English Boys' Clothes: Activities

Figure 1.--Racing toy cars like the boys here, probanbly in the late 1930s was popular at this school. These look to be prep school boys at a boarding school.

HBC has collected information on a variety of activities in which English boys have participated in over time. Many of these activiities involve specialized costumes. Often the children. however, just wore their ordinary clothes. The available images thus show trends in English boys' clothing over time. The activities include choir, choir, dance, games, religious observation, school, sport, youth organizations and many others. Some of these images are interesting because they depict life-style information in addition to fashion.


Many countries of Western and Central Europe have a long tradition of church boys' choirs dating back to the midevil era. One of the longest traditions is that of the English boy choirs. While the English cathedral choir is a readution umported by the early church fathers, the realtive stability in England has mean that the English boy cathedral choirs are some of the oldest in Europe. Historical references date from the end of the 6th century AD. English boy choirs often perform in liturgical choir robes. This is due to their association with the Anglican cathedrals and their primary purpose of providing choral music for church services.


We do not know much about dance in England. There is nothing like the Irish nd scottish trafitions which seem to be commected with Celtic tradituins. The only specifically English dance we know of is Morris dancing. But Morris dncing hs nothing like the cultural cachet that Irish and Scottish dancing have. English boys of course participate in a wide variety of other dance forms, except for social dancing, mostly through school. We note daning as part of town and villae celebrations in the erly 20th cntury. we suspect this was awell estblohed traditionin the 19th century with much earlier roots. Some of this looks like May Poll celebrations. This is a cultural tradition with ancient roots. We have very little informtion on these trewnds with the exception of May Day. These dance traditions seems to have significbtly declines since World war II, especially forvboys. The uncreasingly popularity od sportbheremay be a factor. Schools fostered a dance and motion program in the mid-20th century, but we are unsure about modern trends.


At the time peasant boys were commonly unable to fish on the lord's estate, at least since Norman times. We are not sure about earlier periods. When aristocratic boys were sent away from home to be trained to be knights, they first became page boys. They had reading, writing, and numeracy lessons. They also had sports which trained them to use the weapons of combat. Sword fighting and charging with a lance. The reading and writing teacher was often a Monk who also taught strategy games such as chess. One lesson they taught page boys was the art of fishing. I believe right from the dawn of history fishing has been mainly male activity. However the Queen Mother (wife of Gerorge VI) was a good at this sport. There are lots of photographs of her in fishing for salmon on her Scottish estate at Balmoral.


British boys played many of the same games European and American boys played. A wide variety of popular games were played by children throughout Europe with minor differences. Games like tag, hind-and-go seek, thre-blinf-mice, and many more were played throughout Europe. There were many ryming games. The rhymes might be different, but the games were often the same. There were also some destinctive loval or regional games. One game not played in other countries was the annual conker fights each Fall. This seems to have been a uniquely British game. School boys devery Fall would ready their new conkers. Many activities were temporary fads, but some like yoyos occassional reaapear. Racing toy cars like the boys here, probanbly in the late 1930s was popular at this school. Modern boys like eadio controlled cars. Many games were more popular with boys than girls or visa versa. Often the younger boys played the games popular with the girls.

Holidays and Events

We know a little bit about English holidays, but hopefully our English readers will provide more details. England has many of the same holidays familiar to other countries such as New Years, Valentine Day, Easter, and Christmas. Christmas is probably the most important holliday and the obvious favorite of children. One aspect of Christmas that is unfamilar to Americans is Boxing Day. One important day is Memorial Day to honor the fallen in the two world wars. It is celebrated on November 11, the day the World war I Armistace was signed. Perhaps the most important destinctively English holiday is Guy Fawkes Day and another favorite for children with the costumes, bond fires, and fire works. There is a ritual burning of a Guy (scarecrow). Guy Fawkes of course led a Catholic plot to blow up Parliament and overthrow Queen Elizabeth I. The Queen's Birthday is celebrated, but now less important than in the past. There are also a range of other events celebrated locally. One of these is Darkie Day celebrated on Boxing Day and New Year's Day each year in the fishing port of Padstow in Cornwall. The origins go back to travelling "mummers" in medieval times who used to blacken their faces and sing for the price of a meal - this was known as "guising". The whole thing became a formalised celebration in the 19th century when the minstrels musical movement arrived from America. The whole purpose of the ceremony today is to raise money for charity.


