How Clara Russell was the Parish Church’s musical pioneer

SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: It is International Women’s Day this Tuesday, and DAVID MORGAN (right) has discovered a remarkable piece of archive evidence that shows a groundbreaking female achievement at Croydon Minster 170 years ago

In James Hamilton’s books on church organs, Croydon gets a mention because the Avery organ built in the 1790s was one of the very best in the southeast of the country. The specifications of each instrument are listed together with the number of pipes. Under the technical detail is written the name of the church organist.

Archive discovery: the register of church organs from 1850 shows Clara Russell as Croydon’s organist – a remarkable appointment for the times

The 1845 volume contains no surprises. At the end of the Croydon entry is listed the name of the organist, John Hullah, together with the times of the main services on Sunday (11am and 3pm).

But when the 1850 volume is opened, a name appears in print which is very much unexpected.

The organist of Croydon Church is given as Miss Clara Russell.

In the male-dominated society of the day, it was highly unusual for a woman to be given an opportunity to play this finest of instruments.

Because the church records were destroyed in the fire of 1867, piecing together a complete list of organists to have worked at what is now known as Croydon Minster has been a difficult process.

Even the exact date of Hullah’s departure is uncertain. No firm evidence of an organist can be given until John Rhodes’ arrival in 1857. Thus, the years between 1845 and 1857 still need investigation.

The discovery of Clara Russell’s name sheds a little light on this period of time.

Seedy business: the Russells corn merchants listed in a mid-19th Century register, when Croydon was still an agricultural market town

Unlike any of the appointments of professional organists to Croydon Parish Church since the building of the Avery organ in the 1790s, Clara Russell was a local. Her father, William Russell, ran a successful corn merchant’s business from premises in Surrey Street, while his large family lived at 60 High Street.

From the 1841 census we can see that William and his wife Elizabeth had 10 children. Clara was the third of five girls, born in 1822.

With the eldest son, William, then aged 28, and the youngest child, George, aged nine, it must have been a tight squeeze for the family in their house, together with two teenaged female domestic servants.

60 High Street remained the Russell family home for the next 40 years. Clara, her sister Anne and their brother George did not marry and remained there for all that time. In the census returns, Clara never has an occupation next to her name. On some of the forms, instead of that column being left blank, it actually states, “no occupation”.

The only direct clue from census evidence into the musical side of the family comes from George. In the 1861 census, when he was 29, he was described as a “Professor of Music”.

Lyrics by Longfellow: George Russell was a noted musician of the Victorian age

George Russell’s musical career was important enough to get an entry into a biography of notable British pianists of the time. George was described as “a pianist of mark and promise in his early years. When he was 8, he appeared in a concert with Liszt at the Haymarket Theatre London, and afterwards appeared in a concert of Alfred Mellon’s at the Floral Hall.”

George had an accomplished tutor for his musical development in Sterndale Bennett, who was later knighted for his composing and his leadership of the Royal Academy of Music.

George Russell’s name appeared in many concert billings. He held an annual musical concert in Croydon, often in the New Public Hall (which stood on the corner of George Street and Wellesley Road, where the Wendy’s is today).

A newspaper report of his 1861 Croydon concert described it “as a triumph for Mr Russell”.

“This was one of the very best concerts ever held in Croydon,” it said.

One of the musical items heard during this concert was a piece for piano, violin and cello written by George himself. One composition by him, “Song of the Silent Land”, was a poem by Longfellow which he set to music for a soprano voice. Another piece chosen by Russell to be sung at one of his early concerts was by John Hullah, the former organist at the Parish Church and musical collaborator with Charles Dickens.

Settled address: the Croydon register of 1866 shows George Russell, ‘Professor of Music’ at 60 High St, where ‘the Misses Russell’ also lived, while the family business continued on Surrey St

As well as playing in London venues such as the Hanover Square Rooms, Russell always supported his hometown.

To “great applause” he accompanied the singers and instrumentalists at a concert to raise money for the restoration fund for the Parish Church after its destruction in the fire.

An 1879 article about music in London stated that George Russell was one of the very best accompanists of his day.

George Russell died in 1889. After his death, Clara and her sister Anne moved to 50 Old Waddon Road. The 1891 census lists Anne as the head of the household of two ageing spinsters “living on their own means”. Anne died in 1899, Clara in 1901.

While there is so much information available about her brother’s musical career, there is little about Clara’s beyond the one reference in the organ book. The fact that George was a young prodigy means that music must have been part of the Russell household. As a thriving and aspiring family, it would be expected that most, if not all, the children would have learned to play the piano.

How might Clara have begun to play the organ at the Parish Church? John Hullah the organist appointed in 1837, became a very well known figure in the musical world during his tenure in Croydon.

Spending time away studying and working, he would have needed deputies to stand in for him to play for the church services. Was Clara one of these people? Did she step up into the role after Hullah’s departure? Hullah was always encouraging of female musicians and the education of girls during his lifetime. He was one of the founding directors in 1848, together with Sterndale Bennett, of Queen’s College in Harley Street, one of the first all-girl schools in the country. Maybe Hullah suggested Clara for the role of church organist?

One other line of thought could be related to the church and its finances. There was much discussion when the first professional organist was appointed in 1797 as to whether or not the church could afford the expense. After Hullah left, did they have similar misgivings and decide to go with a cheaper, volunteer option? Was it difficult to find a suitable replacement and Clara was a temporary choice?

Whatever the reason, Clara got her opportunity more than 170 years ago. If any readers can add to this story, it will help to build up a better picture of her and her musical prowess.

Previously by David Morgan:

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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 How Clara Russell was the Parish Church’s musical pioneer

  1. Grace Onions says:

    What a great local history find for International Women’s Day. Clara must have led an interesting life – I hope you find out more.

    • Patricia Watkinson says:

      I have just found this article which is of interest to me as a descendant of Clara and George through their older brother Robert. Unfortunately I have no more information other than an extensive family tree, census details and portraits of Robert and his wife.

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