Talk at Anglia Ruskin University

It was a great pleasure to present some of my research at the monthly seminar series held at Anglia Ruskin University yesterday. I was particularly pleased to have an audience of musicians, musicologists and music therapists, and delighted that my historical work found many resonances with modern-day practitioners. As part of our discussion some interesting questions were raised, some of which I’ll ponder a little further in this post.

Most of the photographic evidence of musical performers I shared involved men only. Were women involved and how? This is largely due to the fact that most of the asylum bands were composed of men. It would not have been acceptable for women to play brass or wind instruments, and even among female instrumentalists few performed in public ensembles. Within the pauper asylums which have been the focus of most of my work, women were to be found playing music. Some of the asylums formed chapel choirs, and while some of these were male-only (the photos of the Wakefield choir show that the top line was taken by boys, some of whom were sons of asylum staff), some included female staff and, occasionally, patients. Women were also most likely to be found playing the piano or organ: at Norwich, local women were employed as organists in the 1860s, and in many institutions the female relatives of male employees took on the role of organist or pianist. Women played a much greater part in musical activities at the private or charitable asylums, where both patients and staff were likely to be of the middle classes and to have received some musical training. Here, musical soirees, chamber concerts or ad hoc music making in the female wards imitated the lively social lives many of these women would have pursued outside the asylum.

How did the presence of musical activities change the relationship between patients and staff, or contribute to a sense of community? I have no doubt that the introduction of events such as dances and fairs had an enormous impact on the community spirit, as well as individual wellbeing, of asylum patients and staff during the nineteenth century. Such events were also effective in drawing support and goodwill from the outside community too, particularly where local benefactors were able to see the successful work of the asylums. In many of the smaller, private asylums the medical staff and management aimed for a sense of ‘family’, sharing meals and leisure time with patients; both formal and informal musical activity would have developed naturally as part of this and, again, helped imitate life outside institutional walls. It is harder to trace similar trends in the large pauper asylums – partly because they were so large, with many expanding from a few hundred patients to over a thousand by 1900. The sense of family and familiarity would not have been cultivated in the same way: attendants were perhaps on a similar social level to the patients, but medical officers would have maintained a distance. Nevertheless, at some institutions (such as Wakefield and Brookwood near Woking), even the more senior officers were willing to take part in musical and theatrical events, and I am sure this helped to present a more ‘human’ side to the patients.

Finally, much of the kinds of activities I’ve discussed in my work were still present in the old asylums up until their closure in the 1970s and 1980s. How much was retained and how did it change during the twentieth century? This is a question for future research but I think the relationship between the arts and medicine needs general attention throughout my studies. The place of music certainly changed during the nineteenth century. Psychiatric medicine received a great deal of attention from the 1860s, with increasing medicalisation as well as professionalisation at all levels. While medics began to specialise, nurses and attendants also began to receive dedicated training and accreditation. Many institutions found that this made it more difficult to maintain the ad hoc participation in bands, choirs and other activities. From my research, it seems to me that music and entertainments were maintained as part of the asylums’ general work with patient wellbeing, but became less directly related with therapeutic treatment.

All these areas need further consideration and I’m very grateful to yesterday’s audience for raising such interesting points.



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