England at Leisure

Our leisure time is precious. Away from the world of work and study we use our leisure time to improve our happiness and well-being. Historic religious festivals and the right to paid holidays have given us opportunities for fun, relaxation and the pursuit of hobbies. This exhibit showcases photographs from the Historic England Archive that record England at Leisure.  

The Collins Helter Skelters at St Giles' Fair, Oxford, Oxfordshire (1907) by Henry W TauntHistoric England

England at Leisure

Fixed holidays and regular leave from work were rare in the first decades following the invention of photography. It was not until 1871 that Bank Holidays were introduced and only in the 20th century that paid leave and weekends off could be enjoyed by the majority of workers. Working hand-in-hand, free time and disposable income have supported the growth of the leisure industry, enabling more people to take part in the kinds of pursuits that were formerly only available to the leisured classes. As the means of travel became more extensive, greater numbers could travel further afield to enjoy the many places of beauty and fun that England could offer. From local municipal parks to distant natural wonders, from simple pastimes to expensive hobbies, leisure activities have been a popular subject for amateur and professional photographers alike. Here we present some of our favourites from the many thousands held at the Historic England Archive.  

A Group at Henley Royal Regatta, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire (1897) by Henry W TauntHistoric England

Socialising at Henley Royal Regatta

The Royal Regatta at Henley-on-Thames was established in 1839, gaining royal patronage in 1851.

Originally a local fair with amusements for the public, it evolved into a competitive rowing regatta and became one of several sporting events on the calendar of the 'social season'.

Cyclists, Hyde Park, City of Westminster, Greater London (1870/1900) by York & SonHistoric England

Cycling in Hyde Park

The invention of the bicycle in the early 19th century allowed new opportunities for travel, exercise and sport.

The arrival of what became known as the 'safety bicycle' in the 1880s led to a cycling craze, and the bicycle became a symbol of female emancipation.

A tandem cyclist at Broxted Windmill, Broxted, Essex (1930/1939) by Herbert Edward Sidney SimmonsHistoric England

Exploring the countryside by bike

Tandem bicycles first appeared on the roads in the later years of the 19th century. They were popular up until the Second World War and made a revival in the 1960s.

Founded in 1971, the Tandem Club was set up to obtain parts and to give advise on the upkeep of old tandems. It now has a worldwide membership of over 5,000.

Holiday caravans in a field near Bridgnorth, Shropshire (1953) by John GayHistoric England

Caravanning in Shropshire

The first, purpose-built leisure caravan was made in 1885. Pulled by a pair of horses, it enabled the traveller to take their accommodation with them.

Leisure caravans towed by motor cars first appeared on the roads in 1919. Mass production techniques after the Second World War opened up caravanning to the masses and around 1.5 million people now make regular caravan trips annually in the UK.

Bell ringers at the Church of St Lawrence, Wyck Rissington, Gloucestershire (1908) by Alfred Newton & SonHistoric England

Bell ringing in Gloucestershire

The English parish church has for centuries been the focus of village life. Bells have been rung in churches since the Middle Ages and associations of ringers can be traced to the early 17th century.

At one time fashionable with the aristocracy, bell ringing became a popular leisure pursuit as well as a means for locals to earn additional income. For a long time a male preserve, the Ladies Guild of Change Ringers was formed in 1912, and a revival occurred in the 1950s following enforced silence during the Second World War.

Fishing at Derwent Water, Above Derwent, Cumbria (1898) by Alfred Newton & SonHistoric England

Fishing in the Lake District

Considered a sport and a pastime, angling, or fishing with a rod and line, goes back many centuries.

The earliest text in England on recreational fishing dates to the late 15th century. Its popularity grew in the 17th century after the Civil War, and a whole industry for rods and tackle evolved in the following century.

Like many leisure pursuits, mass manufacturing and cheaper travel opened up river, lake and coastal fishing to greater numbers of enthusiasts.

Three boys wading across a river in the Derbyshire Dales, Derbyshire (1959) by John GayHistoric England

Rambling in the Peak District

This photograph of three boys in the Peak District was probably taken in Dove Dale (or Dovedale).

A guidebook of 1891 described Dove Dale as 'simply the most beautiful and harmonious blending of rock, wood and water within the limits of the four seas'.

Picnicking at Alexandra Palace, Haringey, Greater London (1873/1900) by York & SonHistoric England

Picnicking at Alexandra Palace

In 1873 the Alexandra Palace opened as 'The Peoples' Palace', a recreation centre and visitor attraction for the people of north London. Unfortunately, this rival to the Crystal Palace was virtually destroyed by fire just two weeks later.

A replacement building opened two years after the fire, offering theatre, music hall and later, cinema.

From 1935 the BBC occupied part of the building and it was from here on 2 November 1936 the BBC introduced the first, regular, high-definition, 405-line television service in the world.

The George Inn, Botley, North Hinksey, Oxfordshire (1873/1900) by Henry W TauntHistoric England

Beating the bounds at Botley

This view across the Seacourt stream shows a group of behatted men and youths taking refreshment outside the George Inn in the Oxfordshire village of Botley.

