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The only way is Rochdale (3)


Post by Jenny Hughes

To return to the records of entertainments taking place in Dearnley workhouse in Rochdale during the final third of the 19th century (see previous posts – The only way is Rochdale 1 and 2). I found at least one entertainment for each month of the years I looked at, mostly spread through the Christmas ‘season’, which stretched from December and sometimes into March. There were groups of singers and entertainers visiting the workhouse, as well as invitations from local theatres and other places (circuses, fairs) to inmates to see entertainments elsewhere. Most years, for example, children and inmates were invited by the manager of the local theatre to a free performance of the pantomime (although this was stopped in the late 1890s for a reason I’ve been unable to discern as yet). By the 1880s, there is evidence that the Guardians of the poor were so inundated with requests from groups to give entertainments, that they decided to put a system in place, suspending entertainments for the summer months. Minutes for 1887 periodically note timetabling clashes arising from groups wanting to come and give entertainments on the same day. A report on the Board of Guardians meeting in the Rochdale Observer on 11th January 1888 commented that ‘a desultory conversation arose out of an application which had been made by the Littleborough Temperance Hall people to be allowed to give a performance in the Workhouse. The opinion was expressed that the concerts and performances at the Workhouse were becoming burdensome and somewhat expensive, and were not always appreciated by the inmates themselves. Permission was granted’. By 1897, the Guardians placed an annual advertisement in the local newspaper in the months leading up to Christmas, asking groups who wished to give an entertainment at the workhouse over the coming season to contact the Clerk by a given deadline, after which he (it was a he) would timetable the season as a whole!

I don’t want to suggest, by the way, that those living in Dearnley workhouse had it easy – these entertainments, sometimes ‘treats’, sometimes ‘instructive’, sometimes morally and spiritually uplifting, took place as part of a system based on an extraordinary level of surveillance, deprivation, discipline and punishment of the poor. There are broader ‘performances’ going on here – of concern for the sanctity, improvement and edification of the poor by the powerful gentry and growing middle class of the town. Inside these, there are a number of possible lines of interpretation – entertainments in the workhouse express complex responses to, perhaps, ongoing anxiety about the never-decreasing mass of poor people in the town, anxieties amongst the new middle classes about their relationship to the gentry and the precarious labouring classes, concerns about how the poor were using recreation or leisure time, and a particular role for philanthropy and gift-giving in the new civic culture emergent in the town. Here, civic authority shows its humanitarian face, affirming new modes and networks of power in the later period of industrialisation.

I think the records of entertainments found can be grouped into 4 categories (I’ve put them in an order that roughly reflects their likely frequency of their occurrence – that is, the frequency with which they appear in the records):

1) Religious groups offering concerts, including local choirs and also groups of children from Rochdale’s many Sunday schools coming to the workhouse to sing sacred songs, perform dialogues and recitations, and sacred dramas for the poor.
2) Temperance Society entertainments that included testimonials, lantern shows, recitations, songs and sketches.
3) Performances from amateur groups participating in the newly emergent civic culture in Rochdale, in the main offering concerts – choral, orchestral and band performances, including singing, recitation and instrumental music, but also sketches and dialogues. These groups included glee clubs, minstrel groups, lady choirs and orchestral performers, including the Police band and Postmen’s band.
4) Popular entertainments – pantomime, dioramas, fairs – sometimes with an instructional bent, and sometimes not.

It is also likely that there was instruction in music – singing and playing instruments, and military style ‘drills’ – in the workhouse school (and in other schools attended by poor children in Rochdale) – musical interventions like these played a particular role in the education of poor children in the 19th century.

Clearly – there’s a bias towards musical performance here. Peter Bailey’s comment, when describing the emergence of ‘rational recreation’ in this period, that ‘because of its non-representational character, music was generally thought to be the least corruptible of the arts’ is interesting here (Leisure and Class in Victorian England, p72). I found one example of a request from an amateur dramatic group to give a performance – but this was refused by the Guardians. It is unclear why the request was refused, but it may have been because of anti-theatrical prejudice of this period – the fear that theatrical performance was morally corrosive. I’m looking into this at the moment and will post more soon.

