‘Place aux dames’?
Women Organists in the First World War

After carefully reviewing issues of the Musical Times 1901 to 1910, I was not satisfied with the numbers of women organists I was seeing – or not seeing – in the ten years of Edward VII’s reign (see the Blog for 2 Jun 2019), so I extended my search through 1913 and ultimately through the years of the First World War.

Four additional women organists performed recitals not in England, but in Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Hong Kong – Mrs Longfield and Tibbes, and Misses Muir and Pakes in 1911 and 1912. Likewise, an additional three women organists secured appointments, but in churches outside England in Wales, Ireland and Italy. Six more women were successful candidates in organ playing at London College of Music, two at the Royal Academy of Music Metropolitan, and five at Trinity College London.

During 1911 All Saints Parish Church Southport advertised for a ‘Protestant, teetotaler, non-smoker’ organist.1  Sex of candidates was not specified, though a woman might have been more successful than a man for the post, and preference was to be given at another church to a middle-aged man as deputy organist. In 1913 the offer of furnished bachelor rooms for the successful applicant essentially ruled out female candidates for the vacant organist-choirmaster position at a private chapel in Wemyss Castle in Scotland.

A high spot of 1912 was Miss Lilian Frost’s debut as the first and only woman to play on the Saint George’s Hall Liverpool organ while the town hall was between permanent organists. Her recital program included Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E minor. In 1913 Miss Lord was given ‘great credit’ for her accompaniment to Messiah for a performance at Saint Saviour’s Church in Russia, and Maunder’s ‘Olivet to Calvary’ was performed at Saint Paul’s Church, Lock Haven, Pennsylvania with Miss Edna Fredericks on the organ bench. 2 Only Miss Jackman, organist for Sullivan’s ‘Festal Te Deum’ at Chagford Wesleyan Church, applied her talents in England.

Why this seeming dearth of women organists mentioned in the Musical Times during the Edwardian era and beyond? Music as a feminine accomplishment was on the decline throughout the nineteenth century and seemed to receive its final blow with the rise of the New Woman beginning in 1894. 3 For young women who came of age at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, music no longer held an important role in their lives, having been supplanted by higher education and paid employment outside the home and by increased participation in outdoor sports and recreation. The Musical Times in 1896 had singled out the bicycle as ‘a new and most formidable enemy of the pianoforte’, because hours formerly passed on the music stool were now spent on the bicycle seat, and cited the sale of pianofortes at low cost by owners ‘going in for cycling’ as proof. 4

An advertisement in the Musical Times in 1907 beginning ‘PARENTS DECEASED. – Lady wishes to SELL Second-hand ORGAN’ suggests a similar disinterest in the organ keyboard, though the sale could have been necessitated simply for financial reasons. 5

The Girl’s Own Paper, which featured an abundance of music-related material from its beginning in 1880, had decreased its musical content by 1901. The inclusion of sheet music offers an example. Starting with six to twelve compositions for voice and piano and occasionally for violin or organ in each annual volume, The Girl’s Own Paper gradually reduced the frequency to three or less pieces of sheet music in each annual volume by the end of the century, with none some years.

The magazine still included musical material in its fiction and nonfiction, but readers were no longer given the opportunity to participate in music making within its pages. A common theme was the business of music that focused on singers and pianists. Music had shifted from pastime to profession to be treated as a business, not as an accomplishment, in order to succeed. The fictional ‘Odette: Soprano’, who attempted unsuccessfully in 1905 to establish herself as a singer in Florence, might have done well to heed the warnings in 1901 of ‘The Failures of the Business Girl’ relevant to professional female musicians. While the piano was still the instrument most written about, as late as 1909 contributor Emil Reich considered the female pianist doomed to failure. 6

It is interesting to note that Flora Klickmann, the magazine’s editor beginning in 1908, was an accomplished organist-turned-journalist but did not promote organ playing in her magazine.

The primers on how to play the organ and harmonium, articles on playing for church and conducting choirs, notices of organ music, and sheet music for organ in the early 1890s, as well as fictional female organist heroines and the occasional drawing of a female organist were missing from the magazine’s pages in the twentieth century, with one exception. In 1904 Miss Emily Lucas, a clergyman’s daughter who had become a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists, wrote about the challenges and rewards of training a choir and playing for services at Saint Andrew Norwood when visually impaired – Lucas was blind. 7

Organists were in the business of playing for worship services. Were women perhaps occupying the benches of churches, as was the case in the previous century, despite the silence of the Musical Times regarding their work? I considered what impact the call to arms may have had on women organists.

In Britain during the war, roughly two million women replaced men in offices, transport, hospitals and factories. Did they replace male organists in churches as well? In 1914 in ‘The War and Music’, the Musical Times expressed concern that concert-performers and music teachers would suffer financially and suggested that these musicians should not be expected to offer their services gratuitously, even when raising funds for war needs. ‘The New Army and Its Musical Needs’ in 1915 called not for organists, but for bands, and plenty of them, to keep up the morale of the soldiers, stating: ‘A Drum and fife, and a bagpiper, at the disposal of every company captain would work wonders.’ 8 Two organists – Sir Frederick Bridge and Sir Walter Parratt – were on the Music in War Time Committee of the Professional Classes War Relief Council tasked with developing schemes for the employment of musicians during the War and dealing with their financial distress brought on by the war. By the time the Musical Times proclaimed ‘THE LAST SHOT IS FIRED!’ at the end of 1918 and recommended music as the means to maintain the morale of the soldiers while they waited to return home, a definite picture had emerged in England’s wartime churches. 9

