looking up at people on swing boats with a ferris wheel beyond and two bystanders watching at the hampstead fair
Historic photography

Old Photographs of England at Leisure

Take a look at some of our favourite holiday photos from the Historic England Archive.

Our leisure time is precious. Away from work and study, our leisure activities contribute to our happiness and wellbeing.

Historic religious festivals and the right to paid holidays have given us opportunities for fun, relaxation and the pursuit of hobbies.

When did people start to go on holidays?

Fixed holidays and regular leave from work were rare in the first decades following the invention of photography. It was not until 1871 that Bank Holidays were introduced in England, and only in the 20th century that the majority of workers could enjoy paid leave and weekends off.

The Collins Helter Skelters standing in St Giles' during the annual fair held at the beginning of September, with a large crowd gathered outside.
Oxford photographer Henry Taunt has captured masses of visitors to the annual St Giles’ Fair in his home town in 1907. A sign on a Collins Helter Skelter reads ‘Ladies Specially Invited’. © Historic England Archive CC49/00527.

Free time and disposable income supported the growth of the leisure industry. More people could now take part in the kinds of pursuits previously only available to the leisured classes.

As travel became more extensive, more significant numbers could travel further afield to enjoy the many beauty spots and places to have fun that England could offer. From local municipal parks to distant natural wonders, from simple pastimes to expensive hobbies, leisure activities have been a popular subject for amateur and professional photographers alike.

Socialising at Henley Royal Regatta

The Royal Regatta at Henley-on-Thames was established in 1839, gaining royal patronage in 1851.

A group of men and women take tea on a college barge overlooking the Henley Royal Regatta. The Regatta was established in 1839 and became very popular as a socal occasion, particularly after being patronised by royalty in 1851.
Oxford photographer Henry Taunt has captured a group of men and women take tea on a college barge overlooking the Henley Royal Regatta in 1897. © Historic England Archive CC71/00067.

Originally a local fair with amusements for the public, it evolved into a competitive rowing regatta and became one of several sporting events on the ‘social season’ calendar.

Cycling in Hyde Park

The bicycle’s invention in the early 19th century allowed new opportunities for travel, exercise and sport.

A general view of male and female cyclists in Hyde Park with spectators lining the route.
A view of male and female cyclists in Hyde Park with spectators lining the route, 1870/1900. © Historic England Archive CC97/01240.

The arrival of what became known as the ‘safety bicycle’ in the 1880s led to a cycling craze, and the bicycle became a symbol of female emancipation.

Exploring the countryside by bike

Tandem bicycles first appeared on the roads in the later years of the 19th century. They were popular up until the Second World War and made a revival in the 1960s.

A cyclist consults a document whilst his tandem is propped against the finger post at Mill Green, Broxted with the post mill in the background
A cyclist, with his tandem bicycle propped against a finger post, consults a document, 1930/1939. In the background is Broxted Windmill, which was built around 1815 and was demolished in 1953. © Historic England Archive AA81/00922.

Founded in 1971, the Tandem Club was set up to source replacement parts and advise on the upkeep of old tandems. It now has a worldwide membership of over 5,000.

Caravanning in Shropshire

The first purpose-built leisure caravan was made in 1885. Pulled by a pair of horses, it enabled the traveller to take their accommodation with them.

View from an elevated position of holiday caravans arranged in a field, surrounded by the rural landscape of the Bridgnorth district, Shropshire.
Taken from an elevated position, photographer John Gay has captured an array of caravans arranged in a field in the Shropshire countryside, 1953. © Historic England Archive AA079452

Leisure caravans towed by motor cars first appeared on the roads in 1919. After the Second World War, mass production techniques opened up caravanning to the masses, and around 1.5 million people now make regular caravan trips annually in the UK.

Bell ringing in Gloucestershire

The English parish church has for centuries been the focus of village life. Bells have been rung in churches since the Middle Ages, and associations of ringers can be traced to the early 17th century.

General View Showing Bell Ringers St Laurence's Church
A group of bell ringers pose for the camera at the parish church in the Cotswold village of Wyck Rissington, 1908. © Historic England Archive BB98/06017.

At one time fashionable with the aristocracy, bell-ringing later became a popular leisure pursuit, and a means for locals to earn additional income.

Bell ringing was a male preserve for a long time, but the Ladies Guild of Change Ringers was formed in 1912. A revival occurred in the 1950s following enforced silence during the Second World War.

Fishing in the Lake District

Considered a sport and a pastime, angling, or fishing with a rod and line, goes back many centuries.

