Working-class leisure and Four Nations History: A study of regional societies in Edwardian Portsmouth

Working-class leisure and Four Nations History: A study of regional societies in Edwardian Portsmouth

Dr Melanie Basset (University of Portsmouth) focuses on working-class male leisure and shows that the concept of ‘nationhood’ was situational and contingent.

“Every Thursday these Caledonians foregather and by means of essay and lecture, song and story keep their accent “pairfect” and their patriotism in a proper pitch.”

– Evening News, 17 March 1899

Understanding the role of subjectivity undoubtedly plays an important part in establishing the motivations for different types of historical agency. Indeed, when researching working-class male leisure a Four Nations Approach can help to measure responses to notions of geographical and jurisdictional boundaries, patriotism, and personal and collective mentalities.

My research on the leisure activities of the Royal Dockyard Worker in Portsmouth during the period of 1890 to 1918 has highlighted how important a ‘sense of place’ was in creating meaning and identity. Indeed, there have been some useful posts promoting the importance of regionalism [for example, by Daryl Leeworthy and Joe Curran], which show that a Four Nations Approach can pose some limitations to such studies. However, taking the role of regional societies in Portsmouth during the turn of the twentieth century as a case study, we can begin to trace how groups injected meaning into wider societal frameworks which encompassed both national and regional concepts of belonging. Moreover, we can see how they were used by working-class males to ground themselves within an insecure industrial landscape. Importantly, this post will argue that clubs and societies were often used as a tool to legitimise claims to citizenship, collective security and recreational privileges rather than as consistent concepts or mere signifiers of blind and unquestioning regional or national pride, as the quote from Portsmouth’s local press above may suggest.

Indeed, the expansion of the franchise in Great Britain in the previous century assured that working-class associational culture broadened out during the Edwardian era to encompass wider notions of respectability and collective security such as the affiliated friendly society movement and trade unionism.[1] The growth of conviviality and mutuality across regions shows that in the Edwardian era more national, and transnational, forms of associational culture were beginning to impact on the lives of the British public in provincial towns.

The largest industrial workforce in Portsmouth during this time were those employed in the Royal Naval Dockyard.  For the Royal Dockyard worker, whose culture was based on status-ridden artisanal principles, the era marked an amalgamation of traditional forms of collective security with these new transnational societies in order to ensure resilience in the modern industrial era. Local forms of socialisation and citizenship remained important to this goal, and while many Royal Dockyard workers were anxious to insert themselves into civic life, it was on their own terms.

The expansion of operations in Portsmouth Dockyard during the latter-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries catalysed the influx of migrant workers to the town. These societies represented the needs of these men to preserve their regional identities and bond with those who had similar life experiences to them. This was important as, in the Dockyard ‘Established’ men (who were employed on a permanent basis in the Royal Dockyards) could be sent to other Royal Dockyards at home and throughout the rest of the British Empire. Moreover, due to the hiring system, non-permanent skilled workers would travel the country in search of work. Therefore, the need for these men to find similarities and common ground and to quickly make connections in a new town was vital. 

Regional societies rapidly grew in Portsmouth during the Edwardian period; many of which could be directly associated with shipbuilding or engineering trades throughout the country. This is illustrated most notably, by the presence of Devonian, Cornish, Pembrokeshire and Kentish societies, which would have had members who had been employed in the country’s other Royal Dockyards. These societies promoted social mixing between classes (and sexes, although membership was only permitted through marriage) and legitimised wider forms of leisure for working-class men. Through seasonal programmes of dinners, dances, lectures, outings and sports tournaments they presented its members with opportunities to access a wide range of leisure activities and participate in friendly rivalry by associating with other local clubs and societies.

However, when seeking a Four Nations model, it can be seen that national and regional patriotism was contingent upon where these societies were based and the availability of members. Thus “Englishness” was fractured into county-wide groupings in this southern English setting, whereas Scottish, Welsh and Irish identities were formulated slightly differently. For example, Englishness could be represented through regional delicacies such as ‘Devonshire cream teas’ or ‘Lancashire Hotpots’ and juxtaposed with loyal toasts to the King or celebration of regional national heroes such as General Buller, who was celebrated as “Devon’s greatest soldier.”[2] However, ‘Scottishness’ was contrived from a wider, catchment of membership to a ‘Caledonian’ Society where wearing kilts, traditional dancing and playing Highland Games were a highlight of outings, and national heroes such as R. L. Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott were celebrated in lectures. Interestingly, Welsh societies were able to represent both nationalism and regionalism with societies for ‘Cambrians’ in addition to a more specific Pembrokeshire Society, which would have been heavily populated by migrant workers from Pembroke’s Royal Dockyard. Evidence of societal activity for Irish migrants in Portsmouth can be seen with the Killarney Society and also the Portsmouth District of the Loyal Orange Institution of England; showing that for Ireland socialisation was structured along denominational lines.

What can be seen using the example of various regional societies in the south of England is that working-class males used tropes of regional and national identity in their recreational time in order to strengthen and maintain connections in the industrial era. For the migrant workers of Portsmouth membership to regional societies aided the transition across geographical boundaries and situated them within a context of ‘home’ and belonging. Moreover, these societies were established in order to ensure collective security and, within this framework, for the members to promote themselves and make useful connections.

Therefore, using a Four Nations Approach on historical subjects, we can see that the concept of ‘nationhood’ was situational and contingent. Although wider – and more rigid – concepts of nationhood, citizenship and ‘subjecthood’ existed, nationalism and regionalism could be used by historical agents as floating and fluid concepts which were then adopted and manipulated to serve the aims and objectives of their users.

[1] Geoffrey Crossick, An Artisan Elite in Victorian Society, Kentish London 1840-1880, (London: Croom Helm, 1978), 193; Simon Cordery, British Friendly Societies, 1750-1914, (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003), 10; Daniel Weinbren, The Oddfellows 1810-2010. Two Hundred Years of Making Friends and Helping People, (Lancaster: Carnegie, 2010), 72.

[2]EN, 9 February 1906.

Dr Melanie Bassett teaches at the University of Portsmouth. Her thesis, entitled ‘The Royal Dockyard Worker in Edwardian England: Culture, Leisure and Empire’ challenged the idea of an overarching, monolithic approach to British Imperial History and demonstrated how concepts of imperialism manifested themselves in the everyday lives of the British public during the height of the British Empire. She is a member of the Port Towns and Urban Cultures group and a committee member of the BSSH South Sport and Leisure History Network. Twitter: @melanie_bassett


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