Don’t overlook this important contribution to the historiography of voluntary action! – Colin Rochester

Back in May 2018 one of our committee members, Bob Snape, used the VAHS Blog to introduce his book on Leisure, Voluntary Action and Social Change 1880-1939. I am embarrassed to admit that I missed Bob’s post and have only just caught up with this major contribution to the historiography of voluntary action – although the passage of time did mean I could buy the affordable paperback edition – which was published by Bloomsbury in October 2019.  

Perhaps the most important impact of Bob’s book is to shift the discussion of the development of leisure as voluntary action from the periphery of social policy to its centre. He argues persuasively that ‘voluntary association for leisure and conviviality has been under-explored in the in comparison with efforts to provide social relief or health care’ (p. 3) and summarises the aim of his book as explaining ‘how and why … leisure became associated with the idea of the common good valued for its potential capacity to realise the good society and adopted as a field for experimentation in the advocacy of social cultural and political values’ (p. 1).

The book begins with an introductory essay followed by ten tightly argued chapters which weave together theory – from a variety of social and cultural thinkers – and practice – in the shape of a plethora of associational activities. This material explores the changing nature of mid-nineteenth century Britain and the growth of leisure associations in response to concerns about ‘working class morality, drunkenness and public safety’; the subsequent influence of religious values; the role of the settlement movement; the importance of leisure activities in the development of a radical alternative to social work; the key role of the National Council of Social Service in promoting leisure activities in both town and country; the development of provision for young people; the impact of unemployment in the 1930s; and the growth of employer-based leisure facilities and activities. 

An important central chapter provides a key to the way in which leisure developed in the post-World War One period. It sets out Snape’s account of how leisure and voluntary action were developed in tandem and ‘presents an analytical account of the theorisation of leisure and voluntary action in post-First World War social reconstruction, locating them in discourses of social policy’ (p. 12). The book ends with a short but telling concluding chapter which suggests that ‘leisure was not a mundane or residual construct but a vital element of social and civic life and central to nineteenth- and twentieth-century discourses of democracy, community and voluntary action’ (p. 147) and explores the extent to which leisure and voluntary action could be seen as ‘enabling social change’ both through the vision of ‘an influential and relatively small coterie of intellectuals’, (p. 148) and as the result of the collective activities of a range of voluntary leisure associations.

This is not a cheap book (£25.00 in paperback for less than 200 pages of text) and it is not an easy read (it is densely argued and written with a care for detail which is ‘academic’ in the best sense of the word). But it is worth every penny and the time devoted to reading it is also well spent. Anyone with an interest in understanding voluntary action – and not just its history – will find that Bob Snape has contributed an important new dimension to its study. 

Details: Robert Snape, Leisure, Voluntary Action and Social Change in Britain, 1880-1939, London, Bloomsbury Academic

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