Friday 10 March 2017

Spotlight on the Retreat archive: Pianos at the Retreat

This is the third in a series of blog posts celebrating the Retreat archive and our digitisation project as it nears completion. The Retreat is one of the most important institutions in the care and treatment of mental health patients. Over the last two and half years, staff at the Borthwick have been working through the archive, preparing the documents for digitisation, carrying out conservation treatments where appropriate and photographing each item page by page.

This has been a huge task. Over 600,000 images have been created so far and the focus has been on handling each item with care and capturing a high quality image efficiently and effectively. Of course there have been many items that have caught our eye along the way. In this series of blog posts project staff pick out some of the interesting items that they have encountered.

Here Jenny Mitcham, our digital archivist writes about the pianos at the Retreat.

My input into the Retreat digitisation project has not been very hands on. I haven’t been conserving the archive, digitising the documents or updating the catalogue. For the most part, I haven’t had cause to interact with the archive at all. My focus has been on facilitating the smooth running of the project, keeping an eye on the budget, arranging meetings and writing progress reports.

I’ve always been pleased when some of the more ‘challenging’ items (from a digitisation or conservation perspective) get brought into our project meetings so we can make decisions about how to proceed. This is normally the closest I get to actually seeing the material that we are working with! This does make it harder for me to pick out an item to blog about when I haven’t actually seen many items.

However, there was one occasion last year when had to go down to the strongroom to collect an audio tape from one of the boxes that was going to be sent out to a contractor for digitisation as part of this project. Whilst looking in the box to try to find accompanying information for the audio a file entitled ‘Pianos’ (RET/1/5/5/7/22) caught my eye.

As a keen piano player myself I was immediately interested in what this file might contain.
It covers the period 1924 to 1945 and includes letters about repair or purchase of pianos, lists of pianos at the Retreat (they had more than you might expect) as well as a fairly ambitious piano-tuning schedule. You can browse this whole file online through the Wellcome Library catalogue so do have a look.

Looking through this file was an interesting little glimpse into one of the lighter elements of life at the Retreat. At first I was surprised by just how many pianos they had. In 1924 they list 8 pianos but at the latest mention (in 1945) they appear to have 16. No wonder they needed to maintain detailed lists and tuning schedules.

Much of the file relates to piano tuning. Lists stating that “Twelve of the following piano’s to be tuned each quarter” show which of the many pianos were tuned on which date. This rigorous schedule was pretty much adhered to. My (fairly well used) piano is only tuned once a year so I was struck by how regularly they tuned them. They clearly were an important part of life at the Retreat for both patients and staff and consequently needed to be looked after well.

Of course, some pianos did reach the end of their useful life in this period. The earliest item of correspondence in the file, a letter from John Gray and Sons, ‘pianoforte, gramaphone and organ specialists’ on Coney Street, York in 1924 stated that “Our representative called to tune the piano in the attendents sittingroom of the Retreat yesterday and found it in a very bad condition. He patched it up as best as he was able but he reports it is really waste of money to have anything more done to it and it would be more satisfactory if it was replaced by a new one.”

The Retreat reply with “We will consider the question of the renewal of the piano in the Attendants’ sitting room, but I hardly think we shall be prepared to buy a new one at the moment”

In 1935 a report on Retreat pianos noted that “The pianos in the Attendants’ Quarters and the “Secretaries’ Dining Room” are very poor indeed.” I wonder if this was still the same piano as had been discussed in 1924?

Much of the correspondence within the file concerns the purchase and relocation of an Allison grand piano from Darlington to the recreation room of the Retreat in the 1930’s for the sum of £50. This took some time to arrange (over 2 years) but was clearly seen as something that was worth holding out for. Writing to the Retreat in March 1933, a letter from Darlington states:

“I have played on the Allison Piano belonging to Mrs Dresser this afternoon and think it is a good one. The tone is full, the touch sympathetic, and except for being rather out of tune because it has not been played on lately, the piano is in excellent condition.

“It might be possible to get a piano for less than £80 in a sale room, but it would be difficult to find one quite so good as this with certainty.”

So who used all of these pianos at the Retreat? We can find out a bit about this through other elements of the archive. A quick search of the online catalogue locates several photographs of staff playing the piano at the Retreat. The earliest being this faded and carefully posed photograph of the sitting room of the nurses home in the early 20th century


Another image of nurses in the sitting room of the second nurses home (RET/1/8/5/6/3) dates to the period covered by the pianos file and a later set of images (RET/1/8/5/8) taken in this same room, this time from the 1950’s, are less formal and shows a group of nurses singing round the piano. You can even zoom into the image to see what music they are playing!



We also know that pianos at the Retreat were played by patients. Looking at the list of rooms in which the pianos were stationed, some were clearly placed in areas where patients could access them. It is known that some patients also had their own private pianos that they brought with them to the Retreat. For example our catalogue entry for an oil painting by George Isaac Sidebottom (who was a patient at the Retreat from the 1890’s) mentions the fact that he acquired a piano for his room (RET/2/1/7/5).

And coming full circle, the audiotape that first led to me encounter this file about pianos at the Retreat itself provides further evidence of how they were used. It is a recording of a staff revue ‘Sunny Side Up’  held at the Retreat on the 6th August 1960 to raise money for The Retreat Appeal (RET/1/5/5/7/27). Accompanying the singing is (I believe) a piano. Perhaps this is the Allison grand piano that came from Darlington in 1935? You can listen to the audio in full through the Borthwick Catalogue.


But apparently it wasn’t always this way. In the early nineteenth century the Quaker attitude towards amusements was different. Activities such as playing cards, music and dancing, theatre going and even the reading of novels were frowned upon. As the century progressed attitudes relaxed and the Retreat archive reflects this. Harold Capper Hunt a Steward of the Retreat wrote in his book ‘A Retired Habitation’ in 1932 that “When Dr. Kitching handed over the reins to Dr. Baker he expressed the hope that his successor might be able to to add to the number of pianos in the Institution. It was a sign of the times. The ancient Quaker prejudice against music was beginning to give way …” Dr. Baker was Medical Superintendent from 1874 to 1892 so this is several years before the file we are looking at, but it is interesting to see the early signs of this move towards a more relaxed attitude towards music.

We can no doubt find out lots more about pianos at the Retreat by going into other areas of the archive in more depth - for example other administrative or correspondence files, or the section of the archive that specifically relates to entertainments (RET/1/5/5/7). The archive is now available online so do explore it and see what else you can discover.

Today at the Retreat pianos are still present. Of course there are not as many as there were in the 1930’s and 40’s - perhaps inevitable as more modern forms of entertainment have taken over. However I am told there are still 5 pianos at the Retreat (and another in their unit at Strensall). They continue to be tuned - but on the slightly less ambitious schedule of approximately once a year! Today at The Retreat there is music therapy, music groups and a choir. Last year they also arranged their own pianathon - non-stop piano playing throughout the day! I was really pleased to hear that music is still such an important part of life at the Retreat.

More information about the Wellcome Library funded project to digitise the Retreat archive can be found on the project pages of our website. Digital surrogates from the Retreat archive project are available via the Wellcome Library.

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