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.
Other forms of recreation boomed, bringing new buildings and venues to London. By 1931 London had 23 palais de danse -- American-style luxury dancing halls, and 498 smaller places licensed to dance. The first and most famous palais de danse opened at Hammersmith in 1919. Instantly popular with suburban West Londoners, the Palais offered a swish night out, dancing to live jazz bands in the 1920s and swing bands in the 1940s. By the 1930s London also had 4 ice rinks -- the largest at Streatham, 5 speedway tracks, 17 greyhound stadiums alongside many other sports grounds and stadiums.
The 'holiday habit' also grew throughout the century. For most working Londoners at the start of the century, an annual holiday out of London meant a fortnight at the seaside or hop- picking in Kent, although this was often more work than play. 'We go away every year hop-picking but its no holiday;' said one Bermondsey housewife, 'you have to work hard but it's the fresh air we go for'.
For Louis Heren, who grew up in Shadwell, East London, during the 1930s, holidays always meant Hastings. The fortnight was as much for the benefit of his widowed mother as her children. 'For 50 weeks of the year she ran the shop and took care of us but for two weeks she was determined to be free of Shadwell, if not of us'. The holiday held no surprises: 'our enjoyment was rather formalised... the fortnight always followed a fixed pattern'. Everyday the family left their boarding house at 9 in the morning and spent the day on the beach, sheltering in the tram shelters along the promenade if it was raining.
During the 1930s, the idea of more adventurous holidays began to take root. Organizations such as The Youth Hostelling Association and the Workers Travel Association encouraged people to go farther afield. For those who still liked the seaside, holiday camps offered something different and modern. In 1938 Billy Butlins opened a holiday camp at Clacton, intended to capitalize on the London market. After the war Butlins' business model was imitated by Fred Pontins, whose camp at Camber Sands in East Sussex opened in 1968 and became a particular favourite of Londoners. By this time aspirations had grown and summer holidays for many Londoners had started to mean going abroad by air rather than to the seaside by train.
Whilst new possibilities were enticing people out of London, home based 'hobbies' also grew in significance. In the 1930s London had 200 clubs for caged bird enthusiasts, 11,000 racing pigeon fanciers, 300 Anglers Clubs and 70 large garden societies. Londoners also played cards, took photographs, collected stamps, went on bicycle rides and undertook a host of other things individually or in groups. The most common form of home-based leisure at this time was 'listening in' to the radio. In time, watching the television and playing computer games also came to play a significant part in the way twentieth-century Londoners spent their spare time.
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