George Gregory (b. 1888): Habits, Culture, and Belief

We were unable to buy things that were essential for games, not even a ball… What could children do to obtain a little pleasure? The reply is that it depends on the children; and we had fertile minds for some things; and we were able to provide our own forms of amusement (33)

The earlier portion of George’s memoir, regarding his childhood experiences, is filled with details about leisure and recreation. We can learn a lot about the types of activities that kept children, in the lower income working-class households, occupied at the close of the 19th Century from his writing.

Religion, famously described by Karl Marx as the opium of the people, is the first leisure activity that is mentioned in George’s memoir. He was taken to ‘Writhlington church on Sunday evenings’ (8) and seems to remember it quite fondly, ‘I recall the sound of the bell as we walked under the trees to the church… the venerable figure of the clergyman as he entered the pulpit’ (8). Although later on in his memoir he speaks a little more cynically of religion, and gives the impression he is no longer a theist, I think he enjoyed the act of attending church as a child, perhaps appreciating the regularity it provided.

One particular church that George mentions: St Luke's in Priston, Somerset.
One particular church that George mentions: St Luke’s in Priston, Somerset.

A key element in the majority of the recreation activities George partook in is the cheapness of them. Whereas the idea of recreation in today’s world summons visions of video games and movies, in the late 19th Century there was a larger focus on frugal, more physical activities. A statistic to support this assertion is provided in a paper called ‘Less of a Luxury: The Rise of Recreation Since 1888’, ‘In the late 1800s less than 2% of household expenditures were devoted to recreation. Approximately 75% of the household’s income went to food, shelter, and clothing’ (3).

A lot of the spare time that George had as a child was spent doing rather mundane things; exploring the countryside with his friends quite freely. He recounts several examples, including crawling into a hollow in a tree and ‘playing a game of pretence’ (13), searching for hazel nuts, climbing trees, swimming in pools, and even climbing on cows and riding them. There is a recurring theme in all of these activities of being in some form of immediate danger, which George acknowledges in hindsight as he writes, ‘my childhood might have had tragic results’ (12). A comparison to contemporary recreation makes it seem rather sheltered.

He also recounts some improvised games that he played with friends, usually involving physical competition. They toyed with archery, using improvised bows made with branches from a hazel bush and spare string, flew kites made out of the same materials, and also played a game inventively named ‘Kick out the tin’ (33), the objective of which is fairly obvious.

The type of bow George may have crafted as a child
The type of bow George may have crafted as a child

As is the case with most topics in George’s memoir, mention of recreation seems to die down post-childhood. He only really mentions two leisurely activities in the second half of his writing. One is his passion for reading, which is explored fully in my Reading and Writing post. The other is involvement in political or social organisations. However, this is two more interests than he mentions his father having, who’s ‘conversation was mostly about work’ (2). This is interesting to consider in historical context, as in ‘Leisure and Sport in Britain’, Peter Beck mentions something he calls a ‘leisure revolution’ (456), and details how, at the turn of the 19th Century, ‘expectations, even of the less prosperous, broadened to embrace the ideal of having a worth while life distinct from the world of work’ (456).

Although, in the light of our comparatively lavish and extravagant recreation habits, George’s seem rather primitive, his generation were much more free to indulge in play than the one that preceded them. The same can be said, generally, for each generation that follows, all the way up until now. It is interesting to ponder how much longer the trend towards a more leisurely society will last.

 


 

 

Beck, Peter J. ‘Leisure and Sport in Britain.’ A Companion to Early Twentieth-Century Britain (2008): 453.

Costa, Dora. ‘Less of a Luxury: The Rise of Recreation Since 1888’, NBER Working Paper 6054. June, 1997.

Gregory, George, ‘Untitled’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:283.

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