Entertainment was an important part of daily life for Victorians. While the middle class had the time for evenings out and hobbies at home, the working class used games and entertainment as a way of escaping their day-to-day routine of hard work.

Theatre halls were one of the most popular forms of entertainment. Performances were regularly given by theatre troupes, ventriloquists, hypnotists, poets, comedians, choirs and orchestras.

Illusionists and spiritualists were popular attractions in theatres. Audiences would sit amazed as ghosts appeared on stage and automata solved mathematical puzzles. Renowned performers appeared to levitate, slice the heads off spectators and escape out of locked boxes.

The opening of the Watford Palace of Varieties was the most exciting, anticipated and culturally significant event in the local area. The theatre gave shows twice nightly. The first, from 7.00pm to 8.45pm, was for working men who could enjoy the entertainment without it interfering with their working day. The second, from 9.00pm to 10.50pm, was for businessmen and tradesmen who worked until 8.00pm.

Built by the Baber Brothers of Maidstone, the theatre gallery caused some council concern, but the architect asserted that it would bear six times the weight of a possible maximum attendance.

Just in case, a fireman was present at each performance.

The World’s Fair caused much excitement when it arrived in Watford. During the Victorian era the exhibitions were primarily focused on trade, with displays of technological inventions and advancements including the first public display of the telephone.

One of the most popular events in Watford, attracting crowds of 4,000 people, was the annual Whitsun Horse Show and the procession of floats and carriages from the High Street station to the West Herts Club and Ground.

From 1843, Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors documented recent murders, exhibiting uncanny likenesses of the murderers within a few days of their executions. Even though Jack the Ripper’s identity still has not been discovered, from 1888 visitors could see his waxwork.

The zoo in Regent’s Park was opened to the public in 1828, with the world’s first reptile house opening there in 1843. The zoo became famous for its rattlesnakes and giraffes.

The bathing place at Watford was much improved during the Victorian era and attracted 100 people a day. In 1846 the Government passed the Baths and Washhouses Act to encourage the provision of public baths. They were desirable because they encouraged cleanliness. Public baths made it much easier for people living in cramped and dirty houses to wash themselves and their clothes.

At the Watford baths, ladies were given special, exclusive two-hour slots a day so that modest women would not have to be seen in their bathing costumes by the opposite sex.

Reading was a growing pastime in Watford, particularly since the introduction of compulsory elementary education. Fiction, followed by travel books, were the most popular.

In the nineteenth century, penny dreadfuls became popular. The cheap serial fiction was produced in weekly instalments and detailed rambling narratives concerning poisoning, strangling, burglary, flagellation and narrow escapes from murder and assault. Even those who couldn’t read could still enjoy the lurid woodcuts included alongside the stories.

Authors could keep 10 of these stories spinning simultaneously. They were paid at the rate of a penny a line, which had a noticeable effect on the text. Skilled practitioners would take advantage of this by leaving one or two words hanging at the end of a paragraph.

The penny dreadful was typically a genre for boys. Boys were often both the protagonists in the stories and the readers of them – and also the ones most in need of protection from their influence. Alfred Harmsworth, future owner of the Daily Mail, claimed: ‘The police court reports in the newspapers are alone sufficient proof of the harm done by penny dreadfuls. It makes thieves of the coming generation, and so helps fill our gaols.’

There were certainly many young boys in Watford and the surrounding areas appearing in the court lists during this time, with charges ranging from stealing to assault.