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The ethical value of theatre


Post by Jenny Hughes

The editorial page of the Guardian newspaper on 31st January 1890 gave a brief account of a debate amongst the Poor Law Guardians of Bolton on ‘the ethical value of theatre – especially, of course, in its relation to the future welfare of pauper children’. Mr Elliston, manager of Bolton Theatre Royal, also a Poor Law Guardian, had offered the workhouse children free tickets to the pantomime – an invitation that was refused by the workhouse committee, with one member attributing the ‘ruin of thousands’ to the theatre. This decision was later overturned by the Board of Guardians, to the approval of the newspaper, which signed off the editorial with the comment ‘when we look at what life will be for most of them, it would be harsh indeed to deny them a pleasure so great and harmless’.

The description of the discussion evokes the concerns of the Withington workhouse Guardians (see ‘pantomime’ post below) that engagement with the theatre would expose pauper children to a taste of a life which they would not have access in the future, destined as they are to become poorly paid labourers and domestic servants:

‘“the increasing entertainments and outings the workhouse children enjoy are calculated to have an untoward effect upon them at a time when they will have to earn their own livelihood”. Apparently … the Bolton workhouse children are so surfeited with the good things of life now that their stomachs would revolt from the sober necessities of daily toil when they enter the humdrum workaday world’. The editors agree that ‘inordinate pursuit of amusement enervates mind and body alike for the real duties of existence’, but also consider that this phenomena ‘might perhaps be found in lordly homes, gilded saloons, some “well to do” houses ‘ than the children’s ward at the workhouse.

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