WW2 Army Flight Nurses – 14 Aug 2022

The Sixth in a series of Blogs about the 31 Medical Air Evacuation
Transport Squadrons activated during WW2
to provide inflight nursing care to sick and wounded soldiers,
tended by Army flight nurses and enlisted technicians.
The focus is on the flight nurses.


Part 2


The novelty of MAETS songwriting had not worn off in 1944 as the war entered its third year for the US and two–thirds of the MAETS had been activated. Flight nurses of the 821 MAETS and the 822 MAETS, who graduated with their classes at the School of Air Evacuation (SAE) at Bowman Field, KY in on 11 March of that year shared both the ups and the downs of the work of air evacuation with their MAETS. The lyrics of the 821st Squadron Song express the noble thoughts and lofty ambitions of members who are ready to remain steady through the worst that the war can bring.


At least some flight nurses of the 822 MAETS had a more practical concern in mind. Whether the airsickness to which their song alludes is their own or that of their patients is left unclear, though a new job requiring a stomach of iron ore suggests that the nurse is the unfortunate one. One can hope the song, written to the tune of “I’m Gonna Buy a Paper Doll” was written in jest.

Finally, in what definitely was a humorous look back at their training, flight nurses of the 822 MAETS roasted their SAE instructors to the tune of “Gee Ma I Wanna Go Home”:

Mary Leontine, Chief Nurse, School of Air Evacuation,
Bowman Field, KY [USAF Photo]

Instructors and their class topics to which the song refers:

Captain Gray
Chemical Warfare
Military Courtesy
Flying Discipline
Nomenclature C-47

Captain Gruber
Map and Compass Reading

Captain Greenburg
Field Sanitation
Tropical Medicine

Captain Stroup 

Captain Leontine
Chief Nurse

Lieutenant Mayer 
T/O [Theater of Operations] Climate and Customs
Military Methods of Teaching
Military Correspondence
Property Exchange
Field Records, EMT [Emergency Medical Treatment], Air Ambulance

Major Ousley 
Aeromedical Therapeutics

Lieutenant Weisman 
Articles of War

Captain McBride 
Logistics and Organization of the Army
Supply and Property

The squadron song, in which the 822 MAETS flight nurses poke fun at their student days, ends on a more serious note alluding to a popular song of WW1. They don’t want to go home, nor do they want to stay at Bowman Field – they, like their colleagues in other MAETS, want to go “Over there – Over There”.


For more about the musical side of the MAETS, see Beyond the Call of Duty: Army Flight Nursing in World War II and the Blog posted on 17 Jul 2017.


WW2 Army Flight Nurses – 24 Jul 2022

The Fifth in a series of Blogs about the 31 Medical Air Evacuation
Transport Squadrons activated during WW2
to provide inflight nursing care to sick and wounded soldiers,
tended by Army flight nurses and enlisted technicians.
The focus is on the flight nurses.


Part 1


Song lyrics that MAETS flight nurses composed to well-known tunes of their day show a creative pride in their squadrons and eagerness to put into practice what they had learned at the School of Air Evacuation (SAE) at Bowman Field – the sooner, the better.

Departure for overseas duty was taking too long for the flight nurses of the 810 MAETS, who turned to song to lament the delay.


We fly thru the air with the greatest of ease,
Our burning desire is to go overseas;
Our greatest ambition, the soldiers to please
We’re anxious to frustrate the foe.

Our muscles are bulging, our clothes getting tight,
We’re eager and ready to get in the fight,
Now won’t you take pity upon our sad plight?
Oh, General, please let us go.

We’re stood at retreats ’till from cold we were blue,
And we’ve splinted and bandaged as well,
We’re fully assured we can easily go –
Thru anything this side of Hell – 

A final verse begs General Grant, “please don’t say ‘No’ to their request for movement orders. They were “fighting” to go, as their Ode makes clear.

ODE TO THE 810th

We’re the fighting (mighty) 810th from Bowman, the best squadron on the field,
And our superiority to no one will we yield.
From life’s trials and tribulations we ask no one to us shield,
We’ll prove that we’re in earnest once our orders are unsealed.

We’re skinny and fat and lanky and short, some pretty and some cute,
And while we’re very modest, our own horns don’t like to toot
We can hold our own with the very best, as well as shoot and salute;
If General Pershing could see us now, for us we’re sure he’d root.

Oh – the armies used to travel on their stomachs, so they say,
But modern Florence Nightingales go quite a different way,
For we’re a part of something which is really here to stay,
And General Grant, we’re out to prove that what we’ve said ain’t hay.

General David N.W. Grant, the first Air Surgeon for the Army Air Forces, was a staunch supporter of the air evacuation program that was developed under his leadership and of the use of female flight nurses as the in-flight medical attendants.

Like the 810 MAETS, the 811 MAETS was “the Fighting 811th”, though they marched to a different tune.

Captain Gray taught chemical warfare and was also a drill instructor; Lieutenant Mary Poirier was the 811 MAETS chief nurse. Colonel Ralph Stevenson was commander of SAE, and Captain Mary Leontine was the SAE chief nurse.

The 812 MAETS chose to praise General Grant, not plead with him, and promised to make him proud by bringing the wounded soldiers home.

David N.W. Grant, Air Surgeon,
Army Air Forces (USAF Photo)

The 814 MAETS flight nurses graduated with the class of 43–H on 26 November 1943 and were honored to have General Grant as their graduation speaker. They perhaps sang him their musical rewrite of “Till We Meet Again’:

TUNE: Till We Meet Again

The 814th will miss you when you go –
For you’ve been an inspiration you know
We’ve all pulled together in Air Evac.
For you were always there to back us
Patiently you bore our first review
You kept us on the beam the whole way through
Till we meet again.

Yet another tribute, with a handwritten notation “To Gen. Grant” is typed on the page that includes “The Fighting 811th”. Since the general was graduation speaker for the class that included the 814 MAETS flight nurses on 26 November 1943, but not for the class of the 811 MAETS flight nurses who graduated on 13 August 1943, the song could be the work of either MAETS class.

For more about the musical side of the MAETS, see Beyond the Call of Duty: Army Flight Nursing in World War II and the Blog posted on 17 Jul 2017.


WW2 Army Flight Nurses – 2 Jul 2022

The Fourth in a series of Blogs about the 31 Medical Air Evacuation
Transport Squadrons activated during WW2
to provide inflight nursing care to sick and wounded soldiers,
tended by Army flight nurses and enlisted technicians.
The focus is on the flight nurses.


Training for Air Evacuation


Of special interest to the press were the maneuvers in which the flight nurses took part with other members of their MAETS, an aspect of training that provided numerous “photo ops”, many undoubtedly arranged by the base’s public relations office. In a weekend bivouac the flight nurses learned tent pitching, military sanitation, and camp discipline. They next went out on 3–day maneuvers to apply the practical aspects of their didactic instruction, but now experienced under simulated combat conditions. 1 Humorous incidents of flour bombs dropped on troops not sufficiently camouflaged and nighttime raids on unsuspecting sentries taught the flight nurses serious lessons about protecting themselves from the enemy once overseas.

Bivouac, Bowman Field, KY (USAF Photo)

The second flight nurse class, of which Leora Stroup was a member, went on bivouac a few days before their graduation ceremony. The critique prepared by Stroup and classmate Grace Dunnam, later chief nurse of the 806 MAETS, offers a firsthand account of bivouac. While marching approximately 5 miles with field equipment, the nurses encountered 2 surprise “gas” attacks requiring use of chemical warfare gear. Upon arriving at their campsite, the foot-weary women pitched their tents after watching a tent-pitching demonstration. They did not have to dig their own latrine but did dig an “ablution trench” for their own use, filling it with water brought in buckets from a nearby farmhouse. The nurses received on-the-spot instruction about mess management and “chow line” formation. Other demonstrations covered the Lyster bag for chemically purified water, improvised first aid, and guard duty. 2

Chow Line on Bivouac, Bowman Field, KY (USAF Photo)

At the end of bivouac, officers took down their own tents. The 6 nurses who did not report for roll call at 6:15 that morning had to police the nurses’ area for trash. Before departing, all officers walked the length of their area in line, picking up paper and lost articles; they then returned to base. Missing tent ropes, which would have been caught had equipment been checked before starting, and the need for more practical clothing such as thick-soled shoes for marching, 2–piece coveralls for women, and bed socks were 2 of the problems that Dunnam and Stroup identified in their critique. 3 Once Stroup had progressed from student role to that of instructor, she added “Recreation – singing by campfire” to the bivouac activities for the third flight nurse class. 4

Flight Nurse Standing Guard During Bivouac (USAF Photo)

After June 1943, nurses were assigned to their MAETS before attending the flight nurse course, giving the squadron of flight surgeons, flight nurses, enlisted technicians, and support personnel a longer time to “gel” – to build esprit de corps – and to become acquainted with each other and with their duties before shipment overseas. Together they accomplished administrative tasks, post-graduate training while still at Bowman Field that included additional bivouacs and other field maneuvers, and procurement and preparation of equipment and supplies for overseas shipment. For flight surgeon Morris Kaplan, 803 MAETS commander whose squadron was destined for the CBI, it was “an opportunity to weed the boys from the men, and the crocheter from the real women.” 5 The time could also provide opportunities for squadrons to perfect their air evacuation skills on stateside missions when the need arose.

Flight nurse Louise Anthony of the 816 MAETS gave a humorous account of her classmates, who graduated in January 1944, pitching their tents in the frigid January temperature when on bivouac. It took all day to issue the “armloads” of field equipment – tent pegs, shelter halves, mess kits, canteen and its holder, flashlights, clothing – “everything imaginable” – to their large class.

Then they announce, “All right, fall out in the morning with all your field equipment, and we will show you how to put it together.” The weather was so cold, we all wore at least 2 sets of underwear and our slacks, plus any outer clothing we could put on top. And we fell out. It was dark. These 4 squadrons lined up … and frequently someone would drop a tent peg, and we’d giggle. And they’d bend over to pick up the tent peg and drop their canteen or something else. And then somebody else would try to help pick up one of the things dropped, and she would drop something. And [Edith] Jackson was standing out in front. Each of the flight leaders was standing in front of the squadrons to take the morning report and turn and give it to Jackson, who would turn and give it to the captain standing behind. And Jackson was yelling out periodically, “Attention!” which couldn’t be had under the circumstances very easily. And finally she yelled out, “You are supposed to fall in at attention!” And then she added, “To the best of your ability.” The captain behind Jackson doubled up laughing – was almost on the ground laughing. …

Then when we did go out, … the captain who was in charge said … “Is anyone cold?” And there were about 20 of the girls [who] said, “Oh, I’m freezing! Oh, it’s so cold, I’m dying!” And I thought, Jiminy Christmas, why can’t they keep their mouths shut? And all of a sudden he said, “All right. Everybody fall into line.” And he ran us around the field about 4 times – to warm us up. 6

The flight nurses of Anthony’s 816 MAETS eventually found themselves dealing with a cold British winter during the buildup to D Day and Operation Overlord.

