Sound Heritage at Chawton House Library

Today, I’m at the second of the University or Southampton and University of York’s Sound Heritage study days. We’re only halfway through the day, but I had to take myself away to write up the story that Dr Matthew Stephens, of Sydney Living Museums, told us this morning.

He told us about one object, the Dowling Songbook, which is the earliest book of music that he knows of that was bound in Australia, rather than imported already bound from Europe. He explained a little of the story that they uncovered while researching its provenance.

It starts with Lilias Dickson, the daughter of the man who brough the first steam engine to Australia. As a teenager she was apparently kidnapped by (or maybe absconded with) a conman by the name of John Dow. Rescued a short time later, she was back with her father when his own financial behaviour was questioned, and he had the urgent suddenly need to make his way North of the equator. He left his native born children in good standing though, and Lilias Dickson stood to inherit a comfortable living.

At which point, John Dow reappeared to claim that he had in fact, married they young girl, and that marriage having been consummated, he was her husband and thus had claim upon her inheritance. The case went to court, and was heard by Judge James Dowling. He found in favour of Lilias, but tough her fortune was saved, her reputation was not. The judge himself thought her of very low virtue.

Imagine his discomfort then, when, three months later, the Judge’s own nephew declared his intention to marry the sixteen year old. The young couple seemed to have a happy marriage however, and among their acquisitions was this songbook.

I loved this story and found myself thinking about how it might work in a responsive environment, with music form the songbook matched to the ups and downs of the story around a historic environment.

Which isn’t to say the other speaker this morning wasn’t just as fascinating. Ben Marks, Keeper of the Benton Fletcher collection of keyboard instruments at the National Trust’s own Fenton House. Gave a very entertaining exploration of the conflicts comprises involved in both conserving and playing historic instruments. His overriding message was that if an instrument is restored to be played, it should be played, and more importantly, maintained, in a playable condition. He gave us an insight into the sort of conservation and monitoring regime involved in looking after such instruments, and those which might be too fragile to be played.

I write this while the others visit the nearby Jane Austin Museum. This afternoon, the work starts. (And later a performance, of course.)

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