This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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The Greenhill Ladies' Orchestra

02 July 2011


As the 20th century began, the traditional musical instrument for women was the piano. But the violin was becoming equally popular with women as an outlet for musical talent. Though to a limited extant, women were accepted  as solo performers in the 1900's, and women harpists were sometimes allowed in orchestras, opportunities for women string and wind musicians to play alongside men in professional ensembles did not exist. The solution was to start their own ensembles like the Greenhill Ladies' Orchestra from London. Standing in the center is the conductress, Miss Bessie Greenhill, leading a chamber orchestra of 14 women which includes violins, (presumably a viola too), 2 cellos, double bass, piano, flute, cornet., and percussion. For a similar ensemble of ladies but from an earlier decade, see my post on The Ladies in White.

Her full name is Bessie Lillian Greenhill and she was born in 1873 to James and Emma Greenhill of Hampstead. James was a professor of voice at Harrow, one of England's oldest public schools for boys and one that has a long tradition of singing. One of the more famous alumni, Winston Churchill, who was there in 1888, may have had music lessons with Greenhill. James was a scholar on the music in Shakespeare's plays and must have been something of a musical entrepreneur judging by his ad in The Musical Times of 1886, (center right column). He offered a "Shakespearian Entertainment" illustrating the progress of vocal music from 1597 to 1886.

His oldest daughter, Christine Greenhill, born in 1870 took up the piano, and both Bessie and Christine appear as a duo in London concert reviews from about 1890. They also accompanied their father in his concerts too. That may be Christine, wearing pince-nez, seated at the piano, and the two sisters may be partners in establishing this orchestra.

One performance that got a mention in the May 1st, 1894 issue of The Musical Times, shows how acerbic and caustic the London reviewers could be. After skewering the earlier performers, the writer confesses he did not hear Misses Christine and Bessie Greenhill, having left in disgust just before their performance.

Women got encouragement in the late 19th century to take up the violin  from the success of a few female soloists like Wilma Neruda, who became Lady Halle when she married Sir Charles Halle; and the American violinist Maud Powell who did concert tours in Britain in 1883-84, and 1898- 1905. But it would be several more decades before women would be accepted in the violin sections of the major orchestras.

At this time in London there were several ladies' orchestra that provided music for special events like exhibitions and conferences. In 1894 Bessie played in a benefit concert for the Royal British Nurses Association. She was the leader of the Blue Zouave Ladies Orchestra conducted by Miss Marie Wolaska and it included Miss Marie Woolhouse on flute and Miss Adeleine Parkyn on cornet. Perhaps they remained with Bessie and are also in the photo. It is notable that married women were very uncommon in these ensembles.


The back of this postcard is what makes this an interesting artifact of London musical times. The postmark is unclear, but the stamp of George V in profile was issued in 1912, so about c.1912-15. It's addressed to Miss Lesbia Harrison.
13th St Mary's Terrace, Paddington W.2
Would you let me know if disengaged for
first class seaside Hotel leadership (& solos)
open Sep 11th. Send Terms.
Yours truly, Bessie Greenhill

Lesbia Harrison passed her examination on violin at the Royal Academy of Music in December 1910 as a performer and teacher. Out of a class of 21 students on the violin or violoncello, she was one of 16 young ladies graduating. She appeared in concert listings thorough 1920. Bessie must have worked hard to find musicians for all her engagements, since she probably only employed women.  

Christine Greenhill married Arthur William Leverett, a wood engraver  in September 1897. But Bessie does not seem to have ever married. She died in 1943 in St. Austell Cornwall, a likely place for a first class seaside hotel.

My contribution to Sepia Saturday
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10 comments:

Postcardy said...

I enjoyed the interesting picture and background information.

(Queenmothermamaw) Peggy said...

Great photo and history. I have been watching several BBC production that were about life around the tern of the century and woman were struggling just about then to get into fields monopolized by men. I played the violin for years just for my own personal joy. Started back in the 1950s but not carried on after getting married and raising 6 children. I did take it back up as an adult at about age 63 and it was very tiring on shoulders and wrist. Too many rules and regs to standing and performing. LOL
QMM

Little Nell said...

The ladies look very genteel and there is a proud lifting of the chin by the leader. It must have been quite a feat, as you say, to gather together an all-female ensemble. Re the ‘Ladies in White’ - they had obviously gone to even greater lengths to be uniform, though I wonder if the dresses really were white. I like to imagine them in pastel shades. I have a family wedding photo from this time where you would think the bride was in white (as the print is sepia), but I know the dress was a shade of apricot.

Kristin said...

wonder what they did in their off time. Did they have someone else to cook their meals and was all those white dresses? I hope they did.

Christine H. said...

I always know that I will encounter an interesting thoroughly researched story when I come here. It's a real treat. Thank you.

Martin Lower said...

What a fascinating post! You obviously know your subject, and take some time to research the pictures. Wonderful!

TICKLEBEAR said...

interesting bit of history. i admire their creativity as far as hairdo goes. i think i can even spot princess leia's grandma!!
;)~
HUGZ

Brett Payne said...

Lesbia Harrison was born at Pontefract, Yorkshire in 1893, daughter of a house decorator. On 21 July 1920 she married Evan Dulais Morgan at Pontefract.

What an interesting story you have uncovered. I think the fashions of that pre-War era tended to include many, many white blouses. Interesting also to see a variety of hairstyles, from hatpin to side swirls.

Howard said...

Fascinating post Mike, I've been looking up these people in the 1911 census. Not many parents would name their daughter 'Lesbia' these days.

Ralph said...

An interesting and helpful post. I came into the possession of a collection of knitting needles said to have belonged to Bettie Greenhill just yesterday

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