Bivouac was only one type of maneuvers or military training exercises in which flight nurse students participated. Even more demanding than the wartime scenarios encountered during bivouac at Bowman Field may have been the daytime infiltration course at nearby Fort Knox. Flight surgeon Kaplan, who observed the progress of the 803 MAETS flight nurses through the infiltration course following their graduation from training in May 1943, concluded: “I felt that if all 25 girls could take that beating, then I could take them anywhere. I had just finished it myself through much less dust than they and had wanted to quit a dozen times. It was certainly the hardest physical work I had ever done as it consisted essentially of doing 150 pushups and the temperature was 105.” 7 The 803 MAETS flight nurses filled their remaining days at Bowman Field gaining proficiency on the firing range and behind the steering wheel of jeeps and trucks. They also learned the intricacies of packing a parachute. Months later 1 nurse in that squadron had reason to recall this lesson – and the instructor’s sarcastic comment that if her parachute failed, she could always exchange it – when she had to put it to the ultimate test over the mountains of China. 8

801 MAETS Mary Wiggins after Infiltration Course,
Fort Knox, KY (USAF Photo)

Katherine Hack related the performance of the 821 MAETS flight nurses on that course the day after the squadron’s return from bivouac. Members of the press had arrived to “take in the atmosphere. One, a Mr. Parsonette, connected with one of the film studios, was invited to join us. For he had been flickering off and on in the background since bivouac, and some time before that. He very suavely replied that being a man he would be unable to truly capture a feminine reaction to going through the infiltration course. He was assured that the experience he would find there knew no sex.” The nurses

rolled, crawled, wiggled and slithered through the mud, under barbed wire through the [ditches] abundant with water, to the staccato refrains of the machine guns. When the final ditch was completed, we truly were a sight to behold. Our fatigues were soaked with a most tenacious variety of Kentucky mud. From this day on we ceased to refer to ourselves as ‘Female Cadets’ thinking ‘Female Commandos’ more fitting. 9

Mary Wiggins of 801 MAETS and later 827 MAETS
on Firing Range, Bowman Field, KY (USAF Photo)

For some flight nurses the interim between earning their wings and participating in air evacuation in the “real world” seemed like an eternity. The first verse of the “803rd Lament”, written by Lieutenants Elsie Ott and Georgia Insley “while lying on cot waiting final movement orders at Bowman Field, Kentucky, July, 1943” and sung to the tune “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, depicts the sense of limbo in which the newly minted flight nurses sometimes found themselves:

The Squadron is ready to go
But orders are coming in slow.
We wait without ranker
To get on a Tanker
Because we are ready to go. 10

Orders could be slow in coming, as the 11 verses of this lament suggest. But the time finally arrived when each MAETS left Bowman Field usually by troop train – often under cover of darkness – on secret orders to a staging base on the east or west coast to await shipment overseas.


For more about flight nurse and MAES training, see Beyond the Call of Duty: Army Flight Nursing in World War II, Chapter 3 and Chapter 4. For more about Louise Anthony de Flon see Blogs posted for 6 Jun 2016 and 10 Oct 2020.

An audio recording of my interview with Louise de Flon is available at:

Louise de Flon https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80011348



  1. “Training Course for Flight Nurses”, AAF School of Air Evacuation, Bowman Field, KY, 16 Aug 1943. [AFHRA 280.93–12]
  2. “Bivouac: A Training Project for 349th Air Evacuation Group Nurses”, Bowman FIeld, KY. [AMEDD]
  3. G.E. Dunnam and L.B. Stroup, “Student Bivouac, 349th Air Evacuation Group, Bowman Field, Kentucky, March 23 / [19]43 to 24 / [19]43″/ [AMEDD]
  4. Leora Stroup, “Student Assignments for Class in BIvouac Familiarization, prior to Bivouac”, Headquarters, 349th Air Evacuation Group, Bowman FIeld, KY. [AMEDD]
  5. “Bivouac”, 803 MAETS. [AFHRA MED–803–HI]
  6. Louise Anthony de Flon, interview with author, 23, 24 May 1986.
  1. “Dr. (Major) Morris Kaplan’s Personal ‘Song of India’,” unpublished manuscript, 1.
  2. “Post Graduate Activities”, 803 MAETS. [AFHRA MED–803–HI]
  1. [Katherine Hack], “History: Nurses View Point, 20 January 1944 – 31 December 1944”, 821 MAES, 2. [AFHRA MED–821–HI]
  1. Elsie Ott and Georgia Insley, “803rd Lament”, 803 MAETS, Jul 1943. [AFHRA MED–803–HI]


WW2 Army Flight Nurses – 12 Jun 2022

The Third in a series of Blogs about the 31 Medical Air Evacuation
Transport Squadrons activated during WW2
to provide inflight nursing care to sick and wounded soldiers,
tended by Army flight nurses and enlisted technicians.
The focus is on the flight nurses


Army Flight Nurse Training


Thanks for the memories of drilling in the sun
And making it seem fun and eating sand
And killing flies and guarding with a gun
Oh thank you so much.

Thanks for the memories of swimming every week
Of forming in the street of scrubbing clothes
And dusting doors and bathing in the creek
Oh thank you so much.

Class songs such as this one written by members of the fifth class of Army flight nurses, which graduated from the AAF School of Air Evacuation at Bowman Field, KY in August 1943, often recalled their training and its rigorous military preparation with a hint of nostalgia. This training evolved and became more relevant over the course of the war as input from MAETS overseas helped determine what was most useful to include in course work and practical instruction. Personnel in the 801 MAETS and 802 MAETS received an abbreviated course of training prior to immediate departure for overseas assignments; time permitted only brief instruction in first aid, medical and surgical care of patients en route by air, and the loading and unloading of patients from the planes, as well as the course on chemical warfare. 1 By January 1943, members of the 803 MAETS and additional squadrons benefited from more thorough training in a didactic course of study, with responsibility for flight nurse training delegated to Leora B. Stroup, a former ANCOA nurse who arrived at Bowman Field from Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, DC where she was chief of the air evacuation unit.

Leora B. Stroup, 1942 (AMEDD)

The physicians and enlisted technicians assigned to the MAETS had some previous military experience gained from their respective basic military training courses; many of the flight surgeons were also pilots. The nurses, however, had come into the military straight from civilian life where most had worked in hospitals or as airline stewardesses. The main focus of training for air evacuation in the early stages therefore was to indoctrinate nurses into the military way of doing things. These women knew how to be nurses – now they needed to learn how to be military nurses. As supply of nurses for air evacuation duty caught up with initial demand, however, those selected for this work were drawn from nurses with more experience in Army hospitals and thus had a better grasp of military life.

Anticipating the establishment of a school of air evacuation, Brigadier General Grant, AAF Air Surgeon, prepared a tentative outline for the training of flight nurses and enlisted technicians covering a wide spectrum of subjects: aeromedical nursing, physiology, and classification of patients; air evacuation records, operations, and logistics; tropical and arctic medicine; tactics of air evacuation; and field sanitation and hygiene. Special studies included mental hygiene and its relation to air evacuation, air routes of the world, climate studies in the theaters of operation, desert medicine, and oxygen indoctrination. Instruction would span 4 weeks of lectures, demonstrations, and field problems. 2

AAF School of Air Evacuation, Bowman Field, KY (USAF Photo)

Missing from this first outline of flight nurse training was the subject of courtesies and customs of military service, which was incorporated into the training program beginning with the first graduating class of flight nurses. How to salute was one of the first military courtesies that the flight nurse students were taught. A reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote that Stroup’s account “of how the students learned to salute might rate a Broadway or Hollywood laugh: It seems some of them couldn’t stage a salute without an oomph wiggle or almost a jitterbug act.” 3 The students received military indoctrination outside the classroom in the form of marches, drills, and parades. The nurses put all of their training to the test when they went out on bivouacs and maneuvers that introduced them to simulated wartime scenarios.


Flight Nurses at Bowman Field, KY (USAF Photo)

The first nurses to benefit from an organized course for the study of air evacuation duties began their rigorous program in January 1943. Former ANCOA nurse Eileen Newbeck, a member of the first class, recalled the inaugural course that she and her classmates experienced as jungle, desert, and arctic medicine “practically read out of medical books to us – because there were no books for us to study from – in order to acquaint us with the different diseases we would have in the various countries where we might be sent.” 4 Training was fast paced, and 4 weeks later a formal graduation ceremony held in the base chapel at Bowman Field on 18 February 1943 marked successful completion of their studies. The occasion was a milestone for both the 39 Army nurses who had earned the coveted title of flight nurse and for the school that had offered them the knowledge and skills to reach this point in their military nursing service.

Flight Nurse Graduation Day, Bowman Field, KY (USAF Photo)

Beginning with the second class, the flight nurse course was extended to 6 weeks, which acquainted the flight nurses, enlisted technicians, and medical and administrative officers, now trained as complete squadrons, with their special responsibilities for “administering medical treatment, classifying patients, loading patients on the plane, and treatment while in the air”.  At the conclusion of training, these personnel were ready as a group for further training or assignment overseas.

