status quo, those involved in drink, in betting, in brutal sports or lacking sexual restraint. [9] Good citizenship, temperance, and firm commitment to the values of hearth and home were expected.

The ideology of middle-class respectability had become dominant by the 1840s, and, although slackening from the 1870s, was still powerful up to the century's end. It had some results, especially in terms of public rhetoric and public behaviour in some contexts. Certainly the upper classes adjusted their image to make it acceptable to middle-class morality. Its rhetoric, acting through preaching, the pages of the press, political platforms, and magistrates' pronouncements, can be seen as a powerful agent of hegemony.

The two contexts where social pressure for compliance was strongest were the moral, Christian home, and those of religious observance-the Sunday schools, church and chapel congregations. These were the places from which the public campaigns to attack immorality and support improving and uplifting rational recreations were mounted. Respectable public behaviour was underpinned by fear of pressure from church, neighbours, friends and family within these communities. Certainly contents of mid-Victorian diaries or private letters often seem dictated by rules of propriety and lacking in spontaneity, with few personal confessions or mentions of non-respectable behaviour, although some later Victorian writers were prepared to concede that even in the world of 1860s religiosity there was "a good deal of deliberate hypocrisy." [10] For middle-class men who wished to join the social elite of their town, attendance at the right chapel, wealth, involvement in charitable or philanthropic affairs, and the holding of public office were a common route to local fame and reputation; so respectability paid.

It was in leisure where the gap between public rhetoric and private life was potentially greatest and where these differences were worked out. [11] The mass of early and middle Victorian material that specified appropriate conduct for the middle classes was only necessary because of the underlying anxieties about the existence of some middle-class enjoyment of less respectable pleasures. F. M. L. Thompson has argued persuasively that even in the 1840s and 1850s respectability's hold over behaviour was "partial and vulnerable to the pressures of affluence and self-indulgence." [12] There is also a growing recognition amongst historians that "the mid-Victorian middle classes were divided amongst themselves in attitudes to leisure." [13] Indeed Bailey has argued that "there was as much disagreement as consensus among dominant groups." [14] Despite the sound and fury of those organisations attempting to influence public behaviour-the Sabbatarians, the temperance movement or the later nineteenth century National Anti-Gambling League, their overall impact was relatively limited. [15]

In supporting mid-Victorian middle-class respectability the gender dimension played a crucial part. Respectability was predominantly both constructed and maintained by women, and therefore in conflict both with some definitions of 'Masculinity', and notions of double standards. Certainly men apparently led, publicised, recruited and organised churches, chapels and evangelical institutions, and certainly by the 1850s ministers had the confidence to act as moral and spiritual guides. [16] But it was the women of the congregation who largely drew up the rules of propriety, decorum and morality, and exercised control or influence over the behaviour of their children. Women acted as ideological filters and transmitters, upheld local 'standards', developed the appropriate language and exercised class-based judgements about associational life. They defined appropriate protocols for children's behaviour, or the acceptability or non-acceptability of acquaintances. They were significant players in managing and control ling class relationships, engaged in nuanced elaborations of social distinction that subtly defined and demarcated the boundaries and internal divisions of middle-class life. Women, especially mothers, ruled the private sphere, acting as gatekeepers, regulating family activities in a context of fear of local disapproval which determined the mores by which families lived in the middle-class neighbourhood. [17]

The area where respectability was most embattled was therefore male leisure. Here was a zone where social distinctions were vulnerable, an area where some forms of association were cross-class, challenging conventional social distinctions. In certain contexts constraints of respectability were much less powerful, and another leisure culture sometimes emerged which was more pleasure seeking, hedonistic and irreligious. If leisure was, as Bailey has suggested, increasingly seen as 'performance', as 'adventure' and as pluralised in the later nineteenth century, then we need to examine more carefully its nature and extent, especially in the mid-Victorian period. [18]

There are a number of methodological difficulties in carrying out such a study. One potential difficulty here is the definition of 'respectability'. Although contemporaries certainly used the term, some activities were respectable to some people but not to others. Nevertheless, there were a number of leisure activities where the volume of moral fears about them and published attacks upon them warrants their classification as more sinful, unrespectable pleasures. Respectability was at its weakest when associated with the great triumvirate of gambling, sex and alcohol, and wherever possible illustrative examples have been drawn from these.

