Towards a sonic history of Chartism: Music, sound and politics in mid-nineteenth-century Britain

Ahead of tonight’s Parliaments, Politics and People seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, we hear from Dr David Kennerley, a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London. He spoke at our previous session on 19 February about his research into the sound of Chartism…

A noisy political future? George Cruikshank’s derisive and prejudiced vision of a Chartist House of Commons set in the distant future of 1943. ‘The Charter – A Commons Scene’, Comic Almanack (February, 1843), Google Books, Creative Commons

For many decades, historians haven’t really thought about sound. It’s easy to see why, since unlike text, visual images or material objects, past sounds have, quite simply, passed out of existence. Of course, the situation is different for scholars working on periods since the invention of sound recording, but for those of us who study earlier epochs, contemplating sound can seem an impossible task. And yet, for most human beings our thoughts, feelings and actions are as much influenced by information that arrives through our ears as through our eyes. Understanding all of the dynamics of past societies must surely, then, involve some way of accounting for sonic experience.

The parliamentary borough of Leicester, 1832-68 PP 1831-2 (141), xxxviii

In recent years, historians have begun to address this problem. Influenced by sound studies and historical musicology, their efforts have formed part of a broader focus on bodily and sensory experience within historical studies. My Leverhulme postdoctoral project represents another contribution to this endeavour. It explores the role of sound and music within the Chartist movement and, more generally, sonic aspects of political culture in mid-nineteenth-century Britain.

In my ‘work-in-progress’ paper for the Parliament, Politics and People seminar, I introduced my project through a case study of Leicester, exploring in microcosm some of the wider themes that I’m pursuing on a national level. Leicester was ideal in this regard, as the town’s Chartists, especially under the leadership of Thomas Cooper in the early 1840s, engaged in a remarkable flurry of cultural activity, including poetry, music and theatre alongside their political agitation.

How did Chartism respond to the sound of the workhouse? C. J. Grant, Interior of an English workhouse under the new Poor Law Act, Political Drama, 57 (c.1834) © National Archives

My paper presented four major lines of inquiry, while a fifth came up in the subsequent questions. The first addressed the changing soundscape of the mid-nineteenth-century urban environment and Chartist listening experiences. Soundscapes are far from neutral entities and listening practices—in contrast to the biological process of hearing—are shaped by culture. Consequently, exploring Chartist responses to the sounds around them can tell us much about the identity and ideology of the movement. In dialogue with the debate sparked decades ago by Gareth Stedman Jones’s ‘Rethinking Chartism’, the response of Chartists to steam-powered machinery or workhouse bells, for instance, can offer new insights into their relationship to class, the economy and the state.

The changing sound of political culture? Charles Dickens’s experience of electoral noise in 1836, is discussed in an earlier blog on the Victorian Commons, ‘The Election at Eatanswill’ by Phiz, (1836)

The second theme explored the role of sound and noise within political and especially electoral culture in the mid-nineteenth century. The increasing quietness of Victorian politics, and its association with reason, seriousness and sincerity, has been debated by James Vernon, Jon Lawrence and others, as part of a wider discussion about the emergence of a liberal political culture. My aim is to dig more deeply into the role of Chartism in this process. Examining the changing politics of ‘noisiness’ within Chartism offers another means of assessing how far, and with what consequences, the Chartists accommodated themselves within the liberal modes of behaviour that were coming to dominate the practice of politics in Victorian Britain.

Drawing on recent work by Mark Philp, my third approach examines Chartist musical culture as a response to the role of music at religious, civic and social events—and the pleasurable bodily and emotional states it could generate—as a way of subtly, and perhaps subconsciously, bolstering support for the existing social and political order. As recent Chartist scholarship has shown, the movement was notable as much for its cultural as its political output, and this might profitably be seen as an attempt to disrupt these connections between music, positive bodily and emotional sensations, and a conservative outlook. Through their inversions of religious and civic ceremonial and their attempts to foster working-class poetic and musical activity, the Chartists were seeking to generate an all-encompassing radical counter-culture that might insulate its adherents from the conservative tendencies of much existing musical culture, and use music’s emotive potential instead in the cause of the Charter. Herein may lie an important reason for the movement’s success in persuading so many of the need for radical change.

The sound of the Charter? Anon, ‘Procession Attending the Great National Petition of 3,317,702, to the House of Commons’ (1842) © British Museum, Creative Commons

The fourth aim of my project is to explore the dynamics of Chartist musical culture and its relationship to, and differentiation from, other facets of Chartist cultural activity. I am particularly interested, for instance, in the ways in which figures like Cooper drew distinctions between the political and cultural functions of poetry and song and the kinds of events and moods that they associated with music. Furthermore, a recent discovery of a Chartist manuscript musical composition has opened up the possibility that the movement fostered the development of working-class composers, alongside the better-known poets, permitting a deeper understanding of Chartist musical aesthetics.

These are four of the major lines of investigation I’m pursuing. A fifth—regional and national variations within Chartist musical and sonic culture—came up in the seminar discussion. My intention is to compare my case study of Leicester with Chartist localities in places like Scotland, South Wales, the northern textile towns or London, with an ear towards understanding to what extent Chartism acted to foster an emerging nationwide working-class musical culture, or whether it provided an umbrella under which many distinctive regional musical traditions continued. As with my other themes, these thoughts are very much provisional and much work still remains to be done, as I continue to work towards a sonic history of Chartism.


Our next seminar takes place at the IHR on 5 March at 17:15 in N202, when Professor Alan Marshall, Bath Spa University, will be speaking on Henry Bennet Earl of Arlington, A Restoration Politician and Parliament

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