Rosa Bell (b.1902): Habits and Beliefs – Part 1: Entertainment

From the 1870s onwards, working-class society saw a rise in the production and availability of mass entertainment. Organised sports and clubs to theatres, music halls and public houses – the rising wages and newly disposable income of the working classes led to the capitalist market investing in, or rather creating, a new working-class demand for entertainment and culture.

In Rosa’s memoir, she often focuses on the discussion of entertainment, culture and beliefs over and above the hard work of labour. Rosa primarily discusses the entertainment and social activities of her childhood and, as she grew older, her dedication to the Church and her faith in God. (See Habits & Beliefs: Religion).

Rosa’s first exploration of leisure and entertainment activities, specifically from her childhood, are mentioned in one of the earliest chapters of her memoir entitled ‘About Johnny.’ In this chapter, Rosa describes the “temperance meeting” (p.26), known today as a Youth Group, that Johnny organised for the village. She writes: “We used to meet once a month and only paid one penny – how we looked forward to it for Johnny was such a great organiser and we all behaved so well. Sometimes he’d arrange a magic lantern show … Sometimes we had a concert with such good songs & entertainers who came from a town not so far away” (p.26-27).

Immediately, we are presented with the sense of community that Rosa often remembers fondly in her memoir. Highlighted here is not just the community found in her own village but also kinship with other working-class towns and their people. Furthermore, the “magic lantern show” that Rosa describes refers to a piece of projection technology developed in the 17th century. At first the magic lantern was used primarily for entertainment purposes but was applied for educational use in the 19th century. Even though in this instance it was used for entertainment, this shows the nature of the working classes toward education and an increased desire for self improvement. (See: Education and Schooling)

A stark difference found in the entertainment of middle and working class children are the differences between supervised and unsupervised play. In the Victorian Era, middle-class children often played with expensive and purchased toys within the home (and therefore under supervision from caretakers, usually a nanny) and working-class children did not have access to many toys, resulting in more improvised play.[1] Evidence of this difference is found in Rosa’s memoir in the chapter entitled ‘The Happy Days at MORNINGSIDE.’

Rosa describes Morningside as a “lovely old House it belonged to my mother’s family for such a long time” (p.67) where she often spent time as a child. Rosa evidences the reality of improvised play via the entertainment she and the other children (presumably some of her six siblings) created for themselves. She writes: “there was a Huge Barn where we used to play for many Happy Hours” (p.70) and “then there was Fanny the little Brown Pony & Strawberry the Cow in the Field where we used to gather herbs for Auntie to make her herb Puddings and we’d make Daisy Chains” (p.71). Not only are the details Rosa remembers striking in creating a picture of her childhood, but they evidence that working-class children, though less privileged in ways of money, enriched their lives with their own imaginations and methods of creating fun.

Whilst there was a distinction in class in terms of forms of entertainment there was also a distinction between gender and forms of entertainment as men and women were not always permitted to take part in the same activities. Men were encouraged to join working men’s clubs and sports teams whereas women were still restricted by gender roles with groups dedicated to sewing, singing and religious practices.

In Rosa’s memoir, in a chapter entitled ‘what we did with our spare time’ she details the meeting of a Girls Friendly Society, writing that “in the lovely drawing Room at the [Rectory?]…with the beautiful Red + Blue Carpet and the glowing fire and most of all the Beautiful lady playing those old Hymns on the Grand Piano” (p.104). It is implied here that the Girls Friendly Society meetings were gendered in this way and limited to the ‘feminine activities’ of the time.

This is comparable to the Scout’s Association founded in 1907 by Robert Baden-Powell, veteran of the Anglo-Ashanti, Matabele, Mafeking and Boer Wars. The Scouts Association was a boys only affair until 1976. Rosa’s own brother (b. 1900) was named Baden-Powell after the war hero and it was likely her brothers were members of the group.

Even with the limitations placed on entertainment due to class and gender restrictions, it is clear from Rosa’s memoir that despite these things she had a very full and entertaining life. As she says in her own words: “What did we do with our time. We seemed to fill it up so well and were never bored” (p.104).

Memoir:

Bell, Rosa. “R.M. Remembers.” Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:59, available at: http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/10895

Citations:

[1] Rogers, Helen. Habits, Culture & Beliefs Lecture. Date: 28/03/2019

Images:

[1] Oxford Music Hall – https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/334603447284370421/?lp=true

[2] Travelling Magic Lantern Show – http://www.victoriana.com/history/magiclanternshows.htm

[3] Daisy Chain Children – https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/204008285/daisy-chain-crown-two-sisters-in-a-wild

[4] Lord Robert Baden-Powell – https://todayinhistoryblog.wordpress.com/tag/robert-baden-powell/

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