Georgian Era Entertainments – Outside the home

Home entertainments (discussed in previous posts here and here) were not the only forms of recreation available to people in the Georgian Era.  With increased income, thanks to the Industrial Revolution and increased world trade, the middle class now had the disposable income and free time to begin to enjoy many of the entertainments that had been available only to the aristocracy and landed gentry in times past.  We will now take a look at a few of the more popular ones.

Bowls (Lawn Bowling) appears on ancient vases and plaques from four thousand years ago and archaeologists have uncovered bas-relief stone bowls from 5,000 B.C., which show our ancestors enjoyed the game of bowling more than seven thousand years ago.  During the Roman Empire, the Legions carried the game, known as “Bocce,” throughout the empire, introducing it throughout the Roman world.  By the time the Southampton Old Bowling Green Club was established in 1299, the game was firmly rooted in England.  In fact, the game became so popular in England and in France; the King prohibited it because men were neglecting the archery practice, which was essential to the national defense.  Beginning in the Tudor period, it was fashionable for the aristocracy and landed gentry to have private bowling greens.  In his diary, Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) mentions an invitation to “play at bowls with the nobility and gentry.”  Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Water Raleigh, Victor Hugo, and Lord Macauley were all bowlers.  According to legend, Sir Francis Drake and his captains were bowling on the green at Plymouth Hoe the day, in 1588, when the messenger arrived with the news of the invading Spanish Armada.

Sir Francis Drake and his Captains Being Informed of the Spanish Armada

Sir Francis Drake and his Captains Being Informed of the Spanish Armada

In the American colonies, the first colonial reference to the game comes from Jamestown, Virginia.  In 1611, Sir Thomas Dale reported that as he came ashore at Jamestown to assume the governorship of the colony he saw people playing bowls.  In New England, in 1692, a man in Wells, Maine (then a part of Massachusetts) faced sanctions for allowing bowling in a tavern he ran.  In 1733, the Common Council in New Amsterdam (as New York was then called), leased a portion of the parade grounds in front of the fort to three prominent neighboring landlords for “a peppercorn a year.”  They based the lease upon their promise to create a park that would be “the delight of the Inhabitants of the City” and add to its “Beauty and Ornament”; the improvements were to include a “bowling green” with “walks therein.”

In the Early 18th century, British officers installed bowling greens in the American colonies in New York in 1725 and in Port Royal Canada in 1734.  In 1726 George Washington’s father, Augustus, took over management of the family estate at Mount Vernon, VA and in 1732, the year George was born, constructed a bowling green.  By 1754, he had come into his inheritance and settled down with Martha.  They kept up the family tradition of sponsoring bowling on the green as “suitable for the intelligentsia and ranking army officers.”  The game abruptly lost its popularity during the Revolution.  The game was not revived in the United States until 1879 when a bowler named Shepplin started a small private club in New Jersey.  In Canada, it was played throughout the 19th Century.

View Across the Bowling Green at Mt. Vernon

View Across the Bowling Green at Mt. Vernon

Pall Mall (paille-maille) was a precursor to modern croquet.  The name comes from the Italian pallamaglio, which literally means “mallet ball,” ultimately derived from Latin palla and malleus meaning “ball” and “maul, hammer or mallet,” respectively.  In his book entitled “The sports and pastimes of the people of England” Joseph Strutt described the way pall-mall was played in England in 1611:

“Pale-maille is a game wherein a round box ball is struck with a mallet through a high arch of iron, which he that can do at the fewest blows, or at the number agreed upon, wins.’  It is to be observed, that there are two of these arches, that is ‘one at either end of the alley.’  The game of mall was a fashionable amusement in the reign of Charles the Second, and the walk in Saint James’s Park, now called the Mall, received its name from having been appropriated to the purpose of playing at mall, where Charles himself and his courtiers frequently exercised themselves in the practice of this pastime.”

The game was still known in the early nineteenth century, as proved by its reference in many English dictionaries.  In Samuel Johnson’s 1828 dictionary, his definition of “Pall mall” clearly describes a game with similarities to modern croquet:

“A play in which the ball is struck with a mallet through an iron ring.”

The earliest document to bear the word croquet and describing the modern game, is the set of rules registered by Isaac Spratt in November 1856 with the Stationers’ Company in London.

