It’s long overdue that Hurlstone’s music is heard once again

SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: In the year when Croydon is London’s Borough of Culture, DAVID MORGAN suggests it presents an opportunity to revive some of the music of a once-admired composer

Well remembered: the newspaper cutting from 1936 is the start of the trail of William Hurlstone

Searching through some old press cuttings, I came across one from The Croydon Times and Surrey County Mail dated September 19 1936, with a report about a largely forgotten English composer who lived much of his short life in Croydon.

William Yeates Hurlstone today even has a road named after him in Selhurst.

Hurlstone was born in Fulham on January 7 1876. He came from an interesting family. His great-grandfather was an early proprietor of the Morning Herald daily newspaper. His grandfather, Frederick, was the President of the Royal Society of British Artists and his father, Martin, was a doctor. William’s mother, Maria, was a piano teacher.

In 1883 the family moved to Bemerton, near Salisbury. There, Hurlstone joined the local church choir as a chorister but had to stop singing when his asthma became more severe. For the rest of his life, Hurlstone’s health was a concern. It didn’t stop him smoking a pipe as an adult, however.

As a young boy, he was considered too delicate to go to school, so his parents took responsibility for his homeschooling. Hurlstone’s father instructed him in French, together with music theory and appreciation. As well as basic subjects, his mother taught him piano.

Hurlstone’s early progress on the keyboard was so slow his mother seriously considered stopping these lessons and starting her son on drawing tuition instead.

Star pupil: William Hurlstone had impressed when a student at the Royal College of Music

However, after hearing an older boy play the piano very well, Hurlstone suddenly began to make rapid progress. By the age of seven, not only could he play difficult pieces but he was also composing. Even at this tender age, Hurlstone would entertain family and friends with concerts.

The vicar of Bemerton was so impressed with young William that he invited Hubert Parry from the Royal College of Music to meet him and his family. Parry, famous as the composer of Jerusalem, was most impressed by the young prodigy and Hurlstone’s father arranged for his son’s piano composition Five Easy Waltzes to be published.

When William was 13, in 1889, the Hurlstone family moved to South Norwood. They lived initially in Belgrave Road, before moving to 173 Selhurst Road.

William won a place at the Royal College of Music and began there in September 1890. Initially studying the violin, he moved on to composition two years later under the direction of the great Victorian musician Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. Among Hurlstone’s peers at the RCM were Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst and Frank Bridge. It is on record, though, that Sir Charles thought that Hurlstone was the most gifted of them all.

Tragedy struck. Hurlstone’s father died in 1896 after contracting smallpox from a patient of his. This left the family in a difficult financial position. A wealthy family friend, Captain Beaumont, stepped in to offer his financial support while Hurlstone earned money teaching piano to help make ends meet.

After graduating from the RCM, Hurlstone was offered several musical posts, becoming a pillar of the local music scene in and around Croydon. He became the conductor of the Anerley Choral Society, director of the South Norwood Operatic Society, conductor of the Addiscombe String Orchestra and Professor of Music at the Croydon Conservatoire.

‘The Father of Chamber Music’: Hurlstone’s case was championed by Croydon’s librarian

Hurlstone was instrumental in organising the 1900 Croydon Centennial Concerts. These concerts, planned with the help of a C W Nightingale, helped to create greater interest and awareness of chamber music, especially by English composers.

Hurlstone organised and performed in many musical events at the Stanley Halls. A programme from June 3 1904 tells of the concert he conducted that evening with a group of musicians, including “a musical duologue by Miss Beatrice Nelson and Mr Neville Jolly”.

In 1903, Hurlstone was appointed as the accompanist to the Bach Choir. Two years later was made Professor of Harmony at the Royal College.

This was to be his one and only salaried position.

Waiting for a train at Victoria to return home one day, Hurlstone caught a chill. With his lungs already weakened by his bronchial asthma, he never recovered and died a few days later in May 1906. Hurlstone was 30 years old.

He was buried in Croydon Cemetery with the words on his memorial stone reading, “Music hath here entombed fair treasures but still fairer hopes.” His monument was designed as a broken column to signify that he died before he was able to reach the pinnacle of his musical career.

Hurlstone was a friend of Croydon’s other well-known composer of that era, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Both died tragically young.

In 1912, Coleridge-Taylor told his wife that he had had a vision that he was going to meet again with his old friend. His sad prediction was fulfilled just a few days later when Coleridge-Taylor himself died.

Honoured: the council named this road in honour of the composer after his death in 1906

Hurlstone had come to national prominence in 1905 when he won the inaugural Cobbett Chamber Music Competition with his Phantasie for String Quartet in A minor. The 50 Guineas first prize must have been most welcome.

The body of music which Hurlstone left was small, but of great quality. It includes his bassoon concerto, together with his Four Characteristic Pieces for clarinet and piano.

The press cutting was written on the eve of the 30th anniversary of his death. The writer was praising the fact that for the first time since then, one of Hurlstone’s pieces had been played on BBC Radio, his Cello and Piano Sonata in D.

Hurlstone’s sister Kay, who continued to live in Croydon throughout her life, was most anxious that her late brother’s works should gain the reputation they so justly deserved.

Kenneth Ryde, who was the assistant librarian for Croydon at the time, supported Kay in her quest. “I regard William Yeates Hurlstone as one of Croydon’s greatest composers and a worthy contemporary of Coleridge-Taylor. He is now recognised as the Father of Chamber Music and I can only say that the recognition which is now being given to his work is overdue.”

In May 1939, a memorial concert of Hurlstone’s works was performed at the Wigmore Hall conducted by Sir Adrian Boult.

Hurlstone’s music has largely been neglected since that modest revival in the 1930s. How wonderful it would be in this year when Croydon is London’s Borough of Culture, that his pieces could be performed again, heard by a wider audience and appreciated once more.

It was on December 6 1906 that Croydon’s Highways and Street Services Committee decided to change the name of Alexandria Road in Selhurst, near to where Hurlstone had lived, to Hurlstone Road in his honour.

It isn’t often that a street name gets changed in this way. Hurlstone’s musical talent certainly deserved it.

Previous articles by David Morgan:

David Morgan, right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups.

To read all his previous articles on the history of Croydon Minster and the people connected with it, click here

If you would like a group tour of Croydon Minster or want to book a school visit, then ring the Minster Office on 020 688 8104 or go to the website on and use the contact page

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1 Response to It’s long overdue that Hurlstone’s music is heard once again

  1. Chris Flynn says:

    Thanks for sharing. The Intermezzo is very sweet!

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