The strange case of the church organist and his ‘ferocious’ dog

SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: Controversy surrounded Croydon Parish Church’s professional musician 160 years ago when he got the wrong side of the law, writes DAVID MORGAN

Usually, the organists of the Croydon Parish Church appeared in the local press in regard to the music they created in church or at a concert. Often, they would take out advertisements for teaching music, singing or for playing the pianoforte.

John Rhodes, Croydon Parish Church’s organist from 1857 to 1868, was often in the local paper advertising that he was available on Saturdays for piano lessons as well as for singing and harmony sessions.

However, this tale begins with a piece in the paper that was for an entirely different matter. It was because of his dog.

On March 9,  1861, Rhodes had to answer a summons that he allowed a ferocious dog to roam unmuzzled. Described in the court documents as “organist of Croydon Parish Church and professor of music”, Rhodes pleaded not guilty to the charge.

The complainant was PC Michael Heal.

Sideline: how the Parish Church’s organist, John Rhodes, advertised his music lessons in the local newspaper

The constable told the court that it was his little son who was attacked. The boy was in Handcross Alley when the dog flew at him and bit his leg. The young lad was taken to Mr Cooper, the surgeon of George Street, who prescribed something for the “small wound”. Handcross Alley ran from Church Street to North End, the top end of it being where Keeley Road is today.

In his defence, Rhodes said that he would have been happy to have paid any doctor’s fees but felt inclined not to do so on account of Heal coming to his house and approaching him in such a blustering manner.

He added that he thought that it was unlikely that the dog would have attacked the lad if he had not struck it with a stick in the first place.

Anne Burgess, who was a servant in Rhodes’ household, told the court that it was she who was walking the dog on the day in question. She described how the boy raised his hand with a stick in it before striking the dog, which then “flew at him”.

Burgess continued that the same afternoon the dog flew at a lady passing by and bit her shawl.

Mr Dyer, a veterinary surgeon, was the expert witness. He told the court that he was asked to keep the dog overnight. He had played “all kind of tricks” with it to ascertain if the animal had much of a temper. In his opinion, he felt that this dog was not ferocious and that it had played very nicely with his little girl.

The dog was then brought into court.

It was described by the newspaper reporter as being “a very small one and not at all likely to have been so dangerous as alleged”. There would have some very wry smiles when people in the room saw size and the demeanour of the dog.

I wonder how PC Heal felt? Perhaps he should have been a little firmer with his son?

Water power: Rhodes’ letter to The Musical Standard about Croydon’s unusual power source for the church organ

When questioned, Police Inspector Fraser said that Rhodes had not been cautioned about keeping a ferocious dog. Because of this, the bench agreed that if Rhodes agreed to pay the expenses, amounting to £1 15s 6d, no fine would be issued. The sum was duly paid.

Rhodes was the last organist to play the magnificent Avery organ in Croydon Parish Church regularly, before the terrible fire gutted the building.

He had been at the keyboard at St George the Martyr in Southwark before he arrived in Croydon in 1857. He was one person who suffered terribly because of the 1867 church fire, as all his music which he stored in the building, was destroyed. Rhodes left his job just a year later, although he stayed on in Croydon as a music tutor.

He came from a musical family. Rhodes’ Yorkshire-born father was described in the 1851 census as a “pianoforte maker and tobacconist”. The family lived at 3 King Street, Westminster, which runs parallel to Pall Mall. The 18-year-old John, was listed in the census as an organist. His eldest sister, Selma, was a milliner and dressmaker.

Another branch of the Rhodes family made and sold pianos in Bradford. For 10 years they had a London branch at 50 Seymour Street, Euston Square, advertising pianos and harmoniums with prices ranging from “fifty shillings to one hundred guineas”.

Rhodes, himself, appeared in print with a letter to The Musical Standard in 1865.

Signing himself of 11 Tamworth Villas (Tamworth Road) in Croydon, he informed readers of the water pump he used at the Parish Church to provide the power for the organ. He proudly stated that a pump had been installed two years earlier and that he was inviting a correspondent who was unaware of the use of water power to make an organ work to come and view it.

For many organs in the mid-19th century, the only option to create the necessary flow of wind through the pipes would have been hand-powered bellows. This would have involved very hard work for a couple of people throughout the time in the service when the instrument was being played.

Rhodes seemed to have had a successful time in Croydon. He and his wife Frances had seven children. The 1881 census saw them living at 105, High Street, Croydon. Their eldest son, John was listed as an auctioneer’s clerk.

Sadly, the census details don’t tell us if they still owned a dog.

Read more: The church fire that consumed a thousand years of history
Read  more: On Croydon’s Tudor trail to track down the court of Henry VIII
Read more: American refugees given a welcome in 18th century Croydon

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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2 Responses to The strange case of the church organist and his ‘ferocious’ dog

  1. Fabulous story. Love it! Keep ’em coming. Well done for avoiding duff dog jokes etc

  2. Lewis White says:

    I had long ago heard of Handel’s Water Music, but until now had never heard about Rhodes’ Croydon water (powered) music.

    Perhaps a latter-day Rhodes might compose an organ piece in commemoration — with a “ferociously growling dog ” section, with added church bells and gurgling plumbing and swooshing water “motifs”.

    Thanks to David Morgan for this amusing and informative piece!

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