The weathhy landed class in England pursued both hunting and racing with a passion. Boys of wealthy families would have taken up hunting at an early age. Working class and middle-class families had less opportunity for hunting as there was less undevloped land in England than was the case in America. And in America the poor in rural areas were actively involved in hunting, in part to add meat to the family table. An English reader writes, "I am not sure about hunting in England beyond the landed gentry. I think it is likely that older children of farmers may have done a bit of poaching with shot guns. The game was usually the property of the land owner. Rabbits were probably 'fair game' as they damaged the Master's crops. I suspect that pheasants and other birds found their way to the tenant farmers tables." A factor here is that peasants and other birds could be caught quietly by snares. Estate owners often employed game keepers to look out for such poachers.

Leisure Center

Leisure centers are very popular for children, especially the boys. There are also have outward bound centres. An English reader writes, "I don't know whether you are aware of 'our' terms such as Chavs, Pikeys etc. they are used to describe lower order drop outs who tend to wander around in tracksuits, often with socks to the outside and sporting Burberry caps. Mortal enemy of the Chav is the Goth."

Outdoor Play

Iona Opie and her husband did some work on British school children lore and play and wrote some very interesting books on the subject. Our information is still very limited here. We believe a variety of different games like the ones reported by Opie were still quite common before World War II. We believe that children's play has changed significantly after the war, especially after he 1950s. We are not possitive why this is. There seem to be differences among boys and girls with girls holding on more to some of the traditional games. Our visits to British schools in the 1980s found the children playing very few of these games. Most of the play was sport, often football (soccer) and cricket. At least one traditin survives. Concors were very much a British school boy activity. Virtually every British schoolboy once participated in this annual Fall ritual, conker fights with his mates. I'm not sure just when this tradition bgan. Many traditions have built up about how to prepare and harden your concor. A hole is drilled in it and a string attached. Then the conker fights can begin. With the modern popularity of computer games, however, concors appears to have declined in popularity. It has not, however, disappered. Hoefully our English readers will provide us some nsights here.


We note a range of family outings. Some of the best known are outings to the local park. These commonly are simply short outings. City parks were a 19th century innivation, a development following the industrial revolution and the tremendous growth of cities with the expanding working class. Britain has some of the most famous city parks in the world. In addition to the famous parks there are large numbers of city parks which provide recreation for adults and children. Many of the resorts are quite famous. Many of them built peers with all kinds of amusements. Another development in the 19th century was excursions. An excursion is a short trip to an interesting or diverting place with the idea of returning the same day or within a few days. This was made possible at first by the railroads which appeared in the mid-19th century. This made it possible to travel to interesting places and return quickly at a very modest price. Here beach excursions as well as longer holidays were especially popular, particularly for families with children. There were all kinds of other excursions such as trips to the Lake Country or hiking trips. But these trips often did not interest children as much as beach excursions. And trains were not the only mode of transport. We note for example steam ship excuesions. Britain is an island and seaside resorts are close to every English town. The coming of the railroad in particular mean that beach resorts could be reached in only about 1-2 hours from any English towns.


We do not know much about English children's parties. We know virtually nothing about the 19th century. Thanks to the Kodak Broiwnie and similar cameras, we have some ingormation about the 20th century. As with other activities, the snap shot conveys vast amounts of information about family life and society. And this inclues children's parties. Younger children might have small tea parties at home with siblings and perhps neighbors. We suspect this was a carry over from the 19th century. We also see birthday parties, surely the most important type of children's parties. We do not know how birthdays were celebrted in the 19th century. We do begin to see celebrtions in the 20th century. Many of the tradotions are the same as in America which we do not fully understand as the break with Britain occurred in the 18th century. And from the very first 20th century birthday snapshots we see party hats and birthday cakes with candels. The events were baically small parties with family and some friends in the hoime and back garden. We do not see the modern extravaganzas until the late-20th century. There were also holiday celebrations, but we are not sure just how they were celebrated. These may have been more school or church parties than family parties. Hopefully our English readers can offer some insights here. Catholic families would have had First Communion parties. Jewish children has Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties. A distunctively English party is the street party and the children are generally the center of attention at these parties. They seem to have first appeared to celebrate the end of World War I and have since become an important tradition in England and Wales. Less so in Scotland for some reason.


