‘Place aux dames’?
Women Organists in Edwardian England

Writing about ‘Women at the Console’ in the Musical Opinion in 1954, Martin Hawkins noted the conspicuous absence at the beginning of the twentieth century of women organists in any church of importance in England when in competition with males. These women were as always, however, welcome as organists in smaller churches where no man was available. 1 By contrast, women organists had been very much in evidence in the nineteenth century. In Organists in the City of London 1666–1850, Donovan Dawe identifies six women organists in City of London Anglican churches at the beginning of that century. 2 According to Charles Mackeson’s A Guide to the Churches of London and Its Suburbs published annually most years beginning in 1866, just over sixty women played in London area Anglican churches in 1895, the last year of that publication. 3 Yet in The Mirror of Music 1844–1944 Percy Scholes, who identified nine women organists meriting notice in the Musical Times in the 1800s, is strangely silent about female organists after the turn of the century. 4

Many of the women who made names for themselves as organists during the reign of Victoria, opening the door to the organ world wider for those who would follow in their organ shoes, did not live to see the reign of Edward VII or were no longer active as organists. Ann Mounsey Bartholomew (Saint Vedast Foster Lane) had died in 1891; Elizabeth Stirling (All Saints Poplar, Saint Andrew Undershaft) and Eliza Wesley (Saint Katherine Coleman, Saint Margaret Pattens), in 1895. Elizabeth Mounsey (Saint Peter Cornhill) lived until 1905, but deafness ended her organ playing in 1882; and Ann Stainer (Magdalen Hospital Chapel), who lived until 1914, had retired from organ playing in 1899.

The most publicised female organ recitalist at the end of the nineteenth century – Emily Edroff, who was associated with the London Organ School and known for playing the repertoire of French and Belgian composers – disappeared from the press after 1895. Five other organists, however, made news from time to time in the next century, but primarily for aspects of music making other than their organ playing.

Ellen Day (1828–1916), the ‘The Doyen of Lady Organists’, had made her debut as a pianist at age eight and later as a church organist after a few lessons with James Coward, Crystal Palace organist. She served as organist of London churches for forty-five years, twenty-seven of them at Christ Church Victoria Street, Westminster from which she retired in 1910. She also performed in public as a pianist, accompanying her younger brother John, a violinist. 5

Margaret Fowles (1846–1907) began her organ career at age fifteen at Saint James church, Ryde on the Isle of Wight before founding the Ryde Choral Union in 1874, which she conducted for over twenty years. She founded a similar choral union and select string band in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, which she conducted during the last two years of her life.

Theresa Beney (1859–1945), born in Brighton, attended the National Training School of Music on scholarship where she studied organ and piano, then remained in London to forge her career as a professional musician. After her 1880 debut as an organ recitalist at Lancaster Hall, Notting Hill in 1880, Beney passed the examination for Associate of the College of Organists in 1881 and held the church organist post at Christ Church Folkestone for about three years beginning in 1883. Like other musicians eager to get on in their profession, Beney diversified her talent to include accompanying, conducting, teaching and composing in addition to solo organ and piano performances. Two of Beney’s vocal compositions premiered at the Proms in Royal Albert Hall – ‘Song of Victory’ in 1901 and ‘The Boys We Love’ in 1914.

Annie Patterson (1868–1934), a Dublin organist, composer and author, had made history as the first woman to earn a doctorate in music by examination in 1889, from the Royal University of Ireland, two years after earning her Bachelor of Music and Bachelor of Arts from the same university. At the end of the nineteenth century she was conductor of the Dublin Choral Union and an examiner in music for her alma mater, as well as a lecturer in music. In the next century she turned her attention to writing, authoring books on The Story of the Oratorio (1902), Schumann (1903), How to Listen to an Orchestra (1913), and The Profession of Music and How to Prepare for It (1926). Of particular interest is her book Chats with Music-Lovers (1907), which includes sections on how to practise the organ and on hymn playing and a chapter on How to Be an Organist. Patterson concludes her words on ‘good organistship’ with a question, which suggests that prejudice against ‘lady organists’ had not completely been eradicated in the light of her predecessors’ achievements:

