1st International Bagpipe Conference - Clive Matthews - The Forgotten World of Bagpiping in Nineteenth Century England Wed, 2013-03-27 20:03


The Forgotten World of Bagpiping in Nineteenth Century England

Dr Clive Matthews
School of Language and Communication Studies
University of East Anglia

The generally accepted history of the bagpipe in England is, the Borders aside, one of fairly rapid decline from the 16th century onwards (Cannon, 2002; Collinson, 1975). Although this story may be true of an indigenous piping tradition, it cannot have been the case that bagpipes themselves became totally unfamiliar in England if only because of their presence in the British army. Recent work, however, has begun to suggest that the sound of the pipes were much more familiar to the English in the 19th century than has previously been assumed. This paper reviews a number of strands of evidence each supporting this claim.

The first of these relates to a number of named bagpipers ? mostly, but not exclusively, Union pipers and probably of Irish origin ? appearing in various court cases during the 1820-1860s reported in The Proceedings of the Old Bailey (Carolan, 2005; Matthews, 2011). That these individuals represent only a small proportion of the pipers plying their trade in the capital during this period is further supported by Henry Mayhew?s London Labour and the London Poor (Mayhew, 1861). Although previously unnoticed by scholars of the bagpipe, the largest number of individual street musicians that he records (mostly in their own words) are pipers: mainly Highland but also Union. Most surprising is the presence of an Italian zampogna player. Recent research (Matthews, in press), however, has shown that this individual represents only the tip of a large number of itinerant Italian street musicians ? with probably a thousand on the streets of London alone ? who flooded into the country from the 1850s onwards (Colpi, 1991; Sponza, 1988).

Although the majority of these ubiquitous street entertainers were barrel organ players, a sizeable proportion were pifferari and included, somewhat disturbingly, a number of children sold into semi-slavery by their families (Zucchi, 1992). The cacophony of street noise that they greatly added to resulted in legislation being passed in 1864 in an (unsuccessful) attempt to silence them (Picker, 2003). The pifferari spread far beyond the confines of London with various references showing that they ranged from the Welsh Marches to the North East. The final piece of evidence to be considered is more tangential.

The second half of the nineteenth century saw an explosion in the production of Staffordshire pottery figurines. Amongst the wide range of subjects are a number of bagpipers. These figures, however, have little in common with the pastoral porcelain pipers produced by the factories of, say, Derby and Meissen but represent much more local subjects playing British looking pipes. Since the Staffordshire figures were ?made by Englishmen for Englishmen? and depicted subjects that ?amused, concerned and interested the often illiterate ?common people?? who constituted their main market (Oliver, 1971; Bryant, 2005), one can only surmise that they were produced because they depicted a still familiar and probably living tradition of pipers and piping, a reminder of which people wanted to have on their mantelshelves. Each of these pieces of evidence converges on the same conclusion: England was a far from bagpipe-free zone during the 19th century.

Bryant, F. (2005). Staffordshire Figures. Shire Publications: Princes Risborough.
Cannon, R. (2002). The Highland Bagpipe and Its Music. New edition. John Donald: Edinburgh.
Carolan, N. (2005). Uillean pipers at the Old Bailey, 1802-1831. An P?obaire, 4 (issue 25), 24-29.
Collinson, F. (1975). The Bagpipe: The History of a Musical Instrument. Routledge & Kegan Paul: London.
Colpi, T. (1991). The Italian Factor: The Italian Community in Great Britain. Mainstream: Edinburgh.
Matthews, C. (2011). Bagpipers in the dock. Chanter, Summer, 15-23.
Matthews, C. (in press). The invasion of the zampognari.
Mayhew, H. (1861). London Labour and London Poor: A Cyclopadia of the Conditions and Earnings of Those that will Work, Those that cannot Work, and Those that will not Work, Volume III. Griffin, Bohn and Company: London.
Oliver, A. (1971). The Victorian Staffordshire Figure: A Guide for Collectors. Heinemann: London.
Picker, J. (2003). Victorian Soundscapes. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Sponza, L. (1988). Italian Immigrants in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Realities and Images. Leicester University Press: Leicester.
Zucchi, J. (1992). The Little Slaves of the Harp: Italian Child Street Musicians in Nineteenth-Century Paris, London and New York. Liverpool University Press: Liverpool.