Past pleasures

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 2, Key stage 3

Time period: Victorians 1850-1901

Curriculum topics: Industrial Revolution, Political and social reform, Recreation through time, Victorians

Suggested inquiry questions: What leisure activities were available to the Victorians? How did the Industrial Revolution change leisure time?

Potential activities: Answer the questions, create your own Victorian Poster for one of your favourite activities.

Download: Lesson pack

How did the Victorians have fun?

During Queen Victoria’s reign big changes took place in the way people spent their leisure time. Blood sports like bear baiting and cockfighting were banned. With the growth of the railways, people began to travel more and visiting the seaside became a popular pastime. But the railways also allowed local sporting teams to travel and so sports like cricket, football and rugby began to be organised with agreed rules and national competitions, such as the FA Cup. Lawn Tennis was invented in the 1830s and a new sight on the streets of Victorian Britain was the bicycle, in its various different designs.

There were still old favourites such as going to the circus or the theatre but the invention of the moving picture during the 1890s meant that a new dimension was added to theatre-going.

Use the posters, pictures and photographs in this lesson to understand how the Victorians enjoyed their leisure time.


1. Think about the kind of things you do in your spare time.

  • Write a list of all the activities you take part in for fun in your spare time
  • Now write a list of the things you think you might have done if you had lived in the Victorian era
  • How are the two lists different? Is there anything on your modern list you don’t think you would have done in the Victorian era? Why is this?

2. This is an advert for John Sanger and Sons Royal Hippodrome & Menagerie, a kind of travelling circus:

  • Do you think this would have been a popular show , and explain why?
  • Looking at the poster, what types of animals do you think you would have seen at this show?
  • What do you think are the main differences between this show and a modern circus?

3. This is a poster for the Barnum and Bailey circus. Compare this poster to the one in Source 1:

  • If you had to choose to go to one of the shows, which one would you have chosen and why?
  • Do you think the Barnum and Bailey circus was as large as the one shown in Source 1?

4. This is a picture of a ladies cycle race drawn around 1891:

  • Look at the bicycles the ladies are riding
  • How are these different from a modern bike?
  • Compare what the ladies in the crowd are wearing with the ladies on the cycles. What are the main differences
  • How easy do you think it would have been to ride these bicycles. Why?
  • Why do you think the bicycle shown in this source was called a ‘Penny Farthing’?

5. This is a photograph of people playing croquet in 1872:

  • Look at the way the ladies are dressed in this photograph, how is it different to the image in Source 3?

6. Look at these photographs of Victorian sporting pastimes:

  • How many sports can you recognise?
  • Do you notice any differences between the sports then and now?
  • What kind of people do you think would have taken part in these sports?
  • What kind of people would watch these sports?
  • Do you think these were organised matches, or were they just local events? Why do you think that?
  • Compare the photographs of these sporting events to the ones you see today, are they the same or different and how?

7. These are posters from three different performances the Victorians might have attended:

  • What type of people do you think might have gone to each of these performances?
  • Look at Source 6a. What is unusual about what the people are doing?
  • Look at how the people in the audience are dressed, what class of people do you think they might be?
  • Look at Source 6b. How large an event do you think this would have been?
  • Do you think it would have been popular? Why?
  • Look at the uniforms of the people who will be involved. List all the different roles you can see
  • Look at Source 6c. How similar do you think this pantomime would have been to one you would go and see today?
  • Do you think you would be interested in the story from what you can see in the poster?
  • Which of the three events would you most like to go and see. Why?

8. This is a poster advertising Blackpool from 1889.

  • What kind of things would you have been able to do when you visited Blackpool?
  • Do you think it was a popular resort. Why?
  • Think about what you know about modern Blackpool, how does it compare with what is on this poster?

9. Look at all the sources again:

  • Did men and women take part in the same activities?
  • Do we spend our leisure time doing these things today. Give reasons for your answer
  • What do these sources tell us about how Victorian men and women enjoyed themselves?
  • Is there anything else we can find out about the Victorians from these sources?


During the Victorian era there were many changes to how people lived, and the ways they spent their spare time. The Victorians enjoyed listening to brass bands and attending ‘spectacles’. These shows included hypnotism or even communication with the dead using mediums! Circuses and performing menageries were also popular, with Britain being visited by some of the most famous of the time including the Barnam and Bailey Circus who frequently came over from America.

The rise in photography and moving pictures meant that people started going to the theatre, not only to enjoy plays and spectacles, but also to watch recordings of sporting events as you can see from the sources here. Sporting pastimes, such as cycling, rowing and horseracing were also popular, and large crowds would often attend sailing events like the Henley Regatta and famous horse races such as the Epsom Derby.

One of the largest events of the Victorian calendar was the famous Great Exhibition, held in 1851. This huge event was organised by Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victora, and was held in Hyde Park in London. At the centre of the exhibition was the famous ‘Crystal Palace’ which was built to house the exhibitions of culture and industry from around the Empire.

