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Musical roots: creating a guide to family history resources in the Musicians’ Union Archive

During the summer of 2017 Henry Carden, a postgraduate Communications, Media & Culture student, carried out a research placement in the University Archives funded by the Musicians’ Union. Here he writes about his work opening up the family history resources contained within the Musicians’ Union Archive.

Marbled edges of MU membership registers (Musicians’ Union Archive)

For the past 8 weeks, I’ve been hiding away in the Musicians’ Union archives putting together a guide to family history resources as part of a graduate trainee programme entitled ‘Musical Roots’. The guide aims to provide an overview of the resources available within the Musicians’ Union archive which may be of interest to people researching their musical ancestors.

As a young-at-heart mature student, I certainly had mixed emotions at discovering that I myself have been archived:

In spite of my ‘illustrious’ musical career, my details in an old branch membership guide were the only mention. So, if my great, great, great grandson is reading this, unfortunately you’ll have to look elsewhere to locate information about my short-lived mid-2000s indie-rock career

As part of the Musical Roots project, I created a database of over 500 obituaries spanning over a hundred years, from the early days of the Amalgamated Musicians’ Union right up to the relatively recent past. It’s worth noting that quite often, tributes and reports weren’t actually described as obituaries, but they featured the kind of information which you would expect to find in an obituary. It’s also worth mentioning that the inclusion of updates about members (both in life and death) was at the beck and call of Branch Secretaries as this article from The Musicians’ Journal demonstrates:

Furthermore, I also included some retirement tributes in the database as they presented a lot of similar information to obituaries. Unfortunately, not all deceased members of the Union received obituaries (understandable given the sheer volume of members) and more often than not, obituaries were reserved for “good union men” who had played active roles in the organisation – and also for more famous members such as John Lennon.

 In addition to the obituaries document, I also created databases of photographs and membership cards which are available to consult in the University Archives. The membership cards database doesn’t include the Edinburgh and Glasgow branches as they were too numerous to document, although highlights there included a few familiar names such as Shirley Manson, Gerry Rafferty and Edwyn Collins.

Glasgow Branch membership cards (Musicians’ Union Archive)

The Musicians’ Union Archive contains a huge amount of historical information on its members and this material is of great interest to people researching their family history.

Whilst some people might have a romantic notion of discovering personal information about one of their musical ancestors, it should be noted that a lot of the resources contained are predominantly administrative. That said, if your relative was an active member of the Union or held an official role, such as Branch Secretary or member of the Executive Committee, for example, then that increases the likelihood of finding more personal information.

Unfortunately, for most members, the only things you’re likely to discover are membership numbers, addresses, the instrument they played and in some cases, their reason for leaving the Union – most likely for falling into arrears with their subscriptions. But don’t let that put you off! You never know what you might discover.

A detailed guide to the family history resources contained in the Musicians’ Union Archive is available here.


Musicians Union – what did the branches do?

The vast majority of the Musicians Union collection has now been catalogued and added to our online catalogue. The collection includes material from Central and District offices and also material from over 65 branches of the Musicians Union spread across the whole of the United Kingdom from Aberdeen in the north, to Bournemouth in the south. As you might expect the records tell us much about the administration of the MU, its structure and operation. The campaigns around the use of recorded music, promoting live music as well as defending the terms and conditions of working musicians and supporting them in times of hardship are well documented throughout the branch records.

Minutes from Liverpool branch meeting
Minutes for Liverpool branch meeting 

For some branches we have a large number and a wide range of records. For example for Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool we have records that reflect the size of the union in terms of individual members in those areas and the range of employment opportunities for musicians.

The minutes of committee meetings and correspondence record the concerns of the Union, for example in protecting terms and conditions of employment for musicians employed in local orchestras and in local theatres.  Liverpool minutes  MU/4/5/1/5

We have membership records that provide not only evidence of the size of the branches in terms of recorded members but also provide information which may be of interest to family historians. Membership registers include names, address, date of joining the union, instruments played and if the person had transferred from another branch or moved to another branch.  The membership records cover more than a century of MU membership from 1893 onwards.

MU Membership Register

Blackpool branch membership register

It is perhaps not surprising that the MU branches in these large cities produce many records; however some small towns also had very active branches. For example we have records from the Blackpool branch which reflect its history as a popular seaside resort with several theatres and attractions including the Tower Ballroom. The minutes of the Blackpool branch meetings and correspondence record negotiations with the Blackpool Tower Company over the terms and conditions of musicians. MU4/15/3/1

Use of recorded music at the Opera House, Blackpool.

Use of recorded music at the Opera House, Blackpool.

The impact of historical events is also present in branch records for example the Blackburn branch was involved in negotiations with the local council for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953 and the use of recorded music. MU/4/11/3/1

Letter from Blackburn branch correspondence file.

