Working-Class Children's Play and Leisure in Britain 1840-1914

  • Heather Grossbard

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis examines working-class children's play and leisure practices in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Using material culture in the form of dolls, trundling hoops, sweets, live and representational animals, it offers child-centred narratives of leisure during this period. Class, gender, race, consumerism, and imperialism shaped childhood in various leisure contexts and spaces. Children's age, size, and development did not exclude them from influence and participation in these discourses and contexts, and they negotiated and navigated them in multifaceted ways to meet their own needs, priorities, and interests. The study addresses how children created and played with dolls in accordance to working-class fashion interests as opposed to middle-class gender discourses. It moves on to examine how play with trundling hoops put children at odds with middle-class adult conceptions of ownership and usage of public space. Moving from the shared space of the street to that of the shop, the thesis examines working-class children's participation in consumerism through sweets and the sweetshop, in addition to children's use of sweets as embodiments of social and emotional relationships with families, neighbours, and peers. Racial relations, specifically understandings of whiteness and blackness, receive detailed attention through analysis of the play behaviour children utilized around the gollywog doll. This imperial analysis is extended through consideration of the elephant and its representation in the zoo, the street, and in diminutive form as a doll or element of pretend play. Here, instead of race, scale acts as a lens through which imperialist discourses are communicated and experienced. This thesis overcomes the challenge of a lack of texts by focusing on the sensory experience of a number of material objects. The experiences are then contextualized through oral histories, autobiographies, newspaper articles, photographs, literature, and contemporary imagery and ephemera. This methodology, drawing on approaches taken from experimental archaeology and social geography, not only allows the thesis to move beyond the themes of home, school, and work that dominate the current field, but also shows how complex, colourful, and diverse working-class childhoods in the past were. It expands the historiography of childhood from a bias towards the middle-class child to demonstrate how working-class children participated in, and challenged, social discourses in this period.
Date of Award1 Aug 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorSasha Handley (Supervisor)


  • race
  • history
  • space
  • toys
  • trundling hoop
  • working-class children
  • sweets
  • dolls
  • nineteenth-century
  • imperialism
  • material culture
  • consumerism
  • children's history
  • children
  • victorian children
  • working-class

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