Elizabeth Stirling

and the Musical Life of Female Organists in Nineteenth-Century England

Elizabeth Stirling and the Musical Life of Female Organists in Nineteenth-Century England

Using the life and works of Elizabeth Stirling as a case study, this book focuses on the three roles common to female organists in nineteenth-century England: recitalist, church musician, and composer.

Many rich and diverse primary sources are used to piece together a coherent picture of Stirling in each of these pursuits, as well as to present vignettes from the lives of her female colleagues.

The pattern that emerges is one of both overt and covert discrimination against “lady organists” in the press, rooted in beliefs held about the proper role of women in society and of music in women’s lives.

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Chapter 2

‘Ladies Not Eligible’?

Women who sought work as church musicians in nineteenth-century England faced a number of issues raised by churches that refused to consider them for employment and by men intent on maintaining the current social and economic status quo. In general, ladies were more successful at gaining access to the organ bench than to the choir stalls, which were closed to them on musical and religious grounds as well.

‘Come all my brave Boys’

The opening lines of Samuel Wesley’s musical spoof on the process of organist elections in England at the end of the eighteenth century had more than a grain of truth to them in the nineteenth century. ‘Come all my brave Boys who want Organists’ Places’, he wrote, ‘I’ll tell you the Fun of the Thing.’1 Wesley had firsthand experience with the selection of church organists. He had applied unsuccessfully in 1798 for the organist post at London’s Foundling Hospital Chapel won by John Immyns. Wesley’s music commemorates the event, which was in his words ‘a Bamboozle’.2

Wesley’s text alludes to questionable practices involved in the selection of a church organist. Officials might feign good intentions, but the result was a biased election. An obvious case was when some churches in nineteenth-century England declared ‘ladies not eligible’ to apply for vacant organist posts. Before examining this pattern of overt and covert discrimination against female organists, it is helpful to review how church organists were chosen and to identify some of the shortcomings of the selection process documented in the nineteenth-century press.

A church’s procedure for choosing an organist typically involved the following steps: seek applications from interested organists; choose some of the applicants to audition; select final candidates from among these organists; and elect one of the finalists to the position. But the procedure was not infallible. For example, congregations entrusted as judges were apt to be carried away by a showy player ‘who treated them to a “tootle” on the flute stop, or a flimsy “tittup” on the trumpet or cremona’, or by a brilliant player who could ‘produce the maximum number of pedal and manual notes in the minimum number of seconds’.3 Neither, however, was necessarily the best organist for the post. Likewise, church personnel were occasionally swayed by nonmusical factors in their choice of an organist.

In an effort to rectify the situation, nineteenth-century music journals printed letters and editorials exposing perceived faults in this trial by skill method of choosing an organist and suggesting remedial action. Selection of an organist by a parish vestry without counsel of a musical judge was troubling to some writers, but even more disconcerting was when a vestry disregarded the recommendation of a musical judge. When in 1880 St Sepulchre, Holborn, reversed the decision of John Stainer, the musician brought in to judge the organist election, the Musical Standard took the church to task:

With regard to the Vestry, the less said the better. They have only afforded yet another reason why organs should not be disposed of by competition, and have only helped to hasten the time when musicians of note will decline to officiate as umpires, and players of ability refuse to be trotted out for the delectation of ignorant and bumptious vestrymen.4

Declaring emphatically in 1883 that the competitive trial was decidedly the worst method to choose an organist for a church, the Musical Times admitted that the method might be acceptable in the case of

a very young man, who has had previously no opportunity of showing his power otherwise; but then let it be understood that the post is one for which a decidedly young man is wanted, and let there be no objection to a gentleman even in the trammels of his teens.5

The journal’s repeated reference to a male organist was not an oversight. Eighty-five years after Wesley’s invitation to ‘all my brave Boys’ to learn the fun of securing an organist position, the organ loft was still considered man’s domain, and women who aspired to occupy the organ bench were encroaching on male territory. Throughout the nineteenth century, churches found ways to discourage this unwanted incursion.

