Don’t stop the music…

The Guards marching through St. James’s Park on their way to church, illustration in Wight’s ‘Sunday in London’ (1833)

Recently I was asked by the Hartley Library Archives to nominate a favourite document from the Wellington Papers in honour of the 40th anniversary of their arrival at the University of Southampton.

The document I selected dates from 5 December 1828 during Wellington’s first tenure as prime minister. In the letter, Wellington discusses reductions to the permanent staff of militia regiments, which had been retained following the Napoleonic Wars to expedite training and reorganisation in the event of future conflict or civil disorder. I chose this item because of its connection to my research on military music, encapsulated in what might at first seem a curious aside: ‘It is desireable [sic] not to deprive the colonels of their bands.’

Wellington’s wish to safeguard military musicians amid cost-cutting measures illustrates not only his unwillingness to offend the militia colonels – politically influential figures who often sat in parliament – but also the importance that these commanders placed on regimental bands. This predilection did not go unnoticed by critics, with one radical MP complaining in 1822 that  ‘one-half of the money appropriated for maintaining [the post-war militia] was spent in drums, fifes, and music’. While this figure appears to be an exaggeration, it was not unusual for one-third of militia cadres to be employed as drummers and band musicians. These regimental performers remained acutely audible in civilian settings in the decades after Waterloo. Besides enlivening the country houses of their colonels, they staged free open-air concerts for socially diverse audiences and appeared at elections, balls, fairs, and other public events in a constellation of county towns. Recalling his youth in Richmond, North Yorkshire in the 1820s and 1830s, Matthew Bell described the expert militia band as a ‘very popular’ source of free entertainment for poorer townspeople and claimed it aroused ‘a slumbering talent for music in some of those who heard its martial and inspiring strains.’

A preoccupation with regimental bands was not solely the preserve of a largely inactive force like the post-1815 militia. Indeed, the wartime military’s keen cultivation of music was also widely acknowledged. A former inspector of army hospitals, for example, observed in 1804 that martial music ‘occupies much of the attention of military persons’, with ‘trumpets, clarinets, serpents, tambours, tambourines, &c. bearing, in some corps, a high proportion to the firelocks’. Wellington himself, the son of a composer, was known to be a musical aficionado, while many other army officers invested heavily in their regimental ensembles, regarding them as valuable social amenities, sources of unit prestige, and essential to military morale. Officers also commonly learned to play instruments such as the violin or flute as a genteel accomplishment. There were, however, some limits to the Iron Duke’s musical patronage. On taking charge of the Royal Horse Guards (The Blues) in 1813, he decided to downsize the regimental band. The musicians were popular with the corps and Princess Charlotte but cost more than £900 a year – an eye-watering sum which had largely been borne by Wellington’s predecessor, the Duke of Northumberland.

WP1/974/9: Copy of a letter from Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington, to Robert Peel approving the letter on the reduction of the staff of the militia, 5 December 1828: contemporary copy

Copy, in the hand of a secretary, of a letter from Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington, Stratfield Saye, Hampshire, to Robert Peel, [Secretary of State for Home Affairs]: the Duke agrees with the expediency of sending the letter on the reduction of staff in the militia. The number of drummers fixed by Hardinge was one for every company. “It is desireable not to deprive the colonels of their bands.’

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