Women in Music – RNCM 1893

Back in the *before times* I did quite a lot of research on the 1893 register of the first intake into what was then the Royal Manchester College of Music.

I’ve come back to this dataset to think about how we can understand who was part of this first group of students, and how they began their professional careers. The first intake into the school in October 1893 was 82% female – and some later historical accounts of the school emphasised the idea that it was a kind of finishing school for nice, middle-class, ladies looking for good husbands. But the reality is very different, and the evidence clearly demonstrates the school was a vital part of training musicians and teachers, right from the beginning. The assumption has been made that because it was for women, it couldn’t possibly have been serious, but of course, that’s just not the case.

The first intake, October 1893 term

Page 1 of the RNCM register, RNCM Archives

Throughout August into early September, secretary and registrar Stanley Withers placed recurring advertisements for students in the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser (Courier). The college had clearly gained permission to use the ‘Royal’ name. Withers’ adverts called for applications, announcing that Sir Charles Hallé would be the principal, and that term would begin on October 2nd 1893. The fee would be £30 for the year, payable ‘in three installments of £10 at the beginning of each term’. (Courier, 29/08/1893, 1)

The opening of the college was widely reported in the local and national presses; in London, The Pall Mall Gazette and the Evening Standard. The Courier reports that ‘the number of students is drawn from a very wide area, not only Lancashire, Cheshire and Derbyshire […] but some coming as far afield as Surrey, Gloucester, and the Isle of Wight.’ (30/09/1893, 18) In all, in that first October intake, 80 students entered the college: of the four paths of study available, 29 students chose piano, 29 students studied voice, six studied the organ, and 16 the violin. Of this group of 80 – the vast majority were women, (67 women, 12 men, and one figure whose gender is unclear).

Miss [Sarah] Whatmough, Miss Ada Leach, and Miss Mattie Fish 

Two of the students who appear in the register, Sarah Whatmough and Ada Leach, were written about in their local newspaper, the Heywood Advertiser, (a suburb of Manchester). The newspaper reported on their musical activities with various local church choirs, while assuring readers of the women’s innate modesty. Miss Leach is reported as having ‘yielded to the suggestions of her friends that her voice is worth cultivating’, and Miss Whatmough has responded to ‘two or three enterprising gentlemen have advised her to cultivate thoroughly the excellent vocal powers she possesses.’ (06/10/1893, 4). Both students had a preliminary exam with ‘Madame [Helen] Lemens-Sherrington and her daughter’ before being successfully accepted onto the course at the Royal Manchester. Lemens-Sherrington was a soprano who had retired, and taught in several colleges including Manchester. The note on her daughter would suggest that she was at least informally associated with the college. There is a further addendum that another local student, Miss Mattie Fish. would also be studying at the school. 

Madame [Helen] Lemens-Sherrington – photo from wikipedia

Intriguingly, the local article reveals an impression of contemporary disappointment that the College was to charge such high fees, but in doing so demonstrates that it was clearly understood that the College aimed to produce professional working musicians. The institution would not be for the hobbyist but work ‘to produce skilled and able musicians, learned in the craft, who are to aim at the front rank of the profession.’ (06/10/1893, 4) Crucially, at no point does the article contain any doubt that women cannot achieve this aspiration or that the three local women joining the course, would not be participating in professional musical life. 

A brief letter in the Courier from Hallé himself reveals the structure of the early course — revealing what Leach, Whatmough and Fish would be studying with the other 77 students who had enrolled. The letter is a reply to a Mr Rupert Mason who was seeking to offer a scholarship, Hallé obviously encourages Mason and notes that ‘students take one subject as their principal study, such as singing, the piano, the organ, violin or composition; and, in addition, there is a regular course of training associated with each subject.’ (10/11/1893, 7)

The official opening of the college took place on 10 October; with a public concert of the staff rather than the students (clearly not yet to be trusted to perform in public). ‘

Messrs Willy Hess, Rawdon Briggs, Speelman, and Vieuxtemps, played two movements from a lovely quartet of Schubert’s in D minor, for two violins, viola and ‘cello [sic]. Mdme. Lemmens-Sherrington’s voice seemed even richer and fuller than when she retired from oratario.’

(Sheffield Independent, 10/10/1893, 5)

Charles Hallé played ‘a barcarole of Chopin and an intermezzo of Brahms’, and Mr Frederick Dawson two Schumann piano solos.

The first cohort – snapshots of professional lives in music

So there are different ways of understanding who these students were. The register records their home address (of course we don’t know if they were telling the truth) which demonstrates the range of areas they were coming from.

Mapping the address details in the register.

Google My Maps is … somewhat temperamental but it does export as KML files – which allows a comparison with the historic mapping software in Digimaps (note the below file is for educational use only). The historic maps tend to be better close up which means we lose the wider scale – but it does at least show that not everyone who entered the school was coming from middle-class areas. Hilda for example and May Huhn Stroh were from the centre of Manchester, albeit protected from the then more industrial areas of Ancoats.

So what next? In order to see what these women did – though the pre-registration adventures of Ada Leach and Mattie Fish suggest we are looking at the training of professional musicians – the next step is creating biographies by searching for historical records of these women in digitised newspaper collections.

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