The Victorians invented mass entertainment. As the nineteenth century’s growing industrialised class acquired the funds and the free time to pursue leisure activities, their every whim was satisfied by entrepreneurs building new venues for popular amusement. Contrary to their reputation as dour, buttoned-up prudes, the Victorians revelled in these newly created ‘palaces of pleasure’.
In his captivating book, Palaces of Pleasure, Lee Jackson charts the rise of well-known institutions such as gin palaces, music halls, seaside resorts and football clubs, as well as the more peculiar attractions of the pleasure garden and international exposition, ranging from parachuting monkeys and human zoos to theme park thrill rides. He explores how vibrant mass entertainment came to dominate leisure time and how the attempts of religious groups and secular improvers to curb ‘immorality’ in the pub, variety theatre and dance hall faltered in the face of commercial success.
Yale: How did your fascination with the Victorian era come about?
Lee Jackson: I think the earliest stirrings of my fascination with the Victorians were in watching, as a fairly young child, the TV costume dramas that the BBC used to show on Sunday afternoons in the 1970s/80s, particularly Dickens adaptations. Then I came across the RSC’s mammoth stage production of Nicholas Nickleby – performed over two nights! – and pestered my mum to take me to see it. It was quite astonishing and I would love for it to be revived; an absolutely monumental piece of theatre. When I later moved to London as a student, I found myself
living in Clerkenwell, getting to know the older parts of central London, and also reading Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Dickens. The Victorian city was all around me!
Yale: What was the most amusing discovery you made whilst researching for Palaces of Pleasure?
Lee Jackson: The best discovery was undoubtedly a list in the Alexandra Palace archives, which contained ongoing ideas by the ground’s manager about how to improve attendance at the failing venue. Some were very practical
but the likes of “A Rabbit Warren | An Alligator Pond”, “Exhibtn. Burglars Implements & means to outwit them, safe, weapons &c”, “Get Paintings by Princesses?”, “Find out about Water Shoes to float people across lake” and even “grow cucumbers & sell them, letting Public cut them” made me positively grin. The full list can be found here
https://catsmeatshop.blogspot.com/2017/08/victorian-monkey-tennis.html, a testimony to the difficulty of running a Victorian entertainment venue.
Yale: What draws you to focusing predominantly on London in your research?
Lee Jackson: London grew from a population of about 1 million to 5 million people during the nineteenth century, the largest city on earth and the heart of a vast empire. So there was an immense concentration of wealth, poverty, pollution, trade, entertainment – you name it! As a historian, therefore, you can look to London for an unparalleled wealth of archival and historic documentary material, not to mention what survives in the built environment. For all London’s rapid redevelopment in recent years, we’re still living in a very Victorian city. That said, I do venture
further afield in Palaces of Pleasures, particularly to the industrial north-west, not least for the development of Blackpool as the greatest Victorian sea-side resort, blessed with three piers, giant dance halls and the famous Pleasure Beach.
Yale: What does a day in the life of a Historian look like?
Lee Jackson: Typically with my books, I just spend hours and hours searching through online archives, reading books, and, for a bit of variety, visiting real-world archives! The thing that makes it a little more interesting for me is actually social media. I constantly share interesting snippets during my research via twitter (twitter.com/victorianlondon). This is partly because it’s nice to have some positive feedback during the process – a book can take 2-3 years to produce – but also because people taking an interest can lead to further unexpected connections and discoveries.
Yale: With lockdown easing up, what can we learn from the Victorians about how to spend our leisure time?
Lee Jackson: Well, one type of mass entertainment that sadly died out during the second half of the nineteenth century was the pleasure-garden. These were outdoor venues, only open during the summer, essentially landscaped parks and gardens that also hosted all sorts of live entertainment extravaganzas, from fireworks to circus performers, and, most of all, outdoor dancing late in the night. The popularity of music hall and the rise of the theme park, particularly with electric-powered rides, did much to kill off the pleasure-garden, but, as we try and live more outdoor lives, perhaps it’s time for a revival? All you need really is a brightly illuminated ‘dancing platform’ with sprung floors, built-in bar, and a Victorian sound system … i.e. a thirty or forty piece orchestra!
Lee Jackson is a well-known Victorianist and creator of the preeminent website on Victorian London (victorianlondon.org). He is the author of Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth and Walking Dickens’ London.