The Miller’s tale of Mendelssohn’s visit and a lifetime of music

Croydon’s Parish Church in the early 19th century attracted some of the finest musical talents of the time, thanks to the role played by one influential parishioner, writes DAVID MORGAN

On June 17, 1832, Felix Mendelssohn wrote in his diary: “Played the organ at Croydon church.”

Felix Mendelssohn: guest performer at Croydon Parish Church

It is amazing to think of the German composer, here in Croydon. Who could claim that it was down to them that such an internationally acclaimed composer and organist had played in Croydon Parish Church?

The organist at Croydon in 1832 was Thomas Walmisley. He was a young and talented musician from Croydon who went to Cambridge University, studied, played the organ, composed a great deal of music and became a professor there. He certainly had a claim.

Walmisley’s godfather was Thomas Attwood, who was the organist at St Paul’s Cathedral in London. He lived on Beulah Hill and would stay with Attwoodwhen he came to London. He certainly had a claim, too.

There is, though, a third and somewhat overlooked figure to be considered. His name was Thomas Miller. He held no music post and was simply a skilled amateur musician who attended the Parish Church in Croydon. However, his influence behind the scenes set in train a sequence of events which resulted in Mendelssohn’s visit.

For the great German musician even to contemplate playing in a Croydon church, there had to be an outstanding instrument. As a virtuoso organist who could improvise as he entertained, Mendelssohn would have been impressed by the Croydon organ.

It had been constructed by John Avery and completed in 1794. For a man who also built organs at Winchester and Carlisle Cathedrals and King’s College, Cambridge, it is high praise to read that many musicians thought that the organ he built in Croydon was his finest.

The Village Coquettes:  music by Croydon organist John Hullah, words by Charles Dickens

Avery couldn’t have been the easiest person to work with.

His name appears in the court records at the Old Bailey. Twice he accused workmen of stealing tools from him but on both occasions the defendants were acquitted.

Cashflow in his business was always an issue and he was made bankrupt more than once. Indeed, when he died in 1806 he was in the Giltspur Street compter, a small debtors’ prison in Smithfield.

We do not know who, from the clergy and the churchwardens,  chose Avery to build the Croydon organ or what the instrument cost, but we do know that the first person to play on it was Thomas Miller. Miller was described in the book Croydon In The Past as “a gentleman with considerable musical ability… who filled the post of organist for some years without fee or reward”.

Miller would certainly have liaised with Avery about the final sounds and the mechanisms to create them.

With the new organ in place, the church set out on a new course of action. They would employ a professional organist. One of the people who helped to select the candidates was Miller. After James Bartleman and Charles Smith, Thomas Walmisley was the third professional organist to be hired. Still in his teens, a rather precocious Walmisley might not have been everyone’s choice, but Miller saw the potential in him.

That is not surprising as he spent the majority of his time looking for abilities in young people. Miller was a tutor and advisor to many who were seeking to go to Cambridge University. Miller, himself, had been a successful student there, as a Fellow at Trinity College. In 1791 he attained the honour of Senior Classical Medallist, and was considered to be one of the leading Classical scholars of his day.

The list of students tutored by Miller is impressive. There were four sons of Spencer Perceval, the only Prime Minister of this country to have been assassinated. There was Sir William Knighton, who later became Private Secretary to King George IV. Miller also tutored Robert Curzon, who became a great traveller and writer, including the books Monasteries of the Levant and Travels in Armenia. And George Clive, a County Court judge, who lived in Sanderstead House, was another of Miller’s pupils.

Having helped appoint Thomas Walmisley as organist, it was Miller’s advice and guidance that saw the young protégé go up to Cambridge in 1833.

There is an interesting anecdotal tale about Walmisley and Mendelssohn. Keen to show off his work, our young south Londoner is said to have asked Mendelssohn to have a look at the symphony he had composed.

The reply was not what he expected or wanted. It went along the lines of, “When you have completed 10, then I will have a look.”

It would have been fascinating to discover what Mendelssohn played. When he was in London, usually staying with Thomas Attwood, Mendelssohn would often play the organ at St Paul’s at the end of services or in special recitals. The attendances at the cathedral were hugely increased by people who came to hear Mendelssohn’s keyboard brilliance.

Thomas Miller was never in the same musical league as Walmisley, let alone Mendelssohn, but he continued to be a real inspiration to musicians who came after Walmisley left for Cambridge.

He even provided lodgings for the next organist, John Hullah, who wrote warmly about Miller’s kindness and encouragement towards him.

John Hullah: a gifted musician who enjoyed working in Croydon

Before being appointed in Croydon, Hullah had written the music for an operetta entitled The Village Cocquettes, with the libretto by Charles Dickens.

Hullah savoured the genteel creativity nurtured by Miller at the church.

Hullah went on to become a leading figure in music in the 18th century, becoming the first Inspector of Schools’ Music, training up the early generations of state school teachers to deliver a music curriculum.

After Miller died in December 1855, an obituary published in The Gentleman’s Magazine was most revealing about his involvement with church music. “Until he was 80 years of age, he assisted in superintending the psalmody, often relieving the organists by taking their duties for them, on which occasions he made the noble instrument which the church possesses speak in a manner which his musical friends will well remember.”

Before anyone thinks that Miller could have been an interfering old so-and-so, all written accounts about him state that he was a friendly man with a kindly heart and disposition.

Musically, it was said that he had perfect pitch, being able to name any individual note that he heard as well as those in complicated chords. He played the viola as well as the piano and organ.

Of his keyboard prowess, his obituary read, “his touch, from his long practice, and his accurate perception of time and tune was more than ordinarily perfect”.

Even after his 80th birthday he still loved to go and attend Philharmonic concerts. He was an avid reader and until his eyesight began to fail he would spend many hours each day with his books.

In 1851, at the age of 83, Miller was living at 105 Church Street, according to that year’s census. In the house with him were his wife Rebecca, who by then was 75, his daughter Anne, 49, and two sons, Charles, 47, and George, 36.

The three children were listed as unmarried, although a 17-year-old grandson, Mansell, was also listed as living there. Miller had married Rebecca in 1798. She died five years after her husband and was buried in St Peter’s graveyard, whereas Thomas was buried in the Parish Church graveyard with a memorial stained glass window dedicated to him in the church itself.

Miller’s will lists four properties that he owned on Holborn Hill together with various bequeathals, but there is no mention of any beloved musical instruments such as his viola or piano. Presumably they were just part of the “household goods” left to his wife.

Mendelssohn came and went in a day. But Thomas Miller gave a lifetime of musical service to the Parish Church.

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