General View Of Group Fishing
Three men and a boy sit and stand in a boat tethered at the edge of Derwent Water, or Derwentwater, in what is now the Lake District National Park, 1898. © Historic England Archive AA97/07476.

The earliest text in England on recreational fishing dates to the late 15th century. Its popularity grew in the 17th century after the Civil War. A whole industry for rods and tackle evolved in the following century.

Like many leisure pursuits, mass manufacturing and cheaper travel opened up river, lake and coastal fishing to greater numbers of enthusiasts.

Rambling in the Peak District

This photograph of three boys in the Peak District was probably taken in Dove Dale (or Dovedale).

A view of three boys wading across a river in a unidentified wooded valley in the Derbyshire Dales, with a dramatic hilly landscape in the distance.
The exact location of this 1959 photograph by John Gay is unknown, except that it is somewhere in the Derbyshire Dales, a popular destination for walkers and holidaymakers. © Historic England Archive AA069733.

A guidebook of 1891 described Dove Dale as ‘simply the most beautiful and harmonious blending of rock, wood and water within the limits of the four seas’.

Picnicking at Alexandra Palace

In 1873 the Alexandra Palace opened as ‘The Peoples’ Palace’, a recreation centre and visitor attraction for the people of north London. Unfortunately, this rival to the Crystal Palace was virtually destroyed by fire just two weeks later.

A view of Alexandra Palace with people picnicking in the foreground. The Palace was re-opened in 1875 after burning down in its first year in 1873. It contained concert halls, reading rooms and an exhibition hall.
Alexandra Palace was re-opened in 1875 after burning down in its first year in 1873. It contained concert halls, reading rooms and an exhibition hall. It was built to rival Crystal Palace but was never as popular. Photo 1873/1900. © Historic England Archive CC97/01485.

A replacement building opened two years after the fire, offering a theatre, music hall and later, a cinema.

From 1935 the BBC occupied part of the building. From here on 2 November 1936, the BBC introduced the first regular, high-definition, 405-line television service in the world.

Beating the bounds at Botley

This view across the Seacourt stream shows a group of behatted men and youths taking refreshment outside the George Inn in the Oxfordshire village of Botley.

View from Seacourt stream showing a group outside the Inn, Beating the Bounds - a traditional ceremony which evolved during the reign of Elizabeth I, and involves beating the parish boundary stones with willow sticks.
This 1892 view from the Seacourt stream shows a group outside the George Inn involved in Beating the Bounds – a traditional ceremony that evolved during the reign of Elizabeth I and involves beating parish boundary stones with willow sticks. © Historic England Archive CC97/02370.

The group has been Beating the Bounds – a traditional ceremony that evolved during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and involves beating parish boundary stones with willow sticks.

Note the policeman peering through one of the pub’s windows!

Swingboats at Hampstead Fair

Hampstead Heath’s elevated position north of London made it a fashionable destination because of its views and fresh air. It was popular with day-trippers, and by the early 19th century, it was considered one of the ‘lungs of the metropolis’.

Looking up at people on swing boats with a ferris wheel beyond and two bystanders watching at the Hampstead Fair
The fair at Hampstead Heath has been a popular working class attraction since the middle of the 19th century. It was a popular subject for the local photographer John Gay. Photo 1955/1965. © Historic England Archive AA072497.

Informal fairs were held, and in 1865 land was given for a fairground. Hampstead Heath Station and the Bank Holidays Act ensured that Hampstead Heath became a popular destination for working-class Londoners.

Known as ‘Appy Ampstead’, an estimated 200,000 visited on Easter Monday 1910.

‘The High Explosives’ Concert Troupe

Theatrical performances were an important morale booster for troops at home and abroad during the First World War. Works concert parties also gave workers on the ‘home front’ the opportunity to break the monotony of factory work and entertain colleagues.

The Cunard Shell Works' concert party, The High Explosives, in costume for a show
The Cunard Shell Works’ concert party, The High Explosives, pose in costume for a show, 1917. © Historic England Archive BL24001/126.

In 1917 the photography company Bedford Lemere and Co were commissioned to photograph the manufacturing of shells at the Cunard Shell Works in Bootle. It also recorded many other aspects of factory life, including this portrait of the factory concert party in costume.

Fancy dress at Hellidon

Professional photographer Sydney Newton gained permission to photograph the construction of the Great Central Railway.

General View Showing Woman In Leaf Costume Outside Unidentified House
This woman poses for photographer Sydney Newton wearing an unusual fancy-dress costume made of cabbage leaves. Photo 1896/1920. © Historic England Archive BB97/08307.

Newton was also interested in the life of the villages through which the railway passed. He recorded the streets and buildings and villagers at work and at leisure.

