Gentlemen sit in the Shakespeare Tavern
A brief introduction to

Football, Beerhouses and Books: How Victorian Mill Workers Entertained Themselves

The lives of Victorian mill workers were far from easy. Fines, beatings, maiming and even death, were commonplace.

The lives of Victorian mill workers were far from easy. Fines, beatings, maiming and even death, were commonplace.

However, after a series of laws were passed, which aimed to improve the mill workers’ lives and reduce the working day, what did they do with their free time?

Here our Historic Environment Advice Assistant Apprentice, Emi Putnam, takes a closer look at the past times of Victorian mill workers.

1. The original Victorian staycation

The Hotel Metropole in Blackpool as viewed from the north shore with holidaymakers on the beach in the foreground
The Hotel Metropole in Blackpool as viewed from the north shore with holidaymakers on the beach in the foreground. It was built sometime during (or just after) the 1860s. A number of bathing huts are lined up on the beach for potential swimmers. Source: Historic England Archive. OP00485.

We all love that holiday feeling, getting to leave our working week behind for a well-deserved break. Mill workers were no different. Although they weren’t given annual leave like we are today, there was one time of the year when they could take some well-deserved rest.

The holiday was known as ‘Wakes Week’, and it was a time of year that mills shut down, allowing the mills to service machinery.

Thanks to the expansion of the railways, many mill workers opted for the seaside or local attractions, with the little money they’d saved throughout the year. It was within this period that the classic Victorian seaside holiday was created and embraced. Many of the seaside towns developed thanks to the number of mill workers visiting during ‘Wakes Week’, as a trip to the seaside provided affordable holidaying to the working classes like never before.

2. A drink with friends

Barmen and seated customers posed in a room at the Shakespeare Tavern
Barmen and seated customers posed in a room at the Shakespeare Tavern, more commonly known as Bragg’s Vaults or Bragg’s Wine Cellar, located beneath the Theatre Royal, Birmingham. Source: Historic England Archive. BB76/03299.

Taverns, Beerhouses, bars, pubs, whatever they’ve been called over the centuries, they’ve been a part of British society for hundreds of years. Many of us enjoy nothing more than grabbing a drink after work with friends, which is something many mill workers enjoyed too.

Beerhouses, where mill workers would have enjoyed a drink, would have been the territory of men (it was believed to be improper for women to drink in pubs until the 20th century). Many of its patrons would have sought the comfort of the beerhouse as a welcome alternative to poor housing. It is recorded that some mill workers in Manchester were crammed into windowless cellars with up to 15 in one room.

The beerhouses also offered the opportunity for entertainment. Activities included bowls, singing, or even concerts and small-scale theatrical performances, which women were permitted to attend.

However, some within society were concerned about the effect drinking was having on the workers within the mills. In a bid to improve behaviour, New Lanark Mills placed coloured markers at each mill worker’s work area to track their behaviour. These ranged from black for ‘bad’ behaviour to white for ‘good’ behaviour.

Some mill owners would fine or discipline workers for turning up drunk. In contrast, others took it upon themselves to create alternative establishments, building their own alcohol-free ‘clubs’.

3. The great outdoors

Postcard of the Corporation Park Fountain, Blackburn
Corporation Park Fountain, Blackburn, Lancashire. Source: Historic England Archive. PC09417.

Soaking up the sunshine and exploring green open spaces can do wonders for our health. This was an idea that was starting to take off in the Victorian period.

Some more philanthropic and socially minded members of society wanted to provide open spaces for everyone to benefit from. Corporation Park in Blackburn is one such example of this. Given the often dirty, overcrowded spaces around the mill, it was also in the mill owner’s interests to keep their workforce healthy. Some mill owners even created public parks of their own, such as Farnworth Park in Bolton and Roberts Park in Bradford.

Lister Park in Bradford originated from land sold to the Bradford Corporation, at a reduced rate, by the owner of Listers Mill, on the condition that they used it to build a public park.

Sir Titus Salt, the owner of Salt’s Mill, not only built a park for his mill workforce, but an entire town! He built Saltaire in Bradford, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This included a large park for workers to enjoy after a hard day’s work, alms-houses, a community centre, decent workers housing and its own reservoir.

4. The power of music

Photo of knickknacks on top of a piano
The Murrell Arms Public House, Yapton Road, Barnham, West Sussex. © Historic England Archive. DP064190.

‘Broadside ballads’ were a popular form of music in the Victorian period and would have been an everyday part of mill workers’ lives.

They were called broadsides as they were only one piece of paper, so they were cheap enough for the everyday worker to afford and keep up with the latest songs. They were a popular form of entertainment and were usually set to a well-known tune, so they were easy for people to learn and sing along to.

The ballads were also a quick and effective way of spreading news throughout the community. Whether political happenings, gruesome murders or big news stories, they helped create a form of Victorian ‘industrial folk music’.

The ballads also reflected the mill workers’ lives who wrote songs and poems about life in the mill, their work, and their experiences. “Poverty Knock” is one such example, about working with the noisy looms in the mill, reflecting the challenging working conditions: “up every morning at five, I wonder that we keep-alive”. These ballads and poems allow us a moving and sobering glimpse into the difficult daily toil at the mill.

5. Free time by the pool

Stained glass of a fish set in green tiles at Victoria Baths, Manchester
Stained glass set in tiles at Victoria Baths, Hathersage Road, Manchester. © Historic England Archive. DP065582.

Within the first half of the 19th century, the population of England doubled.