As had been the case for the 4–week program, the lengthened course focused on academic education and practical training in air evacuation and military indoctrination. For the loading and unloading of litters, the fuselage of a Troop Carrier C–47 that had crashed was given new life – and the name “Limited Service” – as a valuable training aid. The nurses also accrued at least 18 hours of flying time during the 6–week course. 6

New to flight nurse training in the summer of 1943 was swimming class. “What is gained if, after months of costly training, a soldier is lost in two minutes with the capsizing of a ship or while trying to reach shore from an invasion barge?” Air Forces officials asked. For flight and medical crews whose aircraft might have to ditch at sea, water survival was an ongoing concern. A historian for the 803 MAETS wrote of the compulsory swimming classes: “Some of the nurses and men had no desire to swim, but there is no place for crocheters in this group, so all learned to swim or sink. None sank.” 7

Adele Edmonds, a member of the seventh class of flight nurses that graduated on 26 November 1943, recalled that the course was “Very rugged. Very rugged. You knew that everything you participated in would make or break you. … And bivouacking and marching and constantly being on the run to go to class or to do something – your day was just terrifically full. You’d be exhausted at night. … And we just used to talk about these things and wondered how you could ever survive war, actual war, which we knew we were eventually going to be in when we finished.” 8

Lengthening the flight nurse course to 8 weeks in 1943 gave time for instruction on ward management and operating room technique and 2 weeks of specialized training at cooperating hospitals in Louisville. Each nurse was teamed with an enlisted technician and taught him about intravenous therapy, catheterization, oxygen administration, and other emergency procedures. 9 The work also served as a refresher course for the nurses who had not worked in hospitals recently. In theory at least, the nurse would always fly with the same technician, so the training dyad was a way of strengthening this working relationship. It also offered much needed practical experience for the enlisted technicians who lacked some of the nursing skills that would be required of them on air evacuation flights. Beginning in 1944, enlisted technicians had already completed a 6–week course in field medicine at another base before the start of their specialized air evacuation training.10

Graduation marked the culmination of the flight nurses’ time at Bowman Field, and with it the right to wear flight nurse wings. As 819 MAETS unit historian June Sanders, who graduated from the course in January 1944, wrote, “Believe me! They weren’t handed to us on a silver platter. We wear them with the knowledge that we successfully completed a difficult course.” 11 Nurses of the 821 MAETS who were in the class that began training in January 1944 recalled the “day of days” of their graduation from the course as “more thrilling than when we graduated from our hospital nurses training, if possible. For on this day we were presented with these coveted little gold wings of a Flight Nurse. It really was a super special occasion. We had been drilled, briefed, rehearsed, lectured, inspected, and cautioned to within an inch of our lives …” 12 After their graduation ceremony the flight nurses, who had been assigned to their MAES before the course began, started training with their squadrons as a unit while awaiting deployment overseas.

Flight Nurse Wings, 1943 (USAF Photo)

In October 1944 training for flight nurses and enlisted technicians was transferred from the School of Air Evacuation, which was subsequently closed, to the AAF School of Aviation Medicine at Randolph Field in San Antonio, TX where flight surgeons were trained. The flight nurse course was lengthened to 9 weeks, divided into 3 equal phases. During the final phase, flight nurses and enlisted technicians flew on missions transporting sick and wounded soldiers to hospitals within the continental US under the watchful eye of an accompanying instructor. Staff considered these training flights “the most important part” of the flight nurse course, because they helped determine a student’s suitability for air evacuation duty in support of the actual mission of patient transport. 13

In August 1945 after the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought the war to an end, the flight nurse course was cut back to 6 weeks – with 2 weeks for each of the 3 phases – in anticipation of the increased number of flight nurses needed in the Pacific. “Many are called, but few are chosen” was the description Lieutenant Colonel Richard L. Meiling, Chief, Operations Division, Office of the Air Surgeon, gave regarding the selection and preparation of personnel for air evacuation duty. 14 His use of the biblical analogy was particularly apt in the case of flight nurse training for which in the first year of the program, volunteers were 20 times greater than nurses selected for the course.15 During World War II only 500 or so nurses served with MAES.16


For more about the training of Army flight nurses, see Beyond the Call of Duty: Army Flight Nursing in World War II, Chapter 3.



  1. “Historical Narrative of the 801st Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron”, 25 May 1942 – 1 Jun 1944, 2. [AFHRA MED–801–HI]
  2. David N. W. Grant, letter with enclosure to Eugen G. Reinartz, 11 Aug 1942; “Training Program for Nurses and Surgical Technicians of the Medical Department, Army Air Forces, in Air Evacuation”, [1942], 1. [AFHRA 141.28R]
  3. Margaret Kernodle, “Army Nurses Sprout Wings”, Cincinnati Enquirer, 23 Mar 1943.
  4. Mary Eileen Newbeck Christian, interview with author, 21 May 1986.
  5. Mae M. Link and Hubert A. Coleman, Medical Support of the Army Air Forces in World War II (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1955), 372–73.
  6. “History of the School of Air Evacuation”, 1 Aug 1943, 6–7. [AFHRA 280.93–3]
  7. “Nurses and Curriculum,” 803 MAETS. [AFHRA MED–803–HI]
  8. Adele Edmonds Daly, interview with author, 20 Jun 1986.
  9. Link and Coleman, Medical Support, 378.
  10. Robert F. Futrell, Development of Aeromedical Evacuation in the USAF, 1909–1960, Historical Studies No. 23 (Maxwell AFB, AL: USAF Historical Division, Research Studies Institute, Air University, and Manhattan, KS: Military Affairs / Aerospace Historian, 1960), 90.
  11. June Sanders, “Headquarters 819th Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron 30 April 1944 Squadron History Initial Issue”, 1. [AFHRA MED–819–HI]
  12. [Katherine Hack], “History: Nurses View Point, 20 January 1944 – 31 December 1944”, 821 MAES, 2. [AFHRA MED–821–HI]
  13. “Annual Report of the 27th AAF Base Unit”, AAF School of Aviation Medicine, Randolph Field, TX, 30 Jun 1945, 82–83. [AFHRA 287.86–1B]
  14. Futrell, Aeromedical Evacuation, 84.
  15. Ruth Y. White, “Army Nurses – in the Air”, American Journal of Nursing 41 (Apr 1943): 344.
  16. 16. Official Guide to the Army Air Forces (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944), 94.







WW2 Army Flight Nurses – 22 May 2022

The Second in a series of Blogs about the 31 Medical Air Evacuation
Transport Squadrons activated during WW2
to provide inflight nursing care to sick and wounded soldiers,
tended by Army flight nurses and enlisted technicians.
The focus is on the flight nurses.


The Army Air Forces Flight Nurse Program


When pilot Lauretta Schimmoler founded the Aerial Nurse Corps of America in the 1930s, she intended that her organization would become the air unit of the American Red Cross (ARC), which provided a reserve pool of applicants from which the military drew its nurses. When both the ARC and the American Nurses Association dismissed her plan, in large part because she was a pilot, not a nurse, and nursing leaders wanted to maintain control of their profession, Schimmoler pitched her plan to military leaders, starting at the top. That her letter to General Henry H. (Hap) Arnold, Acting Chief of the Air Corps, had caught his attention is evident in his October 1937 correspondence to Schimmoler:

Just a note to express my regret that I didn’t get a chance to see you while out on the Coast and talk over the program of the Aerial Nurse Corps of America. I hope, however, to discuss the subject with you in detail. I believe there is a place in the scheme of things for such an organization, but just what that place is I will be unable to definitely decide until I know more of the details. 1

General Henry H. Arnold (USAF Photo)

Once he had learned more details, however, Arnold’s reply, drafted by Colonel Malcolm C. Grow, Chief of the Medical Section, with input from Major Julia O. Flikke, Army Nurse Corps Superintendent, was not encouraging:

I do believe, however, that inasmuch as the American Red Cross has been designated by law (Army Regulation 850–75) that this organization is in effect in time of emergency an auxiliary aid to the Medical Department of the Army, it would be advisable that you should work in conjunction with that organization. 2

Arnold enclosed a copy of Army Regulation 850–75 “Employment of American National Red Cross” to acquaint Schimmoler with the provisions of this regulation. Not appearing in Arnold’s letter was Flikke’s belief that “Miss Schimmoler’s plan is very complete and would be of great value if it could be used but it would conflict with the present set up if carried on independently.” 3

Lauretta M. Schimmoler, Commander,
Aerial Nurse Corps of America (AMEDD)

Schimmoler next appealed in April 1938 to Major Flikke to give the patriotic young ANCOA nurses a definite place ‘in the scheme of national defense in the event of a major national emergency’; Flicke’s reply reinforced General Arnold’s stance:

As you know, the reserve nurses for the Federal services have always been supplied by the American Red Cross – a practice which we hope will always obtain. Perfect harmony and co-operation exist between the Army, Navy and Red Cross, and efficient service has always been rendered. 4

In August 1942, with approximately 400 ANCOA nurses on hospital duty with the armed forces, a clearly frustrated Schimmoler tried once more to elicit military support for assigning them flight nurse duties. She turned to Brigadier General David N.W. Grant, Air Surgeon for the Army Air Forces (AAF), with her plea:

Frankly, General, I have almost begun to think that I am another Billy Mitchell. I have not, however, given up hope that some how some way that your department will embark upon the creation of a school for nurses for air ambulance duty and that we [ANCOA] might be accorded the consideration of doing our part in the operations of this school. I feel this department should be separate apart from the regular Army Nurse Corps and be attached as a special unit of the Air Forces. …

There isn’t a question in my mind, with the interest there exists in this field, that if we had the support and authority needed, that we could create an Air ambulance unit that you could well be proud of. 5

“The question of aerial evacuation with the armed forces is now in the formative stage,” Grant replied.

Nurses will be assigned from the Army Nurse Corps for this work. Many nurses who have had prior experience with the airlines are available for this purpose. Evacuation, as contemplated, is of the mass type during actual combat.

There are many vacancies in the Army Nurse Corps, which members of your association can join. Nurses are not being recruited specifically for aerial duty, but are being earmarked for this duty when the need arises. …

I hope this answers your question. 6

It did, but for Schimmoler, it was the wrong answer.

David N.W. Grant, Air Surgeon,
Army Air Forces (USAF Photo)

The novel plan for an air evacuation system incorporated the evacuation of casualties into the duties of the Troop Carrier Command whose tactical mission was to fly men and equipment into combat areas and of the Air Transport Command (ATC) responsible for strategic flights between overseas locations and the US. These transport planes, when outfitted with litter installations, could be converted into air ambulances for the return trip once troops and cargo were offloaded, putting to humanitarian use planes that would have returned to their bases empty. Colonel Wood S. Woolford, the first ATC Surgeon, is credited with the idea of employing women in the Army Nurse Corps as flight nurses on air evacuation missions. 7 At the time, only women served as Army nurses. Although the Army had male nurses, they were assigned duty as enlisted medical technicians. 8

Events happened quickly in the development of the air evacuation system. In September 1942 the 38th Medical Air Ambulance Squadron, a “paperwork” organization with 1 officer and a few enlisted men, activated at Fort Benning, GA the previous May, was transferred to Bowman Field, KY, chosen for its proximity to the First Troop Carrier Command headquarters in Indianapolis just over 100 miles north and because of facilities in place as the former site of the Medical Officer Training School. 9