A second problem is that the strength of the rhetoric of respectability, and the need by most men to behave appropriately in many public contexts, makes middle-class disreputability a challenging area to explore, if only because of the unwillingness of writers to record such behaviour where it existed. The great majority of diary writers for example, were probably concerned that their diaries might be read and their conduct judged by relatives or friends. Nevertheless some such personal unwitting testimony survives. A number of autobiographies from writers within particular bohemian social groups reflects their different value system. Some diary writers, often having reached middle-class status but with working-class origins, still enjoyed a range of apparently disreputable pleasures. The diaries of Absalom Walkin, a self-made Manchester businessman, magistrate and reformist, for example, reveal both his respectable public face and his and his family's private world. In 1843, the year he became MP for Manche ster, he fathered an illegitimate child; in 1845 he was complaining that his sons were over-indulging in wine; and in 1854 he made the startling discovery of his wife's infidelity. [19]

Newspapers are a more fruitful source. The media interest in the shock towns and cities of the Victorian age, Liverpool, Manchester or London, attracted middle-class journalists to write about less respectable contexts. Their approach was often pathological, episodic and sensational, with 'typical' rather than firsthand description, dialogue and action. Nor was it necessarily sympathetic or understanding. But some writers attempted analysis of those present in terms of age, gender, social position or occupation. The non-conformist journalist Shimmin, for example, in writing a description of an area of Liverpool notorious for prostitutes, identified a range of slumming middle-class men, which he described as 'queer fish on the loose' or "gentlemen bent on seeing life as it swings in all its charming variety." [20] The language he chooses to use is indicative. Being 'on the loose', away from social restraints; 'life as it swings', a life of 'variety' rather than conformity: these all suggest ways in which such experience might be both attractive and exciting on the one hand, dangerous and destabilising on the other. J Burnley, in writing about Bradford night life in the 1870s, argued that the attraction of the Lambert vaults to the youths of respectable families was partly their illicitness, because "it is so delicious to do things sub rosa; to feel that you are a rollicking ram, a jolly dog or a midnight rake." [21]

A final problem is that any overall survey, given the current state of the field, runs the risk of appearing impressionistic, and so it is important to distinguish between possibly broad categories of deviant behaviour, and exceptional cases where less respectable behaviour occurred but was probably atypical. To address this, the following argument demonstrates that there were several leisure contexts where respectability's hold was potentially weak. Such contexts included certain points in the life cycle, some occupational groupings, and certain locations. Although empirically these overlap, they are treated separately for the purpose of analysis.


Historians have neglected life-cycle variation in leisure, and the way that some people consciously or unconsciously played different roles at different times and in different places, in order to over-simplify analysis. Yet less respectable behaviour was more common at certain times in the life cycle, especially amongst middle-class pupils and teenagers, younger unmarried males, and older men whose families had grown up. Public schools, for example, could exemplify the vices as well as the virtues of Victorian life. Adolescence was a crucial period for puberty and sexual identification, but sometimes associated in the closed context of the public school, where public expression of sexuality was more common, with increased sexual appetite, violence, brutality, and sadism. Even the team sports played there have been seen as stressing physical intimacy and comradeship linked to anti-female rituals, drunkenness, and anti-female/homosexual songs perhaps provoked by and certainly common after the intrusion of wome n into some male social contexts after mid-century. [22] In the 1840s and 1850s, for example, Harrow was described as a "jungle where lust and brute strength raged completely unrestrained." [23] Homosexuality may have been publicly seen as sinful, but homosexuals were often shielded and supported. When Dr. Vaughan, Head Master of Harrow from 1844 to 1859, resigned at the age of 43 after a homosexual scandal involving one of his boys he was immediately offered a bishopric but declined, and subsequently became vicar of Doncaster, Master of the Temple and Dean of Llandaff.

At school pupils also learned habits such as betting. William Allison, whilst at Rugby in the 1860s, was already trying to keep himself 'by judicious betting', subscribing to The Sportsman and placing bets with commission agents. [24] The son of non-conformist respectable parents, A. D. Luckman was able to buy the Sporting Life and bet as a schoolboy at a sporting tobacconist's in Edinburgh, and later go to horse races as a young clerk in the mid-1870s [25]

One of the more powerful images and major concerns in mid-Victorian literature was the young unmarried male, enjoying more free time than his elders and applying himself more to play than to business. [26] Life was 'full and merry', perhaps selfish and debauched, with heavy use of the double standard as young men 'sowed their wild oats'. Youths could spend their time in clubs, music halls and similar contexts. Different contexts brought out different types of sexual behaviour, and provincial halls like the Star in Liverpool or Manchester's Alexandra attracted the sons of wealthy merchants and manufacturers to enjoy the company of prostitutes. [27] The increased use of the word 'spree', for the notion of being away from the constraints of home and workplace, reflects its popularity.

Away from home, opportunities for such behaviour could be wider, and descriptions in the literature of the behaviour of some university and military students then as now suggest a more hedonistic life style, more frivolous, more idle and more immoral. Students of law and medicine stood out even by the 1850s with visits to brothels, abuse of policemen and riotous behaviour. [28] Medical students in London, a sizeable consumer group, were regular attenders in West End halls, part of the 'counterfeit swell' section of the audience, along with clerks, linen-drapers' assistants or apprentices. Students from Cambridge were regular attenders at Newmarket races. [29]

