Late Spring is always dissertation season, the moment when final-year students submit the longest and most personal of their pieces of work for assessment, and when second-year students begin to think of their special subjects and the daunting prospect of a dissertation for next year. Here, Beth Brown, a 2016 finalist, reflects on the process of dissertation research and writing as she waits anxiously for her final grades. One or two clear pieces of advice emerge. If you are doing dual honours then explore the possibilities of inter disciplinarity; always think about comparative history as a method; ask what kind of original sources you nmight be able to use. There are also several dissertation prizes on offer in History. Watch this space to see how Beth does! [We can now reveal that Beth graduated with a good 2i in History and Music in July. Our congratulations to her.]
John Potter says that ‘singing moves and excites people, often in very large numbers.’ My dissertation also excited me as I was able to tie together my two disciplines; history and music. This was not planned. My landlady acquired a collection of choir music from Dagfields Crafts and Antiques Centre near Nantwich in September 2014. She passed these onto me and they sat on my shelf for a year before I decided to look at them. This is when I discovered that a lot of them contained the name ‘D Lester’ whilst a few had a stamp from a music shop in Oswestry, Shropshire. An online database of marriages uncovered that this collection had belonged to Dilys Lester (née Williams) who married her husband in 1954. This was extremely exciting and this is how my dissertation project developed.
My title became ‘women’s engagement with music as leisure in the mid-twentieth century, with reference to the Oswestry Choral Society.’ I then began to trace Dilys. The Oswestry Choral Society was formed in 1888 and evolved into the Oswestry Ladies Choir in 2015. I contacted the choir and they asked past choir members if they knew Dilys. One of the people who was asked happened to be Dilys’ cousin and bridesmaid! Sadly Dilys had died just before I acquired the sheet music, suggesting that her house was emptied of her possessions after her death. However, I was able to speak to the Oswestry Choral Society and Dilys’ cousin to research the history of the choir and Dilys’ involvement.
In my dissertation I compared the Oswestry Choral Society to the Paignton Choral Society and the Liverpool Welsh Choral Union which were also established at the end of the nineteenth-century. I found similarities between the choirs and the problems that they all encountered such as financial difficulties and a lack of members. There was an increase in choirs in this period and they became more institutionalised with membership fees and esteemed members of the community leading the choirs. The choirs gave men and women the opportunity to socialise with each other which was unusual due to contremporary social restrictions.
My next chapter compared the market town of Oswestry on the Welsh border with Newark on Trent, a similar sized market town in Nottinghamshire. I attempted to provide context for the formation of the Oswestry Choral Society in the second half of the nineteenth-century. Both towns were positively influenced by the expansion of the railways and held regular markets. There was also an increase in libraries and public buildings to hold social activities in this period. Golf and bowling were also popular.
The third chapter analysed the eighty-seven pieces of sheet music that I acquired. A lot of the pieces had a copyright date between 1930 and 1969. However it does not tell us when these pieces were sung. Most of the pieces contained Dilys’ married name suggesting that these pieces were sung when she moved to Chester after her marriage. However, she was a member of the Oswestry Choral Society before this and therefore she bought the music before her marriage. It was found that Dilys sang new and older arrangements of choral pieces by well-known composers such as George Handel but also lesser known composers such as George Dyson. The music also highlighted popular publishing companies in this period, popular arrangers, trends over the price of the music and it was evident that the music was well used due to creases and rips. Cataloguing a large amount of primary sources is time consuming and hard to decide which information should be recorded. However it was a rewarding process and it provided meaning to the music.
My final chapter explored women’s leisure between 1945-1960. It found that dancing and the cinema were very popular for young women as they were cheap and allowed women to meet men. Dilys’ life supports this as she met her husband at a dance. Music and drama societies also existed and were often run by women, although more research is needed in this area. When women became married, their leisure activities appeared to decline due to their extra responsibilities.
My dissertation took me to the Shropshire archives, Oswestry Town Museum, Newark Town Hall & Art Gallery, Oswestry Library and Nottingham Library. It used a variety of sources ranging from manuscripts to trade directories to secondary sources. Both the Oswestry Choral Society and the Oswestry Town Museum have requested a copy of my dissertation. This is rewarding as I have contributed to local history. I thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing my dissertation because it was personal to my interests.
Addendum: As a result of this post Dilys Lester’s daughter contacted Beth. So, perhaps the story of this little archive doesn’t end there!