18th Century Pall Mall Game

18th Century Pall Mall Game

Theatre likely began in ancient times as a performance of ritual activities that did not need initiation on the part of the spectator.  Greek theatre, which was most highly developed in the city-state of Athens, was part of a broader culture of theatricality and performance in classical Greece that included festivals, religious rituals, politics, law, athletics and gymnastics, music, poetry, weddings, funerals, and symposia.  The theatre of ancient Greece, consisting of tragedy and comedy, is the root of the Western theatre tradition.  Western theatre developed and expanded considerably under the Romans after the expansion of the Roman Republic (509–27 BC) into several Greek territories between 270–240 BC.  From the later years of the republic and by means of the Roman Empire (27 BC-476 AD), theatre spread west across Europe, around the Mediterranean and reached England.

During the Middle Ages, plays were produced in some 127 different towns in the British Isles.  During this period, performers in England were overwhelmingly amateurs, exclusively male, and often provided their own costumes.  At the end of the Late Middle Ages, professional actors began to appear in England and Europe.  Since before the reign of Elizabeth I, companies of players, attached to households of leading aristocrats, performed seasonally in various locations.  These became the foundation for the professional players that performed on the Elizabethan stage.  Puritan opposition to the stage argued not only that the stage in general was pagan, but that any play that represented a religious figure was inherently idolatrous.  In 1642, at the outbreak of the English Civil War, the Protestant authorities banned performance of all plays within the city limits of London.  After public stage performances were banned for 18 years by the Puritan regime, the re-opening of the theatres during the Restoration signaled the renaissance of English drama.

Restoration Theatre at Covent Gardens

Restoration Theatre at Covent Gardens

In the 18th century, theatre flourished as a popular pastime and many theatres were enlarged and new playhouses built in London and the provinces.  One of the most successful shows on the London stage in the early part of the 18th century was the ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera.  John Gay recycled popular songs of the day and wrote new lyrics that were humorous and satirical.  Despite the attempt to suppress it via the 1737 Licensing Act, satire remained popular, such as those staged by Samuel Foote at the Haymarket Theatre.  In fact, a cast of children performed one of the most famous satires of the time, Lilliput, based on Jonathan Swift’s book Gulliver’s Travels, in 1756.

In the early years of the 19th century, restrictions of the Licensing Act allowed plays to at only two theatres in London, at Drury Lane and Covent Garden.  Their program was predominantly Shakespearean although some contemporary writers like Sheridan, who managed Drury Lane until 1809, were also popular.  To escape the restrictions of the royal patents, non-patent theatres interspersed dramatic scenes with musical interludes.  Melodrama and burlesque, with their short scenes and musical accompaniment, were popular at this time.  The huge growth in demand for theatrical entertainment in the early 19th century made the patent theatre system unworkable.  Theatres had sprung up across London and the boundaries between what the patent theatres could present (legitimate drama) and what other theatres could present (illegitimate theatre) became blurred.  This situation continued until the Theatres Act of 1843 revoked these monopolies on the performance of “serious” plays.  Censorship of play content by the Lord Chamberlain under Robert Walpole’s Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737 continued until 1968.

Layout of Covent Garden Theatre

Layout of Covent Garden Theatre

In the American Colonies, a theater opened in Williamsburg in 1716, and, in January 1736, the original Dock Street Theatre opened in Charles Town, South Carolina.  The birth of professional theatre in America probably began in 1752, with the Lewis Hallam troupe that arrived in Williamsburg, Virginia, from England.  They brought a repertoire of plays popular in London at the time, including Hamlet, Othello, The Recruiting Officer, and Richard III.  In 1754, Hallam built the first theater in New York City, on Nassau Street.  The Massachusetts colony passed laws forbidding performing plays in 1750, and similar laws passed in Pennsylvania in 1759.  Rhode Island followed suit in 1761 and, at the urging of the Continental Congress, most states banned plays during the American Revolutionary War.

Walnut Street Theatre or “The Walnut.” is located at 825 Walnut Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Founded in 1809, “The Walnut” is the oldest continuously operating theatre in the English-speaking world and the oldest in the United States.  The first theatrical production at the theatre was The Rivals in 1812 with President Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette in attendance.

