‘Time, Work and Leisure: Life Changes in England since 1700’ reviewed by Jonathan Martineau

Time, Work and Leisure: Life Changes in England since 1700

Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 2014. 240pp., £65 hb
ISBN 9780719085208

Reviewed by Jonathan Martineau

About the reviewer

Jonathan Martineau (PhD, York, 2012) teaches the history of philosophy at Concordia University and …


Hugh Cunningham’s latest book provides a detailed and rich account of the modern experience of time in England, approaching time as a social phenomenon traversed and shaped by class and gender relations, and time regimes (which can be defined as more or less institutionalized public conceptions and practices of time) as shaped by collective agencies, cultural narratives, economic development and technological change. Framed as an intervention on the topic of the history of time experience, the book can also be considered as a contribution to social history, as well as labour studies, with a sharp focus on the development of the relationship between work and leisure in England from the 17th to the 20th century. This is not Cunningham’s first exploration of these themes. Although he is mostly known for his path-breaking contributions to the history of childhood in the West, he had indeed participated in the output of studies on leisure in the 1970s and 1980s with a monograph on leisure during the Industrial Revolution. This new contribution seeks to address this literature’s limited engagement with three important aspects of the topic: women’s experience of time, the period after 1918, and time-use around leisure itself. These two areas of expertise, leisure and childhood, provide Cunningham with key points of entry in the topic of the experience of time, especially with regard to the economic and cultural forces that shape it.

The first pieces of the puzzle are put in place in a good but somehow short first chapter on time in the 18th century, where the religious, natural and technological time markers of the period are discussed. This chapter does not strike one as presenting novelties or fresh perspectives, but does provide a good summary of pertinent literature. As is the case elsewhere in classic contributions such as Max Weber’s or E.P. Thompson’s, Cunningham focuses on the internalization of a sense of time as the key process for this period. However, his detailed and rich account of the many sources of time sense, from almanacs to varied types of calendars for example, might nuance the idea that modern time sense would be infinitely more complex than previous ones, and suggests to the reader that pre-modern senses of time were also manifold and plural, and not simply naïve or underdeveloped as many have suggested. The author adds some interesting arguments to the classical Weberian discussion of religious attitudes to time-use to show how even as time becomes conceived as a reified resource, religious sources tend to demonstrate that for religious men, the time one devotes to God is still seen as more important than work time, and that the conflation between the two has its limits. Importantly for Cunningham, class lines traverse time-use and time allocation, as seen in class-differentiated leisure calendars at the time. The author also examines key shifts in time-experience in the period, for example in the rescheduling of certain activities such as dinner later during the day, or the reorganisation of sleep from the “two-sleep” model to one continuous sleep period, as products of improved lighting. The diffusion of clocks and watches is seen as key in this process of an internalization of sense of time, especially through schools, however the account of the spread of clocks would have benefited from further enquiries into the specificities of clocks as forms of abstract time, and connections between this process of diffusion and others such as the commodification of labour and the spread of capitalist markets in key sectors.

The book then shifts to its main topic: the work time/leisure time binary that came to dominate the experience of time in England. Cunningham’s discussion of leisure is broad-ranging and touches on the many forms it has taken, from the recurring feasts, wakes and holidays imbricated in local and ecclesiastical calendars, to the alehouses, sporting activities and clubs and societies which formed over the course of the late 18th and 19th centuries, and in which sharp gender and class distinctions as to time-use have been maintained and reproduced. The overall context in which a realignment of leisure practices occurs from the 18th century onwards, i.e. the shaping of a regular workforce, is here described not only in terms of time-discipline inside the work place, but also in terms of an attack on popular leisure beyond work hours and work spaces. From 1750 to 1850, this attempt at disciplining leisure was mostly effected at the local level out of a concern for “order and decency”, which interestingly is described by Cunningham as involving not just temporal aspects, but also a reorganization of space, ultimately effecting a reduction of the overall space in which popular classes could enjoy leisure, and resulting in the de facto exclusion of some forms of leisure activities.

Leisure time, especially with the rise of commercialised mass leisure resting mainly on the twin commercialisations of sports and spectacle entertainment, has therefore also been subject to forms of discipline, and plagued with similar moralizing injunctions with regards to how that time is to be used, be it from “rational recreation” advocates for “useful and self-improving” ways to use one’s leisure time, or from upper-class critics of working class men spending their free time in pubs and alehouses. Ultimately, by 1850, the upper and middle classes did recognize that working classes were entitled to some forms of leisure, however, some reformist ideas of leisure as a space and time where classes of societies could meet and mingle had shown its limits. Discussions of the commercialisation of leisure and the positing of leisure as a problem in the 20th century bring Cunningham to introduce an interesting discussion of the formation of masculine identities through work and leisure – ultimately through a balancing act between the two. Here Cunningham’s cultural historical descriptions are detailed and nuanced and mobilize extensive historical literature. The author also notes the paradoxical character of the rise of commercial leisure being concomitant with a decrease in the standard of living and a rise in work hours between 1750 and the 1830s, leading him to suggest that “there may have been less an increase in leisure time or leisure expenditure, more a different way of spending time and money” (83).