On 8 April 1865 the Musical Standard carried an advertisement by the vestry of St John, Southwark, shown in Figure 2.1, inviting ‘applications from Gentlemen desirous of becoming CANDIDATES for the office of ORGANIST. Ladies, and persons afflicted with blindness, will not be eligible’.6 The linking of ladies with blind persons may have alluded to incapacities in women comparable to infirmities that, in the mind of an 1862 contributor to the same journal, entitled the blind to compassion and assistance, but not to a position in which they might ‘do infinite harm, by rendering the musical portion of harm, by rendering the musical portion of our public worship uninteresting, if not ridiculous’.7


Figure 2.1 Advertisement for organist for St John, Southwark, Musical Standard, 1865

In fact, the wording of the advertisement ostensibly was intended to prevent physical harm to female organists who might have applied for the position, since Mr Bradford, a vestry member, ‘had heard it from a professional man, that it was absolutely injurious to the health of a female to play the organ at St. John’s’.8 The true motive remains suspect, however, given that the most recently resigned organist was female. Kate Davis had been chosen the church’s organist from five candidates on 15 September 1863 in what may have been a tainted victory: The Musical Standard considered the election a farce marked by indignities that prevented talented men from applying for the post.9 On 1 April 1865 a letter was read from Davis at a St John vestry meeting, ‘resigning her position as organist of the parish church, and thanking the rector and churchwardens for the kindness they had shown her during the time she held office’.10 A week later the advertisement for a new organist appeared in the Musical Standard.

The decision of the St John vestry in 1865 was not an isolated case but rather evidence of ongoing discrimination against female organists in some of England’s churches. In 1853 Punch had addressed the issue when it asked whether St Cecilia, the patron saint of organists, would be eligible for the recently vacated organist post at St Helen, Bishopsgate. The advertisement to which Punch referred was gender neutral in its wording, but Mr Punch had heard ‘that it is the practice of many vestries to exclude female candidates from competition for the organist’s office’ and wanted to spare Cecilia ‘the anxiety and trouble of making an application, in doubt whether or not it has been predestined to be fruitless’. Punch continued: ‘One would think that the church of a female saint would admit a female musician—or can it be that ST. HELEN would have closed her doors against her sainted sister, the namesake of Miss Punch, herself?’ In a more serious vein, Punch concluded: ‘To multiply, not to diminish, the means of honourable maintenance for women ought to be the object of all Churchwardens and Vestries; as it certainly is the interest of all rate payers.’11

An 1854 advertisement to fill the vacant organist position in the parish church of West Hackney with its ‘Ladies not eligible’ stipulation confirmed what Punch suspected. Recalling the advertisement six years later, in 1860 an indignant correspondent to the Musical World decried the ‘unmerited and unmanly insult’ that still treated women as ‘inferior beings’. His charge to popular writers nobly to employ their pens ‘in checking the progress of this increasing public evil’ apparently went unheeded.12 The pens of other writers were not idle on the matter, however, as seen in a flurry of letters to the Musical World in 1857 and the Musical Standard in 1863 debating the issue on points of social propriety, physical strength and musical skill.

‘No lady need apply’

Questioning the ‘No lady need apply’ appendage to some advertisements for parish organists, A Clergyman writing to the Musical World in 1857 asked, ‘Why should a really competent female be set aside (as is often the case, to my own knowledge) for the sake of a less competent male, simply because she is female?’ He cited several highly gifted organists, among them Ann Mounsey Bartholomew, Elizabeth Mounsey, Elizabeth Stirling and Miss Cooper, as evidence that women could play the organ and conduct choirs as well as their male colleagues.13 One of two correspondents taking Oboe as a pen name thought he had the answer, having once visited a female organist in the loft during a service: ‘Do you, Sir, think that it is a decent or proper profession for a lady to follow?’ In answer, the other Oboe raised his own point of propriety: ‘What business had this “gentleman” in the organ-loft during the service? Organists, when they visit a strange church, never rest until they have made their way into the organ-loft, there to tease and torment the unfortunate inmate.’14

