Frank Goss (b. 1896): Habits, Culture and Belief (Part Two)

Following on from my first post on ‘Habits, Culture and Belief’, I will now be looking at working class leisure activities compared to the middle class and how children’s activities differed depending on their class. I will also be looking at cultural activities Goss mentions in his memoir.

A game of street football, 1889.
A game of street football, 1889.

In relation to class and space, working class children tended to play out in the streets which gave them more room for improvised play. We can see this with Goss and his brothers as their active imagination allowed them to think up all sorts of games using their surroundings and environment. I talked about this in my ‘Home and Family’ post where the children played with a “steel hoop and guiding” (p136) which they purchased “from the blacksmith for twopence” (p136). Another leisure activity Goss played in the street was football. As mentioned previously in my ‘Home and Family’ post, Bill is Goss’s cousin and an orphan, adopted by his parents. An aunt visits Bill and brings him a present – a football. Afterwards Goss writes that “Nothing so wonderful as a real football had ever come our way before.” (p110). He goes on to say that “Possessing a football raised the younger members of our family to a new artistocratic level among our indigent friends in Rathcoole Gardens.” (p110). A football was seen as a luxury item that working class children could not afford and so improvised when playing. Before they had kicked a tennis ball about but now they had a real football and “even considered forming a football team” (p110).

For the working classes, “The streets were the main area of working-class sociability, and during the warmer months especially, friendships were maintained on pavements” (Davies, 111). While middle class children tended to have a supervised play indoors, working class children were unsupervised. Another activity Goss enjoyed as a child was jumping onto the back of the speediest vehicles such as “private horse-drawn or hired carriages.” (p137). He describes how they would chase after the vehicle and then grab onto any protruding part of the carriage. After they had successfully grabbed onto the carriage, “with our legs dangling six or seven inches off the ground, we were carried along in style.” (p137). This act “was not the result of excessive boredom but an almost involuntary action similar to that which possesses a dog which will automatically chase things that move.” (137). If the driver caught them, they then had to jump off the carriage onto the road, mostly unharmed with just slight scratches and bruises. Goss and his brothers sometimes stayed out for hours at a time and each time they returned home, their parents welcomed them back and sent them up to bed after they had eaten a hot meal and had some cocoa.

Sanger's Circus big top, c. 1900
Sanger’s Circus big top, c. 1900

Whilst Goss does not mention holidays with his family, he does mention other cultural activities such as the circus coming to their school. Goss describes how before their “fascinated gaze pictures of elephants, lions, and tigers, chimpanzees, bears and sea lions appeared. There was to be a lion tamer in an area surrounded by a dozen or so howling, roaring bloody-jawed monsters which he was shown keeping at bay with a tiny stock whip and his menacing and quelling eye.” (p115-6). Goss and Bill “were swept into the atmosphere of excitement” (p116). However, they do not actually get to see the circus in the end as they do not have enough money. They try to sneak under the canvas of the circus tent but are caught by an attendant. They manage to escape after Bill bites the attendants hand which had a hold off Goss and, “Together, without staying to make any apology, [they] tore off into the darkness.” (p118). Despite not being able to watch the circus, Bill won a prize of five shillings for writing the best essay about the circus at school.

In his memoir, Goss also briefly talks about a Christmas Club set up for children. After Goss, Bill and Ralph were paid their wages for completing their chores, they found themselves attracted to a “Christmas Club at a sweet shop where the payment of threepence per week for thirteen weeks entitled one to a Christmas parcel worth four shillings” which seemed to them, “after calculating the odds, a very worthwhile investment” (p126). However, their mother talks them out of the Christmas Club as she “thought all sweetstuff near poison and was consequently filled with alarm that the first months of the New Year might be unduly taken up in ridding [their] systems of the generous amount of poison that the Christmas Club contracted to provide.” Another reason is that “she knew all too well that dreams of a regular income are not always substantiated by fact” and is worried that they might find themselves unable to meet their “commitments of thirteen threepences each and so lose all [their] savings.” (p127). This shows that the income of the working classes can change at any time as their jobs are not always secure for the future.

At the end of his memoir, Goss states that fifty years have passed since and in that time he writes that “Gradually society has given greater and greater considerations to seeing that children were better clothed and better fed. In more recent times, some class barriers have broken down and greater opportunities have been forthcoming for children of working class parents to take jobs in the professions.” (p242). Whilst Goss believes that today’s children have lost some off their freedom, they are also better off than past generations and do not have the same class restrictions that Goss did as a child. Also, what we take for granted such as owning our own footballs was seen as owning “treasure” (p111) when Goss was a child.

Bibliography:

Davies, Andrew. Leisure, Gender and Poverty. Working-class culture in Salford and Manchester, 1900-1939. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1992.

Goss, Frank. ‘My Boyhood At the Turn of the Century’. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, Volume Number: 0.313194444 http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/10909

Image References:

Victorian Circus. 2015. Web. Accessed 4 December 2015. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/v/victorian-circus/

Victorian Britain: children at play. 2014. Web. Accessed 7 December 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/primaryhistory/victorian_britain/children_at_play/

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