Primary History

Victorian Britain: Leisure

  • Outings and Treats

    At weekends, families might go to the park, and listen to a band. Crowds would gather round the bandstand to enjoy the music. Zoos were popular too. Children rode on elephants and camels, and watched the lions being fed. At Easter, there was Maypole dancing and a May Queen was chosen, and paraded through the streets. Poor children looked forward to treats such as day trips and picnics. These were often run by youth organizations such as the Band of Hope and the Boys' Brigade.

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  • Going to the Seaside

    Railways changed people's lives. Families went to the seaside for the day by train. People who could afford it took a week's summer holiday. Seaside towns such as Blackpool and Margate became popular resorts. Trippers and holidaymakers enjoyed things we still enjoy at the seaside today: ice cream, fish and chips, riding on donkeys, paddling and making sandcastles on the beach. In old photos you'll notice most people are wearing ordinary clothes, with trousers and skirts rolled up to keep dry.

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  • Travelling shows

    Funfairs and circuses travelled around the country. Funfairs had roundabouts (worked by steam engines), slides and swings, coconut shies, shooting galleries and sideshows with strongmen, fire-eaters, jugglers and fortune-tellers. Circuses put on shows in big tents, and often paraded into the town on arrival with the clowns, elephants, horses and camels. Children laughed at Punch and Judy, a one-man travelling puppet show.

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  • Theatre and Pantomime

    The Victorians loved theatre, and most towns had at least one theatre or music hall. At Christmas, lucky children were taken to the pantomime. This was often a lavish show with exciting special effects (lights, smoke, loud bangs, live animals). Poor children who could not afford a theatre seat might get a job in the pantomime as 'juvenile dancers' or 'crowds'. Children paid a penny to get into the cheap music halls, and came out whistling the latest popular song.

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Fun Facts
  • In 1837 London's biggest-ever fair was held for Queen Victoria's coronation. One of the attractions was a puppet 'peep-show', a box you peered into to watch moving puppets. The most popular scene was the funeral of Victoria's uncle, King William IV!

  • Fairground shows often featured 'bearded ladies', 'living skeletons' 'giants' and oddities such as the 'pig-faced woman' - which was a tame bear wearing a dress and a bonnet!

  • In the rat pit, people watched dogs chase and kill rats. London had more than 40 rat-pits, supplied with rats by the city rat-catchers.

  • In an 1859 pantomime of Jack and the Beanstalk, 12 actors dressed as the 12 months of the year played characters called Slippy, Drippy, Nippy, Showery, Flowery, Bowery. Hoppy, Croppy, Poppy, Wheezy, Sneezy and Freezy.

  • In the 1870s rich people sent their babies out with 'nanny' in one of the new 'perambulators' or 'prams'.

  • You had to be careful not to lose a smart-looking dog. Dog-stealers stole dogs, popped them into sacks, and then claimed a reward for 'finding' them.

  • Children enjoyed watching a 'one-man band'. He played several musical instruments, all at the same time.

  • In the summer, smart young men and well-off boys wore straw hats, known as 'boaters'.

  • Children and adults enjoyed learning the latest songs, often sung around the piano.

  • Popular adventure-story writers for young readers were R. M. Ballantyne (Coral Island), and Captain Marryat (The Children of the New Forest)

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Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

abacus
This was a wooden frame with beads on it. It was used to help children with counting sums.
agricultural gang
This was a group of workers in the countryside, doing jobs like weeding, sowing seeds, and harvesting crops. Often these gangs would include young children.
barrel organ
A musical instrument which was taken round the streets. It played music when the handle was turned. Often the owners of barrel organs had tame monkeys.
Band of Hope
Temperance organization which tried to stop people, especially children, from drinking alcohol.
boarding school
A school where children live during term time, coming home for the holidays.
Boys' Brigade
Youth organization started in 1883 in Glasgow.
British Empire
Countries ruled by Britain; later became the Commonwealth.
cane
Thin stick used by teachers to beat children who misbehaved.
census
This is the record of people living at a certain time. It records how many people there are, where people live, their age and what they do.
coal mine
A place where coal is dug from under the ground.
coal
Remains of prehistoric trees, burned in fires. In Victorian times, coal heated homes and provided steam power for machines, trains and ships.
contraception
Another term for birth control, or stopping unwanted pregnancies.
cotton
Comes from a plant. It is spun into thread then woven to make cloth.

E to G

dame school
A school run in her home by an elderly woman, known as a dame, where children were taught basic reading and writing.
diphtheria
Infectious throat disease that killed many children.
emigrated
To emigrate is to leave your own country to go and live in another.
empress
The female ruler of an empire, or the wife of an emperor.
factory
Building with machines for producing goods in large numbers.
factory commission
A group of men who travelled around Britain to investigate the working conditions of children in both factories and mines.
fire grate
The metal part of a fire and fireplace.
globe
A map of the world drawn on a sphere, useful in geography lessons.
governess
A woman who taught rich girls and young boys in their homes, as a paid, live-in servant.
grammar school
Boys' schools, started in the Middle Ages as an alternative to Church schools and giving free education to some boys.

H to L

hokey-pokey man
Icecream-seller, originally usually Italian.
hopscotch
A hopping game played in the street or playground.
hurdy-gurdy
A mechanical violin, played by a street musician.
industrial Revolution
The era of rapid and great change in industry and manufacturing with the growth of factories, beginning in the late 1700s.
ink well
A small pot for ink, used by school children.
logbook
Diary or record book of events.

M to O

magic lantern
A slide projector for showing pictures on a screen.
maypole
Tall pole with long ribbons, for dancing around on May Day.
moral
A lesson often in a story, about right and wrong.
music hall
Popular Victorian theatre with variety acts such as singers, dancers and comedians.
nanny
servant who cared for rich young children in their nursery at home.
nursery
A room or several rooms where rich children would play and sleep.
orphan
Child with no living parents.

P to S

parliament
Law-making body made up of elected Members of Parliament (MPs) and non-elected Lords.
piecer
A child who worked in a mill joining pieces of thread together.
population
The number of people in a country or city.
public schools
Fee-charging schools for children from richer families.
Punch and Judy show
A hand-puppet show which features Mr Punch and his wife Judy. Common at the seaside in Victorian times.
ragged school
A school for poor children in the early 19th century.
reformer
Person who seeks change for the better, to help others.
reign
The length of time a king or queen rules.
school board
A group of people who were responsible for the running of their local school after 1870.
scullery
Small room with a sink, for washing up.
shaft
Deep vertical hole leading down to the tunnels and underground workings of a coal mine.
slates
These were pieces of slate (like a flat stone), sometimes set inside a wooden frame, used for writing - with a special slate pencil. At the end of the lesson the slates were wiped clean with an old cloth.
smallpox
Disease causing fever and, in those who did not die from it, leaving 'pockmarks' on the skin.
steam engine
Engine driven by steam from water heated in a boiler, used to drive machinery.
slum
An area of bad housing, with poor hygiene and sanitation.
Sunday School
School to teach Christianity: the National Sunday School Union was founded in 1803.

T to Z

wages
Workers' pay.
wool
Comes from sheep. It is spun into thread then woven to make cloth.
workhouse
Place where people without means of support (usually the very poor, young and elderly) were sent to live; they got a food and a bed in return for work. Most Victorian towns had a workhouse.