Upon arrival, the squadron, now numbering 140 men, was assigned to the First Troop Carrier Command, which had responsibility for organizing and training air evacuation groups, and was attached to the base hospital. The 38th Medical Air Ambulance Squadron, now part of the Army Air Forces, was re-designated the 507th Air Evacuation Squadron, Heavy, 3 days later and served as the nucleus for the air evacuation system. Flight nurses were among the 507th personnel. The 349th Air Evacuation Group activated at Bowman Field in October 1942 incorporated the 507th Air Evacuation Squadron, Heavy, and 3 new units – the 620th and 621st Air Evacuation Squadrons, Heavy, and the 622nd Air Evacuation Squadron, Light, all activated in November. 10 “Heavy” squadrons were those that would fly multi-engine cargo transport planes. The plan for “Light” squadrons with smaller single-engine airplanes capable of carrying no more than three patients was abandoned when the planes went to Navy rather than the AAF. 11 The Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron (MAETS), renamed Medical Air Evacuation Squadron (MAES) on 19 July 1944, included a headquarters section with flight surgeon commander, chief nurse and support staff, and out in the field 4 evacuation flights of 6 flight nurses and 6 enlisted surgical technicians, each flight commanded by a flight surgeon. Flight teams consisting of 1 flight nurse and 1 surgical technician were to be placed aboard transport planes as needed, and when personnel were short or when casualty loads exceeded available teams, the flight nurse and the surgical technician could fly in separate planes. 12

As the war progressed, the need for an air evacuation system overseas became more urgent. At Bowman Field in December 1942, the 507th, 620th, and 621st Aeromedical Evacuation Squadrons, Heavy, were re-designated the 801st, 802nd, and 803rd MAETS. 13 The 801 MAETS and 802 MAETS, which included flight nurses among their members, were hastily trained in the essentials of air evacuation without benefit of a formal course – an “admittedly meager and inadequate” preparation for the work ahead. 14 On Christmas Day 1942 the first of these squadrons, the 802 MAETS, departed Bowman Field for North Africa to provide air evacuation support for the Tunisian Campaign. 15 Just over 3 weeks later the 801 MAETS left Bowman Field for the South Pacific where American troops were still engaged in the battle of Guadalcanal. 16

By the end of 1944, 31 MAES had been activated for air evacuation duty throughout the world in every theater of operations, and the nurses aboard those missions had completed a formal course of flight nurse training at the School of Air Evacuation at Bowman Field, which graduated its first class on 18 February 1943.


For more about the ANCOA, see Beyond the Call of Duty: Army Flight Nursing in World War II, Chapter 1. For more about Lauretta Schimmoler and ANCOA, see the Blogs posted in 8 parts, beginning 1 Oct 2018.



  1. H.H. [Henry H.] Arnold, letter to Lauretta M. Schimmoler, 27 Sep 1937.
  2. Henry H. Arnold, letter to Lauretta M. Schimmoler, 20 Oct 1937.
  3. Julia O. Flikke, memo to Malcolm C. Grow, 11 Oct 1937. Grow’s full title was Chief Flight Surgeon in the Office of the Chief of the Army Air Corps.
  4. Julia O. Flikke, letter to Lauretta M. Schimmoler, 29 Apr 1938.
  5. Lauretta M. Schimmoler, letter to David N.W. Grant, 24 Jul 1942.
  6. David N.W. Grant, letter to Lauretta M. Schimmoler, 3 Aug 1942.
  7. Wood S. Woolford, letter to Victor A. Byrne, 17 Jul 1942; “History of the School of Air Evacuation”, 1 Aug 1943, 2–4; “History of the School of Air Evacuation”, in “School of Air Evacuation”, Army Air Base, Bowman Field, KY, 9 Dec 1940 – Apr 1944; Jan 1944 – Jun 1945, 1–3; Robert F. Futrell, Development of Aeromedical Evacuation in the USAF, 1909–1960, Historical Studies No. 23 (Maxwell AFB, AL: USAF Historical Division, Research Studies Institute, Air University; Manhattan, KS: Military Affairs / Aerospace Historian, 1960), 73–74.
  8. “Men Nurses and the Armed Services”, American Journal of Nursing 43 (Dec 1943): 1066–69.
  9. Mae M. Link and Hubert A. Coleman, Medical Support of the Army Air Forces in World War II (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1955), 367.
  10. “Medical History, I Troop Carrier Command”, 30 Apr 1942 – 31 Dec 1944, 50–52.
  11. Ibid.; “History of the School of Air Evacuation”, 1 Aug 1943, 2–4; Futrell, Aeromedical Evacuation, 73–74.
  12. Frederick R. Guilford and Burton J. Soboroff, “Air Evacuation: An Historical Review”, Journal of Aviation Medicine 18 (Dec 1947): 609; Futrell, Aeromedical Evacuation, 78–79; “Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron”, Table of Organization No. 447, War Department, Washington, DC, 15 Feb 1943.
  13. “Post Diary”, Air Base Headquarters, Bowman Field, Louisville, KY, Dec 1940 – Aug 1945, 49.
  14. Futrell, Aeromedical Evacuation, 80.
  15. “Medical History, 802nd Medical Air Evacuation Squadron”, 10 Dec 1942 – 30 Jun 1944, [1].
  16. “Post Diary”, Air Base Headquarters, Bowman Field, Louisville, KY, Dec 1940 – Aug 1945, 51.















WW2 Army Flight Nurses – 1 May 2022

The First in a series of Blogs about the 31 Medical Air Evacuation
Transport Squadrons activated during WW2
to provide inflight nursing care to sick and wounded soldiers,
tended by Army flight nurses and enlisted technicians.
The focus is on the flight nurses.


The Quasi–Military Aerial Nurse Corps of America


Lauretta M. Schimmoler, a pilot from Ohio who in the 1930s founded the Aerial Nurse Corps of America (ANCOA), never intended the organization’s members to limit their work to civilian aviation activities. In Schimmoler’s mind, the military soon would need the services of trained flight nurses, and she would be ready with an initial cadre of women prepared for flight nurse duty. To that end she structured ANCOA along military lines.

Lauretta Schimmoler, circa 1932
(Bucyrus, OH Historical Society)

ANCOA was organized according to military command structure, with national headquarters in Burbank, CA, and 3 wings subdivided into 9 divisions throughout the US, each division corresponding to corps area boundaries found in the US Army. The divisions were subdivided into companies. But the military analogy went even further. ANCOA members were assigned honorary rank commensurate with their position: the national commander held the rank of colonel, a lieutenant colonel commanded a wing, a major commanded a division, and a captain commanded a company. Most of the nurses held the rank of first or second lieutenant, or cadet, which was the lowest grade for a registered nurse. 1 Like their military counterparts, those ANCOA nurses who met the qualifications took an oath of office “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America and the Aerial Nurse Corps of America against all their enemies whomsoever” and “to bear true faith and allegiance to the same”. 2 Should a member put too much stock in her quasi–military status, she need only remember the organization’s Ten Commandments that stressed such character traits as honor, loyalty, promptness, dependability, respect, integrity, and remaining true to one’s religion to restore her sense of perspective. 3

Because Schimmoler planned to work in conjunction with the American Red Cross (ARC), ANCOA nurses were required to be a member of their state nurses association and of the First Reserve of the ARC, which provided the pool of applicants from which military nurses were drawn.

ANCOA nurses served on “active duty” for 3 years during which time they agreed to perform nursing duties in any airworthy aircraft. Unlike military nursing, however, work as an ANCOA nurse was not full time but rather was limited to part–time volunteer participation in evening classes and weekend activities that included providing first aid for national air races and smaller air events. Occasionally ANCOA nurses would accompany a patient on a flight to provide nursing care en route. Members held other jobs as nurses and paid for the privilege of being part of ANCOA with a $5 enrollment fee and monthly dues of 50 cents. 4 They were required to attend 2–hour classes and lectures 1 night each week divided into medical subjects the first year, aeronautical subjects the second year, and theoretical subjects the third year.

All members had to pass an examination of the ANCOA Regulations Manual within the first 6 months of membership, after which the new nurses were placed on the active–duty roster, promoted from cadet to second lieutenant, and were authorized to wear the blue–grey ANCOA uniform with its overseas cap and military–like insignia. 5

Lauretta Schimmoler (far left) and original ANCOA
members, National Air Races, Los Angeles,
1936 (USAF Photo)

World War II broke out before Schimmoler could “sell” ANCOA to the military, which by then had formulated its own plan for a flight nurse program that employed Army nurses as members of the 31 Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadrons (MAETS) – renamed Medical Air Evacuation Squadrons (MAES) on 19 July 1944 – activated during the war. 6 But many ANCOA nurses traded their quasi–military status for that of an officer in the US Army, some of whom served with distinction as flight nurses.


For more about ANCOA, see Beyond the Call of Duty: Army Flight Nursing in Word War II, Chapter 1. For more about Lauretta Schimmoler and ANCOA, see Blogs posted in 8 parts, beginning 1 Oct 2018.



  1. Aerial Nurse Corps of America, Regulations Manual (Los Angeles, Burbank, CA: Schimmoler, 1940).
  2. “Aerial Nurse Corps”, brochure, n.d., 4.
  3. “Ten Commandments of an Aerial Nurse”, Aerial Nurse Corps of America Memorandum, 20 Jun 1938.
  4. “Aerial Nurse Corps”, brochure, n.d., 4.
  5. Aerial Nurse Corps, Regulations Manual, 2–4; Leora B. Stroup, “A New Service in an Old Cause”, Trained Nurse and Hospital Review 105 (Sep 1940): 187–88.
  6. A revised Table of Organization 8–447 issued on 19 July 1944 re–designated the Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron as the Medical Air Evacuation Squadron. I use the MAETS acronym when writing about squadron activities occurring up to 19 July 1944, after which I use the MAES acronym.



British Women Organists – 30 Oct 2021

Tales of Sound and Seduction:
Organists in Nineteenth-Century British Novels

Part 2

Unlike its sister keyboard instrument the piano, the organ has not been the focus of research on music making in nineteenth-century British novels. This blog considers the role of the organ, its performers, and their music in three novels – Lady Audley’s Secret (Braddon 1862) and Desperate Remedies and Under the Greenwood Tree (Hardy 1871, 1872) – for what the authors’ choice of instrument and repertoire – and even gender of the performer – can tell us about contemporary society off as well as on the books’ pages. (See Blog of 10 October 2021 for Part 1 of this topic and Book Editions Consulted.)

To seduce, in its broadest sense, need not be limited to the act of leading a person astray, whether for sexual or other purposes, but can also mean to allure, attract, beguile, entice, fascinate and tempt, to name but a few synonyms. The link between seduction and music was well known in arts and sciences in nineteenth-century England. Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, for example, with servant Leporello’s ‘Catalog Aria’ of all the women his master has seduced, was first performed in London in 1817.  And Franz Anton Mesmer’s theory of animal magnetism or mesmerism, which used music as a healing agent, crossed the channel to England in 1843. 1 That same year Punch satirically noted Mesmer disciple John Elliotson playing the phrenological organs of an entranced patient like a pianist, comparing the young lady to a finger-organ on which the mesmeriser-organist plays a fantasia on the themes of La ci darem la mano – significantly, the duet between Don Giovanni and Zerlina, another attempted sexual conquest. 2

What, then, of the organist ‘seduction’ scenes in the novels of Braddon and Hardy? What non-musical meanings lie within those ivory keys?

