Asylum music and the Listening Experience Database

Yesterday I gave a conference presentation as part of a panel together with my colleagues from the Open University, Helen Barlow, Martin Clarke, Trevor Herbert and David Rowland. All four of my co-presenters are working on a project known as the ‘Listening Experience Database’, an attempt to collect together thousands of records of personal experiences of listening to music from across the centuries, including diaries, letters and memoirs. We challenged ourselves to sift for evidence of listening by the ‘lower orders’, who traditionally have left very little behind in terms of written documents. I joined them to talk about the evidence I have found about lower class engagement in music from my work on music in asylums, and particularly the large, state-run pauper asylums that form the core of my work at the moment.

It was something of a challenge to tease out the real evidence for listening from among the small mountains of records I’ve now extracted from asylum archives. So much of my work has been about uncovering the types of music performed, when, where and by whom, but what had I actually found out about the experiences of those listening to the music? The answer was precious little. I have found almost nothing about individual patients’ reactions to music, and no records from patients themselves about the music they heard. But what I did have was quite a lot of bits and pieces about the intended effect of music – the ideal ‘listening experience’ – of the patients in pauper asylums. In the Superintendents’ Annual Reports and elsewhere there are snippets that suggest music’s use as a therapeutic tool, and the ways in which, for some patients, the effect of music were remarkably beneficial.

As it turned out, most of the evidence we could muster between us was similarly recorded by writers of the middle and upper classes, by outsiders or onlookers, potentially skewing their views with the need to make a particular argument or create a certain impression. By piecing together evidence like the documents I have found in the asylum archives, we can build up quite a picture about the types of music the lower classes might have heard, and the contexts in which they themselves participated in music making. We can even gain a sense of the purpose behind some of the musical experiences, particularly when these were provided or encouraged by the (more-or-less) benevolent upper classes, who had their own agendas and ideas about how the workers should be spending their time and money. All these help to give a sense of working class musical experience, despite the frustrating elusiveness of their own testimony.

The LED project website can be found here: http://led.kmi.open.ac.uk/

Bethlem

Bethlem is one of the more substantial privately-run asylums I have investigated, providing a contrast with the large County pauper asylums. Like the York Retreat, Bethlem was a charitable institution. It had been founded as part of the work of a Priory in Bishopsgate, which took in and cared for the insane from the fourteenth century. In 1815 the Hospital found new, purpose-built accommodation in St George’s Fields in Southwark. While at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Bethlem was a similar size to other private asylums and the first of the new state-run asylums, the growth of pauper asylums meant Bethlem did not expand to the same extent during the nineteenth century, and it moved towards catering for the poor educated class, who were not counted as paupers, but could not afford private care.

Bethlem’s arrangements and size meant music did not develop along the same lines as in larger institutions. The institution lacked the funds to build a large recreation hall until the 1890s, and staff numbers were insufficient to support a band or large-scale entertainments. However, the Hospital boasted numerous supporters who provided amateur music making and theatricals, tickets to the theatre or funds for visiting performers. Bethlem’s situation in London also meant a wide variety of entertainment opportunities were available. Middle-class patients meant many were trained in music, and the women’s galleries hosted small parties on a regular basis. In the 1880s an influx of musically-talented Medical Officers, particularly successive Medical Superintendents R. Percy Smith and Theo B. Hyslop, brought with them friends and colleagues which made frequent concerts and musical gatherings possible.

A Report in the Hospital Magazine Under the Dome from 1898 gives a flavour of the kinds of entertainment on offer by the end of the century:

On December 2nd we all had a great treat at the Musical Evening. The Recreation Hall was turned into a huge drawing room, and looked in every way worthy of our great institution. Dr. Hyslop must be congratulated upon having obtained the services of a number of really good artistes, and all the professional performers kindly gave their services free. Miss M. Chatterton again gave us two charming solos upon the harp. The bell-ringing by Mr. Hopkins was also a great success. The songs by Miss A. Kinnison, Mr Hofler, Dr. Rice, and Mr. Lane were all well received.’