New discovery: TWO photos of the Magpie Musicians at Stonehenge in 1896

Published by English Heritage: protest in 1901

A funny thing happened before Stonehenge: Monumental Journey opened (as I write it has two weeks to go). We used a photo previously published twice by English Heritage (Richards 2004, 2007) as purporting to show a protest at Stonehenge by the residents of Amesbury against the fencing of the monument in 1901. I knew nothing about this protest, but I duly wrote the caption, and a copy of the original print owned by Wiltshire County Council was hung in the gallery.

The evening before the press launch of the exhibition, quite by chance I saw a very similar image undoubtedly shot by the same photographer, on eBay – on a page from the Sketch published in 1896. Out went the local protest: in came “the popping of corks” at “an open-air concert”. Within a few days, I’d been able to solve the mystery, and we changed the caption.

Published by the Sketch 1896: an open-air concert

Both photos had to date from 1896 or earlier, so where had the 1901 protest idea come from? And could we find out more about the concert? It’s a great story.

Janis Packham at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre answered my query, and told me that there was an undated handwritten text on the back of their print (ref P8425), which reads:

“The opening of new facilities at Stonehenge today (9th July) recalls the occasion in 1901 when the monument was enclosed and the public charged for admission. This old photograph, taken in 1901, shows the villagers of Amesbury who massed at Stonehenge in protest against the charge.”

The print is stamped “T.L. Fuller, Press and Commercial Photographer, Amesbury, Established 1911”. It was acquired from Yeovil Library in 1983.

So clearly, the caption was added some time after the photo was taken. The clue lay in “opening of new facilities at Stonehenge today (9th July)”.

The only appropriately significant “new facilities” event I could think of, was the opening of the pedestrian underpass. Helpfully, another of the photos in the exhibition at the Wellington Arch shows the underpass opening ceremony – dated July 9 1968! So someone wrote that caption in 1968.

Opening of subway 1968 (English Heritage)

TL Fuller was an active Amesbury photographer from around 1910. He died in 1962, so the inscription would appear to have been written by someone else. But it seems not unlikely that Fuller might have sold, and stamped, copies of an original photo by a different photographer. The Sketch cutting tells us that photographer was employed by Russell and Sons of Baker St, London. James Russell and Sons was a commercial photographic firm established in 1852. From 1889 it was based at 17 Baker Street, and in the late 19th century also had studios in Windsor and Southsea.

So, what of the concert? Chris Chippindale reproduced the print in Stonehenge Complete, a more cropped version than English Heritage’s yet showing a little more on the left side:

Published by Chippindale: village outing c 1895

Curiously, he captions it “village outing”, and the credit reads “Photo c 1895 Wiltshire County Council”. How did he avoid the mistake of saying it was a protest in 1901? One explanation could be that WCC has (or had) two prints, the other with more correct (but incomplete) information. Stonehenge Complete was first published in 1983. Could Thames & Hudson have been able to use a print the council acquired from Yeovil in the same year? Might WCC already have had a different one?

On the page opposite the reproduction of the print, Chippindale reproduced a poster for a concert at Stonehenge on September 18 1896 – 12 days before the publication of the Sketch photo (the original poster is in the collection of Devizes Museum). He didn’t know it, but this must be advertising the concert featured in the photos. It tells us all we need to know, including the name of the photographer: Messrs J Russell & Sons of Baker St.

So who are these Magpie Musicians from the Crystal Palace, and what did they play? From online regional press archives, we can see they were a troupe of five or six players who toured the country with a comedic mix of song, dance and music. They did, as the poster says, feature at the Crystal Palace (they were there in 1896 on at least August 19–22, a month before their appearance at Stonehenge), but they were as likely to be seen on the Isle of Wight or in Aberdeen. They performed in black and white costume, and one of their songs (“She’s a lubly gal”, composed by stalwart Miss Stanhope) is described as a “coon song”, so perhaps the Magpie Musicians were an early precursor of the 1960s UK television Black and White Minstrel Show, which was also popular on tour.

There were changes in line-up, but at a typical performance around 1896 you might have seen Mr A Collard (the leader, on flute, playing perhaps “Hush a bye” or “Sing, sweet bird”), Miss Allington (soprano), Miss Gwendolyn (on Indian clubs and piano), Miss Erroll Stanhope (siffleuse, comedienne, with “Little Miss Primm” in her repertoire) and Mr Malcolm Scott (singer, eccentric dancer, comedian, giving “She’s a lubly gal” a turn); Mr Sidney Vincent (on banjo) might also have made an appearance.

