Since the early 19th century, instrumental voluntary intervention in leisure has been a prominent aspect of social reform. Despite this, leisure remains relatively neglected in the historiography of voluntary action. This article reviews the changing social meanings of leisure and voluntary action between 1830 and 1939 and argues that leisure has been crucial to the development of the voluntary movement. While much intervention was repressive, leisure was also understood as a social good that could be promoted through voluntary action. After the First World War, leisure was seen by the National Council of Social Service to be a prerequisite of a progressive society. It is argued that the historical relationships between voluntary action and leisure have the capacity to inform current policy in terms of state–voluntary partnership and ideas of the common good.
This article is an extended version of an article presented at the seminar ‘Volunteering as Leisure: Leisure as Volunteering’ at the University of Sheffield on 4 June 2014, organised by the Voluntary Sector Studies Network, the Voluntary Action History Society and the Leisure Studies Association.