Here’s an example from the third category above drawing on the workhouse records, and other sources, such as the Rochdale Observer, Rochdale Almanac and Annals of Rochdale):

In 1877, the Christmas following its opening, the Guardians of the poor treated 300 inmates of Dearnley workhouse to a Christmas dinner of ‘good old English fare’, after which members of the Orpheus glee club performed recitations, humorous songs and a violin solo. The humorous songs were encored, and the entertainment was followed by addresses from Mr Maden and Mr Scowcroft (from the Board of Guardians) ‘rendering good advice’ especially to the young. The celebrations ended with dancing – once the children had been taken away – accompanied by piano and violin. As such, the Christmas entertainment was a mirror of the opening of the workhouse attended by the local gentry (when the Orpheus glee club also performed) and, as the Rochdale Observer noted ‘how different were the guests!’ The Orpheus glee club was a gentleman’s club – around 20 gentlemen met weekly (on Monday evenings) at the Lyceum – their first meeting was in 1874 and the group were still meeting in the late 1880s. The Lyceum in Rochdale opened in 1862, modelled on the Mechanics Institutes, and aiming to provide for ‘the diffusion of knowledge to all classes’, like the Mechanics Institutes nationally, the Lyceum tended to attract the middle rather than labouring class or unemployed. Glee clubs were ‘respectable’ ventures, popular from the middle of the 18th century – the Orpheus glee club was likely to contain a mixture of the gentleman class in Rochdale and the new middle class successful in manufacturing and merchandising, and their children (after a bit more research – I’ve discovered that the previous sentence is incorrect so am jumping in with an edit here – a ‘Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser’ report on 12th November 1883 reviews the Orpheus glee club performance at ‘Mr Cross’s concert’ in Manchester. The report says that the glee club consisted of 20 male voices, and members were ‘principally, if not entirely, working men … They sing with much precision, and attention to light and shade, and are evidently thoroughly under command’. This provides a different perspective on the song below, which I’ll post more about soon). Glee clubs were a counter to the popular, folk – and perhaps more carnivalesque – aural cultures of England, and inspired by the role of music in classical antiquity, as a means of enhancing moral and intellectual endeavour. I’ve not been able to find out what songs were sung at the opening of the workhouse or at the Christmas entertainment that followed, but in 1880 the Orpheus glee club entertained at the opening of a coffee house in Sudden (near Rochdale). They sang ‘The fine old English gentleman’ (see http://www.link4life.org/discover/local-history-online/rochdale/articles-about-sudden-from-the-rochdale-observer). This famous glee mourns the passing of an English gentleman ‘of the olden time’, who, by opening the doors of his mansion to the poor, exhibited the English values of fraternity and companionship across classes:

‘When winter old, brought frost and cold, he open’d house to all,
And though threescore and ten his years, he featly led the ball.
Nor was the houseless wanderer e’er driven from his hall,
Nor while he feasted all the great he ne’er forgot the small,
Like a fine old English gentleman, all of the olden time’

(lyrics taken from www.traditionalmusic.co.uk)

I wonder if the Orpheus glee club also performed this song at the Christmas entertainment at the workhouse, and if so, how did the poor engage with, react to, or resist such a performance? The Guardians comment that the inmates did not always appreciate the entertainments at the workhouse (mentioned in a previous post ‘The only way is Rochdale 2’) is important here … and, in the absence of the voices of the poor in historical records, questions about inmates’ responses will have to be conjectured from this and other fragments of evidence. Notably, the Rochdale Observer report on Christmas in the workhouse the following year said that the entertainment included a good dinner followed by songs ‘admirably rendered’ by officers and male and female inmates. I wonder what the inmates sang in response to lyrical reminders, evident in the glee above, of the supposed fraternity between rich and poor in the town?

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