Whether to entice more women into careers as organists or to reward those who were already playing, Girton College offered an annual organ scholarship of £30 good for three years beginning in 1914. Only one advertisement from a woman organist appeared in the Musical Times, mid-war in 1916. A pupil of Mr Docker and Mr Bodington, she was a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists and had experience training mixed, ladies’ and children’s choirs. Advertisements from male organists seeking church positions and from churches seeking organists were careful to insert the word ‘ineligible’ [for military service] to show that they were cognizant of their civic responsibility, as when R.A.J., an ‘’ALTO AND ORGANIST (29, ineligible)’ sought an appointment as Lay-Clerk or Organist and Choirmaster; the ‘ORGANIST of an Oxford College (ineligible)’, desired a good appointment; and Saint Thomas Hove advertised for an ‘ORGANIST (Ineligible) WANTED immediately’, all in 1917. 10 A private chapel in Ashdown Park, Shrivenham, which in 1918 wanted ‘a Single man’ as organist and choirmaster for the duration of the war, might have done better to advertise for a woman organist, perhaps hiring ‘A.E.’, a ‘LADY, A.T.C.L.’, who sought a post as organist or assistant that same year. 11

Because women organists were still visible during the war years in the pages of the Musical Times, which listed fifteen recitals by eleven women – four performed by Miss Elaine Rainbow, two women appointed to church organist positions, eight women attaining certificates of organ playing at the London College of Music and thirteen at Trinity College London. Organist and choir-trainer Miss Elsie Black was accorded ‘great credit’ for a Musical Festival at Lydbrook Parish Church in 1918 when the choir sang Parry’s ‘I was glad’ and Handel’s ‘Let the bright Seraphim’. 12

Only one woman organist, Miss Eva Fyfield of Greenham, was identified, in 1917, as having replaced an organist for the duration of the war. 13 It appears that male organists had not disappeared from the churches. Rather, they reappeared on the benches in uniform. The most publicized was Corporal F.E. Wilson, who by June 1918 had played fourteen recitals in Eastbourne in aid of the Sick Lines of Summerdown Camp. His 14 May recital of that year included Krebs Fugue in G, Hollin’s Concert-Overture, Wolstenholme’s Canzona and Boellmann’s Toccata. ‘Good!’ the Musical Times exclaimed. 14 Lieutenant Paul Rochard, Corporal Leonard Brown, Privates Patrick O’Neill and W.J. Rainbird, Corporal, Rifleman Isidore Harvey and Driver C.E. Blyton Dobson all played organ recitals during the war. Rochard was organist for Spohr’s ‘Last Judgment’ in 1916, and Dobson played the organ accompaniment for Maunder’s ‘Olivet to Calvary’ in 1918.

Not all mobilized organists returned home. Lieutenant Albert Midgley, ‘a highly-promising young musician’ who had held an organ scholarship at the Royal College of Music for four years and was organist at Saint Andrews Alexandra Park, London before joining the military, was killed in action at the Italian Front in June 1918. Corporal Dobson was organist for a memorial service ‘For the Fallen’ at Halifax Place Chapel, Nottingham, at the end of 1918. 15

What does this tell us about women organists in Edwardian England and the years of World War One? As was the case in Victorian England, women organists were undoubtedly occupying the benches of England’s organs in the first decades of the twentieth century. But as Martin Hawkins suggested, they likely continued to be found in the smaller churches in rural parishes rather than in the large city churches whose musical activities caught the attention of the Musical Times. 16 The war years failed to impact women organists significantly, because, as a colleague pointed out, most male church organists may have been too old or otherwise unqualified to serve in the military so did not vacate their posts. Of course it is possible, too, that young women who might have served as organists found work elsewhere in support of the war effort rather than pursue music making.



1    ‘Wanted for All Saints’ Parish Church, Southport’, Musical Times 52 (1 Nov 1911): 702.
2    ‘On Sunday evening’, Musical Times 54 (1 Feb 1913): 102.
3    See Ellen Jordan, ‘The Christening of the New Woman: May 1894’, Victorian Newsletter 63 (1983): 19–21.
4    ‘The Pianoforte and Its Enemies’, Musical Times, 37 (1 May 1896) 37: 308–309.
5    See, for example, ‘Parents Deceased’, Musical Times 48 (1 Jul 1907): 433.
6    See Judith Barger, Music in The Girl’s Own Paper: An Annotated Bibliography, 1880–1910 (Routledge, 2007).
7    ‘A Blind Girl Organist (Miss E. Lucas)’, The Girl’s Own Paper 25 (19 Mar 1904): 395 – 97.
8    ‘The New Army and Its Musical Needs’, Musical Times 56 (1 Mar 1915): 148.
9    ‘The Last Shot Is Fired!’ Musical Times 59 (1 Dec 1918): 535.
10  See, for example, ‘Organist of an Oxford College (ineligible)’, Musical Times 58 (1 Dec 1917): 532.
11  ‘Wanted, the middle of August’, Musical Times 59 (1 Jun 1918): 244; ‘Lady, A.T.C.L., Desires Post’, Musical Times 59 (1 Oct 1918): 436.
12  ‘A Musical Festival was held’, Musical Times 59 (1 Sep 1918): 418.
13  ‘At the Harvest Thanksgiving Service at Highclere’, Musical Times 58 (1 Nov 1917): 501.
14  ‘Corporal F.E. Wilson’, Musical Times 59 (1 Jun 1918): 258.
15  ‘Lieut. Albert Midgley’, Musical Times 59 (1 Aug 1918): 356; ‘A Memorial Service “For the Fallen”‘, Musical Times 59 (1 Dec 1918): 548.
16  Martin Hawkins, ‘Women at the Console’, Musical Opinion 77 (May 1954): 495.



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