Women Organists in late-Georgian England

In an article in Organist’s Review (February 2010) I have summarised current knowledge about the careers of women organists in late-Georgian England (1750-1850). The date of 1850 clearly covers the early Victorian era but I have included women appointed as organists up to this date for two reasons: firstly, many women organists in post in 1850 will have been trained as musicians in late-Georgian England with its distinctive organs and styles of performance and, secondly, from 1850 many parish churches were reordered with the removal of west galleries, and this was accompanied by changes in the roles of women in the church.

The world of the Victorian women organists has been very well described by Judith Barger (Elizabeth Stirling and the Musical Life of Female Organists in Nineteenth-Century England, Ashgate 2007) and my objective was to look at the situation of women organists in the preceding period, namely 1750-1850. As the first women organists were appointed in the 1750s it seemed an obvious starting point. My article focused on a few examples of Georgian women organists that I was aware of from my other research. However, during the preparation of the article, and subsequently, I have uncovered the names of dozens of other women organists appointed during this period. These women were identified from a range of sources, such as directories, newspapers, church records and secondary sources. The quite large number of women organists in the City of London during the Georgian period was first recognised by the late Donovan Dawe (Organists of the City of London 1666-1850, 1983 published by the author).

At first sight there is nothing remarkable in compiling a list of women organists, one could just a easily compile an even longer list of men organists. However, on closer examination one or two questions begin to arise:

Why were women appointed in some towns and cities and not others? Leeds and York do not appear to have had women organists in this period, whereas Liverpool, Leicester and Nottingham had several.

Given that the wills of some women organists indicate that they had comfortable incomes, how did these women apparently thrive at a time when the life of a professional musician could be precarious?

There may be many more names to uncover and new information will be gratefully received. Complete references for the information contained in the Table are available from me and the dataset will be updated on a regular basis.

David Shuker   January 2010