A Lady Organist who joined the discussion shifted the focus from sex to skill, asking ‘How does “Oboe” account for the fact, that almost always where ladies are nominated with gentlemen to compete for appointments, and have played before professional umpires, they have been returned by them as competent to hold the office.’15 As evidence she invited Oboe to observe her in the organ loft during a service, ‘where he would hear an efficient choir, commenced and carried out entirely under my own direction, to the perfect satisfaction of the clergyman and the increasing congregation’.16 Although in the view of the journal’s editor A Lady Organist had modestly and appropriately vindicated her sex, he attributed personal motives to her invitation and thus undermined the female organist’s professionalism when he mockingly warned Oboe ‘not to accept this insinuating “invite”— unless he has no disinclination to a probable case of “Mrs. Oboe”’.17

‘The organ is by no means a lady’s instrument,’ correspondent Pedal declared, explaining, ‘Their very dress is against them, since it impedes their pedaling.’18 Not only was the act of raising one’s skirt a foot or so to facilitate pedaling unbecoming and immodest, Pedal claimed, the positions necessary to play the pedals were extremely indelicate, if not indecent. ‘No female but a Bloomer should be an organist,’ he stated,19 referring to the baggy ankle-length trousers worn beneath a loose knee-length tunic made popular by American Amelia Bloomer in the 1850s. Any woman who would wear such a costume, according to Pedal, was sufficiently masculine to be an organist but, because her femininity was then suspect, had consequently lost her respectability.

A letter signed A Metropolitan Churchwarden urged a stop to the prejudice against female organists, whom he preferred because they were usually more desirous than male organists to please clergy and congregation. But setting personal bias aside, he advocated equality of opportunity for organists of either sex.20

In the issue in which the last of these letters appeared, the Musical World published a response stating that it had heard enough of these futile, at times unfair arguments, which almost assumed ‘the form of a crusade against the fair sex’. Oboe, the editor pointed out, would have shown a better sense of decorum had he joined the congregation in worship instead of visiting the organ loft, or if prayer was not his reason for attending the service, had stayed away from the church altogether. Pedal was chastised for his immodest thoughts in church concerning a lady’s exposed ankles. Even A Metropolitan Churchwarden’s preference for lady organists was considered an affront to females, who might reasonably exclaim ‘Defend us from our friends.’ The claims of correspondents such as Oboe and Pedal, the editor suggested, masked the real reason for their harangue: Organists far outnumbered churches, and by eliminating women from competition, men would have a better chance of securing organist positions.21

It was a simple matter of supply of organists exceeding demand for their services, complicated by the generally low salaries that church musicians felt compelled to accept if they wanted work. An ordinary parish organist in nineteenth-century England could expect to earn between £20 and £40 a year—approximately the wage of a well-paid servant22—though some were paid less.23 An annual salary of £50 to £60 was considered more reasonable by organists, given the number of services and choir rehearsals requiring their attendance. Poet James Hipkins couched the socio-economic situation in a humorous vein when he wrote, ‘An organist wanted—and one that can play / Seven hours in the night and seventeen in the day.’ His tongue-in-cheek parody on advertisements of the day addressed the contentious issues more cogently:

This is a first-rate chance for a first-rate organist, as the duties are light, being only three services on a Sunday, and two on every Christmas day and Good Friday, and all feast-days and fast-days throughout the year. A part of one day in every week to be devoted to teaching one hundred twenty-seven charity children the art of psalm-singing. Salary £15 per annum. A professional lady not objected to.24

