A glance through the pages of a local paper at any point in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries will furnish ample evidence of lively entertainment on offer, at least to those who could afford it and could gain access to the environments in which it took place. Stapleton's Directory of 1838 lists two venues (the Assembly Rooms and a theatre) and two musical clubs, but this hardly does justice to the vitality of the cultural production and consumption at the time: newspaper reports testify on a weekly basis to the earnest pursuit of musical entertainment. The following news report is typical in its somewhat formulaic celebration, although the reporting of a newly invented instrument is exceptional; it is to be regretted that nothing more is known of the flautocufolicon.
'On Wednesday evening the Canterbury Catch Club concert, under the direction of Mr Thomas Goodban, was exceedingly entertaining. The overtures were performed with much spirit, and the glees and songs elicited unbounded applause, particularly the inspiring song of ‘Blue Bonnets over the Border’ by Mr Beckwith, which was encored. In the course of the evening Mr Longhurst introduced a new instrument of his invention, which is a species of organ, and is an admirable accompaniment to that instrument and the pianoforte, and from its soft and melodious tones, we doubt not will soon become indispensable in every music room. It is termed the ‘Flautocufolicon’, and can be made to any size at a very moderate expense. The room was crowded, and the evening passed off with great eclat.'1
Founded in 1779 – of which it was very proud – and very self-consciously modelled on the grandfather of all such clubs, the London Nobleman and Gentlemen’s Catch (founded 1661), the Canterbury Catch Club met every Wednesday evening throughout the winter season, from late September to March/April. In 1833, it seems, a friendly rival was set up: the Apollonian Glee Club met on Fridays. Which means that at this point in Canterbury's cultural history, the city's bourgeoisie could enjoy two weekly concerts of vocal and instrumental music which catered to an eclectic taste, throughout the winter months: records survive, showing a full evening's programme consisting of solo songs, glees, and instrumental music: overtures from the very latest operas of the day or, later in the nineteenth century, dance forms such as quadrilles and polkas. This is a level of cultural production and consumption which would be far beyond the wildest dreams of present-day arts organisers.
It’s even more remarkable when the membership is put on a map. The Club’s records are full of the names of members, and they can be located by means of contemporary directories. A map of the city dating from 1807, reveals that about a dozen of them lived on the same street – the long central thoroughfare running diagonally north-west to south-east of the city, comprising St Peter’s Street, High Street, Parade, and St George’s Street. Several more lived and/or worked in St Margaret’s Street, which runs south-west from the centre of the city. Another dozen or so had their dwellings or premises within a few minutes’ walk of the cathedral. No-one within the city walls would have lived more than fifteen minutes’ walk from anyone else, and within those walls were to be found all the necessities of life: in the few hundred yards’ stretch labelled High Street, for example, according to Pigot, were to be found Pout the auctioneer, the bookseller George Wood, cabinet-maker William Arnold, two grocers, two hatters, an ironmonger, two linen drapers, a tailor, a chandler, a watch-maker, a pub (The Chequers), a carrier for goods to Dover, and a coach to London. The geographical proximity tightens the economic relations binding this small community together. Cheek by jowl, they lived, worked, traded, socialised and celebrated with each other in a set of overlapping networks. The men in the Canterbury Catch Club knew each other well.
That such a club could be sustained is testament to the city's relative affluence: a growing bourgeoisie was eager to support such institutions, since apart from offering a good evening's entertainment they provided important networking opportunities. This is captured neatly in a very self-congratulatory lithograph dated 1826, commissioned by one of the members, Henry Ward, a local newsagent. It claims to show likenesses of many members, and those named can be corroborated by local records, but at this distance the more interesting features of the print relate to the conspicuous consumption – of alcohol, tobacco, and music – in a setting freighted with cultural signifiers. This is an explicit statement of aspirational socio-political identity. The features of the 25 musicians in the background are lost in the haze. But it is worth noting two things by way of context: the popularity of these clubs across the nation, and the fact that this respectable, posed informality fails to tell the whole story.
The first point is simply stated: any sizeable town had a club such as this. Newspaper records testify to their existence in the nearby towns of Ashford (population in 1821, according to Pigot's Directory of 1824: 2,773), Deal (6,801), Dover (11,468), Folkestone (3,989), and Faversham (3,900). All are between 9 and 18 miles distant from Canterbury (population: 12,745), and it’s clear that this was a distance musicians were prepared to travel to ply their wares.
The second point relates to the first: these clubs' popularity may be due in no small part to the fact that when the formal concert was over, the fun was only just beginning. You don’t see this in the print. In fact, evidence is hard to find, but the diaries of men like John Marsh and the London-based R.J.S. Stevens (1757–1837) give quite detailed accounts of the conviviality which ensued, to the accompaniment of a great deal of alcohol. Dickens describes a ‘Harmonic Meeting’ in one of the ‘Sketches by Boz’ (‘London by Night’) and, later in the nineteenth century, Thackeray paints a raucous picture of the whole of England ‘sounding with choruses, some ribald, some harmless, but all occasioning the consumption of a prodigious deal of fermented liquor.’ A more local account was rescued by the musicologist Percy Scholes just before the crucial witness died: this account by a Mr Mount can be only approximately dated, but it seems roughly contemporary with the print:
'When the program was concluded the early birds retired, and for some forty years the after evening was celebrated by amateur free and easy singing, the mirth growing fast and furious till the small hours. No Bruce [police] being then in existence, our grandfathers made a night, and often, too, a morning of it.'
The ‘amateur free and easy singing’ of the ‘after evening’ Mr Mount describes probably included more comic songs from the leading lights of the club’s entertainment roster, but it is utterly beyond question that most of the music being enjoyed in these fiercely convivial evenings was the quintessentially participatory genre, the catch.
Notwithstanding all the comings and goings around the city in this period of about a century, the most important road for serious musicians was probably the one between Canterbury and London. There are two main sources of evidence for this.
The first is the enormous number of newspaper reports of convivial evenings which featured visiting performers from the capital. Indeed, this became a bone of contention for the Canterbury Catch Club in the latter part of the nineteenth century, as they committed hefty chunks of members’ subscriptions to this aspect of the Club’s evenings. The Minutes for 12 March 1860 record:
'A ‘star’ to be engaged for the last but one night of the season; carried. Proposal that the cost should not exceed £6.6.0. was put; amendment that it should not exceed £5.5.0 was carried.'
That would be about £500 in present-day value. It’s worth noting that the Mr. Macknay noted above had been paid the same amount in 1855. Given the Club’s declining membership, this was unsustainable. We have no way of knowing what most of the visitors charged for their appearances, but a safe bet is that one of the greatest musicians of the early nineteenth century would have charged a lot more for his appearance in 1834.
Goodban, T. (1818). Goodban’s Game of Musical Characters. GB-Lbl; 1042.e.25.
Kentish Chronicle, 17 November 1826, p. 4 ↩