The leisure activities of willful workers in Schiedam

Date of news: 21 September 2021

What did the workers in Schiedam, a city in the southwest of the Netherlands, do in their spare time between 1850 and 1975? And what does that say about the zeitgeist and socio-economic changes? Historian Paul Bassant mapped it out on the basis of various forms of leisure - from street life to theatre visits. He will defend his dissertation on September 23.

The leisure activities of workers in Schiedam from the middle of the nineteenthCover_proefschrift_paul_bassant century to the end of the twentieth century were a matter of concern. Various authorities – government, ecclesiastical and political leaders as well as private individuals – tried to ‘civilize’ the lower classes by directing them in what they did in their spare time. The leisure activities of workers have been studied mainly from the perspective of authorities and operators and less from the perspective of workers themselves, says historian Paul Bassant. ‘We were missing something in this way. It is precisely in their free time that people shape their identity.’ For his research into leisure activities for and by workers in Schiedam, Bassant mapped out the role of the (local) authorities, providers of entertainment and the workers themselves, in the period between 1850 and 1975.

Financial interests

Bassant's research clearly shows the patronising attitude which the authorities constantly adopted towards Schiedam workers: all undesirable activities had to be channelled. Political views on what constituted more or less desirable entertainment led to restrictions, but also to new initiatives. Financial interests played a major role. For example, the funfair in Schiedam was abolished in 1906 (and returned after the Second World War), but this did not happen without a struggle. The moral objections to the fair (debauchery of the workers) had to compete with the financial importance of the fair for the municipal treasury and the local entrepreneurs. In order to entice workers into a ‘more civilized’ way of spending their leisure time, the authorities promoted popular development activities, from organizing lectures to opening parks.

Café owners, cinema and dance club owners sought a balance between the wishes of the workers and the regulations of the municipality. They had to comply with the restrictions imposed by the local authorities in order not to lose their permits, but they did not want to alienate their customers. In the early twentieth century, pub owners regularly successfully lobbied against limiting opening hours, but in many cases, they simply chose to cooperate with authorities and follow regulations.


Workers themselves created their own amusement and made selective use of what was being offered to them. They were not a group that simply endured whatever the authorities had imposed on them. Bassant: ‘Social reformers in Schiedam had to make concessions almost continuously in order to lure workers to their activities. In the People's House, the visitors mainly made use of the relaxation room to play cards and billiards and ignored the reading room. Many workers also joined only to attend the cheap music and drama evenings and ignored the other activities that were offered. Many workers did not sit still at the folk concerts, because they came to have fun. In the early twentieth century, working-class youth took advantage of the quiet, private character of the parks in Schiedam by turning them into a place for romantic encounters. During the crisis years, workers used the public library's reading room as a cosy space to read newspapers and warm up. Workers could thus passively resist by ignoring the things offered that they did not like.


Bassant's research shows that workers in Schiedam not only resisted, but also developed conforming behaviour of their own accord. ‘It's not a sign of submission, but it emphasizes that workers made their own choices in their spare time’, Bassant says. ‘In Schiedam, you will find various forms of recreation that were developed by the higher classes and that were popular with workers. For example, the popularity of football among workers grew rapidly and they adopted the rules of the game from the upper classes without any problem. Workers also visited the Plantation to quietly walk and converse. For workers' association evenings, the organisers mainly opted for a program with forms originally developed by and for the upper classes, such as speeches and a ball.'


The changes in leisure activities are closely related to broader social developments. For example, the Labour Act of 1919 gave workers more disposable income in addition to more leisure time. Around 1920 there was therefore a temporary increase in excessive drinking in Schiedam. High rates of unemployment during the crisis of the 1930s put several pub owners in a difficult financial position, with their business declining sharply. Workers showed a greater interest in training activities during these years of crisis, and there was a greater flow to the libraries for textbooks.

From a long-term perspective, the rising prosperity in the second half of the twentieth century had other, varying consequences. Workers became more homely, at the expense of nightlife. The depillarisation in the Netherlands from the second half of the twentieth century was also visible in Schiedam. In the libraries, it led to the gradual blurring of the differences between the Catholic and public libraries. The number of members of cultural associations declined, while new pillarised sports clubs were established. Bassant: ‘What this research shows is that workers conformed to certain forms of behaviour and beliefs, but they also clung to their own interests and habits in all sorts of ways. In their spare time – perhaps especially in their spare time – they were more resilient and had more organising capacity than is often assumed.'

Paul Bassant's defence will be on September 23. The defense can be followed via a live stream.