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Training the pauper child – musical performance


Post by Jenny Hughes

Musical performance – singing, playing an instrument, performing in an orchestral or brass band – was a core part of the educational curriculum for the poor child in the 19th century. Musical performance was seen as a means of personal and social education and a disciplinary force (a means of developing good ‘character’, as well as of inducting the child into a collective). Learning to sing, play and march was an effective counter to the ‘contagion’ of poverty as well as preparation for entering society as a productive worker who understood his or her place in the order of things.

I’ve been exploring the new Poor Law in 1834, which transformed social welfare at the time, introducing an architecture of welfare (including that of the workhouse) that complemented and was deemed suitable for the new labouring classes of the industrial revolution. The poor law sought to compel every able person to work for a living, with access to welfare for healthy adults conditional on their performance of work.

In the same year that Dicken’s published Oliver Twist – 1838 – the central government responsible for the Poor Law commissioned a piece of research into the ‘training of pauper children’ – prompted by a concern to educate children of the ‘idle and vicious poor’ living in the nation’s new workhouses and attending workhouse schools, and to do this in ways that countered the ‘contagious’ influences of their parents …

In the report that followed – called ‘The Training of Pauper Children’, written by James Philip Kay, a poor law commissioner from Manchester – perhaps surprisingly, cultural activities such as gardening, singing and play are part of a programme for preparing children for a life of labour.

Kay advocates musical instruction in workhouse schools, as particularly effective for maintaining discipline and order, and as part of a curriculum that includes lessons in the Bible, industrial instruction, as well as reading, writing and arithmetic, geography, domestic science and other subject. He says: ‘the routine of the school is beneficially interrupted at the point where weariness and disorder (might) ensue, by an exercise which diffuses new energy and harmony through the school. The children march into the school from the garden, the workshop, and the playground, singing moral songs … the intervals of any change of lesson or occupation are filled up with singing … We are also assured that in Germany the cultivation of vocal music has had a most beneficial influence on the habits of the people; they have been, to a large extent, reclaimed from debasing pleasures by this innocent amusement. In the prison for the correction of juvenile offenders at Rotterdam, I was informed that music was valued as an important element of the moral agencies employed’ (James Phillips Kay The Training of Pauper Children, 1839, p36-7).

Kay also argues for the value of free play in the gardens and playgrounds of schools as a means of ‘teaching the children to play without discord’ – ‘the frolic of the playground is not restrained by stern superintendence, but the master kindly assists in promoting order and good-will, and occasionally, when the children return to school, makes any occurrence of the playground the source of instructive moral illustration by questioning the children respecting it, in such a way as to enable them to clearly see what is right and what is wrong’ (p27). Throughout his report, Kay values question-led teaching – here (contrary to the popular perception of Victorian education) children are not taught didactically, but via question and answer techniques.

On the one hand free play and on the other ordered marching and singing – two ways to encourage the children of the poor to transform themselves into morally upright, productive workers. There is a tension between the discipline and freedom of cultural activity here that concerned Matthew Arnold, later in the century, as well as a related tension between notions of an instrumental and intrinsic value of cultural activity that are still resonant today.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve been researching theatre, performance and poverty in 19th century Rochdale (most recently, focusing on entertainments in Dearnley workhouse). In a previous post (‘The only way is Rochdale 1’) I mentioned a play performed by the orphan boys at Buckley Hall orphanage, called ‘The demon glass’ – warning of the dangers of drink. Buckley Hall included a programme of musical education modelled on the principles articulated by Kay. The orphanage occupied the empty house of a wool manufacturer (on the site of Buckley Hall prison today) and was founded in 1888 by a small group of Catholic brothers from the Congregation of the Brothers of Charity (active in France and Belgium), stimulated by the concern of the Bishop of Salford for the youth of Irish descent in the workhouses and streets of Manchester and its environs. Offering places for around 300 boys by the early 1890s, the programme of education and training included instruction in literacy, numeracy, the sciences and industrial training, alongside opportunities for musical instruction and play.

A blind musical instructor, Arthur Vandeput, worked at the orphanage from 1891 until his retirement in 1936, setting up a choir and, following a gift of brass instruments in 1892, the ‘famous Orphans band’. A representative of the Inspector of Poor Law Schools reported in 1897 that ‘I was pleased with the singing, which is practised in every standard’. The Orphans band gave concerts across the region during this period, as well as further afield, to raise money to keep the orphanage running and for a range of good causes – they even travelled to perform by special invitation at the Antwerp Exhibition in 1894. They also gave concerts in the playroom of the orphanage, temporarily converted to a concert hall. The annual report in 1893 records a ‘most successful’ winter season for the Orphans band, including performances in aid of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Preston and an annual entertainment for friends and benefactors at the Orphanage itself. This ‘very pleasant event’ included band selections alongside ‘action songs by the infants, comic and sentimental songs and two plays’ (Brother Linus Buckley Hall Orphanage: Illustrated Prospectus, Orphans Press: Buckley Hall, 1893).

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