In the crowded inner cities of Victorian England, mill workers often lived in accommodation without the basic facilities we expect today. Social reformers at the time wanted to help tackle poverty by improving working and living conditions. The building of public baths was something many towns and cities adopted in response.

These buildings provided communal washing facilities and could often be highly decorative with many also including large bathing pools. These aren’t like the swimming pools we know today, but they did provide mill workers with a new space to spend free leisure time and have a bit of a ‘lark’.

One such example has recently been excavated from beneath a car park in Manchester. Mayfield Baths were some of the earliest public baths to open in the Manchester area. There were two large pools (men and women would be kept separate) and there were also laundry facilities. Having a sink, or clean clothes to wear is something we might take for granted today, but this would have been a new and welcome change to many mill workers.

6. Fancy a kickabout? 

A group portrait of a late Victorian football team, dressed in their kit. The central man holds a leather football
A group portrait of a late Victorian football team, dressed in their kit. The gentleman in the centre is holding the leather football. Source: Historic England Archive. HT00350.

Football has been played in England for centuries, first being referred to in the medieval period, but not as the game we know today.

There were no standardised rules for football until the 19th century. Teams could often consist of whole villages playing against each other, sometimes ending in violent skirmishes. This alarmed those in power, and between 1314-1667, over 30 laws were passed to stop the playing of football. From Edward II to Cromwell, concerns ranged from football breaching the peace, being used as a cover for plotting political unrest and distracting people from practising their archery! 

Just as many of us enjoy a game of football today, mill and factory workers in Victorian England were no different. Sport was encouraged to help improve the nation’s physical fitness. For those living within industrial centres, having a kickabout with friends was an excellent way to keep fit.

It wasn’t until 1863 that the Football Association was established, which saw the evolution towards a more standardised game. Football had been the reserve of public schools and the upper classes for many years, but it was growing in popularity throughout all of society. Many football teams still surviving today owe their beginnings to the industrial workers from mills, factories and railways of England’s growing towns and cities.

7. Lose yourself in a good book

Exterior view of Quarry Bank Mill, Styal. The wall is lined with windows and covered in ivy.
Exterior perspective view of the Quarry Bank Mill in Styal showing the window arrangement. © Historic England Archive. AA98/04444.

Reading is a pastime many of us take great pleasure in, but for many mill workers within the Victorian period, access to books or even the ability to read would have been a luxury.

Robert Owen, a social reformer and mill owner, was a big believer in improving the lives of his workers. He was one of the leading campaigners for mass education, shorter working days and an age restriction on employability of children – all of which were included in The Factory Act 1819.

Even before the 1819 Act was passed, Owen used his own mills in New Lanark to set an example of how mill owners could improve their workers’ lives. Fellow mill owners, ambassadors and even royalty visited to see the example set by Owen. The school he set up used the hall for lectures and performances, music and dancing for workers and even held evening classes for the adult workforce.

The owners of Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire, the Greg family, also actively encouraged literacy within the workforce. Wanting to give their employees a place to socialise away from the temptations of drink, they established the Styal Club Room. This offered various entertainment from lectures to theatrical performances. Most importantly, it had a well-stocked library, which was a great success among the mill workers.

Thanks to the push for greater education in the 19th century, the books were enjoyed by all the workforce, including women and children, who were welcome to use the library. However, they were not allowed to be members of the club itself.

Find out more about our Mills of the North project here.

Further reading

6 comments on “Football, Beerhouses and Books: How Victorian Mill Workers Entertained Themselves

  1. An excellent summary of an interesting and complex period of Victorian history, with good and well-annotated illustrations. Nicely done – thank you!

  2. Patrick Powers

    Excellent and at long last we have someone who can represent those years as they were. Very few mill owners were like those fictional ones in Dickens (1812-1870). My Grandmother (1864 – 1938) was a ‘runner’ in a mill in Blackburn and was sad to leave the mill when she married. She had a very happy times there as did many others. Corporation Park was very popular and even in my day we still referred to Wakes Week. Some strange people might like to make out that the mills were ‘dark and satanic’ for their own purposes but in reality very few were.

  3. Crispin Edwards

    The photo of the Metropole was probably taken from the north pier. Sending picture postcards in the mail became legal in 1894, when the Metropole was still ‘Bailey’s Hotel’. By 1900 it had become the Metropole and just reopened after a year’s refurbishment – the photos probably dates from around 1900. In 1912 a covered colonnade was created beneath what’s now the metropole’s car park, and the south-shore sea defences of 1905 were linked to the north-shore defences of the 1890s. This is when the seafront here was extended outwards, covering this beach. A garden was created that later became the site of the war memorial. The war memorial now stands almost exactly where the horses are in the picture, but at promenade level.

  4. Crispin Edwards

    The Victorian expansion largely eclipsed Blackpool’s c1750 origins as one of Britain’s earliest sea-bathing resorts, and its unusual emergence as a destination for working class visitors as early as the 1760s. In 1813 Richard Ayton recorded ‘crowds of poor people from the manufacturing towns, who have a high opinion of the efficacy of bathing, maintaining that in the months of August and September there is physic in the sea’. They had mostly travelled by cart, but some probably on foot from Preston, Bolton, Wigan and possibly even Manchester. They stayed for 3 or 4 days, in shared lodgings, for 9p a day. See English Heritage’s book ‘Blackpool’s Seaside Heritage’, by Allan Brodie and Matthew Whitfield, 2014.

  5. thakns alot of information

  6. Peter Fisher

    The rules of modern football were written in the Adelphi Hotel Sheffield. The oldest team in the world is Sheffield FC formed in 1860.

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