The year 1894 was a happy one for Sir Charles Stanford, Director of the Royal College of Music, for that year’s intake of students included Vaughan Williams, Thomas Dunhill, Coleridge-Taylor, Frank Bridge, John Ireland and Haydon Wood, all obviously extremely talented. These went on to make their names and so, at the time, did William Hurlstone, whom Sir Charles considered the brightest of all these stars.
Although he died in 1906 at the age of thirty, Hurlstone was already well-known as a conductor, composer and pianist both in Croydon and London, and on 6th December 1906 the Highways and Street Services Committee decided to change the name of Alexandra Road in Selhurst, just near where he had lived, to Hurlstone Road in his honour.
The Hurlstones were a prestigious and able family. William’s great-grandfather had been proprietor of the Morning Herald and his grandfather, Frederick, President of the Royal Society of British Artists. His father, Martin, was an able musician, but he was studying to become a doctor when he caught small-pox and was blinded. William was very delicate with persistent asthma, but showed his musical genius early and, by the age of seven, was giving concerts to family and friends. He was too delicate to go to school, but his mother taught him the piano, his father musical appreciation and theory and also French, and he was an avid reader and became a well-educated young man. At the age of nine he wrote “Five Easy Waltzes”, which his father had published, and at twelve a trio for violin, cello and piano.
His father made unwise investments and they lived in increasing poverty, he and his mother depending partly, after his father died when he was sixteen, on his earnings as a piano teacher. He was, though, blessed with a happy disposition, as Coleridge-Taylor and so many of his friends testified, after his death, in a little book of recollections assembled by his sister, Kate. This can be found in Croydon Local Studies Library. She remembers the constant entertainments, musical and dramatic, that he organised for her and her sisters and cousin to perform as children. Many contributors commented on his humour and friendliness.
In those days, when people had to make their own entertainment, there were plenty of musical evenings where the standard of music was not high but Hurlstone, no intellectual snob, enjoyed them all and happily contributed light-hearted pieces, A very musical family, whose evenings he probably enjoyed more than most, were the Foxes (Fox Hill).
Sir Charles Groves had heard him play when he was very young and had always taken an interest in him, and no doubt had a good word to put in when William, at 18, won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music. Fritz Hart, his particular friend and also a member of that talented class, remembered travelling down on the train from Victoria to Norwood Junction with Hurlstone and Coleridge-Taylor, the three of them teasing each other about their favourite composers, which were Wagner, Brahms and Dvorak respectively, each pretending not to admire the others’ heroes.
When Hart would visit Hurlstone at his house on Selhurst Road, Hurlstone, who had his piano near the window, would see his friend approaching and immediately break into a particular piece of Tchaikovsky that was their “theme”. Then he would let him in and play him the latest of Brahm’s piano music, which he had always bought as soon as it appeared. Then they would walk up the road together to South Norwood High Street for exercise after their music, on the way past the railings clowning and pretending to play the harp on them.
As I walk along the same route myself it charming to think of these lively-minded young men strolling there.
Hurlstone came to public attention by winning first prize in the important Cobbett Competition, with his Phantasy String Quartet, ahead of Coleridge-Taylor. As soon as he had finished studying William began to be offered a great many posts in Croydon and became conductor of the Anerley Choral Society, director of the South Norwood Operatic Society, conductor of the Addiscombe String Orchestra and Professor Music at the Croydon Conservatory.
In 1900 he organized the Croydon Centennial Concerts and, as ever when he was in a position to do so, he saw that plenty of British music was played. He was glad to have these jobs but none of them brought in much money. He had, though, two local admirers and benefactors, Captain Beaumont and William Stanley. Captain Beaumont, who also has a road named after him, was well-connected in the musical world and it was said that no foreign musician of any standing came to London without visiting him at his home, South Norwood Park. He had musical evenings on Saturdays and Hurlstone performed very often. William Stanley also supported him and he gave several concerts at the Stanley Halls and played for the opening of the Stanley Athenaeum meetings. When Hurlstone died Beaumont and Stanley and a London banker collaborated to give his mother an annuity to keep her from poverty for the rest of her life.
Hurlstone’s principal interest was in chamber music. A local newspaper rather over-enthusiastically described him as the “father of English chamber music” but it is true that he dreamed of reviving that art form to the position it had at the time of Purcell. His compositions, now hardly heard, but quite often played on the B.B.C throughout the 1940s, include Variations on a Swedish Air, Fairy Suite, Four English Sketches, Cello Sonata in D, Pianoforte Quartet in E Minor and others. Some of these works were played at the Proms in 1910 and they often featured in the high-quality concerts given at the Crystal Palace under the direction of Sir Walter Hedgcock, who was a good friend. On May 30th, 1939, Sir Adrian Boult conducted a memorial concert in Hurlstone’s honour at the Wigmore Hall.
His fame spread well beyond this area in his lifetime; in 1903 he became accompanist to the Bach Choir and in 1905 Professor of Harmony at the Royal College of Music. This last was a “real” job with a proper salary but he did not live to enjoy it. May in 1906 was cold and wet and, waiting for a train in Victoria Station in damp clothes, he caught a chill and died a few days later, to the very great distress of all who knew him, not only for the loss of a charming friend but because he had so much potential and did not have time to fulfil it. He did, however, achieve a good deal in a short life, in spite of his poor health.
He is buried in Croydon Cemetery and his tomb bears the inscription:
“Music hath here entombed fair treasures but still fairer hopes.”
Photographed in February 2000 it is a tragedy that 171 Selhurst Road, the former home of William Hurlstone, can look so dilapidated. We shall be contacting Croydon Council to ask that something should be done about something so unsightly. Although the house it is not in a conservation area the Council could surely do something to improve the situation. Author.
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