Then along came the Industrial Revolution and put an end to all that. The factory smoke blotted out the sun, demands of industry destroyed our innocence and long working hours took away any chance we had of finding pleasure in leisure.
In fact, for most people there never was such a pre-industrial golden age. High days and holidays were strictly rationed. Apart from hiring fairs and annual rushbearing ceremonies, most people were far too busy trying to make ends meet to think overmuch about enjoying themselves.
But the Industrial Revolution certainly made matters worse. If you work 14 or 15 hours a day in a factory, there is precious little time left for anything other than eating and sleeping.
Whole generations of workers existed in this way before the law was changed to make their lives a little easier and the pursuit of knowledge and happiness less daunting.
Demands for a shorter working week began to gather pace in 1832. Michael Sadler and Richard Oastler, champions of the fight for the 10-hour day, were present at a massive meeting at Campfield in Manchester as children sang a plea for shorter hours.
First success came with the Factory Act of 1833, which prohibited the employment of children under nine in cotton mills and restricted the hours that older children could work. It also prohibited night work for youngsters and made educational provisions.
A new Factory Act of 1844 further increased the restrictions and extended its terms to the employment of women, and it was this that was to open the way, in 1847, for the full Ten-Hour Act to become law for workers of both sexes and all ages.
It was patchy in its coverage and less than ideal in its provisions, but it was a start and for many, it opened the door to a new life in which education, self-improvement, sport and pastimes began to take their rightful place.
Sport, of course, was not a new phenomenon. Drake had finished off a game of bowls before seeing off the Spanish Armada, while there is some reason to suspect that a form of football - perhaps using a human head - had been practised by the Roman legions. Archery was always popular, not just in wartime, while golf and horse racing were the preserve of the wealthy.
But now, the ability to watch and take part in sport was available to the masses. Workers had time available for leisure, and a year before the enactment of the 10-Hour Bill, in 1846, Manchester and Salford had opened their first three public parks - Peel Park, Queen's Park and Philips Park - providing the space and facilities.
The ability to travel quickly and conveniently between towns and cities improved sporting contacts - it is no coincidence that county cricket grounds, for instance, are all situated in places with good rail connections.
Cricket produced perhaps the first great sporting hero in Dr William Gilbert Grace (1848-1915), who made his Gloucestershire debut in 1864 and captained the England Test team against Australia in 1880 and again two years later.
Australia's first touring cricket team had arrived in England in 1868, playing 47 matches and embarrassing English gentlemen by recording 14 victories and 19 draws.
But for both spectators and participants, cricket long remained an up-market sport. Working men could not afford to take time off to watch games that could take several days, while the differentiation between "gentlemen" (the amateur elite) and "players" (professionals) survived until long after the Second World War and was even marked by an annual match between the two groups.
Football had a far more immediate and popular appeal, especially for spectators: Instead of taking days to complete, a match was over in less than a couple of hours. But even this game, which includes rugby as well as soccer, had upper-crust origins, growing up in the English public schools in the first half of the 19th century. Rugby and soccer developed side by side until 1863, when adherents of the round-ball, kicking game broke away to form the Football Association - the word "soccer" being a derivative of "association."
A year earlier, the Notts County football club had been formed - now the oldest soccer club in the world. Within a few years, most of the cotton towns had their own teams, many of them based on church or Sunday school. Bolton Wanderers (1874),
AN early soccer match ... already people were watching sporting events as well as playing
In 1888, the Football League competition was inaugurated, with 12 founder members - Accrington, Aston Villa, Blackburn, Bolton, Burnley, Derby, Everton, Notts County, Preston, Stoke, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
It was not until 1871 that the Rugby Union was formed, and 1895 before the Northern Football Union - ancestor of the Rugby League - was created as a Northern, working-man's game, with players allowed to receive payment. In between those two events, the first All-England Lawn Tennis Championships had been staged at Wimbledon, in 1877. American Football evolved from Rugby Union in the 1880s.
The ability to read among working-class adults in the early and mid-19th century was probably more widespread than has been imagined, although writing lagged far behind. Circulating libraries, established from the late 18th century onwards, fed a common taste for fiction, and companies like Boots and W H Smith operated large and successful libraries.
But the introduction of free public libraries, operated by local councils, proved a major turning point. The first of these were set up from 1847 onwards, and they spread rapidly following the Public Libraries Act of 1850, which authorised councils to levy a halfpenny rate to fund libraries and museums. Salford's public library and museum were opened in Peel Park that same year, By the end of the century, the country boasted about 400 libraries.
The spread of newspapers was even more dramatic. London boasted no fewer than 52 papers by the first decade of the 19th century, and to that could be added 100-plus in the provinces. This growth came about despite expensive restrictions such as Stamp and Paper Duties, which were only partially eased in the 1830s and were not finally abandoned until 1855.
The Times first appeared in 1785 and The Observer six years later. The Manchester Guardian was published originally in 1821 as a direct result of the Peterloo Massacre of two years earlier, while the advent of railways opened up the possibilities of mass circulation, with the Daily Telegraph, the first cheap daily newspaper, taking advantage both of ease of distribution and the removal of Stamp Duty when it was printed for the first time in 1855.
Of course, the railways made travel easier, too: as early as 1841, Thomas Cook organised his first holiday tour - a day trip from Leicester to Loughborough. Before the end of the century, many millworkers were saving to take annual holidays and resorts like Blackpool grew up to cater for them. Each cotton town had its own "Wakes", or holiday week, and these were staggered over the summer so that the resorts were not swamped by trippers. Even as late as the 1960s, places like Bury and Rochdale became ghost towns for a week each summer - mills shut down and shops and businesses closed because their customers had all gone to the seaside.
Adult education owed much to the Mechanics' Institutes, the first of which appeared in Scotland and which spread to London by 1823 and then quickly into the Northern manufacturing districts.
Henry Brougham, Lord Chancellor from 1820 to 1834, helped to foster the movement with the publication of his Observations Upon the Education of the People in 1825, and the institutes proved a success, despite Tory criticism of the rise of "the reading rabble" and suspicions that there was an element of social control about the way some of the institutes were backed by industrialists.
The Elementary Education Act of 1880 made school attendance compulsory to the age of 10. This was raised to 12 before the turn of the century, although children who had reached a certain standard were allowed to work half time in factories until this was abolished in 1918.