‘Ladies Not Eligible’?:
Female Church Organists in
Nineteenth-Century England

Part 2

In my previous blog (8 Sep 2019) I explored the ‘lady organist issue’, perpetuated in nineteenth-century British newspapers and music journals, that declared women ineligible for organist posts in many of England’s parish churches. I focused on a flurry of letters to the Musical World in 1857 that argued for and against the stipulation ‘No lady need apply’. This blog extends the debate to 1863, when the topic resurfaced in the Musical Standard.

Like Pedal before him, a letter to the Musical Standard in 1863 signed Pedals argued that ladies as a group were not competent for the position of organist. 1 Pedal had written to the Musical World in 1857, ‘it is by no means a natural sequence that if one or two ladies do perform the duties properly, that every lady is competent’. 2 Ann Mounsey Bartholomew was one of the ‘very few exceptions’ whom Pedals was willing to admit into the priesthood of organists, but according to him, many of her female colleagues who had infiltrated the ranks were to blame for the low esteem with which the organist position currently was held. Pedals offered many reasons: women organists appeared to lack decision, vigor, self-possession and firmness necessary in organ playing. They did not use the instrument to its full extent, and they played too fast. 3

Manuals, a correspondent who saw the flaws in Pedals’s argument, admitted that women organists played badly, but many men organists played badly, too. ‘What is there, either intellectually or physically, to prevent ladies playing as efficiently as the opposite sex?’ Manuals asked. He used the example of pedal playing in support of his question. 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. 4 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.’ As to 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 dispised; but that they may be tried in the exacting balance of musical exigency, and only rejected when they are found wanting.’ 5

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. As to other sexual differences, the correspondent 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 endeavor to fill appointments to which the endowments of men alone are equal. 6

The debate continued. In a revealing secondary theme, a correspondent asked Alfred Beale whether in 1858 he had on three occasions lost organist elections to ladies, in competitions before professional umpires. Beale replied 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. 7 To the various reasons offered in correspondents’ letters why ladies should not be eligible as church organists, Beale unwittingly had added another: male pride.

The woman organist who entered the discussion rebuked Manual’s gallant defense 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, the female correspondent stated, put the matter in proper perspective; he asked for fairness, which was all she and her sister musicians wanted. 8

But in one place where women should have been considered equal to men in the sight of God, some women organists found themselves marginalized, excluded from using their musical talents in the service of the church. 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 next century: ‘Come all my brave boys who want Organist Places. I’ll tell you the fun of the Thing.’ 9

The policy of excluding women as applicants continued past 1880 when, for example, Saint Botolph Aldgate in the City of London pronounced ‘Ladies not eligible’ for appointment to the church organist position. 10 Of seven announcements I found in the press from churches declaring lady organists ineligible, six were Church of England and one, Congregational. One church was located in the City of London; the other six were in the metropolis of greater London. 11

Equally exclusionary was the wording found in far more published announcements, often for parish churches outside the London area, addressed to ‘any GENTLEMAN desirous of becoming a CANDIDATE’ for the organist position. Capitalising the letters of ‘gentleman’, as in an 1882 announcement for Saint Bride’s Fleet Street, left no doubt concerning the fate of lady applicants. 12 Similar announcements could be found as late as 1895.

Not all churches objected to women organists; some churches preferred them, as in a Musical Times announcement of 1870: ‘WANTED a Lady ORGANIST for Parish Church, West of London’. 13

No discernible pattern of discrimination against women organists is evident by year or decade in a sample of published announcements of vacant church positions. As early as the 1820s and as late as the 1890s, announcements by churches in London and the surrounding areas that excluded women as candidates coexisted with announcements in which the wording was gender neutral.

The use of gender-neutral wording to announce vacancies for organist positions raises the question of whether the choice of words was the intentional decision of a liberal-minded vestry or whether it simply had not occurred to them that women even would apply. Perhaps the vestry members were unaware that any woman could possess the requisite talent and qualifications to succeed as a church organist.

Women were denied the same preparation as male organists who were brought up as cathedral musicians and later sent off for a university education. Therefore, they had to follow a different career path. They completed their musical studies privately when necessary and found church positions to allow them to practice and perfect their profession as organists. Beginning around 1853, music journals published notices of female organists seeking church positions, as in these examples from the Musical Times of February 1877:

ORGANIST. – A Lady, thoroughly qualified, desires a post as ORGANIST, either in London or within 20 miles. Is an experienced, clever trainer. Excellent references. Address L. Novello, Ewer and Col, 1, Berners Street.

ORGANIST. – A Lady desires a SITUATION. Good references from Clergy and Organist. Address Solo, Post Office, Nutfield, Red Hill, Surrey.

ORGANIST AND CHOIRTRAINER. – A Lady of several years’ experience DESIRES a SITUATION. Apply to W. Parrott, Esq., Organist, Magdalene College, Oxford.