The group has been Beating the Bounds - a traditional ceremony that evolved during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and involves beating parish boundary stones with willow sticks.

Note the policeman peering through one of the pub's windows!

Swing boats at Hampstead Fair, Hampstead Heath, Camden, Greater London (1955/1965) by John GayHistoric England

Swingboats at Hampstead Fair

Hampstead Heath's elevated position north of London made it a fashionable destination because of its views and fresh air. It was popular with day trippers and by the early 19th century was considered to be one of the 'lungs of the metropolis'.

Informal fairs were held and in 1865 land was given for a fair ground. Hampstead Heath Station and the Bank Holidays Act ensured that Hampstead Heath became a popular destination for working class Londoners.

Known as 'Appy Ampstead', an estimated 200,000 visited on Easter Monday 1910.

The High Explosives, Cunard Shell Works, Rimrose Road, Bootle, Sefton (1917-08-01/1917-09-30) by Henry Bedford Lemere, Bedford Lemere & CoHistoric England

'The High Explosives' Concert Troupe

Theatrical performances were an important morale-booster for troops at home and abroad during the First World War. Works concert parties also gave workers on the 'home front' the opportunity to break the monotony of factory work and to give entertainment to colleagues.

In 1917 the photography company Bedford Lemere & Co were commissioned to photograph the manufacturing of shells at the Cunard Shell Works in Bootle. It also recorded many other aspects of factory life, including this portrait of the factory concert party in costume.

A lady in costume outside the School House in Hellidon, Northamptonshire (1896/1920) by Sydney W Newton, Alfred Newton & SonHistoric England

Fancy dress at Hellidon

Professional photographer Sydney Newton gained permission to photograph the construction of the Great Central Railway.

Newton was also interested in the life of the villages through which the railway passed, recording the streets and buildings, and villagers at work and at leisure.

At Hellidon in Northamptonshire he photographed a number of villagers attending a fancy dress party, including this extraordinary effort by a lady in a costume made of cabbage leaves.

Shooting on the Holkham Hall Estate, Holkham, Norfolk (1954/1955) by John GayHistoric England

Shooting on the Holkham Hall estate

Hunting game with guns in England dates back to the 16th century. The cost of guns and legal restrictions as to who could hunt game meant that it was a pursuit for the few.

Shooting became more popular as shotguns improved but it remained a gentlemanly pursuit, often associated with shooting parties held on country estates.

This John Gay photograph records Robert Churchill, gunmaker and author of 'Game Shooting', demonstrating how to handle a pair of guns with the assistance of a loader.

A couple at the controls of the craft 'Mary Bridget', Breydon Water, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk (1957-05-12) by Hallam AshleyHistoric England

Cruising on the Broads

The Broads are a network of rivers and lakes in Norfolk and Suffolk, and have a status similar to that of National Parks.

Many of the lakes are artificial, having been sites of peat extraction, some dating from the Middle Ages. They gradually filled as sea levels rose.

By the end of the 19th century the Broads had become a popular destination for boating holidays, initially using small yachts and from the 1930s motor cruisers.

Strict speed restrictions are enforced for safety and to help protect the riverbanks from erosion.

Ice skating at Richmond Park, Richmond upon Thames, Greater London (1962-01/1964-05) by John GayHistoric England

Ice skating in Richmond Park

Skating on ice has ancient origins, though ice skating as a leisure pursuit was introduced to England from the Netherlands in the 17th century.

While bodies of frozen water were the obvious places to ice skate, an artificial ice rink, the London Glaciarium, opened in Chelsea in 1876.

The National Skating Association was established in Cambridge in 1879. It was the first national skating body in the world.

Tower Beach, Tower Hamlets, Greater London (1945/1965) by Stanley W RawlingsHistoric England

Paddling at Tower Beach

Hundreds of tons of sand were used to create Tower Beach on the River Thames foreshore. Sited adjacent to the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, the artificial beach was officially opened in 1934 by the Lieutenant of the Tower of London and King George V.

It was intended for the beach to be a waterside playground for the children of London. Like a small seaside resort, it offered safe paddling and even deckchair hire.

Immensely popular before and after the Second World War, Tower Beach was eventually closed in 1971 amid concerns about pollution.

Odeon cinema, Leicester Square, Westminster, Greater London (1937-11-02) by John MaltbyHistoric England

The Odeon Leicester Square

Opening on 2 November 1937 with 'The Prisoner of Zenda', the Odeon Leicester Square was built to be Odeon's flagship cinema.

Faced in black polished granite and with its signature tower, the cinema was constructed in only seven months.

It's significance is still felt today as it continues to be the venue for world premiers and the annual Royal Film Performance.

Credits: Story

Historic England is the public body that helps people care for, enjoy and celebrate England's spectacular historic environment, from beaches and battlefields to parks and pie shops.

Discover the Historic England Archive.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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