Why not give the lady organist as fair a chance of excelling at her art as her brother professional? The physical exertion expended in organ-playing is no more hurtful to a woman than is walking, bicycling, or dancing; and for the anaemic, dyspeptic or cold-footed, no better remedy can exist than the healthful drill of ‘pedalling.’ St Paul’s objection to women speaking or ‘teaching’ in an assembly, if taken literally, would dismiss the sex from class teaching of all kinds – an art at which women often shine. Patience, reverence and tact are all demanded from conductors of church choir practices, and these qualifications are eminently womanly ones. Wherefore – when old-world prejudices as to the ‘unbecomingness’ and ‘undue effort’ attached to the woman organist’s playing shall vanish before more intimate and practical knowledge of the King of Instruments itself – let the lady ‘pulsator’ have, if no favour, at least a fair field for the display of her talents. 6

Mary Layton (1869–1929), who had made her mark in music history in 1872 as the first female Fellow of the Royal College of Organists, was best known in later years as a choral conductor and teacher of singing. She saw choral singing for women as a hopeful and elevating influence of the women’s movement and worked in political and social life to improve the status of women through music. 7

Some lesser-known female organists were still going strong at the beginning of the twentieth century. Mary Kempke, who had been appointed organist to Saint Andrews Bigglesworth in 1853 and Saintt Swithin’s Sandy in 1862, was well on her way to ‘Seventy Years of Service’ on the bench, an accomplishment noted by the Musical Times in 1924. Miss Hutchinson, organist at Cotherstone (Teesdale) Congregational Church, had completed 50 years on the bench in 1917, during which she missed only four services.

But what about the next generation of female organists – those who flourished on the bench during the Edwardian Era 1901–1910? What can we discover about them? I carefully reviewed issues of the Musical Times for those years, seeking material regarding women organists.

Place aux dames!’ – translated ‘Make way for the ladies’ – prefaced a 1901 Musical Times notice of Fräulein Hoeller’s appointment as organist of Würtzburg Cathedral in Bavaria. The phrase seems out of place, given that it was already anachronistic in 1876 when the Musical Standard identified recitalist Elizabeth Stirling as ‘another able exponent at the organ, but (place aux dames), one of the gentler sex’. 8 But since England did not yet have a female cathedral organist – the magazine identified ten ladies serving as cathedral organists in Ireland in 1907 without addressing their absence in England’s cathedrals – Hoeller’s appointment was considered a novelty. Performances of two female organ students of the Royal Academy of Music in 1902 – Mabel Colyer and Alexandra Tallant – elicited the same surprising ‘(place aux dames!)’ remark. Annie Patterson, it seems, wrote from first-hand knowledge: the sex of an organist, if female, was still an issue. That the profession remained ‘an old boy’s club’, was apparent in a notice of the Wakefield and District Organists’ Association annual dinner of 1907, which concluded: ‘May increasing success attend this excellent brotherhood of organists!’ 9

Advertisements and notices in the Musical Times bear this out. The London Organ School, which had welcomed female pupils since its founding in 1865 and which included Emily Edroff on its staff as an organ professor in the 1890s, opened the auditions for its organ scholarship of 1902. And some churches still advertised for a male organist, though the ‘ladies not eligible’ clause from the previous century was no longer used. The Roman Catholic Church of The Sacred Heart Exeter advertised for a ‘Gentleman’ in 1901; an organist wanting to set up a holiday exchange in 1902 assumed that the willing organist would be a man with a wife. One church offered an excellent neighbourhood ‘for a young gentleman about to enter [the] musical profession’ in 1907; and a country church advertised for a ‘Single, young, earnest Churchman’ in 1909. 10

Of the three churches advertising for a lady or gentleman organist in 1908 and 1909, one was Nonconformist, one a small post, and one at Holy Trinity in Florence with the added responsibility of conducting the Ladies Choral Society. The incumbent, Miss Jessie Handley, must have found a suitable temporary replacement, for she moved to Hampstead and the next month advertised for a similar engagement in or near London.

Eight young ladies – Miss Dalley, Miss Ward, a twenty-six-year-old Officer’s daughter, and others identified only by initials – advertised for organist positions between 1901 and 1910. All were experienced with good credentials, most of them appending the requisite initials to their names indicating successful completion of examinations in organ studies through the London College of Music, Royal Academy of Music Metropolitan or Trinity College London. Indeed, as organ students, females seemed to excel. Five were successful candidates for the London College of Music, five for the Royal Academy of Music Metropolitan Examinations, and fifteen for Trinity College London over the ten-year period.