REQUIRED, by a Lady, a SITUATION as Organist in a church within 10 miles of London; W. or S.W. Has had 12 years’ experience, and can conduct a choir of moderate pretensions. A large stipend not expected. Address, in first instance, L.N., 4, Ranelagh Villas Grove Park Gardens, Chiswick, W. 14

We cannot know whether these ‘want ads’ achieved their intended purposes. But women were being elected to and succeeding in church organist positions. Books such as Donovan Dawe’s Organists of the City of London 1666–1850 and Charles Mackeson’s A Guide to the Churches of London and Its Suburbs, published annually most years between 1886 and 1895, both limited to the Church of England, as well as church appointments listed in music journals, document the names of hundreds of women organists throughout the nineteenth century.

Some, such as Ann Mounsey Bartholomew, Elizabeth Mounsey and Elizabeth Stirling were professional organists who held long-serving positions in City of London churches. Others left fewer traces of their church activities beyond a name appearing in lists of organist appointments. Many organists were amateurs, serving gratuitously in churches, perhaps the sisters, wives and daughters of clergy. Still others remained nameless, identified only as ‘a lady organist’.

They were, as Florence Nightingale in 1868 advised young ladies called to any particular vocation, doing God’s business, and, as she assured them, ‘Where God leads the way, He has bound Himself to help you go the way.’ 15 These women persevered as church musicians despite cultural, medical, musical and religious arguments put forth by opponents of ‘lady organists’.

In 1880 The Girl’s Own Paper, a popular magazine published in London by the Religious Tract Society printed an article by John Stainer on ‘How to Play the Organ’. First guiding the novice through the perils of ascending the stairwell to an imaginary church organ loft, Stainer’s advice has relevance to England’s women organists pursuing church positions in the nineteenth century and sums up their attitude when faced with real and imaginary obstacles impending their success. ‘The answer to the question, “How am I to play the organ?” might be answered in two words, namely, “Do it.” This is, in fact, the only answer that can be given.” 16


1      Pedals, ‘Organist. – The Ladies v. the Gentlemen’ [correspondence], Musical Standard 1 (15 Apr 1863): 258.
2      Pedal, ‘No Lady Need Apply’ [correspondence], Musical World 35 (12 Sep 1857): 585.
3      Pedals, Organists. – The Ladies v. the Gentlemen’, 258.
4      Manuals, ‘Male and Female Organists’ [correspondence], Musical Standard 1 (1 May 1863): 274–75.
5      W.C. Filby, ‘Male and Female Organists’ [correspondence], Musical Standard 1 (1 May 1863): 274.
6      Pedals, ‘Pedals’ Reply’ [correspondence], Musical Standard 1 (15 May 1863): 287. William Hill and Sons built organs in 19th-century England, among them one for the Birmingham Town Hall in 1832. The ‘Hailstone Chorus’ is from Handel’s oratorio Israel and Egypt – ‘He gave them hailstones for rain’.
7      D. Maskell, ‘Gentlemen v. Lady-Organists’ [correspondence], Musical Standard 1 (1 Jun 1863): 323; Alfred Beale, ‘Mr. Beale – In Reply’ [correspondence], Musical Standard 1 (15 Jun 1863): 323.
8      A Female Organist, ‘A Lady to the Rescue!’ [correspondence], Musical Standard 1 (15 May 1863): 277.
9      Samuel Wesley, ‘Come all my brave boys who want Organists’ Places’ folios 85–91, MS. Additional 35005, British Library, London.
10   ‘To Organists. – Wanted’, Musical Times 30 (1 Jun 1880): 321.
11   See ‘Organist Wanted for the Parish Church of St. Olave, Southwark’, Musical Standard 10 (13 Feb 1869): [1]; ‘To Organists. – The vestry of St. Matthew, Bethnal Green’, Musical Standard 10 (3 Apr 1869): [1]; ‘Organist Wanted for the Parish Church, Bromley, Kent’, Musical Standard n.s. 2 (29 Jun 1872): 380; ‘Organist and Choirmaster Wanted for George-street Congregational Church, Croydon’, Musical Standard n.s. 13 (27 Oct 1877): 268; and ‘Organist and Choirmaster Wanted for George-street Congregational Church, Croydon’, Musical Times 18 (1 Nov 1877): 554.
12   ‘Organist’, Musical Standard 4 (1 Dec 1866): 342.
13   ‘Wanted a Lady Organist’, Musical Times 20 (1 Nov 1870): 665.
14   Musical Times 18 (1 Feb 1877): 51.
15   ‘Letter to Miss Nightingale’, Englishwoman’s Review, January 1869, 150.
16   John Stainer, ‘How to Play the Organ’, The Girl’s Own Paper 1 (22 May1880): 328.



This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Ian Curror

    The Chapel of the Royal Hospital Chelsea employed a female organist from around 1820 until my own appointment in 1974, when I succeeded Helen Young MBE. Their names and dates of tenure are inscribed on the side of the organ case. We were allocated an apartment in the RH once occupied by Dr Charles Burney, where his guest Haydn stayed during his two visits to London in the 1790s.

    1. Judith Barger

      Thank you, Ian, for visiting my website and for bringing to my attention the list of women organists inscribed on the organ case at the Chapel of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. I know that Ann Stainer was organist at Magdalen Hospital Chapel for 50 years from 1849-1899, but my sources did not give the names for organists of the Royal Hospital Chelsea Chapel. I look forward to seeing the names on that list. How exciting that you and your music are part of the history of the Royal Hospital Chelsea.

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