From Chapel to Radical Secularism: the Role of Music and Gender at the Ethical Society

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Northern College of Music
Department Name: Research Office


The project examines the role of music in the transition of the Ethical Society from a Chapel to an Institute to a Society; in other words, from a non-conformist religious organisation to a Humanist society. The South Place Ethical Society is known for its promotion of equal rights and free thinking. It was part of a web of interconnected progressive organisations whose members often had multiple affiliations. Many of these groups saw the creation of an alternative culture as part of their mission of 'making socialists'. This included musical as well as other forms of creative cooperative expression. The South Place Ethical Society was one space in which progressives of the period could encounter one another free of sectarian disputes and where what Belfort Bax called 'fads', such as theosophy, vegetarianism and feminism, might be shared interests rather than distractions from socialist or radical politics.

This project tests this understanding of the Ethical Society in the case of music, where gender roles in the 19th and early 20th centuries have been clearly defined and confined to the private sphere. Music permeated the community life of the society where there was an emphasis on family participation. For instance, Josephine Troup (1880-1913) composed children's songs; the Flower sisters composed hymns and women participated in other family and semi-domestic music, such as children's parties. Music had a role and value in both 'worship' and what replaced it; hymns and anthems were sung and performed long after the organisation became secular. The society also had an orchestra, which was open to both members and non-members. Better known is the society's long running concert series, the South Place Sunday Concerts (from 1887-present) and the more peripatetic People's Concerts. These had an educative purpose, replacing services and standing alongside the lectures and debates, which were and still are so important to the identity of the organisation. The concerts were public and professional. Women certainly numbered among the performers and, more unusually, composers. Some names stand out, such as Edith Swepston, Amy Horrocks, Helen Henschall, Adela Verne. Some of these women were related to prominent figures in the South Place Ethical Society. This study will explore their participation as musicians and whether the opportunities they were afforded in this community context were replicated elsewhere. Did the Society nurture and promote musical talent so that it could develop elsewhere or was it confined to the community? The project will also look at programming to see whether the radical reputation of the Society was reflected in musical activities. In so doing, it will make comparisons with contemporaneous concert societies and will compare the functions of music in other radical societies, such as the Fabian Society and the Social Democratic Federation.

The doctoral project focuses on the hitherto unstudied music holdings at the

Humanist Library and Archives. These include the extensive South Place Sunday Concert Archive, which has annual reports detailing repertoire and performers, committee minute books and papers, concert programmes, an extensive collection of scores, catalogues for programme planning, publicity material, newspaper cuttings and photographs. The library's collection also includes the hymn books, anthems, children's songbooks and discussions of musical activities in the Society's publications, such as the South Place Magazine and Ethical Record. The student will engage with current audiences at the Conway Hall Ethical Society and seek to reach new audiences in mainly London, the North West and on-line to test out the findings of the project, to stimulate debate and facilitate reflection. This reflection will, in turn, feed into the project's discussion. The student will have the opportunity to fashion a PhD project from these resources in consultation with the supervisory team.


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