At Hellidon in Northamptonshire, he photographed several villagers attending a fancy dress party, including this extraordinary effort by a lady in a costume made of cabbage leaves.

Shooting on the Holkham Hall estate

Hunting game with guns in England dates back to the 16th century. The cost of guns and legal restrictions on who could hunt game meant that it was a pursuit for the few.

Robert Churchill, gunmaker and author of 'Game Shooting', demonstrating how to handle and load a pair of guns with the assistance of a second man acting as loader
Robert Churchill, gunmaker and author of ‘Game Shooting’, demonstrating how to handle and load a pair of guns with the assistance of a second man acting as loader, 1954/1955. © Historic England Archive AA067249.

Shooting became more popular as shotguns improved, but it remained a pursuit associated with shooting parties held on country estates.

This John Gay photograph records Robert Churchill, gunmaker and author of ‘Game Shooting’, demonstrating how to handle a pair of guns with the assistance of a loader.

Cruising on the Broads

The Broads are a network of rivers and lakes in Norfolk and Suffolk and have a status similar to National Parks.

General View Showing Couple At The Controls Of Water Craft Mary Bridget
Local photographer Hallam Ashley has photographed a couple in 1957 as they enjoy boating at Breydon Water, a stretch of estuary at the edge of the Norfolk Broads. © Historic England Archive AA99/02202.

Many of the lakes are artificial, having been peat extraction sites, some dating from the Middle Ages. They gradually filled as sea levels rose.

By the end of the 19th century, the Broads had become a popular destination for boating holidays, initially using small yachts and, from the 1930s, motor cruisers.

Strict speed restrictions are enforced for safety and help protect the riverbanks from erosion.

Ice skating in Richmond Park

Skating on ice has ancient origins, though ice skating as a leisure pursuit was introduced to England from the Netherlands in the 17th century.

A man and woman on skates helping two small children to walk on the ice on a pond or lake in Richmond Park in winter
A man and woman wearing ice skates help two small children on a frozen pond in Richmond Park. © Historic England Archive AA064376.

While bodies of frozen water were the obvious places to ice skate, an artificial ice rink, the London Glaciarium, opened in Chelsea in 1876.

The National Skating Association was established in Cambridge in 1879. It was the first national skating body in the world.

Paddling at Tower Beach

Hundreds of tons of sand were used to create Tower Beach on the River Thames foreshore. Sited adjacent to the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, the artificial beach was officially opened in 1934 by the Lieutenant of the Tower of London and King George V.

People sunbathing on Tower Beach and paddling in the River Thames.
Photographer Stanley Rawlings has captured families paddling, playing and resting in deck chairs at Tower Beach, adjacent to Tower Bridge on the River Thames. Photo 1945/1965. © Historic England Archive AA001195.

It was intended for the beach to be a waterside playground for the children of London. It offered safe paddling and even deckchair hire, like a small seaside resort.

Immensely popular before and after the Second World War, Tower Beach was eventually closed in 1971 amid concerns about pollution.

The Odeon Leicester Square

Opening on 2 November 1937 with ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’, the Odeon Leicester Square was built to be Odeon’s flagship cinema.

This John Maltby photograph records the Odeon cinema on its opening day,
This John Maltby photograph records the Odeon cinema on its opening day, 2 November 1937. © Historic England Archive BB87/0370.

Faced in black polished granite with its signature tower, the cinema was built in just seven months.

Its significance is still felt today as it continues to be the venue for world premieres and the annual Royal Film Performance.

The Historic England Archive
We hold an outstanding range of photographs, plans and drawings in our public archive, covering the historic environment of England. You can browse thousands of historic and modern photos here.

I'm the Engagement and Content Officer working in the Historic England Archive. My background is in architectural investigation and exhibitions of Archive collections.

1 comment on “Old Photographs of England at Leisure

  1. Great images, I’d like to nominate some of my favourites into a new section called “Camping (& Caravanning) in Crimdon”
    https://www.britainfromabove.org.uk/en/image/EAW002148
    https://www.britainfromabove.org.uk/en/image/EAW002149

    At a first glance the regimented lines of tents would make you think this was a military camp!
    But as it was 1946 I’m sure this campsite provided a real escape & contrast to the proceeding war years!
    A bit basic for modern family tastes.

    Taken from a comment on one of the images…
    “Crimdon Dene camp started sometime in 1946 with ex-army tents. The picture also shows round the side of the camp a small number of caravans…. In the 1950s the site was filled with Aluminium Altents. These had a table, four chairs and four bunks… were made of aluminium sheeting which made them hot in summer and cold in the winter.”

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