The Sound of Music from Earlham Grove

Wednesday, 19 June 2013





Do - a deer a female deer,
Re - a drop of golden sun,
Mi - a name I call myself,
Fa - a long, long way to run
So - a needle pulling thread
La - a note to follow so
Ti - a drink with jam and bread
That will bring us back to Do.

The music education system highlighted in The Sound of Music, and the introduction to music for so many - the Tonic Sol-Fa system - was pioneered in Forest Gate in the late nineteenth century.

The Revd John Curwen (1816 - 1880) originally from Workington, in Cumbria, moved to what is now Newham in May 1844, when he became the minister of the Congregational Church in Balaam Street, Plaistow.



John Curwen 1816 - 1880

By this time he was already a keen musicologist, with a particular interest in developing an easier method by which to teach Sunday School children to sing.  In 1840 he had met  Sarah Glover, and had been very impressed with the way in which she taught music at a school in Norwich.

Based on her work, he developed the Tonic Sol-Fa system, which allowed people to sight read music.  Details of his revolutionary new method were first published in the Independent magazine in 1842. He established the Tonic Sol-Fa Press in North Street, Plaistow in 1863 and began publishing huge volumes of literature and music, intended to raise standards of musical education, for both teachers and pupils.

The following year he resigned his ministry to devote more time to music.  In 1879 he opened the Tonic Sol-Fa College at what is now 175, Earlham Grove, Forest Gate.  John Curwen died in 1880 and was succeeded by his eldest son, John Spencer Curwen (1847 - 1916) who, like his father, was a passionate promoter of the Tonic Sol-Fa system.


Late 19th century artist's impression of the College/School of Music. Its lopsided appearance is accounted for because the original architects plans for the whole building were never completed.

In 1882 he established the Stratford Music festival, the oldest event of its kind in Great Britain (although now sponsored by neighbouring borough, Waltham Forest, as the East London Music festival).


John Spencer Curwen (1847 - 1916), who took over his father's baton, at the College in Earlham Grove
Harding Bonner, an associate of JS Curwen at the College, started private classes there in 1885 and in 1890, when the Tonic Sol-Fa College moved to Finsbury, in central London, he leased the Earlham Grove premises and turned them into the Forest Gate School of Music.



Harding Bonner 1853 - 1907

In 1897 at his suggestion, the owners erected the Earlham Hall, in front of the original buildings, as a local entertainment venue.



Artists impression of Earlham Hall, at the time of its construction, in 1897

The School of Music and newly built Earlham Hall proved to be huge successes.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the school boasted over 1,000 pupils, and in 1906 was renamed the Metropolitan Academy of Music.  Harding Bonner died shortly afterwards, and was succeeded by his son, Frank, who greatly expanded the Academy.  In 1916 it had 12 branches throughout London and Essex, with a membership of about 2,300 students. After World War I, this rose to 5,000.  It peaked at 5,600 in 1926. By then it was the largest music institution in the country. 


School of Music, 1897, with 700 students and 33 "professors"


The new Earlham Hall, meanwhile, could accommodate around 500 people and hosted regular soirees, as the advertisement and programmes for the events - below, at the end of the nineteenth century, show.



Handbill advertising a soiree at the Earlham Hall, 1899




Forest Gate School of Music c 1930

The Music School closed during World War II, and the premises are now occupied as a place of worship, by the Holy Order of Cherubim and Seraphim Church.


The Cherubim and Seraphim Church, as the building stands today, the remnants of the old School of Music remain behind this building


Remodelled and minus the tower and chimneys - what remains of the old Music School, today

John Curwen's legacy survives elsewhere in Forest Gate.  The house in Romford Road, in the photo below, was built around 1869, and its first occupant was John Curwen.  He called it Workington House, after his former home town.  He lived there until his death in 1880.

More recently the house was renamed Palmerstone House and it has subsequently been converted to the Imamia Mosque. 
. .


John Curwen's former residence: Workington/Palmerstone House, Romford Road. Now the Imamia Mosque

(Based on the Victoria History of Essex vol V1 and East Ham and West Ham Past, by Jim Lewis, and articles from The Forest Gate Weekly News)

1 comment:

  1. Curwen professionally thieved Sarah Anna Glover's intellectual property, expressly without her permission, (he had asked) and attempted to pass off the whole Sol-fa phenomenon as his own. He profited greatly from his deceit and even today people are not aware that the Curwen ripped off Glover's work — his feeling being that she couldn't take it further (perhaps true) because she was a mere woman. The forthcoming book about Glover by Dr Jane Southcott will confirm the true attribution of Sol-fa and permanently expose Curwen for the cheat he was.

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