"The Walnut" During the Early 19th Century

“The Walnut” During the Early 19th Century

Cricket can definitely be traced back to Tudor times in early 16th-century England.  Written evidence exists of Prince Edward, the son of Edward I (Longshanks), playing a game known as “creag” at Newenden, Kent in 1301.  There has been speculation, but no evidence, that this was a form of cricket.  The earliest definite reference to cricket being played in England (and hence anywhere) is in evidence given at a 1598 court case which mentions  “creckett” played on common land in Guildford, Surrey, around 1550.  It is believed that it was originally a children’s game but references around 1610 show that adults had started playing it and the earliest reference to inter-parish or village cricket occurs soon afterwards.  During the 17th century, many references indicate the growth of cricket in the southeast of England.  A newspaper report survives of “a great cricket match” with eleven players a side played for high stakes in Sussex in 1697 and this is the earliest known reference to a cricket match of such importance.

The game underwent major development in the 18th century and became the national sport of England.  Betting played a major part in that development with rich patrons forming their own teams.  Cricket was prominent in London as early as 1707 and large crowds flocked to matches on the Artillery Ground in Finsbury.  The Hambledon Club was founded in the 1760s and, for the next 20 years until formation of MCC and the opening of Lord’s Old Ground in 1787, Hambledon was both the game’s greatest club and its focal point.  MCC quickly became the sport’s premier club and the custodian of the Laws of Cricket.  New Laws introduced in the latter part of the 18th century included the three-stump wicket and leg before wicket.  The 19th century saw underarm bowling replaced by first round-arm and then over-arm bowling.  Both developments were controversial.  Cricket faced a major crisis at the beginning of the 19th century when a shortage of players and lack of investment  brought an end to major matches during the culminating period of the Napoleonic wars.  The game survived however,and a slow recovery began in 1815.

18th Century Cricket Game

18th Century Cricket Game

One of the earliest mentions of cricket played in the American colonies appears to be by William Stephens, a planter living in Georgia.  In 1737 he reported, “Many of our townsmen, freeholders, inmates and servants were assembled in the principal square at cricket and divers other athletick sports.”  Stephens knew of cricket, as he attended  Winchester School and Cambridge University before becoming a planter in the colonies.  The New York Weekly Post Boy reported a match between “XI of London” and “XI of New York,” played in New York in 1751 and won by the New Yorkers, the scores being 8o and 86 against 43 and 47.  It seems likely that both 11s consisted of residents of New York, as it is difficult to believe that a touring group would cross the Atlantic for one match.  There was a notice of a cricket match at Baltimore, Maryland, in 1754 and an advertisement for cricket equipment in the New York Independent journal for 19 April 1786.  The American Revolution alienated a great deal of interest in all matters English, one of the victims being the game of cricket.  Before the Revolution there was an active interest in the game, and as far as possible in those days, there was some encouragement for the younger players.  Legend has it that after the Revolution, when the question of a name for the chief executive officer of the newly formed United States came up, John Adams remarked, “There are Presidents of fire companies and cricket clubs.”  It is interesting to consider that the word President, as used for the chief executive of the United States, may have come about through its use by a humble cricket club.

Horse Racing probably began in Britain around 200 AD, when Roman soldiers in Yorkshire organized races, although the earliest written mention of ‘running-horses’ is a record of Hugh, from the French House of Capet, gifting some as a present to King Athelstan of England in the 9th/10th century.  The first recorded race meeting was during the reign of Henry II at Smithfield, London, in 1174 during a horse fair.  During the reign of Henry VIII, he passed a number of laws regulating the breeding of horses and imported a large number of stallions and mares for breeding.  He kept a training establishment at Greenwich and a stud at Eltham.  Formal race meetings began at this time.  Tradition has it that the first presentation of a trophy to the winner of a race, was in 1512 by organizers of a fair in Chester, while the first competition for the Carlisle Bells, reputedly the oldest sporting trophy in the world, was in the 16th century.  The three foundation sires of the modern thoroughbred, the Byerley Turk, Darley Arabian, and Godolphin Barb were imported to England in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and founded the lines to which every modern thoroughbred racehorse traces its heritage.

The Darley Arabian

The Darley Arabian

In the early 18th century, Queen Anne kept a large string of horses and was instrumental in founding Royal Ascot where the opening race each year still bears the title The Queen Anne Stakes.  The first published account of race results was John Cheney’s Historical list of all the Horse Matches run, and all plates and prizes run for in England and Wales.  This compendium dates to 1727.  A later work, published in York in 1748, reports the result of a race run in September 1709 on Clifton and Rawcliffe Ings, near York, for a gold cup of £50.  The Jockey Club, established in 1750, codified the Rules of Racing and one of its members, Admiral Rous laid the foundations of the handicapping system, including the weight-for-age scale.

