Leisure

Leisure

Leisure was the big concern of the age, said theNew Survey of Londonpublished in 1930. This work followed up the monumental social survey carried out forty years earlier by Charles Booth. Then, the concerns were 'the life and labour' of Londoners. This time leisure also came under scrutiny, even though the idea of studying it was 'new and uncharted seas'. Leisure was defined as 'all that part of life which is not occupied in working for a livelihood, in traveling to and from work, in eating or in sleeping'.

Two reasons lay behind the social scientists' new interest in 'spare time'. A steady reduction in working hours had taken place over the last 50 years: Londoners were all spending less time at work, thanks to stricter workplace legislation in factories, shops and offices. Londoners had also increased their levels of disposable income. The authors of the 1930s survey estimated that even ordinary working-class families only needed to spend 60% of their income to cover the absolute basic necessities of life.

The quotes included in the New Survey revealed that many Londoners didn't see themselves as living in a new age of leisure. 'Recreation!' protested a railway worker in Willesden, 'Mother say's there isn't any and I'm afraid she is not far wrong!'. However, he and his family did manage a trip to the seaside twice a year 'usually to Clacton, and a trip to Wendover about September to gather blackberries'. The family regularly went to the railway sports ground, or to visit relatives and 'we have a banjo and gramophone to amuse us if its wet'.

But by the 1930s London's 'leisure industries' were gearing up to a new scale of operation, tempting people out of their homes with the promise of spectacle, glamour and fun. As with many aspects of London life, the sheer size of the city's population attracted the attention of entrepreneurs and impresarios. The great leisure barons of 20th century Britain - Billy Butlins, Oswald Stoll and Oscar Deutsch, creater of the Odeon cinema circuit - all saw big opportunities in London's mass market and Londoners' appetite for entertainment and novelty.

Cinema was the most dramatic example of the boom in commercialized leisure. In 1911 London had 94 registered cinemas, providing 55,000 seats. By 1930 numbers had increased to258 cinemas with 344,000 seats. The cinema habit spread like wildfire in the first half of the century. By 1949 41% of Londoners were going to the cinema every weekend. By contrast the number of theatres and music halls stayed around 92 between 1910 and 1930.

The buildings of the West End reflected the new power and presence of cinema. In 1900 Leicester Square was lined by opulently ornamented Victorian theatres, the newest of which, the Hippodrome, had only just opened. By 1940 the south and east of the square had been given over to glamorous, modern-looking 'super-cinemas'. The commanding black tower of the Leicester Square Odeon appeared in 1937 on the site of the old Alhambra music hall. A year later the J. Arthur Rank organization acquired the old Olympic theatre along the south side of the square and turned it into their flagship cinema. Massive new super-cinemas also appeared away from the West End. London's largest was the 5,000 seater Trocadero at Elephant and Castle.

Bookmark with:

  • What are these?