Despite Handley’s A.R.C.O. and L.R.A.M. credentials, female names were not as numerous in the lists of Fellows and Associates of the Royal College of Organists, which counted only five Fellows – Misses Brown, Clarke, Cliff, Cooper and Ibbetson – and five Associates – Misses Finlay, Lucas, Mear, Winkworth of Haughton and Wood – during the Edwardian years. We will hear more of Miss Lucas in the next blog.

We cannot know whether the coveted certificates and the advertisements with their strings of newly acquired credentials had the intended effect of job placement. Only fourteen female names appeared in the lists of Organist Appointments, and the sixteen females playing twenty recitals were far outnumbered by their male colleagues in the lists of Organ Recitals.

In 1904 the Musical Times reiterated its method for compiling the summary of ‘Organ Recitals’ submitted by readers. Because the magazine received such a large number of programmes, they were examined from two points of view – educational and general interest – and ‘vain repetition’ and ‘arrangements’ found no place in the monthly list. Furthermore, space precluded mentioning more than one piece in each programme. 11 It is likely, however, that women organists still were considered novel enough that all of their submitted recital notices would be printed, if not their entire programmes.

Additional women organists played recitals mentioned elsewhere in the magazine and accompanied choral concerts performed in churches, but their number was not great. Mrs Horace Evans accompanied Sterndale Bennett’s cantata the ‘Woman of Samaria’ on the organ in 1910. John Henry Maunder’s cantata ‘Olivet to Calvary’ was in vogue at the time, and many organists must have had the accompaniment neatly under their fingertips, including Mrs Sheppard, sub-organist of the British Embassy Church in Paris. No one name of a woman organist reappears in the Musical Times during these years to indicate a potential rising star in the organ world.

Grace Ivorsen, organist to the Magdalene Hospital Streatham may have realized that she could not earn her living by organ playing alone. Like many musicians, she diversified, and beginning in 1908 through 1910 advertised – ‘Terms moderate’ – as a piano soloist and accompanist and voice and examination coach. She also mentioned her abilities to read manuscripts and full score and to transpose, as well as her knowledge of French, German, Italian and Latin. 12

Not satisfied with the numbers of women organists I was seeing – or not seeing – in the ten years of Edward VII’s reign, I extended my search through 1913 and ultimately through the years of the First World War. I present those findings in my next blog.

To be continued


1     Martin Hawkins, ‘Women at the Console’, Musical Opinion 77 (May 1954): 495.
2     Donovan Dawe, Organists of the City of London 1666 – 1850 (Padstow: By the Author, 1983).
3     For more about women organists in Victorian England, see Judith Barger, Elizabeth Stirling and the Musical Life of Female Organists in Nineteenth-Century England (Ashgate, 2007). The book is currently out of print, but copies are available in libraries and from used booksellers.
4      Percy A. Scholes, The Mirror of Music 1844 – 1944: A Century of Musical Life in Britain as Reflected in the Pages of the Musical Times, 2 vols (London: Novello, 1947).
5    ‘The Doyen of Lady Organists’, Musical Times 50 (1 Sep 1909): 587; see also ‘Lady Organists, and One in Particular – Miss Ellen Day’, Musical Times 50 (1 Mar 1909): 163–69.
6      Annie W. Patterson, Chats with Music-Lovers (Philadelphia: Lippincott, London: T. Werner Laurie, 1907), 136–137.
7      ‘Choral Singing: A Chat with Mary Layton’, Daily Chronicle, 28 Mar 1912.
8      ‘Bow and Bromley Institute’, Musical Standard n.s. 11 (4 Nov 1876): 290.
9      ‘Wakefield and District Organists’ Association’, Musical Times, 1 Feb 1907: 101.
10    ‘Organist and Choirmaster Wanted’, Musical Times 48 (1 Mar 1907): 147; ‘Organist and Choirmaster Wanted’, Musical Times 50 (1 May 1909): 294.
11     ‘Organ Recitals’, Musical Times, 1 Jan 1904: 30.
12    See, for example, ‘Miss Ivorson, A.R.A.M., A.R.C.M.’, Musical Times 49 (1 Aug 1908): 498.


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