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The Victorians and Edwardians at Play – John Hannavy
“The whole idea of leisure time and leisure pastimes was, for the majority of people at least, a hard-won privilege unheard of before the nineteenth century reform of employment rights…”
A companion piece to Hannavy’s delightful Victorians and Edwardians at Work, At Play is a showpiece for photos and picture postcards from the other side of life in the era.
Since few could afford travel for both reasons relating to both money and time the Victorians pioneered the idea that we have given the revolting name of ‘staycation.’ Parks complete with a pavilion for band concerts and dancing, were central to the leisure life of the working classes.
The exhibitions of the time were another popular form of play –with the always important Victorian value of being improving as well as amusing. When the Crystal Palace became permanent the concept of the year-round exhibition (with a few rides) was born. The popularity of these exhibitions and the curiosity about the greater created by them lead to the first ever travel boom, both domestic and foreign.
And it seems that the main result of all of this travel was the creation of the postcard industry. While there are some personal images in the book (such as one of the Prince of Wales and Princess Louise playing dress-up) most could rarely afford such pictures, and candid ‘holiday snaps’ were still a few decades and several social revolutions away. Some itinerant photographers did work British beaches, so a few families might have a precious image from a rare trip.
Rowing and boat races were extremely popular, as was spending a day at the track. The public zoo is also a Victorian innovation, and some of the funniest pictures are of children riding camels and elephants. Both they and the animals seem a little uncertain about this new concept in fun.
In a rare admission on the part of the British that the French may have had a good idea, another popular pastime was promenading. Since England lacked the Parisian boulevards the huge seaside piers which had originally been staging areas for steamers became the pace for taking the air and showing off your newest frock or fine walking stick. As well as your utter lack of need for gainful employment.
The rise of amateur sports also dates from this time…your feelings about which may directly relate to how you felt about gym class. Still, the elegantly hated ladies learning to putt, footballers in early action shots, and the beautifully ‘casually’ dressed cyclists in these postcards help fill in some of the blanks about the time in question. There are just so many images of Crimean war wounded and children working in mills that one can stand, and the naughty bathing beauties on page 46 (they are actually smiling!) may be my favorite photo in the book.
Perhaps nothing links us more closely with our Victorian and Edwardian predecessors than shopping as play.
“During the closing years of Victoria’s reign, the great shopping streets which still define our major cities were developed, and shopping moved, slowly but surely, from being a chore to being an enjoyable experience and even spectator sport.”
Hannavy’s love of these images, and of the time captured in them, make this a work of entertainment as much as a required visual document for those looking to reach in to the past.