Brighton’s French Music Festival, 1881 (2)

Just a year ago, in my blog about Brighton’s 1881 Music Festival, I stated: “A great part of the success of the Festival does seem to have been due to the excellent organisation by Chérifel de la Grave.”

Should I have been more alive to this newspaper report?

The national press went a little further in criticism of the practical arrangements of the Festival:

Were there flaws in the organisation?  Well, the chief conductor of the participating Orphéon from Châlons-sur-Marne certainly thought so.  His 50-page account of his band’s trip to Brighton is very revealing.

The trip from Châlons (some 120 miles north-east of Paris) to Brighton was long but of great interest, many of the group never having seen Paris or the sea before.

Arrival in Brighton in the dark, in the rain, was already a poor start to the visit.  To add to their woes, there was no-one to greet the group at the station.  Their conductor, M. Félix Boisson, had to set off to find the organisers.  M. Chérifel de la Grave was not at home at 15 King’s Road.  M. Boisson had to rely on a friendly (if uncomprehending) cab driver to take him on to next address where he might find at least one of the organisers.  Eventually a bed was found for each of the 60 members of the group.  M. Boisson fell into bed, exhausted, at about 2 am.

The next morning, Tuesday 6 September, revealed some woeful tales from members of the group:

En route, les impressions de la nuit sont échangées, et à l’unanimité, les lits anglais mis à notre disposition, avec leur maigre matelas sur sangle s’aplatissant continuellement d’une manière alarmante pour nos côtes et presque tous agrémentés d’insectes insupportables, sont déclarés ne pas valoir ceux de France. 

[… On our way, we exchanged our impressions of the previous night and we were unanimous: the thin mattresses of the English beds which had been put at our disposal continually sank on their webbed frames in the most alarming way, to the detriment of our ribs.  Nearly all the beds were embellished with insufferable insects and so were declared to be in no way as good as French beds.]

Tuesday 6th was the opening day of the concert.  As the Châlons band was not required to play music until the afternoon, they decided to play at being tourists – which thankfully they thoroughly enjoyed.  They admired the two piers (Chain and West) and marvelled at the ice skaters at the Aquarium.

Image courtesy of the Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton and Hove

Mealtimes, served at long, long tables in the Corn Exchange, were not so successful. Perhaps not surprising.  This group of musicians had come from a thriving town in the heart of the agricultural Champagne region.

Voici le détail de ce premier menu : Jambon, bouilli froid, salade au lait (le lait remplace l’huile) un verre de bière.  Coût 2f 25. C’est assez cher pour un plat, personne n’ayant touché au bouilli trop peu appétissant.

[Here are the details of our first meal: Ham, cold stew, lettuce in milk (the milk replacing oil) a glass of beer.  Price 2f 25.  That was rather expensive for one course as no one had touched the stew which was really not very appetising.]

Was the “milk” an early form of salad cream?   Could the food really be a bad as M. Boisson describes it?  Could the English really set a table without napkins? Was the coffee really that weak?

Comme la veille, on a oublié les serviettes.  Le menu est le même que la soirée précédente, avec le verre de bière en moins et du café noir à discrétion, mais incapable d’exciter les nerfs.  Il y a bien quelques sardines qui voudraient venir jusqu’à notre table, mais elles sont accaparées avant la fin de leur trajet.  Le bouilli froid n’est décidément du goût de personne.

[As on the previous day, the caterers had omitted to supply any napkins.  The menu was the same as the evening before, minus the glass of beer but with unlimited black coffee, but not of a sort that could perk us up. There were some sardines on their way to our table, but they were snapped up before they could get to their destination.  The cold stew was, decidedly, to no-one’s taste.]

The group found two remedies to the poor standard of catering.  The first was to take advantage of the fact that:

Plusieurs d’entre nous n’ont pas manqué de remarquer en ville quelques petits restaurants français qui semblent devoir convenir aux estomacs que cinq ou six tasses de café noir n’ont pas suffisamment rassasiés.

[Fortunately, several of us had noticed a few small French restaurants in the town and which would probably suit stomachs left unsatisfied by five or six black coffees.]

The second remedy was perhaps simpler if not much cheaper:  bribe the French waiter at their table to bring the best dishes from the kitchens directly to them.  That seemed to work, for at least the waiter managed to get some mashed potatoes and soup to them.

So, the organisers had slipped up on various aspects of their task.  Did this spoil the whole event for the band from Châlons?  It seems not.  M. Boisson’s account is full of good grace.  He appreciated the rapturous reception given to all the French bands at the various venues in the town, the whole group found the town centre enchanting and the shops dazzling.  Best of all, the Orphéon from Châlons was invited to perform the first piece of the opening grand concert and subsequently won several prizes.  M. Boisson himself was awarded a gold watch by the organisers.

Image courtesy of the Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton and Hove

Venues for the Festival included the Aquarium, the Dome and the Royal Pavilion.

I can find no hint of criticism in French newspapers of the organisation of the event.  It would seem that the editor of Le Progrès de la Marne never did publish M. Boisson’s long article in his newspaper.  There might be two reasons for this:

  • The Mayor of Brighton had spontaneously organised a charity concert to raise funds for the musician victims of the Ferté-Alais train crash.  French newspapers very readily praised the town of Brighton for its generosity.
  • In the 1870’s and 1880’s, following the disaster of their defeat by the Prussians in 1870, and their struggle to create a republic for the people, the French were immensely proud of their amateur town bands.  That this should be acknowledged and publicised by the English was very much appreciated.

So, alas, M. Boisson’s realistic yet basically affectionate view of England and Brighton did not have the attention it deserved in his day.

The full French text of Félix Boisson’s orignal article is available in the History of Social Sciences series published by the British Library: ISBN 978124900526.  For my translation of his article, click here.

One thought on “Brighton’s French Music Festival, 1881 (2)

  1. I certainly sympathise with the French visitors in their disappointment with British beds but particularly the food they received. French cuisine has an international reputation and the French are in general appreciative of and knowledgeable about their food. English fare of the sort described would come as a shock!

    Equally, one must commend their good grace in overlooking the discomforts experienced.

    I would hope that some of that good grace can survive to help us through the traumatic experience of Brexit.


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