Large numbers of young and unattached men in London and other major cities responded eagerly to any attempt to escape from the confines of a narrow evangelically-dominated respectability, and the balance tilted steadily in favour of the pleasure seekers as time went on. Most anti-betting pamphlets of the l860s claimed that betting 'victims' tended to be 'inexperienced youths of all classes'. [30] Later in the nineteenth century the 'mashers', young middle-class men of fashion, could be found in London, Glasgow and other large cities in the evenings parading up and down streets, displaying themselves and looking for excitement. [31] Such behaviour in youth did not debar young men from entering the professions. One of Walkin's sons, who had contracted venereal disease as a young man, later went on to be a clergyman. [32]

The combined influences of the workplace and domesticity on standards and ethics, and reduced per capita income, were more likely to rein in many married men during the period of child-rearing, but there were further opportunities of temptation in middle age. Tosh has shown the tension that existed between masculinity and domesticity, and how adventure and danger created their own appeal. [33] Music halls were one such ambiguous area, and older middle-class men were in the audience from a very early date. [34] Day's music hall in Birmingham in 1866 was claimed to have manufacturers, tradesmen and even the occasional magistrate amongst its audience, although by the later Victorian period some city centre halls were seen as respectable and audiences more controlled.

Very few middle-aged critics of working-class drinking in the mid-Victorian period were themselves total abstainers. In Bradford, for example, Sam Smith, dyer and mayor from 1851-3, confessed that he 'could not govern his own conduct' in relation to drink, while Titus Salt, who did much to enforce temperance amongst his Saltaire workforce, believed that wine taken with meals was an enjoyable comfort. [35] Where drink could be taken in the home, or in the club, where rooms were often available, or a cab could be found, overindulgence could be easily concealed, and prosecution for alcohol-induced misbehaviour avoided. The more hedonistic sometimes looked back in old age at their lives with a mixed emotions; pleasure and perhaps regret, a feeling typified by Wilkinson's two books of reminiscences (1902, 1912) which both contained the phrase 'a wasted life'. [36]

To support their pleasures, some middle-class men entered into criminal activity. Embezzlement by account clerks and men in clerical or retail work was relatively common, and in the Black Country about ten per cent of all fraud cases were middle-class. [37] Since occupations were not always given, the relatively common phrase 'well-educated' may be a surrogate class marker in such cases. Although the business and commercial world provided opportunities for fraud and embezzlement, the law was slow to act and employers not always prepared to prosecute. On a broader canvas, the gap between public rhetoric and private practice is sometimes well illustrated. One Stockton commercial traveller on a fixed salary of [pounds]250 a year plus a further commission of [pounds]150, a local preacher, who was so trusted by his employer that he allowed him to make donations to charitable causes on his behalf, embezzled some [pounds]1,700 before being discovered. [38] Dishonest collectors for charity, such as the Treasurer of the Manchester Relief fund who pocketed [pounds]2,400, are sometimes found, whilst a small number of middle-class men indulged in non-acquisitive violence. [39] This seems to have been most likely when drunk, or during matrimonial disputes. Young middle-class males sometimes spent their inheritance in pursuit of pleasure.

Those in certain occupations were also more likely to pursue a less respectable lifestyle, although some occupations figure in the press, then as today, because public opinion expected them to behave in particularly respectable ways, and where they were discovered not doing so, press coverage followed. Reports on vicars fall into this category, most often when sexual crimes occurred. Examples include a vicar accused of indecent assaults on a number of boys in 1868, a vicar accused of adultery with his cook in 1870, and a vicar sentenced to twelve months hard labour for attempted rape in 1879. [40]

In reality offences against respectability were more likely where work took men away from home. The bohemian movement, deserting home and family to live an adventurous life, is more a creation of the later Victorian period, but a range of poets, painters, sculptors, writers, and some journalists had already established a model of private life that opposed the respectable point by point during the mid-Victorian period, with the pre-Raphaelite movement perhaps the most widely known. Their numbers were not large. Most lived in lodgings, with their meeting point often in public houses and eating houses, and here again it is in London where most of the evidence can be found in the contents of newspapers deliberately aimed at the worlds of racing, the theatre and music halls and the man about town, which had a growing audience from the 1860s. [41] It was predominantly a male life, but for the artistic set a scorning of private property, a degree of sexual licence or infidelity, and religious disbelief were quite c ommon, whilst many leant to the left politically. This was one of the few areas where evidence about women's attitudes occasionally surfaces, and women are seen as claiming an autonomy more often enjoyed by the male. [42]

Authors, journalists, artists and sculptors were all outside the pale of unimpeachable respectability because of their association with bohemian habits. So too were many commercial travellers who have been seen as liberated from the ties of family and friends, and breaking the monotony and boredom of hotel life by living a bohemian existence, unregulated and anonymous. They had the ability to escape the respectability ties; they were often sexual predators, and could exhibit disreputable behaviour, although displaying "a marked reluctance to discuss experience outside the departmental or commercial room." [43] They were also found outside pubs and music halls, alongside young clerks, medical students and other middle-class counterfeit 'swells', who were in London a sizeable and self-conscious element. Occupational groups on the spree, celebrating a festival or an achievement at work, provided a context when social controls were less strong. Indeed they could even be inverted within the group, as the spree me ntality imposed outrageous acts as uniformity.

