Music and World Building in the Colonial City

In this meticulously researched local study Helen English demonstrates the critically important role that popular music played in determining a sense of community and identity amongst working class immigrants in Victorian Australia. This is an exemplary case study of the complicated processes of cultural transmission in shaping a colonial Australian mentalité.

- Emeritus Professor Richard Waterhouse FAHA FASSA

School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry,

University of Sydney, NSW Australia

How did nineteenth-century migrants to Australia use music to make sense of their new surroundings? That is the question focused on in a newly published book authored by School of Creative Industries researcher and member of the Centre for 21st Century Humanities, Dr Helen English.

Music and World-Building in the Colonial City Newcastle, NSW, and its Townships, 1860-1880 investigates how migrants to Australia used music as a resource for world-building, focusing on coal-mining regions of New South Wales, particularly Newcastle. Helen says the book explores how music-making helped British migrants to create communities in unfamiliar country, often with little to no infrastructure.

“The power of music was understood to be an important resource in the project of identity and respect, particularly by migrant coalminers. Among music traditions used in this way were those transposed to the Newcastle settlements: eisteddfods, choral singing, specific singing practices such as Primitive Methodist hymn singing, benefit concerts from North-East England and brass bands, important to all mining groups. Hidden behind these practices were the older folk musics, including colliers’ rants, folk songs and pipe playing.”

Helen says music was a useful, accessible and valued resource that settlers could draw on to create their world.

“Music was powerful for this purpose because of its many attributes, its effects on the body and emotions, its potential for meaning-making and, notably in the nineteenth century, its value as symbolic capital.”

The main focus of the study is on Newcastle suburbs Wallsend, Lambton and Waratah, where new mines were constructed from 1860, leading to new townships being formed. These outer townships were established on Country whose traditional owners, the Pambalong Clan of the Awabakal people were by the 1860s greatly reduced in number and largely absent from newspaper reporting.

Miners and their families

The townships rapidly developed thriving musical cultures. “The available data reveals a high volume of musical activities over time. This is especially noteworthy in the outer townships, which were only established early in the decade of the 1860s, yet within a few years had choral societies, eisteddfods, brass bands and concert series. The amount and variety of music-making in settlements that were small in the decades 1860–1880 indicates its importance to the communities and justifies its consideration as an important aspect of world-building,” Helen said.

“Migrants were quick to recreate musical practices from home and these were maintained and developed across the decades 1860–1880. From a twenty-first century perspective, the settlers’ musical endeavours, and the purposes they put these to are inspiring, given their migrant circumstances and lack of infrastructure or resources.”

The key themes of the book are:

  • people's relationships to music within specific contexts;
  • how music making intersects with class, gender and ethnic background;
  • identity through music.

Helen said chapters 4-8 of the book explore specific forms of music-making initiated in Maitland and Newcastle from the 1840s and developed in the Newcastle townships from the early 1860s.

“Chapter 4 looks at the brass bands that were to become important to Newcastle’s cultural identity, reaching a zenith of achievement and fame in the 1920s. Chapters 5 and 6 examine different singing practices, including solo singing and choirs, and Chapter 6 looks specifically at eisteddfods which were established initially by Welsh migrants,”

“Chapter 7 investigates blackface, as displayed in the minstrel show, a new genre in the mid-nineteenth century which quickly became a craze, spreading from the US to Britain and its colonies. As an entertainment which did not connect migrants to their past and was certainly not familiar, the question is raised of how, if at all, it contributed to world-building. Chapter 8 discusses the significance of the township benefit concerts, which raised money for injured miners and their families or for township buildings and resources. These concerts were platforms where the different kinds of ensembles and music-making could potentially come together and be heard. They were democratically run, providing much-needed entertainment and creating spaces of public socialising and discourse,” Helen said.

As a means to introduce these music-focused chapters, Chapter 2 gives a sense of the place and time, drawing on ear and eye witness accounts, while Chapter 3 discusses the migrants’ backgrounds, aspirations, traditions and institutions. The conclusion reflects on continuities across time and ways in which the historical research informs our understanding of the importance of music communities today.

This book is an authoritative study of historical communities and their relationship with music, situated within a wider discourse on music and identity, music and well-being and music and emotions and will be of particular interest to scholars and researchers working in the fields of sociomusicology, colonial studies and cultural studies.