A History of Leisure in the 19th Century

By Tim Lambert

Several new sports and games were invented during the 19th century. Although a form of tennis was played since the Middle Ages lawn tennis was invented in 1873. Snooker was invented in India in 1875. Volleyball was invented in 1895.

In the early 19th century working people had very little leisure time. However, things improved by the end of the century. In 1871 the Bank Holiday Act gave workers a few paid holidays each year. Also in the 1870s some clerks and skilled workers began to have one week paid annual holiday. However, even at the end of the 19th century, most people had no paid holidays except bank holidays.

In the early 19th century everyone had Sunday off. In the 1870s some skilled workers began to have Saturday afternoons off. In the 1890s most workers gained a half-day holiday on Saturday and the weekend was born. By the end of the 19th century, most people had more leisure time.

Meanwhile, during the 19th century, sports became organised. The first written rules for rugby were drawn up in 1845. The London Football Association devised the rules of football in 1863. The first international match was held between England and Scotland in 1872. In 1867 John Graham Chambers drew up a list of boxing rules. They were called the Queensberry Rules after the Marquis of Queensberry. The Amateur Athletics Association was founded in 1880. Polo was first played in Britain in 1869.

At the end of the 19th century, bicycling became a popular sport. The safety bicycle was invented in 1885 and in 1892 John Boyd Dunlop invented pneumatic tyres (much more comfortable than solid rubber ones!) Bicycling clubs became common.

Ludo was originally an Indian game. It was introduced into Britain c. 1880. Reading was also popular in the 19th century. In 1841 Edgar Allan Poe published the first detective story The Murders In The Rue Morgue. The first Sherlock Holmes story A Study in Scarlet was published in 1887 by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Many middle-class people also enjoyed musical evenings when they gathered around a piano and sang. Middle-class people were very fond of the theater. In the late 19th century there were also music halls where a variety of acts were performed. In the 19th century going to the seaside was very popular with those who could afford it. The first pleasure pier was built at Brighton in 1823 and soon they appeared at seaside resorts across Britain.

The steam-driven printing press was invented in 1814 allowing newspapers to become more common. Stamp duty on newspapers was abolished in 1855, which made them cheaper. However, newspapers did not become really common until the end of the 19th century. In 1896 the Daily Mail appeared. It was written in a deliberately sensational style to attract readers with little education.

One new hobby in the 19th century was photography. Henry Fox Talbot took the first photograph in 1835. However, photography was more than just a pastime. In 1871 a writer said that one of the great comforts for the working class was having a photo of a family member who was working a long way off. They could be reminded of what their loved ones looked like. the first cheap camera was invented in 1888 by George Eastman. Afterward, photography became a popular hobby.

In the late 19th century town councils laid out public parks for recreation. The first children’s playground was built in a park in Manchester in 1859.

In the 19th century, the ‘modern’ Christmas evolved. Before then Christmas wasn’t especially important. It was one of only many festivals celebrated during the year. However, the Victorians invented the Christmas card and the Christmas cracker. The Christmas tree was known in England before the 19th century but it was made popular when the royals were shown in a magazine illustration with one. Father Christmas or Santa Claus became the figure we know today in the 19th century.

Then in 1896, the Ancient Greek Olympic Games were revived. The first Olympic Winter Games were held in 1924. Meanwhile, the first Tour de France was held in 1903.