Some unforeseen circumstances have prevented me updating this blog in recent months. In March I presented some of my work on music in asylums as part of a broader paper on approaches to musical listening in nineteenth-century Britain, as part of the Listening Experience Database conference in Milton Keynes (see http://www.listeningexperience.org/the-experience-of-listening-to-music-methodologies-identities-histories/). I discussed music as therapy alongside examples from my work on music education through public concerts in 1860s Edinburgh, and debates from the 1890s on the role of emotion and intellect in music appreciation. Together these demonstrated some of the ways in which music listening was constructed and approached, beyond the standard concert hall audience. It was interesting, again, to consider the use of music as therapy specifically from the standpoint of listening to music, and particularly the ways in which this intersected with contemporary ideas about music, musical knowledge and the brain.

The very end of March saw the culmination of a project on the music profession in nineteenth-century Britain, with the publication of a volume of essays on this topic (see https://www.routledge.com/The-Music-Profession-in-Britain-1780-1920-New-Perspectives-on-Status/Golding/p/book/9781138291867). This may appear only tangentially related to my current work on music, health and asylums, but it was during some research into the profession of organist in the nineteenth century that I first came across advertisements for asylum organists. This eventually set me off on my current path.

I have also been working on new ways to bring my research to the public, collaborating on a series of recitals based around the theme of music and madness. More on this later this year!

In the meantime this blog will be taking a period of maternity leave.


Dementia, Ticehurst Asylum and the ‘Created out of Mind’ project

Yesterday afternoon I attended a fascinating session run by a small group of dementia specialists as part of the ‘Created out of Mind’ project, a large-scale undertaking supported by the Wellcome Trust and aimed at tackling representations and public perception of dementia. This group are examining the problem from a historical perspective, working the some of the archive holdings at the Wellcome Trust to investigate ways in which dementia patients were viewed and treated during the nineteenth century. This is fascinating work, made tricky by the fact that modern-day definitions of ‘dementia’ were not established until much later. During the nineteenth century, dementia might be listed as a cause of mental illness, but was not associated with any particular age group. It might also be given as a manifestation of illness – describing someone’s actions or state, rather than the underlying medical condition.

The project has focussed around the archives associated with Ticehurst House, an exclusive private asylum used by the very upper echelons of society. In many ways, therefore, it is not particularly representative of asylum life and care during the period. However, the general features do bear much in common with some of the other asylums I have studied. Like the middle-class private and charitable institutions (such as the Holloway Sanitorium and Barnwood House near Gloucester), Ticehurst aimed to recreate the social experience of patients within a safe environment. Facilities were lavish, with lovely grounds, sporting opportunities, music and other leisure pursuits on offer. Patient numbers were small: usually around 40-50 in residence, so the ‘family’ atmosphere was cultivated among both patients and staff. As elsewhere, reports from visiting Commissioners, for example, commented on the availability of reading material. In one case from 1851, ten different newspapers and periodicals were circulated each day, far exceeding the provision in the county pauper asylums.

It was particularly interesting to see the archive collections through the eyes of practitioners – experts in some of the illnesses patients might be suffering, rather than their historical context. More generally, the Created out of Mind project has been working closely with a number of musicians to reflect the research they’ve undertaken into perceptions and experiences of dementia. With advances in medical understanding so clear, it’s sometimes difficult to see where historical research can add to current practice, but in raising awareness and opening up new conversations, it is clearly a useful and beneficial route to take.


The Ticehurst archives have been digitised. Readers might be particularly interested in a photograph album from the late 19th/ early 20th century, showing views of the exterior and interior of the house: https://wellcomelibrary.org/item/b18923756#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=5&z=-0.1163%2C-0.0393%2C1.2324%2C0.7742


Over the last few weeks I have completed my set of archive studies with a visit to the records office in Cambridge, which holds the documents relevant to the former asylum at Fulbourn, a few miles south of the city. Cambridgeshire was one of the last counties to found an asylum, seeking initially to share the cost with neighbouring counties and eventually setting up a three-way arrangement between Cambridgeshire, the Isle of Ely (now part of Cambridgeshire) and the Borough of Cambridge. Their reticence was largely based around cost: Cambridgeshire was not, at that time, a wealthy county, being largely rural. The attitude which delayed the building of the asylum persisted and the overseers remained very careful about committing further expenses to the asylum.