Neither author was an organist, but both had musical backgrounds – Braddon was a proficient pianist as a child and Hardy was a fiddler at country-dances and weddings. Hardy’s cousin Teresa played the harmonium for church, and his sister Mary was a church organist whom her brother tapped for information. 3 In a letter of 1863, for example, Hardy wrote to her, ‘Tell me about the organ and how the Sundays go – I am uncommonly interested.’ 4

*     *     *     *     *

To Herbert Klein, writing about Lady Audley’s Secret, the obedient and morally upright Clara Talboys, who is the principal foil to the morally deficient and ultimately mad Lady Audley, never transgresses the conventional boundaries of her sex. 5 But Klein overlooks some of Clara’s less conventional attributes, such as strength of character and decidedness of action described by some authors as masculine, and an appearance that Robert Audley describes as ‘very handsome’ – indeed, Robert is attracted to Clara’s resemblance to her brother. Even as an accomplished musician Clara has taken an unconventional route by becoming an organist. According to Nicole Fisk, ‘Clara’s visions of happiness seem to depend on breaking free of, or triumphing over, patriarchal rule,’ exemplified in Clara’s tyrannical father, and she has done this in part through her choice of musical instrument and repertoire, which she employs however unintentionally, to lure Robert into the church with her playing. 6

As Robert Audley enters a rural churchyard, he hears ‘the slow harmonies of a dreamy melody that sounded like an extempore composition of an accomplished player’. [Ch. 28: 261] ‘The music still rolled on. The organist had wandered into a melody of Mendelssohn’s, a strain whose dreamy sadness went straight to Robert’s heart.’ [Ch. 28: 262] Curious to see this new organist ‘who can afford to bury his talents at Audley, and play Mendelssohn’s finest fugues for a stipend of sixteen pounds a year’, Robert waits spellbound for the organist to descend from the organ loft. [Ch. 28: 263] Much to his surprise, the organist is Clara Talboys. That Robert mistook Clara’s playing for that of a man is noteworthy, but not surprising, for in nineteenth-century England, improvisations and fugues were considered masculine music, and the organ was considered a masculine instrument, reinforced by the use of masculine imagery as in Alfred Tennyson’s verse:

The great organ almost burst his pipes,
Groaning for power, and rolling through the court
A long melodious thunder to the sound
Of solemn psalms, and silver litanies. 7

William Wordsworth drew on equally masculine associations for the organ:

While the tubed engine feels the inspiring blast,
And has begun—its clouds of sound to cast
Forth towards empyreal Heaven,
As if the fretted roof were riven. 8

The sexual connotations of an organ almost bursting his pipes and a tubed engine feeling the inspiring blast are clearly indicative of a male, not a female, instrument.

The location of the organ in the patriarchal world of the church secured its masculine association, as did its very size, shape and sound. Although varying in size, the organ’s console was augmented by an array of phallic pipes, some of which were of massive dimensions. Even the sound of the organ determined its gender. Capable of playing the most delicate of tones, the organ was characterized more by its loud, full sonorities. So, for Clara to take command of this male instrument and its masculine repertoire was clearly to transgress conventional female musical boundaries.

Indeed, musically, Braddon has described a role reversal, with the active, manipulative female player attuned to the masculine strains of a fugue and the passive, compliant male affected by the melody’s dreamy sadness. Braddon’s decision to make Clara an organist and to include the scene at Audley church in her book supports the characterization of a female capable of taking on male traits that would avenge her brother. As a pianist, she would not have differed from Lady Audley, who was also a musician, but as an organist, she was the pursuer, not the pursued, in the cause of justice. To Phyllis Weliver, the shared names bring to mind Clara and Robert Schumann, another couple whose roles were reversed when proceeds from Clara’s concerts, which she organized herself, provided essential family income. 9 Like the fictional Clara Talboys, Clara Schumann could be commanding and demanding – traits expected of a nineteenth-century man, not of a woman.

*     *     *     *     *

Desperate Remedies is another tale of ‘mystery, entanglement, surprise and moral obliquity’, with the sinister steward Aeneas Manston the male equivalent of Lady Audley. 10 As in Braddon’s sensational novel, blackmail, murder and romance are featured prominently in the plot, and one of the characters is an organist. Hardy’s choice of instrument is more straightforward, however, given that it is played by a man, apparently intent on seducing, or at least captivating, a young woman.

In the wake of an approaching storm, Manston lures Cytherea Greye into his house, where she is surprised to see a pipe organ.  Allegedly to pass the time and amuse them both, Manston begins extemporising a harmony that ‘meandered through every variety of expression of which the instrument was capable’. Cytherea soon feels uneasy and frightened, and not only because of the increasing intensity of the storm.

He now played more powerfully. Cytherea had never heard music in the completeness of full orchestral power, and the tones of the organ, which reverberated with considerable effect in the comparatively small space of the room, heightened by the elemental strife of light and sound outside, moved her to a degree out of proportion to the actual power of the mere notes, practised as was the hand that produced them. The varying strains – now loud, now soft; simple, complicated, weird, touching, grand, boisterous, subdued; each phrase distinct, yet modulating into the next with a graceful and easy flow – shook and bent her to themselves, as a gushing brook shakes and bends a shadow cast across its surface. The power of the music did not show itself so much by attracting her attention to the subject of the piece, as by taking up and developing as its libretto the poem of her own life and soul, shifting her deeds and intentions from the hands of her judgment and holding them in its own.

She was swayed into emotional opinions concerning the strange man before her; new impulses of thought came with new harmonies, and entered into her with a gnawing thrill. …

He turned his eyes and saw her emotion, which greatly increased the ideal element in her expressive face. She was in a state in which woman’s instinct to conceal has lost its power over her impulse to tell; and he saw it. …

After a few more minutes the sky begins to clear. ‘Cytherea drew a long breath of relief, and prepared to go away. She was full of a distressing sense that her detention in the old manor-house, and the acquaintanceship it had set on foot, was not a thing she wished. … O, how is it that man has so fascinated me?’ was all she could think. [VII Ch. 4: 148–157]

Like John Jasper, Manston uses his hands and his eyes to seduce his victim, and like Rosa Bud, Cytherea is caught up in the intensity of his attention on her. In both cases the sound of the instrument – Jasper’s repetitive sounding of the key note and Manston’s powerful meandering through all the tones – holds the women spell-bound. But Manston has more instrumental resources on which to draw that, coupled with the sound of the storm, create what Cytherea considers a general unearthly weirdness surrounding her. [VII Ch. 4]

The storm ends before the seduction – which Irving Howe considers an attempted rape – progresses any further, but that early musical acquaintance with Manston foreshadows Cytherea’s eventual unfortunate marriage to this criminal. 11 In this case a man, not a woman, organist, shows socially transgressive behavior on the bench, and Hardy’s choice of instrument and type of music played strengthens the masculine imagery associated with sexual seduction. Only by locking herself in a separate room on her wedding night is Cytherea spared further victimization at the hands of her evil husband.

*     *     *     *     *

I conclude with a happier tale of sound and seduction at the organ. In Under the Greenwood Tree, the reader is led to believe that unlike Clara Talboys, Fancy Day does not really want to play the organ in Mellstock Church and thus replace the instrumental gallery choir but was pressured into it. But Fancy later tells Dick Dewey, ‘I have always felt that I should like to play in a church, but I never wished to turn you and your choir out, and I never even said that I could play until I was asked.’ [III Summer Ch. 2: 98]

As Parson Maybold explains to a delegation from the choir, ‘a player has been brought under – I may say pressed upon – my notice several times by one of the churchwardens. And as the organ I brought with me is here waiting’ (pointing to a cabinet-organ standing in his study), ‘there is no reason for longer delay.’ [II Spring Ch. 4: 65] The churchwarden is none other than Farmer Shinar, who competes with the vicar and Dick for Fancy’s attention. ‘I see that violins are good, and that an organ is good,’ Maybold told the choir members, ‘and when we introduce the organ, it will not be that fiddles were bad, but that an organ was better.’ [II Spring Ch. 4: 68] But Michael Mail, who plays second violin in the choir, sees the situation differently: ‘Then the music is second to the woman, the other churchwarden is second to Shinar, the pa’[r]son is second to the churchwardens, and God A’[l]mighty is nowhere at all.’ [II Spring Ch. 5: 70]

The choir members, who harbor no animosity toward Fancy, request only that they be allowed to go out respectably ‘glorious with a bit of a flourish at Christmas, … and not dwindle away at some nameless paltry second-Sunday-after or Sunday-next-before something, that’s got no name of his own.’ [II Spring Ch. 4: 66] Then they will make way for the next generation. [II Spring Ch. 5: 67] Parson Maybold, who thinks the request of no importance, gives them until Michaelmas at the end of September.

The organ is first played for services at the time of the autumn Harvest Thanksgiving. [IV Autumn Ch. 5] It is not so much that Fancy is organist or even what she plays that suggests socially unconventional behavior, but rather the priority she gives to her appearance over the music or the setting, and the unholy feelings engendered in at least three of the novel’s main characters when Fancy is on the organ bench – Dick Dewey is away at a funeral that Sunday.

Fueled in part by jealousy because Dick had danced with another woman at a party to which she had not been invited, Fancy is in a tizzy, because she wants to look her best and social convention dictates that she carry her schoolmarm look into her role as church organist as well. ‘And through keeping this miserable school I mustn’t wear my hair in curls! But I will; I don’t care if I leave the school and go home, I will wear my curls! ‘ she declares. [III Summer Ch. 3: 103]

Thus it is not surprising that on the first Sunday that Fancy is to play for the church service, we are told,

If ever a woman looked a divinity, Fancy Day appeared one that morning as she floated down those school steps, in a form of a nebulous collection of colours inkling to blue. With an audacity unparalleled in the whole history of village-schoolmistresses at this date she had actually donned a hat and feather and lowered her hitherto plainly looped-up hair, which now fell about her shoulders in a profusion of curls. [IV Autumn Ch. 5: 132]

When Fancy takes her place on the organ stool in full view of the vicar in his pulpit and the congregation in their pews, her appearance elicits mixed reactions. The lovesick Mr Maybold is not at all angry about her appearance – Fancy’s proximity is a strange delight to him, and ‘he gloried in her musical success that morning in a spirit quite beyond a mere cleric’s glory at the inauguration of a new order of things’. [IV Autumn Ch. 5: 134] Indeed, he loved her during that sermon-time as he had never loved a woman before. [IV Autumn Ch 5]

But members of the congregation are not equally impressed. ‘”Good heavens – disgraceful! Curls and a hat and feathers!” said the daughters of the small gentry, who had either only curly hair without a hat and feather, or a hat and feather without curly hair. “A bonnet for church always!” said sober matrons. [IV Autumn Ch. 5: 172]

Hardy tells us,

After a few timid notes and uncertain touches her playing became markedly correct, and towards the end full and free. But, whether from prejudice or unbiased judgment, the venerable body of [choir] musicians could not help thinking that the simpler notes they had been wont to bring forth were more in keeping with the simplicity of their old church than the crowded chords and interludes it was her pleasure to produce. [IV Autumn Ch. 5: 134]

*     *     *     *     *

it is not so much what Fancy was playing but rather the impression she made in church that suggests socially unconventional – even transgressive – behavior. But Fancy does not hold the monopoly on indecorum. Mrs Penny, wife of a choir member, fancies she’d seen Mr Maybold ‘look across at Miss Day in a warmer way than Christianity required’. [II Spring Ch. 2: 56] Turner argues that to Fancy, ‘music was a form of sexual display, which duly made the vicar fall in love with her’. 12 We can only guess at Farmer Shinar’s thoughts about Fancy during the service; Hardy does not mention him in that context.