That a woman might be willing to play for such a meagre salary impeded efforts to improve the situation of organists in general. But the Musical Standard did female church organists a disservice when it introduced the fictional Miss Keypounder in a scenario illustrating churches’ inability to appreciate a good musician. Faced with a male organist to whom the ‘generous’ wage of £50 per annum was considered too low, a churchwarden replied, ‘Anybody can play an organ. When we was without one before, Miss KEYPOUNDER played beautiful, and I don’t see no difference between her playin’ and the man who had fifty pound a year; I propose that Miss KEYPOUNDER be asked to take regular charge of our services.’ She gladly accepted the post at the much lower £20 per annum offered. The journal elaborated: People like the churchwarden could not distinguish between good service playing and that of the KEYPOUNDER order, whose loud playing gave the congregation plenty of noise for their money.25

Music journals periodically included exposés of organists forced to resign their posts for a number of reasons including playing in a style at odds with the musical taste of clergy and congregation; turning the service over to a deputy instead of performing all duties in person; and having the temerity to request a raise in salary. Most of these published accounts concerned male organists. Thomas Hardy, who wrote about female organists in poetry and in prose, offered a poignant account of a female organist whom the deacons dismissed when she did not live up to their high moral as well as musical standards:

I lift up my feet from the pedals; and then, while my eyes are still wet
From the symphonies born of my fingers, I do that whereon I am set,
And draw from my ‘full round bosom’ (their words; how can help its heave?)
A bottle blue-coloured and fluted—a vinaigrette, they may conceive—
And before the choir measures my meaning, reads aught in my moves to and fro,
I drink from the phial at a draught, and they think it a pick-me-up; so.
Then I gather my books as to leave, bend over the keys as to pray.
When they come to me motionless, stooping, quick death will have whisked me away.26

Dismissals may not have had such tragic results in actual Victorian life, but they could be devastating to women who may have relied on an organist position to support themselves financially. In 1860 the Musical World published a statement on request concerning the unwarranted dismissal of an anonymous female organist at a well-attended district church who ‘made respectful application to the incumbent and the churchwardens for an increase of salary’. A talented organist of good reputation, with several musical compositions to her credit, the woman had held her current position for four years, during which time she had, by the journal’s account, been the victim of ‘much mortification, unusual interference, and harsh treatment’. Her duties, for which she was paid £20 a year, entailed over 200 attendances annually in addition to rehearsing the choir and instructing the children. The Musical World lamented, ‘Twenty pounds a year, with a chance of little teaching, yields but a poor income for a lady’s maintenance; and there is much praise due to this class of under-paid for reserve and delicacy in not wishing their trials and humiliations to be paraded before the public.’27

The question of women’s competence as church organists that had been raised in letters to the Musical World in 1857 resurfaced as a theme in 1863 in the Musical Standard. Ann Mounsey Bartholomew, Miss Couves and Mrs Thomas Perry were among the very few exceptions whom correspondent Pedals—not to be confused with correspondent Pedal—was willing to admit into the priesthood of organists, but their female colleagues who had infiltrated the ranks were to blame for the low esteem with which the organist position was currently held. He offered many reasons: Female organists appeared to lack decision, vigour, self-possession and firmness necessary in organ playing. They did not use the instrument to its full extent, and they played too fast.28

Manuals, another correspondent, admitted that many female organists played badly, but many male organists played badly too. Believing that skill, not sex, should determine competency as an organist, Manuals asked, ‘What is there, either intellectually or physically to prevent ladies playing as efficiently as the opposite sex?’29 He used pedal playing as an example: Many men had to see the pedals before they could play them, but women, whose crinolines distended their skirts and concealed the pedals, played them correctly.30 Correspondent W. C. Filby put it more succinctly: ‘As to pedalling, a lady cannot look at her feet—a gentleman ought not look at his.’31 Concerning physical requirements, Filby observed that the control of an organ required no super-feminine strength. He concluded, ‘I only ask that, on the musical question, no sexual difference may be recognized; that female organists shall be neither flattered, pitied, nor despised; but that they may be tried in the exacting balance of musical exigency, and only rejected when they are found wanting.’32

