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  • Time, Work and Leisure: Life Changes in England since 1700 by Hugh Cunningham
  • Jaimie Bronstein
Hugh Cunningham, Time, Work and Leisure: Life Changes in England since 1700 (Manchester: Manchester University Press 2014)

One of the first scholars of the history of leisure, Hugh Cunningham has returned to the topic in order to correct three deficiencies in the existing literature: concentration on the 18th and 19th centuries to the exclusion of the 20th, neglect of women, and a focus on leisure rather than time use. As Cunningham explains in his introduction, the first generation of leisure historians, observing the world around them and noticing that automation was shrinking the workweek, were concerned with the “problem of leisure”: how would people ever adapt to an ever-growing pool of free time? Since those original studies people are, if anything, working longer, harder, and more contingently than ever before – a situation that has led historians to reconfigure the historical problem as one of work-life balance.

In the preindustrial period, Cunningham argues, time was governed by nature. A series of overlapping religious, civic, and legal calendars structured the year. An overarching eternal “God’s time” imposed certain expectations on [End Page 274] Protestants, and a sense of the ages of man determined a common life course for all classes. The availability of light, in turn, structured each day. People who could afford light at night could follow a distinctive sleep pattern, with two periods of sleep with a break in the middle, used for study, prayer, sex, or committing crimes. Darkness created danger, limiting evening events to full moon nights until the development of oil lamps and then gaslight extended leisure opportunities in towns. Over the course of the 18th century, schools introduced bells and clocks, which soon became ubiquitous.

Cunningham shows that at the beginning of his chosen period, a twelve-hour workday was the norm, with Saturday a full workday, Monday often a holiday, and Sunday reserved for religion. Much has been made of the backward-sloping labour supply curve, another way of saying that, after having earned enough money to pursue recreation, workers would stop working. Cunningham argues, convincingly, that this is an incomplete picture. The working year could be uneven, many jobs were casual, and work available only intermittently. Artisans had more control over their time than did apprentices, domestic servants, or working-class women, whose only form of “leisure” appeared to involve switching between household tasks (this was a remarkably durable feature of women’s lives, continuing into the present). Cunningham argues that, far from working longer in order to take part in a “consumer revolution” at the end of the 18th century, working-class Britons were forced to step up their labour-force participation to keep up with rising prices for necessities. The imposition of time-discipline in factories is well-known, but as Cunningham shows, coal miners and agricultural labourers were also subject to new determination on the part of employers to standardize the workday and curb worker absenteeism.

Factory discipline coincided with a sort of leisure discipline – the attempt to impose “rational recreation,” particularly on working people. In towns and cities across Britain, local agitators, including members of the “respectable” working classes, argued for Sunday closings and for an end to such immoral traditional entertainments as dog-racing, bear-baiting, and football games. Working men and boys lost the space for outdoor activities to commercial and residential development, while experiencing expanding opportunities for spectator sports and circuses. At the same time, activities that required or involved more money, like cricket and horse racing, prospered. By mid-century, Cunningham shows, some groups perceived the end of traditional fairs and leisure activities as a loss, and called for a revival of older customs to knit together increasingly divided classes.

Between 1830 and 1970, Britons experienced a decrease in work hours. Child workers represented the thin edge of the legislative wedge. Although Cunningham emphasizes that Romantic notions of childhood motivated the first attempts to restrict child labour, this Romanticism was pragmatic, as half-time work for children continued until 1918. At every step of this slow and incremental process, popular agitation was central; by the...


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pp. 274-276
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