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Guest post by LH Member David Brown. Book review of the recently-published Palaces of Pleasure by Lee Jackson. 

PoPPalaces of Pleasure is the most recent book written by Lee Jackson, who is well-known to London history enthusiasts for the Dictionary of Victorian London website, and for his previous book Dirty Old London (Yale, 2014, our review here), a good history of sanitation in London. The subtitle of the book “From Music Halls to the Seaside to Football, How the Victorians Invented Mass Entertainment” lays out the ambition of the author to cover a broad range of entertainments.

The volume provides a very enjoyable read, showing how people in the 1800s spent their free time.

After an introduction, the first three chapters look at how the public house transformed into Gin Palaces, covering the evolution of club and music rooms, and in turn creating the Music Halls. Further chapters investigate dancing rooms, academies and the brief flowering of dancing casinos. Chapters on pleasure gardens and exhibitions are included. Two final chapters cover the seaside and the emergence of football as an entertainment. The conclusion brings together many of the themes and explains why there was such an extraordinary growth in mass entertainment in the Victorian period.

Throughout, the book takes a look at the entrepreneurs that emerged, and how they had to navigate the perils of newspaper sensationalism, the impact of legislation, the temperance movement and the role of the magistrate in shaping the entertainment world. One theme is how the pleasures of the everyday man were seen as threatening and in need of suppression and regulation, whilst the pleasures of the aristocrats and the well-off rarely rated the same view. While in the early period these activities were mainly male, another theme in the book explores how women were perceived, challenges some of the myths around prostitution, and demonstrates how everyday Victorian women increasingly took part in leisure activities.

The author ranges widely, and although most of the places talked about are in London, he also contrasts examples from outside London and particularly in the North of England to show broader trends. Some of the chapters include good case studies (like Samuel Thompson’s wine and spirits business on Holborn Hill and Charles Morton’s famous Canterbury Hall).

Each chapter has a detailed set of end notes. The author uses a wide range of sources (particularly strong on the press), and provides a good bibliography and index. I’d have liked to see more pictures and ideally in the sections of the book that they relate to- here the illustrations included are limited in quantity (26, mostly half page, bound together in the centre of the book).

This is a book that could benefit every London Historian who is interested in 19th Century London. It’s full of anecdotes and facts that will delight the reader. Thoroughly recommended.


Palaces of Pleasure, From Music Halls to the Seaside to Football, How the Victorians Invented Mass Entertainment (320 pp, hardback) by Lee Jackson is published by Yale University Press with a cover price of £15.99.

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