Consuming Passions, by Judith Flanders

How Brits got hooked on sport, shows and shops
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Do you wish to know how bazaars developed into department stores, how Sporting Life began life, when WH Smith became a bookseller or where the first music halls opened? Threescore fairs in and around London, suppressed between 1750-1850, were replaced by day-trips and Cook's tours. By the 1870s a knitted all-in-one swimsuit was worn by men, while for a dip women donned blouse, knee-length jacket, short skirt, trousers and bonnet. Limelight, which transformed the theatre, was produced by adding oxygen from heated manganese dioxide to a calcium-burning hydrogen flame.

This is a fat book for a fact-filled text, which swings from the wide-ranging to the closely-focused: the hire-purchase of pianos, a diorama of the blazing Houses of Parliament, hippodrama performances, the reinvention of Christmas carols. The past is both foreign and familiar: celebrity, spectacle and scams have been around for at least three centuries. Next-new-thing consumerism, which got going in the Georgian era, took off in the Victorian years, fuelled first by commerce and colonies, then by population increase, especially by the expanded middle-class: the new shoppers, travellers, audiences and readers.

Judith Flanders is light on socio-economic history, and her subtitle, "Leisure and pleasure in Victorian Britain", is misleading: her period runs from the early 1700s to 1909. But Consuming Passions organises its material efficiently, concentrating on the means of production and promotion to outflank the magpie nature of compilation. Though there are inevitable longueurs, there is also something for almost everyone, including an account of the 1857 Art Treasures exhibition, to be commemorated in Manchester next year, and the early history of the Football Association - though, sadly, no account of the first women's match in 1893 between North and South, before a jeering crowd of 10,000. Religion is ignored, presumably not "leisure" despite its variety, excursions and entertainments. Surprisingly, poetry's popularity, manifested in Tennyson's Hello!-style fame, is unmentioned. Walking one night with Rossetti, he expressed a desire to enter the Holborn Casino, a fashionable nightclub, and then drew back, for fear of being spotted by a "newspaper man".

The twin peaks of High Victorian pleasure were surely the summer seaside and the winter pantomime, with its ballets, scenic wonders and special effects. Indeed, the theatre was a site of supreme delight thanks to sumptuous backdrops designed by successful artists, huge casts including live elephants, and elaborate stage machinery. "As a rule," wrote one observer, "the playgoers of today want to see and not to think."

The key product was melodrama, lavishly larded with musical burlesques, topical allusions and astonishments - ghosts, waterfalls, thunderclaps, conflagrations. Two symbols of the age came together in one railway drama, where the opening stage thronged with passengers, porters, fruit-sellers, shoeblacks and train crews, while in the final scene the hero lay unconscious on the track with the heroine imprisoned behind bars. The whistling loco draws near, just as she breaks free and rescues her lover, seconds before the "real" engine passes with a roar.

Flanders pays tribute to Richard Altick's invaluable Shows of London but not AN Wilson's The Victorians, which her equally patchwork book complements, nor to Lee Jackson's wonderful website The Victorian Dictionary. She does, however, range further than London, particularly with regard to railways, newspapers, libraries, cycling and tourism. Cook's first tour ran from Leicester to Liverpool, via Snowdonia, followed by a Scottish round-trip of 800 miles, for just one guinea. On Iona, Cook solicited donations from his travellers to alleviate the islanders' poverty. France and Switzerland were soon also on offer, prompting objections to all those "ill-bred, offensive and loathsome" tourists from snobs like Francis Kilvert.

"It is too late in this day of progress to talk such exclusive nonsense," rejoined Cook robustly. "God's earth, with all its fullness and beauty, is for the people; and railroads and steamboats are the result of the common light of science, and are for the people also." A century before, we read, the British Museum was financed by a public lottery. In so many ways the past world is reminiscent of the present.

Jan Marsh's 'Black Victorians' is published by Lund, Humphries