The Rise and Fall of the Metropolitan Police Minstrels

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: Sch of Music


In cultural studies there has been considerable interest in the phenomenon of blackface minstrelsy, particularly in US contexts. The topic offers scope for investigating 'blackness' as a social and musical construction in 19th- and 20th-century culture, and conversely has much to tell us about contemporary notions of 'whiteness'. Study of British blackface performance has lagged behind, but potentially develops these themes in important ways, highlighting similarities and differences between blackface traditions on either side of the Atlantic. The most illuminating literature in this area, much of it published by Ashgate, is by Michael Pickering and Derek Scott. (Pickering's _Blackface Minstrelsy in Britain_, the first extended history of British blackface, is due out in March 2008, and will do much to advance understanding of this widespread form of musical entertainment.) It is largely through postcolonial scholarship that musicologists have found the theoretical wherewithal to tackle this telling, but uncomfortable aspect of Anglo-American performance history. From the 1840s until the 1930s, blackface minstrelsy was a major strand in British musical life, found in fashionable and respectable venues (such as St James's Hall), flourishing Victorian seaside resorts (until superseded by Pierrot troupes in the 1930s), and on the streets of the capital and other major urban centres. To date, scholars have concentrated on the activities and reception of touring American troupes, and the professional groups which sprang up in their wake; but amateur minstrelsy was arguably just as significant, and among the most well known of the amateur minstrel troupes was the Metropolitan Police Minstrels (MPMs). The MPMs were formed from the ranks of active police officers in the Met, many of whom had been associated with a glee club organised early in the force's history. They performed across London, raising funds for the Metropolitan and City Police Orphanage, from the early 1870s until they were disbanded in the 1930s, and their unbroken performance career has yet to be noticed by musicologists, police historians, or cultural historians, let alone become the focus of scholarly study. As I show, the MPM troupe offers rich insights into the role of music-making in the evolving public image of the British police service; meanings and interpretations of blackface performance in British culture and of policemen's engagement with this tradition; and early encounters between an essentially Victorian mode of performance, and emergent technologies such as photography, gramophone, and cinema (the MPMs made at least one recording during the 1920s, and entered into ultimately inconclusive negotiations for a 'talkie' just three years after the release of _The Jazz Singer_). The performances of the MPMs also illuminate aspects of gender, not only in relation to the creation and consolidation of the 'new police', a new hierarchical masculine profession, but also because female impersonation featured in their act from the beginning, and culminated in the creation of the 'Police Girls' (a chorus-line in drag, silks, and whiteface) at the instigation of the pantomime dame Clarkson Rose, who managed the MPMs in the 1920s. The phenomenal success and popularity of the MPMs spawned imitations in police forces across the country, but also antagonised officers keen to promote less equivocal forms of masculine authority through athleticism, boxing, musical rides, and marching bands. The study draws on the extensive archives of the Metropolitan Police, which operated a committee to manage the activities of the Minstrels; the archives and financial records of the Metropolitan and City Police Orphans' Fund; interviews with those who witnessed the MPM troupe in the '20s and '30s; papers belonging to the families of former Minstrels; and concert reports in contemporary newspapers and police periodicals. Material relating to the MPMs is explored here for the first time.


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