Frivolous Pursuits and Improving Recreations: Leisure Practices and Identity in Britain c.1750-2010

Module code: AE1013

Module co-ordinator: Dr Lucy Faire

In this module you will examine how our leisure lives have been transformed since the 18th century as a consequence of the major changes in society, culture and technology which took place during the period. We will cover a wide variety of leisure practices and consider how participation in these activities was affected by social status, age and gender. Film, photography, reminiscences, songs and various written sources will provide us with often surprising insights into how our ancestors behaved when ‘at play’.

In the first half of the module we will concentrate on leisure which is often considered to be ‘time-wasting’, in the second half we will turn our attention to leisure which was deemed to be more suitable and ‘rational’. These terms are of course subjective, and what is ‘time-wasting’ to one group in society may be important socially and economically to another. We will consider whether many ‘improving’ recreations were simply frivolous pursuits in disguise. Was the middle-class ‘healthy’ seaside holiday really any more ‘improving’ than a working man’s ‘frivolous’ night at the pub?

Saturday 14 July 1883 - "We started for Skegness after eight o’clock this morning, we had such a lark in the train. I think it is a nice little place, we did not care to mix up with the girls because of them coming in the afternoon. Eliza and I got a good wetting, through sitting on the sands too near the water, I had to wring her dress out at the bottom. Their train got in just before five, I thoroughly enjoyed myself, the time did seem to go quick, in the afternoon we went on the pier. We could not get on the steamer or a boat. I was rather disappointed. The train got in about twelve, George came home with me. Elly was here to sleep, she did make me scream for she got hold of my leg from under the table." Extract from The Diary of Ada Jackson (Leicester City Council, Living History Unit, 1993). Ada lived in the St Margaret’s district of Leicester during the later decades of the 19th century.

Topics covered

  • Leisure and social change: the ‘invention of leisure’?
    What is ‘leisure’? How was it experienced by different groups in society? And how has the experience of leisure changed over time due to rising wages, decline in working hours, and the development of holidays?
  • Dancing: Assembly Rooms to the Palais de Danse
    The social function of dancing during the 18th and 19th centuries; the history of the mid-20th century dancehall.
  • Theatres and music hall
    The fortunes of the theatre in the face of the evangelical revival of the later 18th and early 19th centuries; the origin of music hall and its transition into a highly organised commercial form of entertainment.
  • Drinking: the public house
    Legislation on drinking; the social functions of the pub; changes in attitudes towards drinking since the 18th century.
  • Gambling and spectator sports
    The history of gambling in 18th and 19th century England; perceptions of horse racing and football and their importance in everyday life, particularly from the perspective of gambling.
  • Entertainment on the screen
    The rise and decline of cinema’ the early history of television and its role in the decline of cinema-going.
  • Going shopping!
    The rise of specialised spaces for shopping in 19th century towns from markets to arcades and department stores; changes in shopping practices during the 18th century.
  • Reading for pleasure
    The history of reading from 1750 until the present; types of literature that people read for pleasure, and how these have changed over time; how reading habits have provoked criticism or concern.
  • Adult education and rational recreation movement
    Different forms of adult education and ‘rational recreation’; how successful it was among the working class; how it adapted over the period to deal with the responses of the working class.
  • Participatory sport
    How sport has helped to form social, demographic, regional and national identities.
  • Museums, art galleries and concert halls
    Public provision for leisure activities in the 18th century; municipal provision of leisure in the 19th and early 20th centuries; the social context in which music and art was consumed.
  • Field trip: tourism
    The history of tourism and the impact of transport innovations upon it, especially the railways.
  • Parks, promenades and pleasure gardens
    The multiple roles of promenades and parks: places designed for social intercourse, pleasure, improvement, exercise and education (and often used for informal or illicit activity).
  • Healthy ‘holidays’
    The history of the spa and the development of the seaside town.


  • 42 hours of seminars


  • Short assignment, 1,000-1,500 words (30%)
  • Essay, 2,000 words (30%)
  • Essay/review or two shorter assignments, 2,000-2,500 words (40%)
  • Non-graded assignment