Correspondent Pedals was not convinced. Women were not physically equal to the task of organ playing, he claimed. Let Filby ‘play the “Hailstone Chorus,” with swell coupled to great, on one of Hill’s large organs’, and then ask himself if female organists possess the requisite strength. ‘I doubt whether a lady would not break down from sheer exhaustion, long before the final chord,’ Pedals remarked.33 As to other sexual differences, he explained:

I deny that I object to the ladies on account of their sex … . My objections arise solely from their natural inabilities—inabilities over which they have no control, since they are inherent in their nature; and if it has not pleased the great Maker of All to endow them similarly to men, it is not their fault. But still they must not endeavour to fill appointments to which the endowments of men alone are equal.34

The debate in the Musical Standard continued with some new correspondents adding their views about the ‘lady organist’ issue. In a revealing secondary theme, D. Maskell asked Alfred Beale whether in 1858 he had on three occasions lost organist elections to ladies in competitions before professional umpires.35 Beale responded that he had played not three, but four times unsuccessfully against lady organists. One competition Beale chose not to discuss because of its disgraceful nature; another he blamed on the poor quality of the organ. In the other two auditions, Beale claimed, he was judged the best player, but the appointment in each case was given to a female candidate.36 To the numerous reasons offered in the correspondents’ letters of 1857 and 1863 why women should not be organists, Beale had unwittingly added another: male pride.

The correspondent signed A Female Organist who entered the discussion rebuked Manuals’s gallant defence of his sister organists. ‘We feminines do not want such toleration, we require no such mock homage, we do not care that the other sex should attribute to us qualities which we know we do not possess,’ she wrote. Filby put the matter in proper perspective, the female correspondent stated. He asked for fairness, which was all she and her sister musicians wanted.37

It was in part to achieve this fairness in organist elections that in 1858 the Lady Organists’ Association was formed to bring ‘more prominently before the public the position and claims of ladies qualified for situations as parochial organists, who are too much in the habit of having their applications disregarded, and their qualifications deprecated, when applying for public appointments of this kind’.38 The justification for the organization, open to organists of either sex interested in advancing public opinion of organ playing as a female occupation, was stated in the prospectus that concluded:

Few spheres of occupation seem more appropriate to the gentler sex than that of the musical profession, and it is to be believed that this association will do much to silence the paltry rivalry and clamour which is now obviously rife at most organist elections—a rivalry in great measure confined to amateurs—as well as to raise the character of female performance upon the noble instrument in question.39

Yet the policy of excluding females as applicants continued past 1880, when St Botolph, Aldgate, in the City of London pronounced ‘Ladies not eligible’ for appointment to the church organist position.40 Equally exclusionary was the wording found in far more advertisements addressed, as in the case of St Botolph Without, Aldgate, in 1866, to ‘any GENTLEMAN desirous of becoming a CANDIDATE for the organist position’.41 Capitalizing the letters of ‘gentleman’ left no doubt concerning the fate of female applicants. Similar announcements appeared as late as 1895.

The chapter continues.