Related to the topic of leisure, Cunningham also provides a very instructive reading of the leisure preference debate. In a nutshell, leisure preference states that workers prefer leisure over opportunities to increase their incomes over and above what they are used to, or need to reproduce themselves. Workers therefore do not respond to income maximizing opportunities by working longer hours, but by withdrawing their labour. Cunningham provides extensive proof of the reality of leisure preference for the period between 1700 and 1850, but, stressing the localism of labour markets, and convincingly showing that leisure preference was only a potential course of action for a minority of male, and relatively well-paid, workers, he adds crucially that it was “not a universal value” (59), and therefore should not be thought of as depicting the behaviour of a majority of people. Finally, Cunningham’s key argument about the almost complete absence of leisure time for women, occupied instead between paid and unpaid labour as the industrial way of life took a hold in England, is among the book’s most valuable contributions.

Throughout the discussions of leisure, however, the lack of taking into account of the pressures exercised by work time in the bringing into existence of a very separate category of leisure time leave the reader with little contextualisation as to the sociohistorical origins of the work time and leisure time binary. As work-time is emptied of its qualitative aspects and standardized into a pure equal and constant expenditure of labour-power, the time spent at work is also emptied of the qualitative social and leisurely aspects it contained in pre-capitalist forms of agricultural or artisanal work for example. This qualitative relationship to time is rearticulated in the formation of a distinct temporal category of leisure time, of a leisure time outside and exterior to work time. The book provides a helpful and detailed account of how this leisure time then comes to be shaped, but remains perhaps too silent on the market mechanisms leading to this construction of homogenous temporal practices of a quantitative relation to time in work time and a qualitative one in leisure time.

The discussion of the evolution of work time in chapter five identifies a swing of the pendulum from the 18th century to today. A first period of overall increase of work time can be observed between the 1750s and 1830, followed by almost a century and a half of decline in work time until 1970, which has now given place to a further increase in the neoliberal period. Cunningham points to important processes presiding over the decrease between 1830 and 1970 such as the progressive elimination of child labour, and trade union pressures to reduce the working day, which made institutional gains in the legal form of the Ten Hours Acts in 1847 and the campaigns for eight hours day from 1880 on, culminating around 1919. Here Cunningham provides a Marxist class-based rationale of these processes in terms of class struggle: “In short, this was class war, and it was a war that the workers won” (101). Also worth mentioning in this context are the overall increase in holiday days (increasingly paid holidays), and the reorganization of weekly time, with the progressive elimination of St Monday and the transformation of Saturdays partly into leisure days. But most importantly, it is not only days and weeks that were organized around work rhythms, but the temporal structure of life itself: while childhood got increasingly defined as a work-free time and extended its duration, the notion and practice of retirement became ingrained in practices and institutionalised, extending its duration as well, especially in a context of the improvement of life expectancy. These developments reduced the life time one had to spend in paid employment and concentrated it between the age of sixteen and sixty-five. After 1850, even if overall work-time was reduced, the experience of work itself however worsened. Alienating, dangerous, monotonous, and unfulfilling work was the norm, Cunningham’s account of that period grasps very well its nuances between workers writing that they are getting paid to endure boredom, and data suggesting that two-thirds of workers say they would still go to work if they did not need the money.

The last two chapters present key aspects of the time experience for two social groups on the margin of the discussions of time that focus on work time. Cunningham retraces the time experience of the leisured class, paradoxically occupying a dominant position in a society that so emphatically posited work as its utmost value, before progressively being depicted as the “idle rich”, and ultimately disappearing. The key added value to the book however is to provide a full chapter on the gendered aspect of social time in England. Women’s time is discussed throughout the text, but the last chapter focuses primarily on women’s experience of time. Feminist approaches to temporality have convincingly shown the gendered dynamics of social time, and Cunningham provides new entry points into that question through accounts of gender differentiated time regimes in all of the periods treated. The key point to come out of these analyses is the male-centeredness of leisure time, women having little to no access to leisure, their experience oscillating not between work and leisure, but between paid and unpaid work. The appearance of women on the job market in the 20th century rearticulated the discourse around time from a work-leisure narrative to a search for a work-life balance, a discourse in which life mostly means unpaid care for the house and the family, and ultimately conceals the crisis in women’s time in the age of neoliberal flexibility.

Although Cunningham’s efforts provide a rich narrative about the history of the work time regime in England, its discussions are situated more at the level of results (description of time regimes) than at the level of causes (impact of capitalism and capitalist temporal practices on time regimes). This leaves the book’s many insights concerning the political character of time, the impact of capitalist industry on social times, the gender and class aspects of time as a power relation, described but not explained or articulated theoretically with the basic operations of capitalist markets. The problems raised for historical understanding of these dynamics are therefore not engaged with as satisfactorily as they are posed.

The main overall strengths of the book concern its very rich description of time-experience and of the historical processes that govern its shaping in England. On that score, Cunningham proposes one very rich piece of social history, and a synthesis of empirical research that provides a welcome contribution to social time studies and labour studies. Addressing the monumental change in the sense of time with the advent of modernity, Cunningham ultimately proposes that there is an inherent potential anxiety associated with linear time senses such as have taken over in the modern era. Finally, the argument throughout the book stresses time’s fundamental political aspect. All things considered, suggests Cunningham, it is the relative power and degree of organisation of workers that have been crucial in their capacity to exercise collective agency in the shaping of the prevailing work time regime: “the amount of people’s lives taken up by work depended on the organized strength or otherwise of workers themselves” (203). Cunningham justly concludes that time, therefore, just like history, can be changed.

21 December 2015

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