Unlike Clara Talboys, Fancy is described by Dick Dewey as decidedly feminine: ‘An easy bend of neck and graceful set of head, full and wavy bundles of dark-brown hair, light fall of little feet, pretty devices on the skirt of the dress, clear deep eyes; in short, a bunch of sweets: it was Fancy!’ [III Summer Ch. 1: 93]  When Hardy wrote Under the Greenwood Tree, the Oxford Movement and Cambridge-based Ecclesiological Movement, through which the Anglican religious revival found its musical voice, were still influencing churches throughout England. Concomitant with changes made in worship was a continued adherence to the teachings of Saint Paul about women, namely, that they should be seen but not heard in church. That rural churches relied heavily on women organists was a fact documented in newspapers and music journals. But that did not give them free license to flaunt their femininity in plain view of the congregation. As late as 1895, a female correspondent to the Church Musician, who asked what she should wear while playing the organ in church, was told to wear ‘Her ordinary quiet, ladylike costume, of course, attracting as little attention as possible.’ 13

As Dick Dewy discovers after much serious meditation, Fancy is better known for her ability to turn heads than for her ability as a musician. Dick now understands that ‘she was, if not a flirt, a woman who had no end of admirers; a girl most certainly too anxious about her frocks; a girl, whose feelings, though warm, were not deep; a girl who cared a great deal too much about how she appeared in the eyes of other men’. [IV Autumn Ch. 1: 113]

At the wrong place and time, such behavior could be transgressive, especially when it seduces others into an unholy frame of mind during a church service. That her male admirers are willing captives of her charm does not condone such behavior socially for any of those involved.

Is Fancy aware of the effect her organ playing might have on those assembled at Mellstock Church? Of course, given her excessive attention to hair and clothing prior to her musical debut. Is her seduction through sound and sensation intentional? That is a harder question to answer.

*     *     *     *     *

Sound and seduction in tales of organists in nineteenth-century British novels were made even more effective by the introduction of a third element into the story plot: these organists have at least one secret that influences their music making. For Clara, it is the masculine iron will and determination that lie beneath the decorous feminine behavior displayed at home in the presence of her father. For Aeneas Manston it is the wife hidden away in another town whose existence does not influence his attempt to seduce and ultimately marry an innocent young woman. And for Fancy Day it is – well – still a secret. After their wedding, Dick asks Fancy, ‘We’ll have no secrets from each other, darling, will we ever? – no secret at all.’ Fancy, with feminine guile, replies, ‘None from to-day.’ [Italics mine] She then hears a bird singing. ‘O, ‘tis the nightingale,’ murmured she, and thought of a secret she should never tell.’ [V Conclusion Ch. 2: 159]


1  Phyllis Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction 1860–1900: Representations of Music, Science and Gender in the Leisured Home (Ashgate, 2000; Routledge, 2016), 65.
2  ‘A New Musical Instrument’ Punch 5 (Jul–Dec 1843): 168.
3  F.B. Pinion, A Hardy Companion: A guide to the works of Thomas Hardy and their background (Macmillan and St Martin’s, 1968), 21.
4  Richard Purdy and Michael Millgate, eds, The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, vol. 1 1840–1892 (Clarendon, 1978), 4.
5  Herbert G. Klein, ‘Strong Women and Feeble Men: Upsetting Gender Stereotypes in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret’, Atenea 28 (1) (1 Jun 2008): 161–74.
6  Nicole P. Fisk, ‘Lady Audley as Sacrifice: Curing Female Disadvantage in Lady Audley’s Secret’, Victorian Newsletter No. 105 (Spring 2004): 25.
7  From ‘The Princess’ (1847). According to son Hallam Tennyson, the verse depicts the effect that the organ in Trinity College Cambridge, Tennyson’s alma mater, had on his father. See Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir, By His Son, vol. 2 (Macmillan, 1897), 152; and Alfred Tennyson, ed. Adam Roberts (Oxford University Press, 2000), 141.
8  From ‘Ode – The Morning of the Day Appointed for a General Thanksgiving, January 18, 1816’ after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars.
9  Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 113; Nancy B. Reich, ‘Women as Musicians: A Question of Class’, in Ruth A. Solie, Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship (University of California Press, 1993), 143.
10 ‘A Particular Reality’, Review of Desperate Remedies by Thomas Hardy, The Guardian, 14 May 1889, available at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/mar/01/fromthearchives.thomashardy.
11 Irving Howe, Thomas Hardy (Macmillan, 1967), 34.
12 Paul Turner, The Life of Thomas Hardy: A Critical Biography (Blackwell, 1998), 29.
13 ‘A lady asks’, Church Musician 5 (1895): 2.

British Women Organists – 10 Oct 2021

Tales of Sound and Seduction:
Organists in Nineteenth-Century British Novels

Part 1

Unlike its sister keyboard instrument the piano, the organ has not been the focus of research on music making in nineteenth-century British novels. A reader need only delve into the pages of a William Thackeray or Jane Austen novel or their latter-day scholarly exegeses to uncover layers of social meaning associated with the purchase of, performance on and prattling about the piano or its forerunner the pianoforte. Its ubiquitous presence in the home – as an instrument of courtship as well as of music – serves as the linchpin about which the various character relationships revolve and evolve. In Vanity Fair (Thackeray 1848), for example, the striking contrast between the genteel but recently impoverished Amelia Sedley and the rich West Indian heiress Rhoda Swartz, both love interests of George Osborne, is drawn at the piano. In Emma (Austen 1815) the anonymous gift of a small piano to the musically talented Jane Fairfax, Eliza Bennet’s realization of her limitations as a pianist and sister Mary’s blindness to her own musical shortcomings all serve to propel the plot to its ultimate denouement. But the discourse engendered by the ivory keys is not limited to the piano. The organ, too, speaks volumes to readers attuned to its pipes and pistons about music and society in nineteenth-century Britain and about the fictional characters who play upon it. Just as the piano stool was the contested site of debates about conformity to and noncompliance with cultural norms for some authors, the organ bench served a similar purpose in the novels of Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Thomas Hardy.

This blog considers the role of the organ, its performers and their music in three novels – Lady Audley’s Secret (Braddon 1862) and Desperate Remedies and Under the Greenwood Tree (Hardy 1871, 1872) – for what the authors’ choice of instrument and repertoire – and even gender of the performer – can tell us about contemporary society off as well as on the books’ pages. As in Thackeray’s two pianistic rivals, Braddon’s Clara Talboys and Hardy’s Fancy Day offer a study of contrasts in how female characters – both organists in this case – approached their music making and the ends their behaviour achieved. I maintain that in each of the three novels, organ playing was an act of both sound and seduction, admirably illustrated in organist Aeneas Manston’s seduction of Cytherea Greye in Desperate Remedies. Though not necessarily sexual in nature, these seductive episodes on the organ bench all reveal tantalizing elements of transgression both within and outside the church setting, causing the scholarly reader to view the role of organists in nineteenth-century British novels in a novel way.

*     *     *     *     *

The presence of organs and organists in nineteenth-century British novels is not as rare as one might think, though in most cases the instrument and its player are mentioned only in passing to set a tone of sound and sensation. Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch (Eliot 1874) is glad that Mr Casaubon, the clergyman to whom she is engaged, is not fond of the piano, for she has little regard for domestic music. She does enjoy the grander forms of music, worthy to accompany solemn celebrations, however, and recalls: ‘When we were coming home from Lausanne, my uncle took us to hear the great organ at Freiberg, and it made me sob.’ [Ch. 7: 91]

When in Vanity Fair (Thackeray 1848) Lady Steyne hears Becky Sharp play and sing religious songs of Mozart at the piano, it brings back fond memories of her childhood forty years ago in her convent garden. ‘The chapel organ had pealed the same tones; the organist, the sister whom she loved best of the community, had taught them to her in those early happy days. She was a girl once more, and the brief period of her happiness bloomed out again for an hour.’ [Ch. 49: 554]

Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Hardy 1891) returns to church one Sunday morning, pregnant and shamed after being seduced by Alec Stokes, who had falsely taken the name of D’Urberville. She formerly had liked ’to hear the chanting – such as it was – and the old Psalms, and to join in the Morning Hymn. That innate love of melody, which she had inherited from her ballad-singing mother, gave the simplest music a power over her which could well nigh drag her heart out of her bosom at times.’ [Ch. 13: 84] But the chants provide little comfort now – even one of her favourites, the double chant “Langdon”.‘ [Ch. 33: 84] Tess eventually is noticed in her seat under the gallery, and the whispering begins. ‘She knew what their whispers were about, grew sick at heart, and felt that she could come to church no more.’ [Ch. 13: 85]

The tone set by the organ could be one of gloom or of gladness. In The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Dickens 1870) when all became gray, murky and sepulchral during evensong in Cloisterham Cathedral,

the cracked monotonous mutter went on like a dying voice, until the organ and the choir burst forth, and drowned it in a sea of music. Then, the sea fell, and the dying voice made another feeble effort, and then the sea rose high, and beat its life out, and lashed the roof, and surged among the arches, and pierced the heights of the great tower; and then the sea was dry, and all was still. [Ch. 9: 89]

When the eponymous Jude the Obscure (Hardy 1895) is dying, alone in his room in Christminster, the powerful notes of the Remembrance Day concert at the college outside his window reach his ears, ‘and it was about this time that his cough began again and awakened him’. He begs repeatedly for water, but ‘No water came, and the organ notes, faint as a bee’s hum, rolled in as before.’ [VI Ch. 11: 320]

The same organ notes, faint as a bee’s hum, issuing forth from Cloisterham Cathedral bring the Reverend Canon Septimus Crisparkle (Edwin Drood), sitting at breakfast in Minor Canon Corner, a blessed air of tranquility more than absolute silence would have done [Ch. 6] and work magic on the food provisions in his dining-room closet, with its portrait of Handel beaming down upon it, ‘until those venerable bees had made sublimated honey of everything in store; … which seemed to have undergone a saccharine transfiguration‘. [Ch. 10: 96]

In two cases the author uses the sound of the instrument as a tangible reflection of the mood of the character doing the playing. Both Dick Dewey in Under the Greenwood Tree and the eponymous Jude the Obscure play – or at least play at – the harmonium.