Teachers' notes

In this lesson, students use a range of posters and photographs to find out about Victorian leisure activities. These include posters for a menagerie, an illustration of a cycle race, photographs of Tottenham Hotspur, the Boxer Ching Hook and Gloucestershire Cricket Club with W. G. Grace seated at centre 1880. Also included is a picture showing filmed boxing-match presented in a theatre, and posters advertising a Grand Volunteer Tournament and Military Fete, a pantomime for Robinson Crusoe and Blackpool Health & pleasure resort.

Students can work in groups or pairs on the tasks. Teachers could also discuss with students which sources suggest that:

  • Mass spectator sports had become more common?
  • Improvements in transport had changed some leisure activities?
  • Some sports were organised on a national basis?
  • Advances in technology had created new leisure activities?

As a whole class activity, students could also group printed versions of the sources into different types of leisure activity and discuss the similarities and differences with today.

The advertising posters in particular could also be used for extension work on persuasive writing in terms of discussion of their use of design and language. What do these posters reveal much about the Victorian period, beyond their tastes in leisure? You could supplement these with further from our collection of Victorian advertisements is aimed at any teacher or student engaged in a local study of the Victorian period. The sources could be used to help provide a sense of period and show pupils the type of source material they might find in their local archive, museum or record office. The collection could be used alongside our Victorian Lives collection to give further insight into the Victorian home life.

These adverts explore how the Victorians cleaned their homes, what they ate and drank, how they had fun, and how they advertised the products they sold.’

On the question of photographs with them the importance the background circumstances that produced it. This information can be gained from asking the following questions and be prepared to research further if necessary. Do not dismiss a photograph if it seems posed or if the caption has been changed or appears unlikely from your background knowledge. These elements can reveal information concerning the motives of the person or persons who changed/created it. A photograph is an ‘interpretation’ of an event or person, this does not reduce its value as evidence, but it has be examined carefully.

  • Is there an original caption or title?
  • Do you have evidence in image of the date or time period?
  • Where is the place? Can you see anything relating to the event, environment, architecture, time of day, or season?
  • What is happening in the picture?
  • If the image shows people: How are they dressed, are they be related or not?
  • What are they doing?
  • What is the photographer trying to say with this photograph?
  • Why has this picture been taken and whom is the audience?
  • Is this photograph posed, cropped or revealing a certain perspective? [close up, panoramic, long shot, medium shot, landscape or portrait]
  • What does the photograph not show from your own contextual knowledge?
  • What other sources would help to understand the photograph?


Source 1: COPY 1/108 f.220 – Cycle race Liffe & Son, Coventry 1893

Source 2 : COPY 1/89 f.104 – John Sanger and Sons Royal Hippodrome & Menagerie 1890

Source 3 : RAIL 1014/51 – Great Western Railway Collection Posters Taff Vale Railway Barnum & Bailey Circus at Cardiff 21 June 1893 Source 4 : COPY 1/95 f.294 – Cyclists 1891

Source 4: Croquet on the lawn, 1872 (COPY 1/18 f.365)

Source 5a : COPY 1/450 – Tottenham Hotspur 1901

Source 5b : COPY 1/392 Boxer Ching Hook

Source 5c : COPY 1/50 – Gloucestershire Cricket Club W G Grace seated at centre 1880

Source 5d : COPY 1/18 f.365 – Croquet on the lawn 1872 Source

6a : COPY 1.49 f.267 – Filmed boxing match presented in theatre 1899 Source

6b : COPY 1/128 f.84 – Grand Volunteer Tournament and Military Fete August 189

Source 6c : COPY 1/76 f.133 – Robinson Crusoe 1886

Source 7 : COPY 1/88 f.593 – Blackpool Health & pleasure resort 1889

External links

Victorians at leisure
Webpage with information on Victorian leisure.

Images by Theme: Victorian Leisure
Photographs from Historic England showing more Victorian leisure activities.

Connections to curriculum

Key stage 1 & 2
A study of an aspect or theme in British history that extends pupils’ chronological knowledge beyond 1066
Changes in an aspect of social history, such as crime and punishment from the Anglo-Saxons to the present or leisure and entertainment in the 20th Century

Key stage 3
Ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain, 1745-1901: Britain as the first industrial nation – the impact on society

Back to top

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 2, Key stage 3

Time period: Victorians 1850-1901

Curriculum topics: Industrial Revolution, Political and social reform, Recreation through time, Victorians

Suggested inquiry questions: What leisure activities were available to the Victorians? How did the Industrial Revolution change leisure time?

Potential activities: Answer the questions, create your own Victorian Poster for one of your favourite activities.

Download: Lesson pack

Related resources

19th century people

What can we tell from this photograph?

Say ‘cheese’: a portrait of Queen Victoria’s family

What can Queen Victoria's family photographs tell us?

Victorian homes

Was there much difference between rich and poor homes?

Selling the Victorians

Victorians for sale! Has advertising changed from Victorian times?

All on board!

What can we learn from old board games?

Victorian lives

How was life different in Victorian times?

Victorian Food and Drink

What do old adverts reveal?