Those in the drink trade, or those associated with commercial leisure, were unsurprisingly also more likely to enjoy activities such as betting or drinking, often with little bar to respectability in other contexts. James Bake, a Manchester saddler with a keen interest in racing and betting, disposed of his business to become a publican and landlord of the Post Office Hotel, the centre of Manchester betting. He retired a wealthy man in 1849, and was a prominent Manchester councillor in the l850s, whilst still involved in illegal but well-known betting activities. He was a key member of Manchester Race Committee when elected alderman in 1865. [44] Henry Dorling, a printer and stationer, and keen bettor, printed racecards and was a subscriber to Epsom Grandstand in the 1830s. By 1845 he had become the largest shareholder, and was able to lease the grandstand as a commercial proposition and be appointed the clerk of the course there and at Brighton. Between 1855 and 1871 he was chair of Epsom Board of Health. [ 45]

The hold of respectability was also far less strong in certain locational contexts away from the tyranny of the neighbours, church and respectable workplace. The anonymity possible in larger urban areas, and the range of pleasures on offer, were highly likely to open up multiple leisure identities. London, as the metropolis, provides the widest range of examples. There, dandyism survived from the Georgian period, aristocratic in its essence but based on temperament and style, not ancestry. Politically it was right wing, and associated with a fondness for luxury and gambling, but with an anti-bourgeois morality which was often homosexual and anti-Semitic, and opposed to marriage, business, and family life. There too mashers, fake swells, or bohemians were to be found, whilst going up to London often provided the opportunity for provincial businessmen to indulge in activities more anonymously than they could achieve nearer home. The London commuter suburbs also allowed a more varied leisure lifestyle. The patt ern was already clear even early in the Victorian age, as men working in the city found colleagues with similar interests and were close enough to socialise after work. Lucy Aikin, writing in the 1840s, was already aware that Hampstead was "near enough [to London] to allow its inhabitants to participate in the society, the amusements and the accommodation of the capital as freely as ever the dissipated could desire." [46]

The more liminal nature of certain locations such as the seaside, the music hall, clubs, public houses and the racecourse rendered them particularly attractive. Holidays at the seaside provided a valuable safety valve, a legitimised escape from some of the more irksome constraints of respectability, and showed the more frivolous side of even the mid-Victorian middle classes. [47] Roles at the seaside could be assumed, and even the lower middle-class male might put on airs, masquerading a new identity. An intensely military young man's real occupation during eleven months of the year might be the keeping of ledgers in a small city office. Vesta Tilley's music-hall song about the clerk who saves his money to buy a swell's outfit for his seaside holiday, and is recognised by everybody as a one-week wonder, was aimed at a West End audience who would recognise in him their own pretensions, plus those of their employees or distant youth. [48] Middle-class theatre farces, such as Melford's 'Seaside Swells; or the P rize-fighter's Daughter', were often about precocity and the dropping of restraints at the seaside. The liminal nature of the seaside allowed it to cater for both serious and hedonistic, respectable and rough. John Walton admits that many visitors used the relative anonymity of seaside life to seek some relaxation from the restraints of middleclass convention, whilst in the late Victorian period there was a relaxing of taboos and social constraints and much more exuberant enjoyment. [49] Whilst prostitutes were rarely mentioned as a problem at the seaside in the local press because of the risk of unfavourable publicity, in reality Brighton got a 'large annual importation' from London and Scarborough from Leeds, [50] whilst most other resorts had their quota.

Another locational context was the music hall. The early provincial singing saloons in Bolton, Newcastle, Nottingham, or Sheffield date from the 1840s and it is now recognised both that middle-class males were part of the audience 'from an early date' and that middle and working class patrons "mixed in the relaxed integrated freedom of mid-century." [52] The purpose-built halls of the 1860s and 1870s met a sizeable middle-class demand for variety entertainment, and guest lists at testimonials and other evidence support this view. [53] They provided a context for conviviality and shared entertainment in an atmosphere of relaxed, slightly risque social behaviour. It was "steady sober men with wives and occasionally children," clerks and commercial travellers who attended the Wolverhampton music hall in 1866. In 1870s Bradford, "respectable fathers of families, members of public bodies, prosperous tradesmen and industrious clerks and shopmen" dallied with female entertainers and drank in 'the lower description of music hall." [55] Some early music halls also provided betting opportunities. A Liverpool 'free and easy' for example, was a 'betting meet' which was full of 'apparently respectable men'. [56] For the wealthier middle-class patron the music hall box could be treated as a private place, full of dark shadows and intrigue. By the 1890s the halls had become somewhat more respectable. In 1892 a journalist, F. Anstey, distinguished types of London music hall, including both the more upper-class variety theatres and halls of the London West End and the larger middle-class halls found in less fashionable districts as well as the suburbs, indicating the essential similarity of intention amongst all levels of society. [57]

