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Patient and Staff Concerts at The Crichton

29 November 2023

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One of the most important innovations during the early years of the Crichton Institution was its introduction of concerts organised and performed by patients and staff. Performers were drawn from across the asylum, including several of the attendants (male nursing staff), as well as local musicians from Dumfries town.

The first concert given ‘internally’ rather than by external performers was on 26 March 1846, and included piano, flute and violin solos, songs accompanied by piano or guitar, a vocal duett, and the Finale – Auld Lang Syne – sung by all with instrumental accompaniment.

The process of organising the concerts was also an important part of developing community, keeping patients occupied, and giving them a feeling of control. William A. F. Browne’s Annual Report for 1847 includes this description of the ways in which concerts were planned and executed:

‘By the combined efforts of Patients, Officers, and Attendants, vocal and instrumental concerts can now be provided, after one or two rehearsals, whenever other sources of amusement fail, and whenever a preference is manifested for music. This entertainment can be produced by the cooperation of inmates alone, though to the assistance and instructions of strangers, the Institution, as well as the performers, are deeply indebted. The advantages which flow from the stimulus imparted to every mind, both sane and insane, engaged in this good work, the frequent intercourse of the two classes, are almost equal to the gratification afforded by the performance of well-selected pieces of music of our national melodies, and of songs and glees, which all speak of mirth and old associations and social affections to the stricken and solitary heart. About seven concerts of this kind have taken place. One of them possessed the peculiarity that the words adapted to the airs, in one part, were exclusively the composition of inmates of the Institution. It may be styled a curiosity of literature that some of these songs are now household words, and that festive board or lowly fireside there are sung ballads either written in this Institution, or by those who found it a shelter and home and haven of rest. It must not be conceived that these are impromptu entertainments, suggested by a generous feeling and adopted merely to dispel monotony. They are schemes intended to confer moral advantages, digested with care and consideration, and carried into execution with the same solicitude and discrimination that should attend and regulate all remedial measures. A meeting takes place when the performers are chosen, and the pieces of music are examined, played, and apportioned according to the talents of the singer. Various rehearsals follow in the presence of the Officers; rumour is rife, and expectation pregnant as to the approaching amusement. An evening is appointed, frequently upon the anniversary of some national festival, or the departure of a patient. Lists containing the names of all the patients, arranged according to the galleries which they inhabit, are submitted to the Physician, who examines each, and excludes by affixing a particular mark such as are unable from infirmity to attend, such as might be excited by the scene, and such as have forfeited a right to the enjoyment by improper conduct. The purified lists are then circulated to the respective attendants; and the announcement of the persons invited is followed by refusals to attend, which are admitted, and by petitions for favour, which are considered. Then succeeds a half hour of preparation, of selection of caps, and coats, and ribbons. The mechanical arrangement of the room occupies a considerable period, as every bench and chair has its accustomed and prescriptive place and use. The patients join the assembly, and seat themselves according to an established order; the irritable are separated, the noisy and insubordinate are the companions of the attendants, who are so placed as to command a survey of the whole company, or of those more especially committed to their charge; and are directed to observe and report the deportment of all, to repress agitation, remove the excited or fatigued, and to conduct the dismissal with the same decorum and quietness which attended the commencement. After all have retired to bed the lists are returned, and then indicate those who have been present, so that not only the number, but the individuals attending are known and recorded. A similar course is pursued in the preparation and production of every amusement, and involves the whole theory and practice of reunions of the insane.’

Eighth Annual Report, 11 November 1847, p. 35-6

Thus it wasn’t just performing and listening to music that formed part of the therapeutic activity at the Crichton. All the elements of preparation and decision-making, which gave lots of patients the opportunity to participate in this activity, became important in establishing new ways of creating purpose and community within the institution.

Written by Jessica Campbell

Image source:

Concert programme 26th March 1846, Recreation and Printing Scrapbook

The exhibition is produced in collaboration with The Open University, and with the support of the National Centre for Academic and Cultural Exchange. Additional posts are contributed by members of the Psychiatry and the Arts in Nineteenth-Century Britain network, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

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