Dick arrives at Fancy Day’s sitting room around two o’clock with the thought of going ‘nutting’ with her, but Fancy is in the lengthy process of altering a dress with scissors, needle and thread. In his three hours of waiting, Dick examines all the furniture, sounds a few notes on the harmonium, looks inside all of Fancy’s books, studies everything in the scullery, watches the cabbages and potatoes in her garden grow, ruins his walking stick by peeling off the rind and returns to the harmonium, from which he now ‘produced hideous discords’. [IV Autumn Ch. 1]

Jude, who initially intended to become an ordained minister through self-study but lowered his sights to become a licensed preacher instead, shows more focus when he ‘hired a harmonium, set it up in his lodging, and practised chants thereon, single and double.’ [III Ch. 1]

We do not know if Lucy Morris in Eustace Diamonds (Trollope 1870) actually played the organ, only that she took lessons – which could have been on piano instead – from the organist of Bobsborough Cathedral. Lady Fawn had expressed willingness to take Lucy into her house as governess on the condition that she teach music up to a certain point. ‘Then it’s all over,’ Lucy says to her uncle, dean of the cathedral. ‘It’s not over at all,’ he replies. ‘You’ve got four months. Our organist is about as good a teacher as there is in England. You are clever and quick, and he shall teach you.’ [Ch. 3: 23]

Likewise, John Jasper in The Mystery of Edwin Drood is identified as choirmaster of Cloisterham Cathedral, not as its organist, though he likely plays the organ as well. We know he is a pianist and in that role tries to win over Rosa Bud, with whom he is secretly in love, from her fiancé Edwin Drood, when he accompanies her singing. His methods are musically seductive:

It was a consequence of his playing the accompaniment without notes, and of her being a heedless little creature, very apt to go wrong, that he followed her lips most attentively, with his eyes as well as hands; carefully and softly hinting the key-note from time to time. … [Ch. 7: 65]

The song went on. … As Jasper watched the pretty lips, and ever and again hinted the one note, as though it were a low whisper from himself, the voice became less steady, until all at once the singer broke into a burst of tears, and shrieked out, with her hands over her eyes: ‘I can’t bear this! I am frightened! Take me away!’ [Ch. 7: 64]

But in three novels Aeneas Manston, Clara Talboys and Fancy Day all play the organ, and their roles as organist deserve closer examination. It is to these novels that I now turn, giving first a brief summary of each.

*     *     *     *     *

When in Lady Audley’s Secret Helen Talboys reinvents herself as Lucy Graham who marries Sir Michael Audley, she leaves her husband George behind as presumed dead in Australia. George, who is very much alive, returns to England to a less than cordial homecoming when his wife tries to murder him and thinks she has succeeded. As nephew Robert Audley, a barrister, unravels the untimely disappearance of his friend, he meets George’s organist sister Clara, who urges him forward in his quest and whom he later marries. George, who escaped the attempted drowning, reappears after Lady Audley has been confined to an insane asylum on the Continent.

Cytherea Greye, lady’s companion to Miss Aldclyffe in Desperate Remedies, first meets the steward Aeneas Manston when he tries to seduce her with his organ playing at his home. The scheming Aldclyffe wants to see Cytherea, child of the man she loved but couldn’t marry, united with Manston, her child by a man she didn’t love or marry. Because her true love Edward Springrove is engaged to his cousin, Cytherea is pressured to wed Manston against her better judgment, only to learn that he is already married. Manston is found guilty of murdering his first wife and is hanged. Cytherea reunites with Edward, who has since been jilted by his cousin.

In Under the Greenwod Tree Dick Dewey, a member of the Mellstock Church gallery choir – a band of sting instruments – falls in love with the village’s new schoolmistress Fancy Day. The new vicar Parson Maybold’s request that Fancy play the new cabinet organ he has brought with him to the church for services spells the end of the choir, but not the end of Dewey’s courtship. Dewey must compete with Parson Maybold and the churchwarden Farmer Shiner for Fancy’s hand but is victorious. Fancy and Dick eventually overcome the objection of her father and marry.

Book Editions Consulted:

Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) Oxford University Press, 1987

Charles Dickens
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) Pantheon, 1980

George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans)
Middlemarch (1871–1872) Knopf, Random House, 1991

Thomas Hardy
Desperate Remedies (1872) St Martin’s, 1960
Jude the Obscure (1895) Knopf, Random House, 1992
Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) Knopf, 1991
Under the Greenwood Tree (1872). Macmillan and St Martin’s Press, 1966

William Thackeray
Vanity Fair (1848)  Dodd, Mead, 1943.

Anthony Trollope
Eustace Diamonds (1870) Knopf, Random Hose, 1992

To be continued

British Women Organists – 22 Aug 2021

Organ Benches and Bicycle Seats:
Pedalists in Victorian England

Part 2 Bicycle Seats

As the nineteenth century progressed, English women benefited from increasingly liberal social attitudes about their education, physical exercise and meaningful employment outside the home. For example, fashions in vogue that squeezed women in with tightly laced corsets and weighed them down with heavy petticoats gradually gave way to less restrictive clothing to accommodate a more physically active lifestyle. John Steward Mill, a strong advocate for equal opportunities for women in all areas, including music, had admonished society for its myopic view in 1869. It was presumptuous of anyone to decide what women could or could not do, based on the unnatural state to which society had confined them, Mill believed. Left to choose their direction as freely as men, women likely would show little or no difference in their capabilities from that of men. 1

The bicycle validated Mill’s claim. Writing about cycling in the 1890s, David Rubenstein notes that the introduction of the safety bicycle in 1889 with its chain-driven rear wheel and pneumatic tires set England rolling and started the bicycle craze. 2 By 1895 popularity had become passion. Everyone – male and female – who could afford a bicycle and was physically able took to England’s streets and byways. The revolution of bicycle wheels in a sense effected a social revolution.

And no more so than in the lives of women riders for whom the bicycle opened up a new world with three immediate benefits, which Rubenstein discusses. First came improved health and physique from participation in this active recreation. Second was the blow that bicycles dealt to the system of chaperonage as young women on cycles were able to outride their chaperons, giving them more social freedom. And third, the act of so many women cycling symbolised the defeat of conservative opinions. 3 For women — who took to cycling even more avidly than men – the bicycle represented a new sense of independence and self-reliance and challenged the restraints of convention, in however a limited way. 4

The bicycle craze had repercussions in the world of music. Composers took advantage of the bicycle’s immense popularity, and inventors were quick to exploit the link between cycling and music. In an 1881 review of The Bicycle Sonata for pianoforte, the Musical Times doubted that a B-flat major chord could really suggest ‘Mind the ditch’ or a sixteenth-note arpeggio, a collision. 5 One wonders whether the winner of a twenty-guinea prize offered by Puck for the best musical setting of a National Cycling Song or the composer of the part song The Cyclists fared any better. 6 Musical bicycles were the latest novelty to catch the attention of the Musical Times. The Melocipede offered waltzes as traveling music, while the Troubadour bicycle performed popular airs for its rider and bystanders alike. 7

The effect of the bicycle on women’s patronage of music was of some concern to the musical press. The anticipated absence of this important source of support led the Musical Times to quip in 1896, ‘A Ladies’ Committee has been formed in connection with the approaching Bristol Festival. Are there enough ladies free from the “bike” craze to guarantee a quorum?’ 8 Furthermore, the same journal heard that London’s 1896 spring concert season had suffered from the ‘cult of the cycle’, because it lured away concertgoers, nine-tenths of them women. 9

Inevitably, bicycling impinged on the time women spent at the keyboard. The bicycle’s lure away from the piano grievously troubled the Musical Times, which, in 1896, identified the bicycle as ‘a new and most formidable enemy of the pianoforte’ because of the thousands of young women who now spent their leisure hours on the bicycle seat instead of on the music stool. 10

The bicycle was no enemy to women organists, however. In fact, their performance on the pedals of this ‘iron bird’ may have aided their acceptance as organ recitalists and organ pedalists. Writing of women as musicians in 1885, the Monthly Musical Record had commented:

When we become accustomed to a thing it soon ceases to excite either wonder or satire. It is but a short time ago that people laughed at the idea of a lady violinist. There is the organ also. At one time it was considered unladylike to play it. But there must surely be less to remark upon in a lady playing the organ than in turning the levers of a tricycle, as we may see them doing constantly in the streets. 11

It was not only that women were becoming stronger, thanks to their increased participation in active recreation, but also that organs were becoming less taxing to play, thanks to the introduction of innovative labour-saving devices, that worked to the advantage of women organists. Yet concern about the potentially harmful effects of organ playing – especially pedaling – on woman’s delicate constitution lingered in the minds of some men despite growing evidence to the contrary. In 1863 a male correspondent to the Musical Standard with the pseudonym Pedals doubted that female organists had the necessary strength to play the ‘Hailstone Chorus’ from Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt on a large organ without breaking down ‘from sheer exhaustion, long before the final chord’. 12

Thirty years later a correspondent who signed herself Lady Organist was told in The Girl’s Own Paper, a popular weekly magazine published by the Religious Tract Society: ‘Organ-playing is not considered advisable for women. Strong, unmarried, middle-aged women may play the foot-keys without suffering from the unsuitable strain on the back and loins; but it is a risk if the instrument be a large one.’ 13 Correspondents Iresene, Cecil Burn and Rob Roy – all likely pseudonyms – each had been given similar answers in the magazine in the 1880s. It appeared that only spinsters should play the organ.

The activity may have looked strenuous, but the magazine’s answer must not have satisfied its readers to whom physical activity was becoming more common, for they continued to ask the same question. In 1896 on a page of ‘Replies to Often-asked Questions’, the answer given by The Girl’s Own Paper to ‘Is Organ-playing bad for Girls?’ signaled a victory for new female recruits to the organ bench in Victorian England: ‘Organ playing is not injurious to either sex, indeed it is a healthy though fatiguing occupation. It exercises the muscles of the hands and renders them delicate and precise. The movements of the legs in working the pedals are natural ones, being almost identical to those of walking.’ 14

Or perhaps as natural as riding a bicycle.