There are two main forms of horse racing in Great Britain.  The first, Flat Racing, covers distances between 5 furlongs and 2 miles, 5 furlongs, 159 yards on courses without obstacles.  The other, Hunt Racing, covers distances between 2 miles and 4 1/2 miles, where horses usually jump either hurdles or fences (races known as steeplechase).  Well known race courses during the Georgian Period include, Ascot (in Berkshire), Newmarket (in Suffolk), and The Oaks (in Surrey).

18th Century Hunt Race (Steeplechase)

18th Century Hunt Race (Steeplechase)

Recorded horse racing events in colonial America began on Long Island in 1665, with the laying out of the ‘Newmarket’ course in what is now Hempstead Plains New York.  The first courses did not run around an oval, but in a straight line.  Two or three horses stood at the start line and tall stakes or trees marked the finish line at the other end.  The horses ran these races in heats of 3 or 4 miles, with the overall winner having to take two of them.  Toward the turn of the 18th Century, oval tracks were developed.  The horses would run four or five laps around the track and more horses were added to each race.  Samuel Gist of Hanover County imported the first Arabian horse, Bulle Rock, in 1732.  The 1 July 1737 edition of the Virginia Gazette had an item ‘Horse Racing every Saturday till October, at the Race Ground near this City.’, and a fair in Williamsburg in December 1739 had racing ‘round the Mile Course, adjacent to this City.’  The first historically significant Thoroughbred horse race on American soil was an epic five-horse, four-mile contest on a hilly Tidewater loam known as Anderson’s Race Ground.  Organized by William Byrd III, it was held before a noisy swarm of racing fans in Gloucester, Virginia, near Williamsburg, on December 5, 1752.

Horse Race Notice - VA Gazette - 01 Jul 1737

Horse Race Notice – VA Gazette – 01 Jul 1737

With the conclusion of the conflict with England in 1783, horseracing reappeared in America and the public embraced it with great enthusiasm.  Although some conservative religious leaders continued to rail against the evils of horse racing, the sport was generally accepted and flourished during the first sixty years of the nineteenth century.  In fact, President Andrew Jackson was an avid horse racer and even while residing in the White House, he maintained a racing stable and personally oversaw his horses’ training.  However, to deflect criticism, when Jackson entered his own horses in races, he listed his personal secretary as the mounts’ owner.  The expanding racing circuit of the early nineteenth century traversed not only the eastern seaboard, but also the middle part of the country.

Needless to say, there were many other “entertainment” choices available to the people of the Georgian Era – Hunting, Balls and Assemblies, Fairs, Taverns/Coffeehouses/Tearooms, Pleasure Gardens, etc. – and many of them will be the subject of future posts on this blog.  The  “takeaway” from this series on Georgian Era entertainments is that during this period in England and the English Colonies/United States, the  Industrial Revolution, expanded world trade, and the increased income they brought, expanded the number of people who had both the disposable income and the free time to support this growth of recreational activities.

Have you enjoyed this series of articles on Georgian Era “entertainments”?  Do you want to see more of this sort of article?  Do you have additional information on any of these subjects?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on these or other ideas you have for blog articles so please leave a comment.

Chuck H



4 comments on “Georgian Era Entertainments – Outside the home

  1. Victoria L says:

    Well-written and very informative! I should like to have a bowling green of my own someday!


    • Chuck H. says:


      I am glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for your kind words. I agree with you that it would be nice to have a personal bowling green, but for many of us who live in urban environments, we will never have the space. Even semi-private bowling greens are becoming difficult to locate. Here in Virginia, the only one that I have been able to locate is at the Williamsburg Inn and is used by the Williamsburg Inn Lawn Bowling Club. Do you know of any others? How about the rest of our readers, do you know of bowling greens that are open to the public or clubs where you live? – Chuck


      • fusilier55 says:

        I bowl with the Williamsburg club. It is the only full size green in Virginia. There are some greens around the country however. A search under Lawn bowls will discover some. this link will help. It is not impossible in urban environments that have old parks or country clubs. New York City has lawn bowls.

        Historic cricket games can no be found at Bacon’s castle of course, and again here in Williamsburg.

        Ron Carnegie

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Jayne Davis says:

    Excellent series of posts, thank you.


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