Organisations such as the freemasons or the gentlemen's clubs established in many towns from the 1840s onwards were also significant, as middle-class males retreated to more private public contexts, maintaining the posture of respectability rather than the reality. Clubs were often homo-social contexts where alcoholic drink and sociability were key attractions. The earlier aristocratic London clubs such as White's or Boodle's provided a model for more middle-class 'gentlemen's clubs', first in London, and then in the provinces. Most towns had these by the 1860s, although they emerged more slowly in those towns dominated by heavy industry such as Middlesbrough, which had the Cleveland Club for industrialists, engineers and manufacturers mainly associated with the iron industry (founded 1868) and the Erimus (founded 1873). [58]

Subscription betting rooms could be found in a number of cities even in the 1840s, allowing middle-class punters to bet on credit, and by the 1860s the 'self made men', including employers, manufacturers and clerks, described as betting at the Post Office Hotel Manchester could also have placed bets at betting clubs, office premises run by bookmaking firms or via distant commission agents by post. [59] Where betting clubs were lacking some middle-class men betted with street bookmakers. In Hull, for example, five clerks plus a shopman, cashier, butcher, tailor, joiner, engineer and jeweller were amongst those fined for betting in 1884. [60] The memoirs of a Manchester brothel-keeper in 1865 show how her more upmarket club was frequented by both upper and middle-class male visitors. [61]

Members of sports clubs, be they racing clubs, cricket clubs or (from the 1870s) football clubs, tended to associate together after the sport itself. Smoking clubs were a well-known social excuse for a night out with the men. Reports of meetings of sports clubs in the later Victorian period often make reference to socially sanctioned drinking. A report of the Stockton Cycling Club's last meet of the season, at the seaside resort of Redcar, included references to many toasts, and the imbibing of whisky punches, prior to riding home. [62] Smoking concerts with music and strong drink were a common feature of cricket, rugby and association football club dinners by the late 1870s.

Where there were no clubs, certain pubs became attractive to middle-class patrons. In Bradford, one famous hostelry was described as regularly frequented on Sunday evening by a range of male middle-class individuals, including a town councillor, an articled clerk, lawyer, architect, artist, "a wool merchant with a taste for the drama, a draper with a taste for a bottle of stout and a commission agent with a taste for music," mixing with music-hall entertainers, cricket and footballing players and vocalists, some 'fresh from churches and chapels', having "listened attentively to the sermon which has been preached." [63]

The racecourse was another important zone of less-respectable behaviour. Recent revisionist research has changed the view that racing lacked middle-class support, and shown how some groups among the middle classes could be found as attenders, racehorse owners, shareholders, managers, officials, or bettors. [64] Press lists of attendees in the grandstand and reports of accidents or prosecutions all show how truly cross-class attendance was. At Manchester in 1867, for example, the grandstand contained "a great many who regard themselves as the aristocracy from a monetary and cottonian point of view." [65] Many M.Ps., councillors, aldermen, and J.Ps. could be found at all meetings. As one solidly anti-racing paper sadly recognised in 1866, the 'greater portion of society' appeared to actively support the races. [66] The Epsom Derby was the key example, with the Times admitting that it attracted many people "who stick closely to their business and propriety for the rest of the year ... many a habitually decent f amily," plus 'foolish young men of the middle classes', and 'men of business in provincial towns', whilst military men arranged leave. [67] The racecourse was also a place of sexual temptation. In the 1860s, for example, Liverpool 'respectable' men, "merchants who on the Exchange and at home pass for gentlemen," could be seen engaged in 'indecorous' dalliance in a notorious brothel-keeper's booth at Aintree. [68]

Even in the middle-class home the behaviour of pater familias did not always match the ideal. A recent study using paternity suits, settlement examinations, letters, evidence given to commissions of enquiry and quarter sessions records confirms the view of popular literature that in some middle-class homes sheltered from public view young female working-class servants were regularly faced with actual or attempted seduction by the wealthier middle-class employers or their sons, [69] whilst sexual harassment by lower middle-class owners could be found in the workplace. [70]


The argument developed above indicates that current analyses of middle-class leisure are seriously flawed. They have generally marginalised less respectable behaviour, finding it difficult to acknowledge or convenient to overlook. Cunningham, for example, in discussing urban popular leisure dismisses middle-class involvement in such hedonistic pleasures as either 'infrequent and on that ground acceptable' or "minority activities ... not so important as to provide a key to the analysis of leisure." [71] This argument is unacceptable, since it dismisses any evidence which fails to fit the structure of his analysis. There is no evidence to suggest that middle-class involvement in such activities was unimportant, rather the difficulty has been that historians have been more eager to use the less challenging material relating to cultural institutions, municipal facilities and organisational forms of middle-class leisure, and those respectable leisure forms which attempted to constrain or shape working-class leisu re experience.