1     John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women [1869] (London: Dent, 1896), 273.
2     David Rubenstein, ‘Cycling in the 1890s’, Victorian Studies 21 (1977): 48–49.
3     Ibid., 61–62.
4     Ibid., 59.
5     Review of The Bicycle Sonata, composed by Stanislaus Elliott, Musical Times 22 (1 Aug 1881): 424–25.
6     ‘Twenty Guinea Prize’, Musical Times 31 (1 Jul 1890): 433; ‘The Cyclists’, Musical Times 37 (1 Oct 1896): 711.
7     ‘According to a Baltimore company’, Musical Times 29 (1 Jan 1888): 20; ‘The “Troubadour” bicycle’, Musical Times 37 (1 Aug 1896): 527.
8     ‘A Ladies’ Committee’, Musical Times 37 (1 Aug 1896): 527.
9     ‘The Spring Concert season’, Musical Times 37 (1 Aug 1896): 525.
10   ‘The Pianoforte and Its Enemies’, Musical Times 37 (1 May 1896): 309.
11   Joseph Verey, ‘Women as Musicians’, Monthly Musical Record 15 (1885): 196.
12   Pedals, ‘Pedals’ Reply’, Musical Standard o.s. 1 (15 May 1863): 287.
13   ‘Lady Organist’, The Girl’s Own Paper 15 (4 Nov 1893): 80.
14   ‘Replies to Often-asked Questions’, The Girl’s Own Paper 17 (5 May 1896): 512.


British Women Organists – 1 Aug 2021

Organ Benches and Bicycle Seats:
Pedalists in Victorian England

Part 1 Organ Benches

In a 1927 retrospective account of organs and organists, Charles Pearce, then Vice President of the Royal College of Organists, wrote that ‘The evolution of pedal playing in England was as slow as the progress of the pedal organ itself. Old fashioned organists were such skilful left hand players that it took time to convince them of any necessity for playing with their feet.’ 1 Samuel Wesley was apparently among those organists who needed convincing, because he is reported to have conceded that ‘pedals might be of service to those who could not use their fingers’. 2

Fifteen years after Wesley’s death some organists still relied on their hands, not their feet, when playing. The story is told of Sir George Smart, who, when asked as one of the musical judges to try one of the pedal organs on display at the Great Exhibition of 1851, replied contemptuously, ‘My dear Sir, I have never in my life played upon a gridiron.’ 3 And this from the organist who had played for two coronations.

William T. Best, long-time organist of Saint George’s Hall, Liverpool, headed Pearce’s list of ‘brilliant pedalists’, with Frederick Archer, Alexandre Guilmant, John Stainer and William Hoyte rounding out the top five. 4 Missing from Pearce’s list was Felix Mendelssohn, who, in his organ recitals in England, was known to execute ‘a storm of pedal passages with transcendent skill and energy’ in his performance of the Bach Fugue in A Minor. 5

Nor do any women organists appear among the ranks of brilliant pedalists, although, if reviews of recitals are an indication, some of these women performers deserved to be on Pearce’s list. For example, in an account of organ recitals in nineteenth-century England, an anonymous author recalled that Elizabeth Stirling, who was best known for her part song ‘All among the Barley’, was ‘all among the pedals’ in recitals when just a teenager. 6 In August 1837 at age eighteen, Stirling had given her first known recital, at Saint Katherine’s Church, Regent’s Park, London. Her performance, which lasted over two hours, featured eleven of Bach’s major organ works, as well as three pieces by other composers. 7

At the time of Stirling’s debut, organ recitals were heard in England in organ manufactories and in concert locations such as Exeter Hall. Organ solos were heard as part of recitals featuring vocal and instrumental selections. But to play an entire solo recital devoted almost exclusively to the works of Bach was an innovative approach to concert giving. Through the tireless efforts of Samuel Wesley, Benjamin Jacob, Carl Friedrich Horn and other enthusiasts, some of Bach’s organ music had been performed and published in London early in the nineteenth century. But the championing of Bach’s organ music was a bold venture given the status of English organs at the time. Organ pedals, if they existed, were used as assistance to manuals, for pedal points and other sustained notes and at cadences. The development of independent multi-rank pedal divisions did not occur in England until the second quarter of the nineteenth century. And not all organs had pedalboards conducive to performance of Bach’s obbligato pedal lines. 8 Thus organ pedaling was a novelty that did not escape the notice of the musical press – especially when it was performed by the feet of a young woman organist.

Stirling’s mentor Edward Holmes, who reviewed her recital at Saint Katherine’s for the Atlas, focused on the young organist’s command of the music of Bach and the pedals. He noted that her system of pedal playing, ‘which we believe is peculiar to herself, enables her to preserve a graceful and quiet seat at the instrument.’ Holmes added that ‘it might well be a matter of surprise that throughout the performance there was scarcely an error, or slip worthy [of] notice’. 9 His surprise at Stirling’s nearly flawless pedaling suggests a standard new to England by which an organist’s skill would be judged.

When Stirling played her second recital a few months later, at Saint Sepulchre Church Holborn, and played ten of Bach’s major organ works, the reviewer for the Musical World reprinted the program as ‘the first decided exhibition of a lady pedal player’. 10 Reviewers were particularly impressed by her management of pedal sequences that ‘however harassing and difficult, are executed by her with the utmost certainty and without the slightest apparent effort’. 11

Stirling returned to Saint Sepulchre in July 1838 for yet another recital featuring the music of Bach. In its review of the recital the Musical World expressed surprise at seeing the trios of Bach attempted, ‘and by a lady’. The review continued: ‘Mr Wesley lived to enjoy the fruits of his zeal for Bach and his writings in the rise of a perfect army of pedal players, and the legitimate performance of the trios by one of his pupils.’ 12 It was perhaps because Stirling had used Wesley’s edition of the trio sonatas that the reviewer forged the link between the veteran Wesley and the new recruit, Stirling. Use of the military analogy was apt, because organ pedaling was thought – by men – to require a great deal of physical stamina.

Stirling was not the only woman organ recitalist in Victorian England, though she was the only one whose recitals were publicised in the first half of the century. Between 1850 and 1896 at least thirty-three women organists are mentioned by name in music journals and newspapers in recitals in churches, schools, institutes and exhibitions. Their acceptance in this role, however, was not free of pundits who cast doubts on women’s fitness – social, medical and musical – to master the complexities of the organ and its pedals.

An example is found in two recitals, both reviewed in the Musical Standard, in which organist Theresa Beney performed Bach’s Toccata in F Major. The tone of the first review was positive. Still of the belief in 1879 that ‘an organ recital by a lady is somewhat of a novelty’, the critic congratulated the courage of Beney, who was apparently a bit nervous, and noted that her execution of the Toccata ‘proves that good pedal-playing is not out of the range of a well-taught lady’. 13 Beney, who studied at the National Training School for Music, was a pupil of J. Frederick Bridge, organist of Westminster Abbey.

A repeat performance of the piece by Beney in 1883 prompted the reviewer, addressing the skeptics, to note that ‘the aptitude for a lady for pedal playing was admirably illustrated’. This may have swayed some of the journal’s readers, but the critic himself was not yet fully convinced. He began positively:

Although one does not like the notion of a lady struggling with a big organ and engaged in work so trying and requiring such courage and watchful power as recital playing, save in rare instances, it must be acknowledged that ladies can play the organ, and as pedalists are exceedingly neat and sure-footed, possibly by reason of incessant practice measuring distances by their feet without being able, as men are in walking and pedal-playing, to watch their pedal movements. 14

An underlying bias against women organists then surfaced, though the critic implied that his view was not widely held and might be an unpopular one: ‘On the other hand, the power and grandeur of a large organ would seem to be best handled by the sterner strength of the “lords of creation,” to say nothing of questions of mental power, which the writer will not venture upon, lest his opinions bring him into hot water.’ 15

He likely was alluding to society’s long-held belief in the innate intellectual and physical inferiority of women compared to men, based in part on smaller size of brain and body. When women began to demand equal opportunities of education and employment in the second half of the nineteenth century, this belief provided the justification that men sought to curtail women’s activity outside the home. Basically, men argued that to expend what was understood at the time as the body’s finite amount of energy on these ‘needless’ pursuits would rob women of the vital energy needed to keep their reproductive organs functioning properly. Women who failed to pay attention to their special ‘periodicity’ would become ill and unable to bear children – or so men claimed.

The ‘lords of creation’ – to use the critic’s words – had for the most part managed to keep women off the organ bench by perpetuating the notion that women’s place was in the home and out of the public eye. But Victorian sources detailing woman’s role in society – conduct books, advice manuals, periodicals and even fiction – were more prescriptive than descriptive. Female organists are a case in point.

Beginning in 1895 another woman organist, Emily Edroff, who was associated with the London Organ School first as a student and then as a professor, was dazzling her audiences with performances of Widor’s Toccata form the Fifth Symphony. Her ability as a pedalist was not mentioned in recital reviews, however. What had changed?


1.    Charles Pearce, The Evolution of the Pedal Organ and Matters Connected Therewith (London: Office of ‘Musical Opinion’, 1927), 57.
2     ‘In resuming our consideration’, Musical World 13 (21 May 1840): 315.
3     Pearce, Evolution of the Pedal Organ, 57.
4     Ibid., 68.
5     ‘Mendelssohn as an Organist’, Musical World 7 (15 Sep 1837): 79.
6     ‘The Organ Recital: A Contribution Towards Its History’, Musical Times 40 (1 Sep 1899): 602.
7     Edward Holmes, ‘Organ Performance at St. Katherine’s Church, Regent’s Park’, Atlas 12 (20 Aug 1837): 538.
8     James Boeringer, Organ Britannica: Organs of Great Britain 1660–1860, vol. 1 (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1983), 45.
9     Holmes, ‘Organ Performance at St. Katherine’s’, 538.
10   ‘Concerto Organ Performance’, Musical World 9 (26 Jul 1838): 209.
11   ‘Organ Performance at St. Sepulchre’s’, Musical World 7 (31 Oct 1837): 79; Henry Chorley, ‘Our Weekly Gossip’, Athenaeum, no. 521 (21 Oct 1837): 771.
12   ‘Concerto Organ Performance’, 208.
13   ‘Lancaster Hall, Notting Hill’, Musical Standard 3rd ser., 19 (27 Nov 1880): 344.
14   ‘Bow and Bromley Institute’, Musical Standard 4th ser., 24 (7 Apr 1883): 215.
15   Ibid.

To be continued