Leisure activities of the British working-class were changing in the early twentieth century. Since the 1930s, increased technology, commercialisation and cultural propaganda changed the landscape of available and popular activities. Sports became emphasised as a uniting concept, giving purpose to citizens as all classes as well as giving Britain a recognisable face, promoting its insular and international influence; as put by Peter J. Beck, “the cricket bat or football seemed as powerful as the gun in propagating the imperial message and extending British influence and rule” (454). Especially in the case of football (a sport frowned upon as a working-class phenomenon), Britain was able to represent itself as a maverick, passionate and skilled in its inventions.
It is no wonder that Wally Ward, b.1914, describes his preference for sports over education in his memoir ‘Fit For Anything’. Ward discusses his excitement at a potential scholarship, not for the learning but for the sports offered at the high school – football and cricket. On leaving school, he also took part in amateur boxing with St. Andrew’s Scout Group, along with typical scout activities such as camping and hiking. Ward’s love of sport is apparent throughout the first few chapters of his memoir revolving around his early life, up until early adolescence. However, after this period, mention of sport mostly disappears.
Several factors seem to influence this change. Firstly, economic factors and availability stand in the way of Ward’s football dreams – although offered a scholarship to a high school with plenty of sporting opportunities, Ward deliberately failed his exam so that his poverty stricken family wouldn’t need pay for his school supplies. Similarly, Ward’s boxing (along with other activities such as acting which were not sporting related) were dependent on his belonging to the St. Andrew’s Scout Group in Yeovil. When the factory Ward worked at was taken over and could no longer guarantee jobs for employees, he moved to Bristol to find work. This move took him away from the familiar community provisions for working-class men such as himself, and into an unfamiliar and lonely environment.
Secondly, the emergence of Ward’s epilepsy during sporting activities mostly put a stop to any physical activity he may have otherwise pursued. Ward’s first seizure occurred during a dive at a swimming pool; his second seizure when heading a ball during a game of football. With his diagnosis, he was advised to hand over his driving licence and changed his job to move away from the machinery. At this point, Ward’s epileptic seizures only occurred at two monthly intervals.
Today, it is likely that a person would continue to play sport regardless if the epilepsy were this controlled. However, social stigma played a large part in Ward’s reluctance to participate in such activities after his diagnosis:
I noticed how a group of my friends would be enjoying themselves, but that as soon as I joined them, the tempo of the part would change. “Wally was here” . . . “He might have a fit” . . . “We’d better take it easy”. It wasn’t difficult to read their minds.
After this, I became very depressed and avoided being in company. After years of being the life and soul of the party, I was suddenly a loner – an introvert. (17)
Ward’s words here imply that his resignation of his previously enjoyed hobbies such as football and boxing had less to do about his own insecurities about his condition than those of the people around him. Recognising the prejudice and fear of his companions that any exertion or exciting activity could cause a seizure, Ward lost self-esteem and ceased for time not only playing sport but generally socialising.
By the time Ward had established himself in Bristol with a new job, a new girlfriend and a new confidence, leisure in Britain had been changing still and so had Ward’s options. Being paid more than he had been before and with traditionally working-class hobbies such as sports seemingly ruled out for him, there is a noticeable shift in the activities he took part in. He met his future wife Violet at a dance, at the recommendation of his landlady (although even this met some hesitance from Wally – “being an epileptic, although I could dance well enough, I couldn’t stand the spinning around the floor as I once had” (22)). The increasing availability and focus on commercialised leisure – “by the late 1930s over 23 million people visited cinemas each week, with many going more than once” (Beck 459) – gave an alternative with no danger of triggering his epilepsy.
Beck, Peter J. “Leisure and Sport in Britain.” A Companion to Early Twentieth-Century Britain (2008): 453.
Ward, Wally. ‘Fit For Anything’. Brunel University Library 2.798