Most of us are very familiar with summer music festivals, and benefit concerts. This is the tale of a benefit festival which lasted for over a century and involved some of the major British and European composers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, the town of Birmingham was expanding rapidly. The free thinkers and scientific explorations of the Lunar Society , the canal expansion, and the explosion of manufacturing drew in large numbers of people. One important facility in the town was the General Hospital. This wasn’t funded in any way by the government of the day, but instead, relied largely on charitable donations. This was where the Triennial Festivals came in.

The Festivals in the 1820s

Started in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, by the 1820s, the Festivals were established as a popular, important source of funds for the hospital. A festival took place every third year, lasting for three or four days of concentrated music-making.

Birmingham General Hospital - early engraving
Engraving showing income and donations from the various Festivals

A closer look at a section of these basic accounts reveals that the Festival was dealing in serious amounts of money (in pounds sterling):

Section of accounts from preceding illustration

It is noticeable, though, that the Festivals’ expenses were almost as large as the amounts given to the General Hospital. This remained an issue throughout the entire run of the Festivals – sometimes, I get the impression that the social, musical occasion was more important than the original charitable purpose. In 1823, the gross receipts were nearly £10,560. The final Festival in 1912 generated only slightly more on paper – of course, allowing for inflation over the intervening ninety years, the amount was presumably substantially less. The expenses of the 1912 programme only left about £1550 nett and this was used to cover an operating deficit from the two previous Festivals. Nothing went to the General Hospital.

Organising any large-scale event requires a lot of effort and sometimes, a lot of bureaucracy. The bound Festival programme books that we have, contain fascinating glimpses of the structure behind the Festivals’ smooth operation. Here’s one such document.

Notice to coachmen

The two main venues for the Festival at this period were St Philip’s Church (now Birmingham’s Anglican Cathedral ) and the Theatre Royal on New Street. You can definitely get a sense of how busy the concerts and services could get. This aspect of traffic control continues to feature, with one of the programme books in the mid C19 having a large, coloured map of the permissible routes.

The tickets for each event were miniature works of art – look at this ticket for a concert in St. Philip’s. Notice also, the small embossed image of the General Hospital in the RH corner. Was this to stop fakes being produced, I wonder? Also, if the ticket numbering was running sequentially, then this was ticket number 587 – that’s a pretty good audience size.

Chancel ticket for 1823
Ticket from 1823

The Festival organisers didn’t miss a trick. The popularity of the ticket images were noted and concert goers were offered the opportunity (at a price, of course) of owning the image they liked.

Application form for copies of ticket images

I’ll take a look at the composers, performers and their music in the 1820s Festivals next time.