  1. Samuel Wesley, ‘Come all my brave Boys who want Organists’ Places’, British Library, MS Add. 35005, 85r.
  2. Ibid., 87v; James T. Lightwood, Samuel Wesley, Musician: The Story of His Life (London: Epworth, 1937), 92; Dawe, Organists, 113–14.
  3. ‘Congregational Umpireship’, Musical Standard, n.s., 13 (1871): 105; ‘The post of organist’, Musical Standard, 3rd ser., 18 (1880): 73.
  4. ‘Organ Competitions’, Musical Standard, 3rd ser., 18 (1880): 233.
  5. ‘On the Selection of an Organist’, Musical Times 24 (1883): 254.
  6. ‘To Organists’, Musical Standard, o.s., 3 (1865): 328. St John, Southwark, was also known as St John, Horsleydown.
  7. ‘On Choosing an Organist’, Musical Standard, o.s., 1 (1862): 19.
  8. ‘Elected Vestry of St. John’s, Horsleydown’, South London Journal, 1 April 1865.
  9. ‘St. John’s, Horsleydown’, Musical Standard, o.s., 2 (1863): 77.
  10. ‘Elected Vestry’, 1 April 1865.
  11. ‘Organist: A Vacancy’, The Times, 11 November 1853; ‘St. Cecilia and St. Helen’, Punch 25 (1853): 288.
  12. A Seat-Holder at a District Church, ‘Church Organists’, Musical World 38 (1860): 513.
  13. A Clergyman, ‘No Lady Need Apply’, Musical World 35 (1857): 553.
  14. Oboe, ‘The Ass in Lion’s Skin’, Musical World 35 (1857): 577; Oboe, ‘No Lady Need Apply’, Musical World 35 (1857): 586.
  15. A Lady Organist, ‘No Lady Need Apply’, Musical World 35 (1857): 586.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Pedal, ‘No Lady Need Apply’, Musical World 35 (1857): 585.
  19. Ibid.
  20. A Metropolitan Churchwarden, ‘No Lady Need Apply’, Musical World 35 (1857): 585.
  21. ‘Really some of our organists’, Musical World 35 (1857): 588.
  22. Mitchell, Daily Life, 55–56.
  23. ‘The Pay of Organists’, Musical Standard, 4th ser., 40 (1891): 237.
  24. James Hipkins, ‘An Organist Wanted’, Musical World 35 (1857): 647.
  25. The Pay of Organists’, 237–38.
  26. Thomas Hardy, ‘The Chapel-Organist (A.D. 185—)’, in The Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy [1898] (New York: Macmillan, 1926), 601–2; idem, Under the Greenwood Tree or The Mellstock Quire: A Rural Painting of the Dutch School. [1872] (Macmillan: London, Melbourne and Toronto, and New York: St Martin’s Press, 1966).
  27. ‘Lady Organists’, Musical World 38 (1860): 560.
  28. Pedals, ‘Organists: The Ladies v. the Gentlemen’, Musical Standard, o.s., 1 (1863): 258.
  29. Manuals, ‘Male and Female Organists’, Musical Standard, o.s., 1 (1863): 274.
  30. Ibid., 274–75.
  31. W. C. [William Charles] Filby, ‘Male and Female Organists’, Musical Standard, o.s., 1 (1863): 274.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Pedals, ‘Pedal’s Reply’, Musical Standard, o.s., 1 (1863): 287.
  34. Ibid.
  35. D. Maskell, ‘Gentlemen v. Lady-Organists’, Musical Standard, o.s., 1 (1863): 307.
  36. Alfred Beale, ‘Mr. Beale: In Reply’, Musical Standard, o.s., 1 (1863): 323.
  37. A Female Organist, ‘A Lady to the Rescue!’, Musical Standard, o.s., 1 (1863): 287.
  38. ‘Lady Organists’ Association’, Musical World 36 (1858): 647.
  39. Ibid.
  40. ‘To Organists: Wanted’, Musical Times 21 (1880): 321. See also ‘Organist Wanted for the Parish Church of St. Olave, Southwark’, Musical Standard, o.s., 10 (1869): n.p.; ‘To Organists: The Vestry of St. Matthew, Bethnal Green’, Musical Standard, o.s., 10 (1869): n.p.; ‘Organist Wanted for the Parish Church, Bromley, Kent’, Musical Standard, n.s., 2 (1872): 380; ‘Organist and Choirmaster Wanted for George-street Congregational Church, Croydon’, Musical Standard, n.s., 13 (1877): 268; ‘Organist and Choirmaster Wanted for George-street Congregational Church, Croydon’, Musical Times 18 (1877): 554.
  41. ‘Organist’, Musical Standard, o.s., 5 (1866): 342.

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