Sharing Suffolk Stories at the Red House – Christopher Hilton

The composer Benjamin Britten and his partner the tenor Peter Pears lived together at the Red House in Aldeburgh from the 1940s to the 1970s. The Red House is now a heritage site and their large and varied archive is one of the services offered to the public there.

The archive spans the whole range of the two men’s lives, professional and personal.  There are the scores of most of Britten’s works; the libretti, costume designs and set designs for his operas; thousands of files of letters, the correspondents including the artistic great and good, family and friends, and fan-mail from the public; and the administrative papers that document the running of their household.

 PH/3/3: Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten in New York, c.1940.  Image supplied by the Britten-Pears Foundation; photographer unknown.

So who uses an archive like this?  Obviously, historians of music and the arts, and musicians intending to perform one of the pieces documented.  Queer history is a growing area of interest, as one would imagine of an archive that has, at its heart, a gay relationship that is unusually well-documented.  A recent initiative in tandem with Suffolk Archives, however, explores an aspect of the archive that has previously not been exploited: its use for local history and community engagement. 

Pears and Britten, being self-employed, compiled annual returns of earnings and expenditure for the tax authorities, and retained evidence in case they were audited.  As a result, they kept receipts for most of their purchases over the years – and these now form part of their archive.  They illustrate, of course, the lifestyle of the two men, and the way in which a gay couple organised their finances when their relationship was illegal (no joint bank account, expenses punctiliously reclaimed from one another).  But they also provide a window into the past of Aldeburgh.  They show us the businesses that have vanished from the High Street, and those that still exist; the changing way in which shops depicted themselves through illustrated letterheads; the products available locally, and the things for which one had to look elsewhere.  

PH/3/130: Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, June 1976, at a party in the Red House garden to celebrate Britten’s peerage.  Image copyright the Britten-Pears Foundation; photographer, Nigel Luckhurst.

These form the heart of a volunteer-led project to explore the town’s history.  It is a collaboration with Suffolk Archives, which runs several such projects under the umbrella title “Sharing Suffolk Stories”: the local record office recruits a team of local volunteers to study relevant local sources and to tell stories that emerge from these, in whatever form they choose.  This project, “Britten’s High Street”, using Britten and Pears’ financial records, began in autumn 2019 and will last for a year.  These easily-overlooked administrative papers cover many of Aldeburgh’s businesses during the years Britten lived in the town, and some cases may be the only surviving documents from a business.  Local volunteers visiting the archive have seen receipts from the shop they grew up in, or told their memories of Britten as a resident of the town (how, for instance, the shops closed on the day of his funeral), linking the archive to its locality, whilst researching the history of the town’s shops has unearthed stories from the nineteenth century.  As regards outputs, there will be a walking tour of the High Street in late spring, stopping at different premises to tell the stories that emerged, and others are taking shape: there is discussion with the town museum about a display, and with the local business association about notices in shop-windows setting out that shop’s associations.

Britten found it vital for his art to have a sense of where he came from and where he belonged: he was born on the Suffolk coast, returned to his native county in his late twenties and settled there for the rest of his life, setting several of his operas here.  He was, always, a local boy, and it’s pleasing that his papers are helping his neighbours tell the story of their town.

Christopher Hilton, Head of Archive and Library, Britten-Pears Foundation

For more information about this project visit:

https://www.suffolkarchives.co.uk/the_hold/sharing-suffolk-stories/brittens-high-street-the-history-of-shopping-in-aldeburgh/

or

https://brittenpears.org/

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