Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Leisure and the state

Leisure activities were made available in four main ways and as a result provided employment in leisure.  First, the state, whether at local or national level, both created a legal framework and acted as a direct supplier. In the first half of the nineteenth century, its main concern was to control supply, chiefly by licensing, but later its role was more positive and it became a direct supplier of such facilities as parks, libraries and playing fields.  This interpretation provides little to explain the motives for its intervention in the supply of leisure other than dividing its activities into two separate spheres, negative control and positive supply.  One such motive was prestige that entailed support for both the production of high culture in the present and the preservation of the high culture of the past.  By the 1830s, state aid was necessary to maintain or at least subsidise museums throughout the country and from the 1860s governments drew back from subsidising high culture.  Public funding required more justification than had the royal patronage that dominated support for culture in the first half of the nineteenth century.  The public could not be denied right of access.  In 1810, admission to the British Museum was made free and unlimited with dramatic impact on the number of visitors: in 1824-1825, this stood at 128,000 rising to 230,000 in 1835 and 826,000 by 1846. These figures lead into the second motive that governed state supply of leisure, a concern for public order and social harmony.
It is, however, easy to exaggerate the amount of state supply.  The typical pattern was not for the government of the day to take an initiative, but for a pressure group within Parliament to be appeased by the appointment of a select committee.  The outcome tended to be permissive legislation that local authorities could implement if they wished.  Central government provided a legal framework within which museums or libraries could be built and run out of the rates but it was as concerned to protect ratepayers as to encourage the provision of a facility.  Not surprisingly, buildings were often slow to appear on the ground.  Until 1914, libraries stemmed more from philanthropy than from rates and even at that date were within reach of only 60% of the population.  The same was true of museums and parks.  Local authorities played an increasingly important role and shared the same motives as central government: a concern for prestige, in this case in relation to other local authorities and a worry about social order.    But they added to them a more compelling motive, a desire for prosperity.  Seaside resorts led the way after 1875, investing in sea defences, promenades, piers, golf courses and concert halls in an attempt to improve their attractiveness to potential visitors.
A major element in the state’s supply of leisure was its concern to control and monitor the use of space.  The home, as a private space, was beyond its physical reach.  However, licensing of retail outlets for the sale of alcohol was the state’s major intervention in the leisure market and was intended to preserve public order and provide some means of monitoring the leisure of the poorer sections of society.   Public parks, museums and libraries were supported precisely because they were public, open to scrutiny and controlled by bye-laws.  The space provided by theatre, music hall and cinema was potentially more dangerous, but the power or threat of licensing of both building and activity made them relatively acceptable.    The censorship of both plays and films ensured that public entertainment adhered to acceptable moral and political values.  Fire regulations, for example those imposed on music halls in 1878, not only reduced the dangers of fire, but drove many of the smaller, less salubrious halls out of business.  In the cinema, the industry formally established its own form of censorship in 1912 with the British Board of Film Censors.    In horse-racing, by contrast, the government banned off-course betting in the Street Betting Act of 1906.    It was, however, leisure that took place outside these spaces that posed the threat; streets, rivers, canals and privately owned rural areas were spaces where there was almost constant feuding between the state and the people.

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