It is difficult to say what country most appreciates pets, but Britain would have to be very high up and probably at the head of that list. We are not entirely sure why that was. We see early indications such as King Charles II posing with his spaniel. (17th century). It was probably the Indistrial Revolution (18th century) that was the major factor. The Industrial Revolution had aange of impacts. It generated great wealth and greatly expanded the middleclass. Expanded income and leisure greatly expanded pet keeping. It also resulted in greatly increased urbanization. Thus not only did more people began keeping pets, but they brought those pets inside the home. [Shevelow] Along with these developments, the crusade against slavery began in Britain. Parliament tasked the Royal Navy with the responsibility of ending the slave trade. The British anti-slavery movement focused in on the idea that men and women were being treated like animals, chained, whipped, and even worse. A side affect of that crusade was to make English people increasingly aware of the mistreatment of animals. It is no accident that the nation tht led the crusade against slavery also was the first country to pass an animal cruelty law--the Illegal Treatment of Cattle Act (1822). This was a weak law, but followed a decade later by a revised law which extended the protection of the law to bulls, dogs and other domestic animals, and cattle (1835). We note all kinds of pets, including dogs, cats, mice, donkeys, budgies (paraqueetes) parrots, and snakes. A HBC reader remembers the RAF family dog that they took with them to Germany. Of course one of the greatest pet stories of all time is Lassie Come Home. Another great favorite is "National Velvet". A griter story is "Kes"(UK, 1970) about a kestrel, less familiar outside Britain. And when the British run out of their own pets, they write stories about pets in other countries. One of the best is A Dog of Flanders (US, 1959)--based of course on a British book. Notably we note far fewer srories about pets outside of Anglo-American literature.


Henry VIII brought the Reformation to England. This was not his intention. He simply wanted to control the Church. His children Edward VI and Elizabeth II would turn Britain into a Protestant country. There remained a small and supressed Catholic minority. Over time this was increased with immigration from Ireland. Theology was a much disputed subject that was not fully resolved until the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution of the 17th century. While the Church of England is a Protestant Church, it retained more of Catholic liturgy than other Protestant Churches. The Church continued the traditions of altar boys. The Church of England in the 19th revived the tradition of boy choirs at the great cathedrals. We note children doing Forst Communions. We think these were Catholic children, but have little information at this time.


The tradition of school uniforms developed at Britain's elite private schools, in typical British fashion referred to as public schools. Children at the country's developing state school system generally did not wear uniforms during the late 19th and 20th century. Britain was late to provide a free public education to children. Some European countries, especially the Germans had a much more extensive public school system. Britain had a great variety of state and charity schools for those who could not afford a private education. Children at these schools wore a variety of clothes.


No country is more important to the development of modern sports than England. Many sports have English origins (rugby footbal, soccer, cricket, and hockey). These sports were spread around the world because of the importance of the British Empire so that now England often looses international competitions to its former colonies. Ctricket is very popular in South Asia and the Caribbean, Rugby is very popular in Ne Zealand and Fiji. American has developed some important sports, some based on English influences (baseball and football) and others entirely unique (basketball).


All of the major European countries had important toy industries. England was one of these countries. They also imported from other countries, especially Germany. Toys in the 19th century were often made out of wood, but we also see cast iron toys. We see animal figures (often done as pull toys), balls, blocks, dolls, hobby horses, horns, stuffed animals, tops, toy soldiers, and much more. Toys become even more diverse in the 20th century. Mechano sets, ??? trains, and match box cars were especially popular. There was considerable trade in toys across international borders before World war I. German companies lost many of their English markets as a result of the War. There was some recovery by the 1930s, but after the NAZI take over toy production was scaled back. Thus most English children had domestically produced toys. We believe that until after world War II, most toys were sild in department stores or small dedicated toy shops. Hopefully our English readers will tell us more about toys there. Photographs provide some information about period toysThis little English boy was photographed with what look to be his toys, probably in the 1920s (figure 1). Notice the studio back drop. Clearly this is not his home. Thus the toys appear to be those from the photographic studio. He has blocks and toy animals. They are not stuffed animals, I'm not sure about the material.


England as far as we know was the first country to address the problm of child labor. This is understandable as it was in England that the Industrial Revolution began. Child and women workers played a major role in the Industrial Revolution. Charles Dickens had a major role in prmoting the movement to limit child labor. Parlimentary investigations exposed the abuses, but influential English capitalists committed to laiisez faire government claimed that governmental restrictions were an infringement of their rights. Here Dickens and news accounts of abuses gradually swung public opinion to governmental action to protect children. Finally Parliament began limiting child labor, the initial laws were very minor restrictions.

Youth Organizations

Uniformed youth groups were a limited succes at first, but this changed quickly after the appearance of Scouting in the 1900s. The Boys' Brigade was the first such group which appeared in the 1880s. Quite a number of other grouos were organized. In the 1900s these groups were surpased by the Scouts. Baden Powell first conceived of Scouting as a element of the Boys' Brigade. English boys, however, were attraccted by the outdoor activities and the more secular approach. Scouting was organized as a separate group and soon became the predominate youth organization in England. Unlike some other youth groups, Baden Powel promoted an internationist approach and the movement began to spread around the world. Interestingly only one Scout association was organized in England, unlike the European pattern where Scout associations were organized by different religions and secular groups. Also political parties did not organize nationalist youth groups as proved to be the case in Germany and other European countries.


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Created: September 23, 2003
Last updated: 1:16 AM 7/10/2011