New discovery: TWO photos of the Magpie Musicians at Stonehenge in 1896
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.
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.
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:
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:
This report describing a performance at Southampton in 1895 gives a flavour of the occasion:
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