Children’s leisure in British slums – Joe Barrow

When thinking about the lives of children who lived in slum conditions, leisure time is not likely to be the first thing we might think of. Children born into these poor families who resided in slum dwellings were expected to work long hours in order to help pay towards rent and basic provisions. After the industrial revolution labourers were needed and there were always jobs available for children as they were cheap and easily controlled. This being said there were sometimes opportunities for these children to be children and be able to spend time playing and having fun with each other. The majority of leisure activities took place in the street, it being much safer at this time due to little traffic on the roads. The items used to play games or sports consisted of whatever could be found as there was very little money to be spent on luxuries such as toys.

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Boys playing in the East End, from ‘Wonderful London’, published 1926-27.[1]

This photograph depicts four children from the East End spending their free time playing football against a brick wall. As already mentioned, the game is being played in the street where a lot of leisure activity took place and the items being used to play are makeshift. The ball is likely to be a pig bladder haggled from the local butcher and stuffed with newspaper; the goalposts are just painted lines across a brick wall. This source was published during 1926 in a magazine entitled Wonderful London. Wonderful London was a set of 24 magazine issues that were released throughout the 1920s with articles that delved into and explored certain aspects of London life, areas of the capital and people who lived in London. As the magazine’s overall objective was to try and sell London and influence the reader’s perception of London positively, it is not surprising decided to use an image of children enjoying themselves.

Of course football was not the only game that was played during the leisure time. Other games that these children played included conkers, hide and seek, leapfrog and swinging on lamppost crossbars.[2] These games, like football, were all easy to play with little equipment and could involve a large number of children at the same time. Swinging on lamp post crossbars was a game where if children had some long string spare they would take it out and throw it over a lamppost creating a swing.

One reason that the children growing up in the slums experienced very little leisure time and instead spent a lot of time working was the fear of idleness. Those who defended the system of putting children into work at a young age looked at the benefits of discipline and how it prevented children from being idle and the evils that came with this.[3] This fear of idleness was a theme of the Victorian era especially with women as they were afraid that time spent doing nothing would lead them to immorality.


Children living in the slums improvise a lamppost and some rope as a swing.[4]

The Victorian era was the first time that children began to experience something that we would consider today as a modern childhood. As John Sommerville mentions, this shift was a result of the spreading idea that childhood was an important stage of the life-cycle, crucial to the development of both the individual and of society.[5] This idea of childhood was still only an ideal for many children growing up in the poorest of areas and without some education they would be forced to continue in the same paths as generation before them. This being said, the opportunity for some leisure and time to relax would have allowed some enjoyment into the day to day life of children living in the slums.

As well as playing games in the street another area of leisure for children in the slums was reading and literature. Even with education reform being slow, by the end of the nineteenth century nearly ninety per cent of children spent at least seven to eight years in school, leading to what critics called a golden age in children’s literature.[6] With the increase in children being able to read there was a market created for writing literature targeted towards a younger audience. Although in the slums the literacy rates were poorer than in other areas, and books were a luxury, there were some children who were able to read and learn to read through children’s books.

Overall, although there was very little time for the children living in the slum conditions to be able to enjoy leisure activities, there are examples of simple games that were played that are very similar to activities young children play today. This proves that although the poor children of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries spent a large amount of time working under strict discipline, they still had the same desire for leisure as children today.

Joe Barrow


[1] English Photographer, ‘Boys playing the East End’, Wonderful London, 1926-27.

[2] Various authors, ‘Join me in the 1900s’. Available online: Date accessed. 16 November 2015.

[3] Cunningham, Hugh, ‘Work and Poverty’. Available online: : Date accessed.13 November 2015.

[4] Martin, Paul/Getty, Children living in the slums improvise a lamppost and some rope as a swing, Candid Cockney, The Telegraph, Available online: Date accessed: 18 November 2015

[5]Sommerville.J.C, ‘Bibliographic Note: Toward a History of Childhood and Youth’, The Journal of interdisciplinary History 3.2 (1972), p.439.

[6] Gubar.Marah, ‘The Victorian Child, c.1837-1901’. Available online: Date accessed 16th November.