Professional and amateur music-making in England – the role of the WEA

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WEA leaflet

Our guest blogger is David Dewar, researching the intersections between professional and amateur music-making in 20th century, looking at the lives and work of a range of musicians and the institutions which supported them. David is at the University of Bristol and recently looked at our Workers’ Educational Association Collection.

My research in Professional and Amateur Music-Making in England, in the early 20th century, contains a strand considering the educational provisions available for adult amateur musicians. As such, the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) came to mind for a short case study. Though it was not by any means confined to music, some branches provided courses about music, in various forms. This organisation has had considerable longevity, having been founded in 1903 and still in existence now. Over the years it has adapted to the changing needs of adults who wish to further their intellectual interests.

I was interested to find out about its founders, and their own backgrounds, as well as to see how early its sense of adaptability started, and anything else related to music and adult educational needs.

My path led, naturally enough, to the WEA’s current website, from which enquiry I was recommended to a particular branch in the East of England. This, it turned out, had archives relating only to its own inception and activities. These were potentially interesting in seeing how a WEA branch came into being – but was not likely to give me chapter and verse about the organisation’s original aims, how it came into being, or how it managed its early years and agile evolution.

Thus, I could simply look in library and archives catalogues for references to the WEA and its founders – principally Albert Mansbridge (1876-1952), who was the initial secretary of the association. I was fortunate to find his description, in the form of a book, in the Special Reserves of my university’s library, and some further documentation in the Bodleian Library.

This was helpful – certainly in relation to Mansbridge’s leadership in the early days. There was also some information about the WEA’s organisational structure, and of a constitution. But these felt a little inadequate for my purpose.

Recently, I came across an unpublished thesis by a musicologist colleague, which enabled me to realise that, contrary to the impression I had of there being little in the way of central archives of the WEA, the TUC Library actually had most of the documents needed for me to gain a good impression of how the WEA managed changing external requirements during the period of my study. I’m very happy finally to have come across the location of the Association’s records!

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has, of course, precluded a visit to the Library. I’m deeply grateful, therefore, for the help of Jeff and his colleagues at the TUC Collection who have provided me the copies of minutes and constitutions which I request, and very speedily, too.

One of the most enjoyable features of carrying out historical research is the generosity with which librarians and archivists give their time and expertise to, I imagine, a never-ending stream of researchers seeking material! I’m very grateful.

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