Equally, the predominant characterisation of leisure in class-conflict terms, whilst sensitising historians to some key issues, has provided a distorted view of middle-class leisure life. The fluidity and changing nature of identity in different leisure contexts defies analysis purely in class terms and renders even the most recent evaluations of middle-class leisure selective, partial and distorted. Nor is it necessarily true, as Cunningham also suggests, that in activities like betting, the 'rough of all classes' could meet together. Whilst to an extent this was true, the evidence seems to suggest rather that class divisions did not necessarily go away amongst this more hedonistic group. At the racecourse, at the seaside, or in the music hall there were clear elements of social zoning which allowed social distance if that was wished, whilst also allowing some social integration.

Currently we do not have sufficient hard statistical data to quantify how extensive involvement in such less respectable pleasures might have been. Detailed community studies with a more open mind-set, focusing on less respectable as well as respectable activities at the local and regional level are now needed. There may well be significant regional variation, and clear differences in rural and urban attitudes.

There are many further issues to be addressed. Did the appearance of respectability have a firmer hold on some of those at the margins of the class system? Were more members of the lower middle classes more respectable because they believed that their social standing could depend upon it? Were those who had achieved social mobility into the middle classes more likely to observe such patterns of behaviour than those born into this stratum? Were there middle-class men for whom dissolute hedonism provided an alternative practice and vision of society? What of other potential leisure contexts--the world of the imagination for example? Reading about less respectable pleasures was often a pleasure in itself. There was a clear middle-class taste for tales of low life, which showed both in the sensationalism of newspapers and in popular literature. The apparently autobiographical The Life and Exploits of Ikey Solomons, Swindler, Forger, Fencer and Brothel Keeper (London n.d.) is only one such example.

On the equally important question of less respectable middle-class female recreation in this period, there are further unanswered questions, especially with regard to the teenage years, and very little has yet been written, although there is some relevant source material. Certainly during the Victorian period women's sexual behaviour was known and acknowledged through innuendo, metaphor, role reversal and other ways. [72]

This paper has begun to tease out some key elements of the relationship between respectable and less respectable leisure forms and has examined the ways in which different leisure contexts contributed to different behaviours. In due course I hope to develop this theme by producing an analysis of less respectable middle-class leisure from 1850 to 1939, and this paper on leisure contexts is a spin-off from the longer-term project. In the meantime, we still need far more critical debate on the complex nature of middle-class leisure, allowing it to be reinterpreted across a wider canvas.

Abstract: Mike J. Huggins, "More Sinful Pleasures? Leisure, Respectability and the Male Middle Classes in Victorian England"

'Respectability' had great ideological power in Victorian society. But current analyses of middle-class leisure are seriously flawed in over-marginalising less respectable behavior.

The paper begins by examining 'respectability' and the non-work contexts where pressures for compliance were strongest, such as the home and the church. It then explores a range of leisure contexts where pressures were far weaker, and where more sinful pleasures such as the drinking of alcohol, gambling, betting and sex outside marriage were more likely to be found.

First there were life cycle contexts. Middle-class teenagers, younger unmarried men and men whose families had grown up were far more likely to fall for such temptations. Second, certain middle-class occupational groupings, such as artists, travelling salesmen or those in the drink trade were also more likely to pursue a less respectable lifestyle. Third, the hold of respectability was less strong in locational contexts away from the tyranny of neighbours. The more liminal nature of locations such as the racecourse and the seaside, or the anonymity of large urban areas, and the range of pleasures on offer, could open up multiple leisure identities.


I would like to thank my former colleagues Professor Jeffery Richards and Professor John Walton, then both of Lancaster University, for their encouragement and suggestions during the initial writing of this paper. I would also like to thank the two anonymous referees for their comments on an earlier draft.

(1.) Peter Bailey, "Leisure, Culture and the Historian: reviewing the first generation of leisure historiography in Britain," Leisure Studies 8 (1989): 108.

(2.) More respectable "high cultural" elements or amateur sports have received most attention. P. Gay, The Bourgeois Experience, Victoria to Freud Vol. 1 Education of the Senses (Oxford, 1984); A.J. Kidd and K.W. Roberts (eds.), City, Class and Culture: Studies of Social Policy and Cultural Reproduction in Victorian Manchester (Manchester, 1985); P. Gay, The Bourgeois Experience, Victoria to Freud Vol. 2 The Tender Passions (Oxford, 1986); J. Lowerson, Sport and the English Middle Classes (Manchester, 1993).

(3.) Geoffrey Best, Mid-Victorian Britain, 1815--75 (London, 1971), 256--63; Brian H. Harrison, Drink and the Victorians (London, 1971), 23--6.

(4.) E.g. H.F. Moorhouse, "The Marxist theory of the labour aristocracy," Social History Vol. 31(1978).

(5.) H. Cunningham, "Leisure and Culture" in F.M.L. Thompson, The Cambridge Social History of Britain 1750-1950: Volume 2--People and Their Environment (Cambridge, 1990), 296-8.

(6.) T.C. Smout (ed.), Victorian Values; A Joint Symposium of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the British Academy Dec. 1990 (Oxford, 1992) 5.

