North American British Music Studies Association

Nettle Tea and a Trunk Full of Documents

“Nettle Tea and a Trunk Full of Documents” by Christina Bashford (below) was first published in January 2008 on the Boydell and Brewer blog, following the publication of her monograph, The Pursuit of High Culture: John Ella and Chamber Music in Victorian London. I thank her for suggesting this article for the NABMSA blog’s new series “Stories from the Archives” and for allowing NABMSA to re-post the story. If you have archival stories of your own that you would like to share, please send them my way.

M Meinhart 

Nettle Tea and a Trunk Full of Documents

The Pursuit of High Culture centers on the life story of one man. He is John Ella, an eminent, overlooked Victorian, whose activities as concert manager and prophet for serious chamber music gave him a unique and significant role in musical life in nineteenth-century London. As the Boydell publicity will rightly tell you, there is, within the book’s pages, much else besides (including the history of a concert institution and metropolitan musical culture). Yet it is Ella’s biography that gives the book its shape and structure, not to mention its ‘period’ flavour.Now, unfortunately, for many of the ‘middle men’ of music history (people like Ella), there are no surviving archives containing the hard documentary evidence we need to do solid research. And for music historians, this is something of a tragedy, because it makes the writing of detailed biographies well-nigh impossible. Indeed, in the early days of my research into Victorian chamber music (in the mid-1980s), I concluded this was the situation as regards Ella, even though I had discovered, with considerable frustration, that only thirty years earlier, archives relating to Ella’s life had been extant. A 1950s article from the periodical Music and Letters, written by an amateur music-lover named John Ravell, made tantalizing references to such materials, but gave no source of reference as to where they could be found. I had searched high and low in bibliographies and in the catalogues of libraries and archives for an indication of where these materials might be, but with no success. So eventually, having been unable to trace Mr Ravell either, I accepted that the trail had gone cold.Imagine my utter surprise and delight, then, when a few years later I received a letter from that very man, John Ravell. He had somehow discovered that I was researching London chamber music concerts, and wondered whether I might be interested in visiting him, as he had a few bits and pieces which he thought I might like to see….What he had, I slowly learned, was a large cache of manuscripts relating to John Ella: pocket diaries, photographs, scrapbooks, letters, account books and so on, all kept in a large, rusty iron trunk. The material had been in the hands of indirect descendants of Ella’s, and had been both located and later saved from the rubbish tip by the extraordinary persistence and foresight of John Ravell himself. Over three or four years, as I gained his trust, Mr Ravell, then in his late seventies, allowed me access to the entire collection.It was quite a palaver, even a ritual. I would visit his house, a great barn of a place – musty and austere – in north London, on Friday afternoons at 3pm. On arrival he made me tea, nettle tea to be precise, and we sat and talked about chamber music, historical research, John Ella (of course) and other things. Eventually he would tire of talking and bring me one of the manuscripts and leave me alone at a makeshift desk, to make feverish notes for a couple of hours. Then came more tea and conversation, and I would leave to make my two-hour journey home, eager for the next Friday when I could continue my work. Although progress was slow, the excitement of this discovery, the smell of the Victorian notebooks, and the buzz I got from feeling the immediacy of John Ella’s life before me, and from knowing that this was all material that had never been worked through thoroughly, is difficult to explain. Suffice to say it got me completely hooked, and once a week I travelled happily to the world of nineteenth-century London music and musicians.

Meanwhile John Ravell became thrilled that I was pursuing this line of research, the more so when I told him I had decided to write a definitive biography of Ella once my PhD was completed. A book on Ella had been something he had always wanted to see – the true recognition of Ella’s importance – but he had latterly come to realize he would never write it himself. Now, nearly twenty years later the Ella papers are safely housed in Oxford University libraries and I have finally finished the book I promised John Ravell such a long while ago. Unfortunately, Mr Ravell has not lived to see the completed product. I regret that intensely, because it would have given him great pleasure to see John Ella’s significance recognized on the bookshelf. For like John Ella, John Ravell was a quite exceptional and visionary man.