As one might expect from this background, music and other recreational activities were not high on the agenda for the asylum’s management. In fact, there is disappointingly little information at all in the annual reports, although repeated pressure from the Commissioners for Lunacy suggests that Fulbourn did not meet their expectations in terms of provision for patients’ leisure activities. A recreation hall was very slow to be founded, with ad hoc arrangements used until the 1880s, while in the mid-1890s the asylum’s visitors were suggesting pianos might be purchased for the wards. Although there is very little detail on the provision for recreational activity, reports allude to a band from the 1870s and the establishment of a chapel choir in the 1880s, both features in common with many other asylums.

One of the problems facing management at Fulbourn was its location in proximity to Cambridge and London. It was reportedly difficult to engage suitable attendants and nurses from among the local population; those who were employed from further afield expected the high salaries offered by London institutions, which were impossible for the cash-strapped Cambridgeshire asylum. It may have been as a result of this that the staff needed to form a resident band or choir were simply not available, or that a high turnover made musical training impossible. Nevertheless, the efforts of staff in providing musical entertainment are (as elsewhere) highly praised. Musical experience within the asylum remained heavily dependent on the individual talents and commitment of staff (both officers and attendants) as well as the financial position of the institution and its location.

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.


Writings about insanity

I have started to extend my research by looking into the writings of some of the characters who appeared in asylum archives during the nineteenth century, most particularly the Medical Superintendents who were responsible for patient care in each asylum. One important writing was William Ellis’s Treatise ‘on the nature, symptoms, causes, and treatment of insanity’, published in 1838. Ellis started his career at Wakefield asylum, one of my case studies, though by the time he wrote his treatise he was at Hanwell in Middlesex, an asylum famous for its early adoption of ‘non-restraint’ of patients. His treatise combines a lot of information on his understanding of mental illness, together with lots of examples from his personal experience. These show the effectiveness of using employment to rouse melancholy patients, as well as his own preference for blood-letting and other physical treatments.

Sir William Charles Ellis. Lithograph by W. L. Aldous.
The Wellcome Library, London / Universal Images Group

Ellis makes little mention of music or other entertainments as a core feature of the new pauper lunatic asylums. However, he does consider these kinds of provisions as essential for institutions intended for the middle- and upper-classes. ‘In a well-regulated institution’, he says, ‘every means ought to be invented for calling into exercise as many of the mental faculties as remained capable of employment. We must remember, that the happiness of man, whatever be his situation in life, consists in the proper and harmonious exercise of all his powers, moral, mental, and physical.’ Whereas pauper patients could be occupied by work in the farm, workshops or domestic duties, these would not be suitable for patients of a higher class. Ellis recommends ‘a mansion should be provided, with park, woods, lawns, hot-houses, gardens, and green-houses. It should be fitted, internally, with every convenience and luxury for the gratification of the taste. Science and the fine arts ought to be pressed into the service of stimulating the dormant faculties to healthy exercise.’ A music room, for daily use, together with weekly organised concerts, formed part of this plan.

Later on in his book Ellis reveals that music was not entirely absent from Hanwell, even at this relatively early stage. Patients and staff gathered each Sunday afternoon to practice singing for the evening’s service, and an organ had recently been purchased for use not only in he chapel, but also for weekly secular concerts.

The problem of occupying the higher classes, who were not suited to manual work, extended to the paupers on Sundays, and to many of the pauper female patients. As the success of employment became widely recognised, alternative occupations including music, reading and outside activities were more prevalent among the pauper inhabitants.

Public talk at Bethlem

It was great to have a large and appreciative audience for my talk at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind on Saturday 1 July. There were a number of interesting questions, including some comments about the comparison between Victorian approaches to mental health care and modern-day structures. I’ll definitely aim to follow up how music was used during the first half of the twentieth century, before ‘music therapy’ became established and theorized after the second world war. I’m also planning to work more closely with music therapists to investigate the two systems side-by-side and look at a comparison in detail.

If you attended the talk and would like to make a comment, or have any further questions, please do comment on this blog or drop me an email – I am always keen to hear from anyone interested in the project.

Bethlem talk

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/