Press reports confirm their Stonehenge event, at which 1,000 people are said to have been present and a spaniel called Nick was mislaid:

Bath Chronicle & Weekly Gazette Thur 24 Sep 1896
Western Gazette Fri 25 Sep 1896

This report describing a performance at Southampton in 1895 gives a flavour of the occasion:

Hampshire Advertiser Sat 10 Aug 1895

What next? We can probably reconstruct more details of this extraordinary event – at least from today’s perspective – at Stonehenge. It offers an insight into the sort of thing that could happen there before the private owner took full control by fencing the site and charging admission. It’s worth noting how, despite the undoubted objections Lord Antrobus had to face at enclosing the site, he would have had support as well, not least (with a familiar modern ring) from someone in London who hadn’t actually been there. This is what the Sketch writer said to accompany the photo:

The H Eyres on the side of the cart (did he bring a piano to Stonehenge?) was an Amesbury carrier; perhaps the same vehicle can be seen in this photo in Salisbury market place in 1889, also in the county collection; the business was running a bus service in the 1930s.

Local people can surely add to my account. Are there more prints around, and has WCC got more than one? Is there a more detailed record of the concert – it would be surprising if no one had mentioned it in a postcard, letter or diary? What is the apparent signature reading L&E (?) in the bottom left corner of the Sketch print? Was Nick ever found? Please add your comments, information and corrections.


Chippindale, C, 1983. Stonehenge Complete

Richards, J 2004. Stonehenge: A History in Photographs

Richards J, 2007. Stonehenge: The Story So Far

7 thoughts on “New discovery: TWO photos of the Magpie Musicians at Stonehenge in 1896

  1. Impressive work. As lintel 122 is clearly still up it could never have been 1901! I also note the substantial woodwork under 107 which I have only seen on one photo before. It consisted of two up rights and a horizontal beam with corner trusses (makes it look gibbet like). It seems to have been taken down before 1901 and replaced with props.

  2. I remember reading this about a very similar sounding group:

    American minstrel troupes, in which white men blackened their faces, put on outsize collars and stripey pantaloons, and sang sentimental choruses about the Swanee River, “coons,” and “darkies,” were hugely popular in the late nineteenth century, both as performers and creators of hit songs. When Roberton’s Colored Operatic Kentucky Minstrels toured Ireland in 1897, the Limerick Chronicle called them “the world’s acknowledged masters of refined minstrelsy,” while the Dublin Chronicle thought them the best it had ever seen. A contemporary handbook records that the troupe was about thirty-strong, that it featured some genuinely black artistes among the cosmetic ones, and that it made a specialty of parading through the streets of every town where it was to appear.

    Source: John Lennon’ By Philip Norman

    (although the claim that John Lennon’s grandfather was a member of the troupe may be wishful thinking and has not been proven)

  3. “Curiouser & curiouser said Alice … ”
    As noted by Mr Daw above, 122 is certainly visible, as is the blocking under 107. Now look between 1 & 30 to see mighty Stone 56. Maybe it’s the straight-on angle of this shot, but it looks upright to me. (As many know, this Stone leaned in ever-greater peril for centuries, prevented from falling only by Bluestone 68.)
    No work to 6, 7, or 107 was done in 1896 – the site wasn’t surveyed for recommended repairs until 1898. 22 & 122 fell in Dec of 1900, and Gowland restored-to-right 56 in the spring of 1901.
    Based upon the new info now reported by Dr Pitts, it appears that Dr Richards may have been incorrect in identifying the events in the photograph. There certainly was a protest by West Amesbury villagers in 1901 against Antrobus charging 2 shillings, but this photo appears to show merry-makers preparing to enjoy themselves at a concert.
    Therefore, I am thoroughly confused by the dating.

    (btw – I love this site Dr Pitts! Thanks for your many efforts!)

  4. I may have spoken too soon …
    In review of the 2nd, captioned picture it appears that 122 is Not there.
    If S-56 is actually upright, then this quite probably IS August 1901. This also makes the cribbing at 107 fall within a known date.

    The uniformed man on the Slaughter Stone with his family may be the Band-Leader, and the ladies in white before S-30 may also have been participants.

    The fancy “L&E” in the lower left was probably made by the actual photographer. This was a common practice for those worked for a firm that assigned jobs under their name.

    Sorry for my admitted self-confusion!

  5. I am from Canada. My father was born near Ledston Luck(1938) and his Great Uncle was a Joe Cohen who was a musician in a group called “The Magpies” … that search led me to this page and in my wildest dreams he is one of the people in this picture. I love what you’ve discovered. Thank you.

  6. I have two glazed black pottery banjos about as long as a coke can is tall. At the centre each has a faded photo of stonehenge with writing “stonehenge salisbury”. They are definitely old. I wanted to know more about them and why a banjo? This led me to your interesting site. Perhaps the notion of music/banjos and Stonehenge were linked for some time after the Magpie musicians’ appearance and so these banjos made for the perfect souvenir. They could actually be late nineteenth century in date and so concurrent with the actual event?

    1. I have no idea what these are! (Are there any photos online?) But I doubt they have anything to do with the Magpies, which as far as we know were a one-off at Stonehenge among a whole range of events and activities. Perhaps your banjos are like Goss souvenirs, small (white) pottery pieces made 1858–1939 in a huge variety of forms and often sold as souvenirs with random locations named on them

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s