The BBC looms large in many branches especially in those branches where members are employed in the BBC orchestras. Much of the correspondence of the Glasgow branch covers negotiations with the BBC over cuts to orchestras and the resulting strikes during the 1980’s.

MU P010

MU Confr026

Photographs taken during the 1980 BBC strike.

 The strike in Bournemouth in 1950 is well documented in a Strike Day by Day Scrap book MU4/18/5/1

Day by Day scrap book of the Bournemouth strike

Day by Day scrap book of the Bournemouth strike


2013: End-of-year review

As we approach the end of the year it’s time to look back and discover what have been our most popular collections in 2013. As in previous years we’ve combined the information recorded in our enquiries database with the records of visitors to our reading room to create our end of year chart. It’s all change at the top with a new No. 1 pushing last year’s chart topper, the Musicians’ Union Archive, into second place.

In 2013 our most used collection was the NHS Forth Valley Archive. This collection, which was transferred to the University Archives in 2012, contains the historical records of two local hospitals, the Stirling District Asylum (Bellsdyke Hospital) and the Royal Scottish National Institution, Larbert. Over the past year a team of student volunteers has helped to make the archives of Stirling District Asylum accessible to researchers through a programme of cleaning and cataloguing. The material has been particularly heavily used by family historians, keen to explore this previously inaccessible material.

The records of Stirling District Asylum have proven very popular with family historians in 2013.

The records of Stirling District Asylum have been well-used by family historians in 2013.

The Royal Scottish National Institution Archives were recognised by UNESCO this year, being designated a collection of national importance and added to the UK Memory of the World Register. We have also recently received funding from the Wellcome Trust for the conservation and cataloguing of the RSNI Archive. We hope to start this work in the spring of 2014 and will post further information about the project on the blog in the new year.

The Musicians’ Union Archive continues to be heavily used by researchers, particularly Glasgow University’s History of the MU project. 2013 was the 120th anniversary of the union and the MU also made great use of their archive during the year. An exhibition featuring images from the collection was put together for the union’s conference in June in Manchester (where the Amalgamated Musicians’ Union was founded in 1893) and was also displayed at the TUC conference, while articles on the history of the union featured in The Musician magazine.

A new entry in our end-of-year review at No. 3 is the Norman McLaren Archive. McLaren’s presence in the Top 3 reflects the increased interest in the life and work of the Stirling-born filmmaker in the run-up to the centenary of his birth in 2014. Our McLaren Archive has continued to grow in recent years with letters to friends and family, artwork and family photographs being added to the collection. In April 2014 a major celebration of McLaren’s career will begin in Stirling with the unveiling of a heritage plaque on his childhood home and an exhibition of material from our collection at the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum. McLaren 2014 will present an exciting programme of events across Scotland including educational workshops, film screenings and public events culminating in a celebration of his ground-breaking, award-winning films at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

The filmmaker Norman McLaren at work. 2014 will see a major celebration of his life and films in Scotland.

The filmmaker Norman McLaren at work. 2014 will see a major celebration of his life and films in Scotland.

Those results in full:


  1. NHS Forth Valley Archives
  2. Musicians’ Union
  3. Norman McLaren


  1. Musicians’ Union
  2. John Grierson
  3. Lindsay Anderson


  1. John Grierson
  2. Lindsay Anderson
  3. University of Stirling


2012 End-of-year review: Top of the Charts

As we head towards xmas it’s time to collect and collate the statistics for the use of our collections in 2012 to create our end of year chart. We’ve combined the information recorded in our enquiries database with the records of visitors to our reading room and have a new No. 1 this year, knocking the ever-popular John Grierson Archive into the No. 2 spot.

In 2012 our most used collection was the Musicians’ Union Archive. The collection provides a comprehensive record of the work of the union and its responses to the various challenges (both political and technological) which have faced musicians over the last 130 years. There are a number of factors that contributed to the collection’s popularity in 2012:

  • The increased accessibility of the collection due to cataloguing, making previously unaccessible material available to researchers
  • The heavy use of the collection by an AHRC-funded project based at the University of Glasgow which is researching the history of the Musicians’ Union
  • The centenary of the sinking of the Titanic which led to many enquiries from the media and researchers relating to the musicians on board the ship

The collection also received many genealogical enquiries from people tracing the careers of family members, the membership records providing a wealth of useful information, and a range of enquiries from researchers investigating various aspects of political, social and musical history.

MU Archive

Material from the Musicians’ Union Archive

Cataloguing of the Musicians’ Union Archive will continue in 2013 as the records of the local branches located across the UK are added to the catalogue, providing a comprehensive record of union activity from Aberdeen to Exeter.

Further down the chart our Lindsay Anderson Archive made the top 3 for the second year running, the final fruits of the work of our ARHC research project being published in November. It was also encouraging to see the university’s own institutional records being well used (at No. 4) and featured in an exhibition celebrating the 40th anniversary of the macrobert in September and on television in a report on the Howietoun Fishery on BBC 2 Scotland’s Landward in November.