(7.) Peter Bailey, "Will the real Bill Banks stand up? A role analysis of mid-Victorian working-class respectability," Journal of Social History Vol. 12 (1979): 346. However, some years later, in Leisure and Class in Victorian England; Rational Recreation and the Contest for Control 1830-1845 (London, 1987 edition), 20 he felt more somewhat more confident that respectability was situationally adopted for instrumental advantage in the later nineteenth century.

(8.) F.M.L. Thompson, The Rise of Respectable Society; A Social History of Victorian Britain 1830-1900 (London, 1988), 251.

(9.) Neville Kirk, Labour and Society in Britain and the USA Vol. 2 Challenge and Accommodation 1850-1939 (London, 1994), 182-4.

(10.) E.B. Bax, Reminiscences and Reflections of a Middle and Late Victorian (London, 1918), 17.

(11.) See Jose Harris, Private Lives, Public Spirit: A Social History of Britain 1870-1914 (London, 1997).

(12.) Thompson, The Rise of Respectable Society, 260

(13.) John K. Walton, The English Seaside Resort; A Social History 1750-1914 (Leicester, 1983), 180.

(14.) Peter Bailey, Music Hall: The Business of Pleasure (Milton Keynes, 1986), xvi.

(15.) For the limited support of the sabbatarian movement at grass-roots level see J. Wigley, The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Sunday (Manchester, 1980). For The National Anti-Gambling League and other groups see M.J. Huggins, Flat Racing and British Society 1790-1914, (London, 1999) Chapter 8; for the temperance movement see Harrison, Drink and the Victorians, 23-6.

(16.) For a Manchester example see S. Gunn, "The ministry, the middle class and the civilising mission in Manchester 1850-1880," Social History Vol. 21 (1996): 22-36.

(17.) The etiquette manuals, from the 1830s and 1840s, helped the process by providing detailed rules of household management and servant control and helped draw up lines to pin down the uncomfortably fluid boundaries of class. Elizabeth Langland, Nobody's Angels: Middle Class Women and Domestic Ideology in Victorian Culture (London, 1995).

(18.) Bailey, "Leisure, Culture and the Historian," 107-127.

(19.) M. Gottin (ed), The Diaries of Absalom Walkin; A Manchester Man 1787-1861 (Stroud, 1903).

(20.) John K. Walton and Alastair Wilcox (eds.), Low Life and Moral Improvement in Mid-Victorian England: Liverpool through the Journalism of Hugh Shimmin (Leicester, 1991) and H. Shimmin, Liverpool Life: Its Pleasures, Practices and Pastimes (Liverpool, 1856) give a good insight into less respectable life for both working and middle-class Liverpool.

(21.) James Burnley, Two Sides of the Atlantic (London, 1880) pp. 251-2, gives a series of descriptions of Bradford night life.

(22.) P. White and A.B. Vagi, "Rugby in the 19th century boarding school system" in M.A. Messner and D.F. Sabo (eds.), Sport, Men arid the Gender Order (Champaign, Illinois, 1990), 67-78.

(23.) Ibid. 72.

(24.) William Allison, My Kingdom for a Horse (London, 1919), 20-21.

(25.) A. Dick Luckman, Sharps, Flats, Gamblers and Racehorses (London, 1914), 7.

(26.) Bailey, Leisure and Class in Victorian England, 71

(27.) D. Hoher, "The composition of music hall audiences 1850-1900"; Bailey, Music Hall; The Business of Pleasure, 85

(28.) For the life of one medical student see S. Taylor, The Diary of a Medical Student During the Mid-Victorian Period 1860-1864 (Norwich, 1927).

(29.) See for example the report on the trap accident to four Cambridge 'collegians' at the conclusion of racing in April 1883: Newmarket Journal, 28.4, (1883). Earlier in the century the banker Joshua Crompton wrote to his son at Jesus College warning against racing, claiming racing had been the "ruin of half of your young men". M. Ashcroft (ed.), Letters and Papers of Henrietta Matilda Crompton and her Family (Northallerton, 1994), 5.

(30.) A Chester tradesman, Chester Races: Do They Pay? indirect Gain and Loss (Chester, 1865).

(31.) For Glasgow examples in Sauchiehall Street see John A. Hammerton, Sketches from Glasgow (London, 1893), 121-2.

(32.) Gottin, The Diaries of Absalom Walkin.

(33.) J. Tosh, "New Men; the bourgeois cult of Home," History Today Vol.46 (Dec. 1996): 9-15.

(34.) J. Traies, "Jones and the Working Girl: Class marginality in music hall song 1860-1900" in J.S. Bratton, Music Hall; Performance and Style (Milton Keynes, 1986), 23.

(35.) D. Russell, "The pursuit of leisure" in D.G. Wright and J.A. Jowitt, Victorian Bradford (Bradford, 1982), 203; J. Reynolds, The Great Paternalist; Titus Salt and the Growth of Nineteenth Century Bradford (Hounslow, 1983), 184.

(36.) G. Wilkinson, A Wasted Life (London, 1902); G. Wilkinson, Rough Roads: Reminiscences of a Wasted Life, (London, 1912).

