Bandstands: The Victorian-Era Solution to Spreading Culture and Reducing Inequality

By Melissa MacAlister

In the wake of the social upheaval brought about by the European revolutions that began in 1789, Victorian Britain found an innovative way to tackle inequality and promote culture: the bandstand. These architectural gems were designed to make culture accessible to everyone, not just the elite, and their influence reached even the British colonies, including Singapore and Hong Kong, where an 1864 bandstand still stands. These overlooked heritage objects have the potential to teach valuable historical lessons, particularly to primary and secondary-level students who may find traditional textbook-based learning uninspiring.

The intriguing histories behind these “public artefacts” reveal a wealth of information about local and global economic activities, trade, transportation needs, and imbalances in manufactured goods and raw materials. They also shed light on the rise and fall of global consumer preferences, supply and demand dynamics, and countless macro- and microeconomic examples.

Furthermore, reevaluating these heritage objects can highlight the pivotal roles played by often marginalized ethnic minority groups in colonial societies like Hong Kong. These richly hybridized societies are often oversimplified in historical narratives, portrayed through politically convenient Anglo-Chinese storylines. This oversimplification can result from the lack of accurate primary source information, limited vision among historians, or editorial preferences.

The presence of heritage objects can reflect social attitudes and offer insights into the values of civil society during the time of their creation. The aftermath of the political revolutions and social changes that shook Europe in the late 18th and 19th centuries underscored the role of inequality in fueling social unrest and political instability. To prevent such unrest, societies had two options: brutal repression or a genuine effort to reduce inequality.

The Victorian era favored the latter approach, building on Enlightenment-era realizations that high culture and its various manifestations should be accessible to all, not just the privileged few. This approach led to the construction of bandstands in public parks. These open-air, covered venues were designed to provide free access to performances for all members of the public. They served as platforms for civic orchestras, military bands, amateur groups, and emerging artists to practice and gain recognition.

Bandstands, found from Birmingham to Sydney, Cape Town to Singapore, were often collaborative efforts between local governments, which provided the land, and wealthy individuals who funded the construction and often had the privilege of naming these cultural landmarks.

In Hong Kong, the Parsee community made a notable contribution to this legacy by funding the construction of a bandstand in the Botanical Gardens above Government House in 1864. While many of these bandstands have faded from prominence over time, they remain as testaments to a bygone era when culture was embraced as a public good and an instrument of greater social equality.

These historical artifacts, with their intertwined narratives of culture, philanthropy, and social change, continue to offer valuable lessons for today’s world, reminding us of the enduring power of culture to foster inclusivity and reduce inequality.