Our musical heritage: 3,000 years of British music through musical instruments—Part 3

A chronological discussion of the history of British music, through its musical instruments, from the 19th century to the modern era.

by Matthew Hill, MINIM-UK cataloguer

The United Kingdom was famously described as “The Land Without Music” “Das Land ohne Musik”) in the title of a 1904 book by German music critic Oscar Adolf Hermann Schmitz. At the time Schmitz wrote this, few would have disagreed – even the British themselves. Schmitz referred to classical music. Until relatively recently, British classical musicians and composers were often overshadowed by their continental counterparts, but to claim that this sceptred isle lacks strong and vibrant musical traditions is manifestly untrue. From ancient Celtic battles to modern arena concerts music is woven into the very fabric of life here, and always has been. The UK has a long, unique, and fascinating musical history, and the story of Britain can be told through its musical objects. Here are some instruments from the 19th century to the modern era with distinctively British accents.

Popular and portable

Although heavily associated with Irish, Scottish, and other Celtic folk music, the penny whistle (also known as the tin whistle) originated in Manchester, where it was invented by Robert Clarke in about 1840. The firm he founded continues to make almost identical instruments today. The penny whistle is closely related to instruments such as the recorder and flageolet, all of which are known as “fipple flutes“. The penny whistle’s easy fingering and affordable price have made it one of the most popular folk instruments in Britain.

A typical penny whistle, from the Kirklees Museums and Galleries collection.

Strings at the South Pole

Although this is an ordinary banjo, it has an extraordinary story. This instrument was taken along on Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated Antarctic voyage of 1914. Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance became entrapped, and was eventually sunk, by ice. This banjo was played by the expedition’s meteorologist, Leonard Hussey, to buoy the spirits of the stranded explorers. Shackleton said of the instrument: “We must have that banjo. It is vital mental medicine”. After much hardship Shackleton was able to rescue his crew without a single loss of human life.

Signatures of the crew of the Endurance expedition, on a banjo held in Royal Museums Greenwich. Reproduced under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND) licence.

Bespoke brass

The image of the Salvation Army band playing is as much a part of Christmas as mistletoe and presents underneath the tree. The Salvation Army took its brass bands seriously; so seriously that the organisation for many years actually made its own bespoke brass instruments in its own factory, solely to meet the needs of its musicians. These examples show the quality and craftsmanship of Salvation Army band brass.

A horn made by the Salvation Army’s own manufacturer, from the Salvation Army International Heritage Centre collection.

The postman's song

Although now more typically found silently decorating the walls of country pubs, the sound of the post horn announcing the arrival of the mail coach would have once been some of the most familiar music heard in Britain. This post horn, at the Glenesk Folk Museum in northern Scotland, is particularly unusual in that its provenance is well documented; it was used as late as the 1930s on one of the very last horse-drawn mail coaches in Great Britain.

A coach horn (or ‘post horn’) used until the late 1930s to sound the arrival of the local mail, from the Glenesk Folk Museum.

Music in battle

Although it was made in France, this bugle played a small but poignant part in British history. It was given to an English ship captain by a French soldier during the evacuation of Le Havre in 1940, following the fall of France to the invading German army. The French soldier had used it to sound 'Retreat' and was ashamed of it.

A bugle used to sound the retreat at Le Havre in 1940, from the Manx National Heritage collection.

Britain goes electric

The UK has made significant contributions to electric and electronic music. The VCS 3 was one of the first commercially available synthesisers to be small enough for practical live performance. It was much favoured by progressive rock bands at the turn of the 1970s such as King Crimson and Pink Floyd, and it continues to be used today by bands such as LCD Soundsystem, who are looking to get a “retro” sound.

An EMS VCS3 synthesizer from the Science Museum collections.
The Bond Electraglide was an electric guitar designed by English luthier Andrew Bond. It was manufactured in the far north of Scotland in the 1980s. It was made of a carbon composite material and featured an unusual “sawtooth” fret neck design. It also had push-button electronics with a digital readout. Models such as this were used by Mick Jones (at the time a member of Big Audio Dynamite), and U2's The Edge.

The Bond Electraglide, which explored the use of unusual modern materials and construction techniques, from the National Museums Scotland collection.