On the edges of society: the hidden musical cultures of nineteenth-century British lunatic asylums

Golding, Rosemary (2023). On the edges of society: the hidden musical cultures of nineteenth-century British lunatic asylums. In: Cortizo, Maria Encina and Nommick, Yvan eds. Between Centres and Peripheries: Music in Europe from the French Revolution to WWI. Turnhout: Brepols, pp. 323–342.


Music played an important role in many of the new institutions introduced or subjected to reform by the Victorians, from schools to the military. Among workhouses, orphanages, hospitals and prisons music was also to be found. A further set of institutions catered for a small yet significant sector of the population: the insane. Dedicated facilities for the mentally ill date back to the thirteenth century, but the first few decades of the nineteenth century saw reform both in the methods of treatment, and their management, particularly with regard to state provision. The musical practices of state and private lunatic asylums offer an important opportunity for studying the development and use of music within a closed society, as well as its uses for managing relations with the local community. This paper considers the musical nature of the asylum, its location (often both physical and social) on the periphery, and its relation to surrounding musical networks.

Asylum bands provided music for recreation, drawing on a range of popular repertoire, songs, dances and operatic extracts. Music was also present in religious observance. In the second half of the century many asylums developed further performance opportunities, presenting musical and theatrical entertainments. Furthermore, a busy schedule of visiting performances provided regular amusement for patients, and illustrates the important place of institutions such as asylums in the provincial musical economy. At private and charitable asylums, catering for the middle and upper classes, musical experience was influenced by class and gender. Chamber music and Smoking concerts drew on the talents of both patients and staff.

The distinctive musical activities of the Bethlem Royal Hospital form a particular focus for the second part of the paper. At this charitable institution, talented amateur musicians drawn from the hospital’s management formed the backbone of an important amateur orchestra, which provided an extensive musical environment for the patients and local community. At the same time, Bethlem’s physical location in central London allowed access to key musical and cultural opportunities. I will discuss how the special nature of the asylum led it to reflect, and participate in, central musical developments, while retaining a distinct focus and very deliberate separation from mainstream society.

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