Academic journal article Folk Music Journal

Percy Manning, Henry Balfour, Thomas Carter, and the Collecting of Traditional English Musical Instruments

Academic journal article Folk Music Journal

Percy Manning, Henry Balfour, Thomas Carter, and the Collecting of Traditional English Musical Instruments

Article excerpt


In 1890 the Pitt Rivers Museum opened in Oxford and its new curator, Henry Balfour, began sorting through the collection as well as acquiring new objects for research and display. At the same time, Percy Manning, a local antiquarian, was undertaking his own programme of acquisitions, with help from Thomas Carter, and displaying some of his items to the public. While Balfour was interested in the science of human culture, Manning's aim was to salvage historical objects before knowledge of them was lost. The aims of the two men were united by E. B. Tylor's concept of 'survivals' and the idea of salvage, whether for scientific or historical reasons. This paper looks at some of the prevalent attitudes and methods that affected the collecting of traditional objects in the late 1890s.


A glance at the collections in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford's museum of anthropology, reveals just how active Oxfordshire collectors were in the late nineteenth century. The museum exhibits in its main court a pair of mole's feet used in Norfolk as a cure for toothache, and the tip of a human tongue carried as a charm. (1) Among the musical instruments in the collection we find a Whit-horn, a 'primitive oboe', (2) made of twisted willow bark, and a whittle-and-dub, a small whistle and drum played simultaneously by one man to accompany morris dancing. (3) Both instruments had fallen out of use by the mid-nineteenth century, but half a century later they became central to the efforts of local collector Percy Manning, his agent Thomas Carter, and the museum's first curator, Henry Balfour, all of whom went to great lengths to find examples for their collections. This paper investigates the ideas that influenced these men and their collecting methods, using as sources their publications as well as unpublished notes and letters.

In his new post as curator from 1890, not only was Henry Balfour responsible for sorting and arranging the objects for research and display, he also conducted research and continued to collect items. For Balfour, anthropology was the 'science of man' and he was keen to fit material culture into scientific schemes such as the evolution of form. Particularly influential on Balfour's work was the concept of 'survivals in culture', E. B. Tylor's theory that the 'savage' would develop into the 'civilized', and therefore that the supposed earlier forms of an object could tell us something about the history of modern culture. In his work on the Whit-horn, therefore, Balfour describes the instrument as a 'primitive oboe' and compares it to similar instruments in other cultures. This interest in the form of objects, rather than their use, meant that he did not record much in the way of detail about either the makers of the Whit-horns or the activities with which they were associated.

In contrast, Percy Manning's notes, and the historical revival day he organized in conjunction with the newly re-formed Headington Quarry morris side in March 1899, reveal that he took much more interest in the people from whom he collected. (4) In this period, folklore was beginning to emerge as a discipline distinct from academic anthropology and many folklorists took as their task the collecting of materials, as well as tales, songs, customs, and traditions, from local communities, by knocking on cottage doors and observing people in the streets. Manning was one such collector, although he employed Thomas Carter, a retired bricklayer, to do much of the door-knocking on his behalf. Manning's meticulous noting and cataloguing of Oxfordshire folklore and customs was echoed in his collecting habits, and he went to great lengths to track down instruments that had been played by musicians around the county, and to find out more about the musicians themselves. While Manning was intent on gathering as much information as possible, it might be argued that Thomas Carter was responsible for much of the detail in his notes, for he carefully recorded the biographies of both the objects and their owners, documenting when and where the instruments had been played and the circumstances of the musicians' lives and deaths, even when the instruments themselves could not be found. …

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