Thursday, 8 October 2015

(Who was?) Kathleen Ferrier

1953 was a year of celebration for Britain: The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II; the conquering of Mount Everest by Sir Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Ten-sing; and my success in the sack race at primary school for which I received a  *Matchbox model of the Coronation Coach. All these events had a lasting impact on life in Britain: my contribution was the perfection of the technique of pushing my feet into the corners of the sack which allowed me to walk (albeit like a bandy-legged lady in a pencil skirt) rather than to jump.
But on October 8th the country was plunged into mourning with the death of the greatest contralto this country has produced. Sixty two years ago today Kathleen Ferrier died in London from breast cancer. at the age of 41 after ten years of phenomenal success. As a teenager I  was frequently moved to tears on hearing her rendition in English of What is life to me?  (listen here)   from Gluck's Orfeo & Euridce. Her unaccompanied rendition of the Northumbrian folk song Blow the Wind Southerly (listen here) was  a popular request on the BBC Light Programme in the 1950s and 1960s.
Kathleen's birthplace
Kathleen was born in Higher Walton near Preston but she did not  begin her career as a singer. She was a keen member of the school choir but even then she had a big voice and she was usually asked just to stand at the back and sing quietly. Her mother, keen to encourage Kathleen’s musical interest, arranged piano lessons for her and, as a talented young pianist of only 14 she passed the final grade of the Associated Board of the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music
Kathleen left school at 14 and went to work for the GPO in Blackburn, first in the telegrams department and then as a switchboard operator. In July 1930, at the age of 18, she took part in her first concert as a pianist, which was broadcast from Manchester.  In 1935 she married Albert Wilson and had to leave her job as the GPO did not employ married women. Albert was moved to Silloth, on the Cumbrian coast, to manage a local bank and Kathleen gave piano lessons to the local children. When she entered the prestigious Carlisle Festival in 1937 as a pianist, her husband bet her a shilling (5p)that she dare not enter for the singing contest as well as the piano prize. Kathleen accepted the challenge, entered the contralto solo class and not only carried off both trophies, but won the first prize for the best singer at the Festival. Carlisle was a turning point, and this brilliant new singer was in great demand. In 1939 she made her first radio broadcast as a singer.  Most of her subsequent career is well documented and I am not reprinting it here. However one aspect which seems to have evaded most historians, and indeed also The Kathleen Ferrier Society, is that when she was working in Blackburn she would cycle to Withnell Fold on a Saturday evening (when she was not needed as accompanist at King George's Hall in Blackburn) to play piano for the village dance.
The Old Reading Room, Withnell Fold

The dances took place on the upper (sprung) floor of the  reading room  which had been built for the residents when the village was established in 1843 for the workers at the new paper mill.

Here she met a local resident, Albert Wilson.

I was relating this tale at an illustrated talk I gave a few months ago and afterwards a chap, aged about 40, approached me and asked  
Who was Kathleen Ferrier?

As we are currently living in Preston for a while we made a trip out to Higher Walton to see the Kathleen Ferrier Memorial Gardens.

 What a disappointment this was.

Higher Walton seems to have forgotten Kathleen Ferrier
The site is a disgrace and its neglect an insult to the memory of this great singer.

I am writing to the parish council and I hope others will too

Pedants will have noted that at this time Lesney did not use the Matchbox brand name: these models were labelled A Moko  toy by Lesney made in England
From time to time I wondered why my coach was silver and others appeared gold until I realised that the silver plating was apt to tarnish.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed reading this. As a lad who grew up in Preston (I'm now in my mid seventies and live in the East Midlands) I can remember going to see the memorial garden with my auntie soon after it opened. (see my blog: I was sad to read and see how overgrown and ill kept this garden now appears. I increasingly believe that we are a strange nation - always ready to beat the drum and celebrate the strong and mighty but less keen to remember and acknowledge the contribution of those who gave our culture something worthy and of depth and meaning. Thank you for your blog - it has given me food for thought. Regards Tony Beale


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