Archive and heritage

In 1882, the Incorporated Society of Musicians emerged from an era of intense interest in live musical performance: over the century, composers, conductors and soloists – such as Chopin, Mendelssohn and Jenny Lind – had commanded huge audiences in halls and theatres throughout Britain’s major cities.

Smaller towns enjoyed performances by the likes of Paganini, who eagerly travelled to locations as various as Kilkenny and Perth. Music cut across class lines, facilitated by conductors and venues such as Manns at The Crystal Palace in London and through specific musical genres – for example, the choral movement which attained predominance in industrial towns.

In turn, this truly national pastime prompted the music profession to develop rapidly across the country. The expansion of music education underpinned this growth; from the Mechanics’ Institutes, in which workers were taught instruments and vocal skills, to the new colleges which trained performers, teachers and scholars.

Despite this breadth of passion for music, an organisation did not exist to represent and protect the interests of professional musicians in Britain.

James Dauber, the organist of Hope Congregational Church in Wigan, understood that this lack of proper representation foreshadowed a precarious future for working musicians. He orchestrated an initial meeting in Manchester, presided over by Dr Henry Hiles (a well-known conductor, lecturer and teacher) in which the need for a professional association was considered. Subsequently, Hiles presided over the public meeting at Manchester’s Old Town Hall on 7 October 1882, at which the Society of Professional Musicians – what would become the ISM – was officially established. Alongside representation, the missionary desire was to encourage ‘the higher culture of music and the furtherance of its recognition as an important educational and social influence’.

A clear lineage of these founding principles can be drawn from the Society in 1882 right through to 2018. The ISM still advocates the vital and positive educational and social influence of music. It continues to protect and promote the interests of music professionals, now through services, legal help, insurance, campaigns, advice and much more.

Fortunately, many of the Society’s early documents and objects that trace this history have been archived by staff over the last 136 years. These are physical records in which the enduring verve of the Society is embodied. It can be found in the original Certificate of Incorporation in 1892, in the photograph of the grand annual conference in London in 1908, or in the Orphanage for the Children of Musicians collection boxes: since its inception, the organisation has always been dynamic and active within music, and by extension, society.

Within the archive, material decay had inevitably gripped some items over time – particularly vulnerable are large books where the spine loses its structure and paper elements deteriorate. Two substantial photograph albums, of the Society’s annual conferences held in Dublin in 1895 and Edinburgh in 1896, had been affected in this way.

Members who attended these historic conferences sat for their portraits, which was then published in the associated album. The result is a beautiful collection of now spectral images, visual channels to working musicians at the turn of the century. Notably, the albums include a large number of female members; it is encouraging to think that at time when women were so often treated as second-class citizens, the Society was as forward-thinking as it is now.

Recognising the value in maintaining these objects for future generations, the ISM undertook a restoration project to return the albums to their former glory. The books were sent first to Graham Bignell’s studio in London, where the paper surfaces and photographs were expertly cleaned and revived. Next, they were consigned to Elizabeth Neville’s studio in Cornwall, where the individual folios were painstakingly rebound to a new spine and the photographs were interleaved with specialist paper to protect them. The studio commissioned hand-dyed covers from leather technicians in Scotland to replace the warped originals.

Other books that underwent conservation include The Monthly Journal of the ISM from 1897; the Register of Members from 1898; the Account books beginning in 1914 of the Manchester and Ulster sections; and the Official Seal Book, which includes the signature of the ISM’s first General Secretary, Edward Chadfield. In February 1893 he signed for the tenancy of ‘two rooms to be used as offices at 19 Berners Street’. Two years later, and reflecting the steady growth of the organisation, he leased the whole floor.

The ISM continues to be a flourishing community of professional musicians. Its archive acts as a reminder of the courage, hard work and spirit of the founding members of the organisation.

If cultural institutions would like to enquire about temporary loans for exhibition purposes, please contact Freya McLeavy, Knowledge Hub and Publication Manager, on [email protected]