VISIT | Singing survives with Clara Butt at North Stoke | Oxfordshire
A Singing Superstar
The re-discovery of an early twentieth century singing superstar Dame Clara Butt
A life of fame, money and tragedy
An unassuming memorial in this Thames-side Oxfordshire village
"...story of this musical superstar..."
“I believe that it is within the power of an artist to actually lessen, or at any rate, to temporarily, relieve the cares and worries of which each member of an audience has a share; and I am sure that the easiest way to do so is to sing songs whose meaning and whose message are immediately understandable.”
Clare Butt was an extra-ordinary singer. She was a contralto with a rare tonal voice. She sang in theatres and at concerts. She was in her time one of the world’s most famous singers. She travelled the world, earning thousands of pounds. She chose to sing as many songs as she could in English because she believed that singing could make a difference to peoples’ lives. She was perhaps, a rock star of the early twentieth century.
But in the tiny church of St Mary’s in the village of North Stoke, the memory of Clara Butt survives. On a polished brass plaque inside the church, a memory lives on. It has been there since 1937. The inscription on the memorial tablet reads:
“The electric lighting in this church was installed by Robert Kennerley Rumford, as a loving tribute to the memory of his wife Dame Clara Butt-Rumford D.B.E.
Thou art to them as a very lovely song”
It seems a little random to us now. But before 1937, the church was lit by oil lanterns. In 1937, Clara’s husband paid for electric lighting to be installed into the church at North Stoke. He had been a frequent worshipper at the old church along with his wife. On Clara’s death, her voice was lost to the world and she was buried here at North Stoke alongside her nineteen-year-old son Roy who died in 1923 from meningitis.
At her funeral, Queen Mary who had only just lost her husband, the King, George V even sent a message amid her own grief:
“Please accept my sincere sympathy in your great loss. Mary”.
Her grave was covered with moss and flowers. For the many people who could not or did not make the funeral, there was a memorial service held in London near Queen’s Hall where Clara used to perform.
So how did Clara Butt end up mixing with royalty and singing for thousands?
Although born in Southwick, Sussex, Clara was brought up in Bristol. She was pushed to be trained in her singing with the leader of the Bristol Festival Chorus, Dan Rootham. Allegedly his first comment on hearing Clara sing was: “My child, you have gold in your throat.”
After winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, she was trained and sent abroad to learn and study – her time in Paris even paid for by Queen Victoria.
It is said that Edward VII claimed that he had discovered her – as he attended a performance of hers at the Lyceum Theatre of Gluck’s Orfeo by the Royal College of Music. He asked that she be presented to him – the Prince of Wales in the Royal Box. He promoted her to Queen Victoria who invited her to Buckingham Palace. She went on to sing at the wedding reception of King George V and Queen Mary at the royal gathering. She even sang for the ex-Kaiser and his wife Empress Frederick.
But even with the royalty, she appeared to love to just sing for the masses. She crossed continents, she crossed the country to sing in theatres and concert halls; in places like Southend Pier, Colston Hall in Bristol and the Drill Hall at Derby. She also had the tallest stature on the stage – Clara was 6 foot 2 inches tall.
Clara’s success increased. She met and married a fellow singer – baritone Kennerley Rumford – who performed alongside her. The wedding was standing room only at Bristol Cathedral.
In 1908 Clara Butt and her husband Kennerley Rumford sang before 600 prisoners at Brixton Prison after being invited by the vicar of Brixton. She described the experience:
“It was very sad to see so many prisoners there, some of them quite young. I felt a great pity for them in my heart. When we entered the chapel was filled. In the gallery were the convicted prisoners in their prisoner dress, and in the body of the chapel were, I understand, those who are under remand, for they were wearing their ordinary clothes. As we entered I caught looks of surprise and interest in many of the men’s faces. They seemed to draw up to ‘attention’ and looked expectant. We sat in the chancel all through the service, which lasted about an hour. I noticed tears in the eyes of some of the men, and they were all very attentive right through the service. One thing I must say is that their own singing of the hymns was very fine indeed; their voices blended together wonderfully. But it was very sad to me”
When war broke out in 1914, her husband enlisted, and Clara did what she did best – sing. She raised money for charities to support the war effort and the home front. She also set up a charity to support fellow artists whose work had been curtailed by the war. In the Honours at the end of the war, Clara was awarded Dames Commander of the Order of the British Empire; it was now Dame Clara Butt-Rumsford.
Clara led an Empire Day community choir of 10,000 in Hyde Park on the first occasion when it was broadcast across the empire. In 1919, she took part in the broadcast from the old 5XX station at the Marconi Works in Chelmsford which marked the beginning of wireless broadcasting in Britain.
Clara was making over £20,000 per year with her tall stature and rare contralto voice. She was recording music and performances. She was crossing the globe – to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, USA and the Far East. She truly was a global sensation.
Clara really was riding on a wave of success. Then in the 1920s, she was diagnosed with cancer of the spine. She began to perform in a wheelchair and then after surgeries and very serious complications, she was admitted to hospital in London in 1934. At the same time, news came from abroad that her second son Victor had died from a gunshot wound (probably suicide, though labelled as accidental) in what was then Rhodesia in Africa.
Despite her spinal problems, Clara continued to perform though whilst her voice wasn’t quite the same, the spirit still remained.
Then in 1936, Clara died. She was 63 years of age.
She was remembered by many and all for her voice. And by some for her charity to them – young singers who were gifted funding to train, inspired by Dame Clara Butt.
Land of Hope and Glory is known by many these days, the hymn of England. But who knows that this song was composed by Edward Elgar with words by A. C. Benson? And indeed who would know that it was first performed in 1902 conducted by Sir Edward Elgar and sung by Clara Butt.
Clara, whose memory lies in this small church in Oxfordshire, on the banks of the river Thames. A singing sensation in her time. And each time those lights turn on in the church, her memory burns a little brighter, and then dims…
Directions and Map |
Find Clara Butt's resting place at the little Thames-side church in North Stoke in south Oxfordshire off the B4009 near Wallingford