(37.) D. Philips, Crime and Authority in Victorian England (London, 1997), 223

(38.) Northern Review, 25.8, (1888).

(39.) C. Elmsley, "The Criminal Past: Crime in nineteenth century England," History Today Vol. 8 (April, 1988): 46.

(40.) Times, 27.5, (1868); Times, 11.1, (1870); Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 1.7, (1879).

(41.) Good descriptions of the life of this bohemian set can be found in J.B. Booth, Old Pink 'Un Days (London, 1924); A.M. Binstead and E. Wells, A Pink 'Un and a Pelican (London, 1908); A.M. Binstead, Pitcher in Paradise (London, 1903).

(42.) Joan Perkin, Women and Marriage in Nineteenth Century England (London, 1989), 214-9.

(43.) C. Hosgood, "Knights of the road; commercial travellers and the culture of the commercial room in Victorian and Edwardian England," Victorian Studies Vol. 37 No 4 (1994): 533. For an anecdotal description of the experiences of one commercial traveller see Binstead, A Pink Un and a Pelican, 15 ff.

(44.) J.T. Slugg, Reminiscences of Manchester Fifty Years Ago (Manchester, 1881), 112; E.A. Axon, The Annals of Manchester (Manchester, 1886), 372.

(45.) E.E. Dorling, Epsom and the Dorlings (Plymouth, 1939), 17-18.

(46.) F.M.L. Thompson, Hampstead, Building a Borough 1650-1964 (London, 1974), 301-2.

(47.) Walton, The English Seaside Resort, 225

(48.) M. Vicinus, The Industrial Muse (London, 1966), 262-3.

(49.) Ibid, pp 163; 169.

(50.) Edmund W. Gilbert, Brighton, Old Ocean's Bauble (London, 1975), 195-6.

(51.) Traies, "Jones and the Working Girl," 23

(52.) J. Earl, "Building the Halls" in Peter Bailey, Music Hall; The Business of Pleasure, 32.

(53.) Peter Bailey, "A Community of Friends; Business and Good Fellowship in London Music Hall Management" in Bailey Music Hall; The Business of Pleasure, 37; D. Hoher, "The Composition of Music Hall Audiences," in Bratton, Music Hall; Performance and Style, 85.

(54.) The Free Lance, 22.12, (1866).

(55.) J. Burnley, Two sides of the Atlantic 254.

(56.) Walton and Wilcox, Low Life and Moral Improvement in Mid-Victorian England, 49.

(57.) Vicinus, The industrial Muse, 249.

(58.) M.J. Huggins, "Leisure and Sport in Middlesbrough 1830-1914," in A.J. Pollard (ed) Middlesbrough; the Town and its Community 1830-1950 (Middlesbrough, 1996).

(59.) Free Lance 25 May 1868 gives details of the Post Office Hotel betting rooms. For the Talbot in 1850 see Sylvanus, The Byeways and Downs of England (London, 1850), 124. For subscription betting rooms in Commercial Street Sheffield see Doncaster Gazette 15.8, (1845).

(60.) Beverley Guardian, 7.6, (1884).

(61.) P. Evans, Memoirs of Madam Chester of Manchester (Manchester, 1865).

(62.) Northern Review, 13.10, (1888).

(63.) Burnley, Two Sides of the Atlantic, 305

(64.) For the former view see J. Lowerson, Sport and the English Middle Classes 1870-1914 (Manchester, 1993) P. 5; R. Halt, Sport and the British; A Modern History (Oxford, 1989). A fuller treatment of middle class involvement in racing than can be given here is contained in M.J. Huggins, "Culture, Class and Respectability; Racing and the English Middle Classes in the Nineteenth Century," international Journal of the History of Sport Vol. 11 No. 1 (April 1994): 19-41.

(65.) The Free Lance, 15 June 1867.

(66.) Middlesbrough Weekly News, 17 August 1866.

(67.) The Times, 4.6, (1874); The Times, 6.6, (1874).

(68.) Walton and Wilcox, Low Life and Moral Improvement 72-3.

(69.) J. Barber, "Stolen Goods: the Sexual Harassment of Female Servants in West Wales During the Nineteenth Century," Rural History, Vol. 4, No. 2(1993): 123-136; F. Dawes, Not in Front of the Servants; Domestic Service in England 1850-1939 (London, 1973), Chapter 3.

(70.) L. Faucher, Manchester in 1844; Its Present Condition and Future Prospects (Manchester, 1844).

(71.) H. Cunningham, "Leisure and Culture" in Thompson, The Cambridge Social History of Britain 1750-1950: Volume 2--People and Their Environment, 318-9.

(72.) J. Perkin, Women and Marriage in Nineteenth Century England 214-6; M. Vicinus, "Lesbian perversity and Victorian marriage; the 1864 Codrington divorce trial," Journal of British Studies Vol. 36 No.1 (1996): 70-98.
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Author:Huggins, Mike J.
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Date:Mar 22, 2000

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