The statistics for our flickr pages highlight the success of our Going Wild In the Archives exhibition which took place across the campus in the spring of 2012. The top 10 most-viewed flickr images all hail from the natural history collections which were photographed for the exhibition and include beautiful Victorian illustrations of birds of paradise, sea anemones, butterflies and Himalayan plants. With plans in place to open-up some interesting new accessions to researchers in the new year we’re looking forward to a busy and stimulating 2013!

Our most-viewed image on flickr: ‘Resplendent Trogon and Ceylonese Sun Bird’, from Beautiful Birds in Far-off Lands, Kirby, M. (London, 1873).

Nearer my God to Thee – The heroic musicians of the Titanic

This weekend marks the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic with a huge range of television programmes, newspaper articles, new books, events (and cruises) commemorating the disaster. Our small contribution to these commemorations is to reproduce the memorial poster of the ‘Heroic Musicians of the Titanic’ produced by the Amalgamated Musicians Union in 1912, part of the Musicians Union Archive.

Heroic musicians of the Titanic poster

Heroic musicians of the Titanic poster

The poster depicts the eight professional musicians who were employed to provide on board musical entertainment for the ships passengers (playing requests for up to 12 hours a day from a song book containing over 350 titles). As the ship sank it was reported that they continued to play, their final tune the hymn ‘Nearer my God to Thee.’ Selling over 80,000 copies in the months following the disaster the poster was one example of the extraordinary public response to the sinking of the Titanic, another musical response being a huge benefit concert at the Royal Albert Hall on 24 May 1912 which featured seven full orchestras.

The pages of the union’s journal in the months following the disaster provide detailed reports about the heroic actions of the musicians and the efforts made by the union and others to provide compensation for their families, compensation which was not forthcoming from the ship’s owners the White Star Line. The musicians were employed by an agency called Black Brothers, who supplied musicians to ocean liners, and were not technically ship’s employees. As well as being denied compensation from the White Star Line the family of the violinist John Law Hume also received a letter from Black Brothers demanding they pay the balance of the money he owed for his uniform. While reporting on the insults suffered by the families of the deceased the journal also records the huge sums of money raised by its members for its special Titanic fund, along with the various tributes made and memorials unveiled across the country to their fellow musicians.


Musical Toons

The Musicians Union Archive includes a full set of the various journals, reports and bulletins produced by the union over the years for its members. These publications provided information relating to union activity and reported on the major issues affecting musicians. From 1921 – 1931 the union produced the Musicians Journal. This publication is notable for the cartoons which featured in many of its issues, these images both entertaining the journal’s readers and illustrating many of the threats to the livelihoods of musicians in the period.

Cartoon from the October 1925 issue of the Musicians Journal

The first cartoons, which begin to appear in 1923, reflect the working conditions of many of the union’s members with amusing scenes depicting such common complaints as overcrowding in orchestra pits. The benefits of union membership begin to be stressed in the aftermath of the General Strike of 1926 with a number of cartoons illustrating the valuable role played by the union and urging members to renew their (increased) subscriptions.

Towards the end of the decade technological advances in film and sound presented a major threat to musicians employed in cinemas and the Journal includes a series of cartoons which reflect the concerns felt by its members by these new developments. A number of these cartoons also illustrate the views expressed in a number of journal articles that the ‘talkies’ were a passing fad. Facing the new decade of the 1930s the fears of an uncertain technological future were summed up in the Journal in this striking image from the January 1930 issue…

Cartoon from January 1930 issue of the Musicians Journal

Sax appeal

If a recent article in the Guardian is to be believed the saxophone is back in vogue with the instrument featuring unexpectedly in recent releases from artists as diverse as Lady Gaga and US indie-rockers Deerhunter. While the sax may have fallen out of favour in recent years it has enjoyed several periods of popularity. Sorting through a box of photographs in the Musicians Union Archive last week I came across a stack of promotional photographs of saxophonists from the 1930s and 40s, when dance bands played to huge audiences, to the 1950s and the birth of rock and roll.

The union’s membership registers provide the evidence for the ubiquity of the saxophone at the time these photographs were taken. The detailed information recorded in the registers includes valuable information on the instruments played by members. For example, a quick comparison of a register from say, 1930, and one from 1970 will provide a clear example of how the instruments played and the make-up of the union’s membership changed over the years.

Page from membership register of Manchester Branch of the Musicians Union.

 The various surveys and reports produced by the union over the years also provide snapshots of the musical make up of the nation. One particularly useful document is a fascinating report produced in 1947 which provides a breakdown of the various sections of the profession both regionally and nationally. The figures provide evidence of the high proportion of musicians engaged in playing in the ‘casual dance’ bands which featured many of the saxophonists whose portraits can now be viewed on our flickr pages.

Table from 'Report upon a survey of the fields of employment of members and potential members of the Musicians Union', March 1947.