Born in 1865 in Mill Lane Blackburn, William Wolstenholme was the eldest son of James, an architect and surveyor, and Alice Wolstenholme. There were four other children born to the couple, Maud, Henry, Alice and James. William was blind from birth but despite this handicap he lived a full and active life.
As a young boy his parents, who were both keen singers taught him singing and so prepared him for his musical life ahead. In 1871 when William was six, after having visited an organ recital with his parents, he made some remarks which were overheard by Henry Smart (1813–1879). He told William’s father to take the boy to him when he was thirteen and he would give him a proper education in the music profession. Henry Smart was the organist in Saint Mary’s, the parish church of Blackburn, from 1831 to 1836, he was also, a composer of organ music, and operas and designed the organ in Leeds Town Hall, Smart began to lose his sight at the age of 18 and by the time he met William at the recital he too was completely blind. However, Henry died in 1879 at the age of 66 and so the young William was never to get the musical education he so craved.
In 1874 William was sent, to what was then called “Worcester College for the Blind Sons of Gentlemen” the college opened in 1866 and is now known as the “RNIB New College Worcester”. It must have been a great trial for a blind nine year old child to be away from home for the first time, but he seems to have coped with it well. The headmaster at this time was Samuel S. Forster (1833 –1891), he was an imaginative man in the education of the blind and said “Give them the opportunity and the means and they can do anything. He always practised this philosophy at the college. The fees for the college were £110 per year which must have been a strain on William’s parents. Sighted boys were also admitted to the college and were expected to help by reading to the blind pupils.
The range of lessons taught at the college was extremely diverse and included chemistry, astronomy, arithmetic, algebra, divinity, Greek and Latin, French and German, English history and literature, they were also taught Braille and so they had an extensive education. Music was an extra subject at the college and a charge of 10s. 6d. (52½p) per term was made. William’s music teacher was Doctor Done who was then organist at Worcester Cathedral. William took lessons in organ, piano, harmony and counterpoint.
After he left Worcester College for the Blind Sons of Gentlemen William returned to Blackburn and in January 1884 made his first public appearance as a pianist at the first of the “Penny Readings” which were started by Mrs Elizabeth Lewis (1848—1924) in the Spinners Institute,Peter Street, Blackburn. Here they had singing and a “free and easy” each Saturday night. 1885 saw him back in Worcester playing a piano concerto with orchestral accompaniment at the Worcester Philharmonic Society’s concert with Doctor Done conducting.
In 1887 he went to Oxford University where he obtained his degree in Music; here he once again met with Sir Edward Elgar (1857—1834) who he had first met when he attended college at Worcester. Elgar was to help William throughout his time at University and later in his life he wrote this about their relationship;
“I have indeed the honour to have been a pupil of the greatest of modern English Composers, Edward Elgar. I learnt the violin from him for a short time when I was at college in Worcester. As I preferred the organ and piano, however, I gave up the violin but my good teacher, fortunately for me did not give me up—he remained an invaluable friend to me to the end of my college days and I learned much from him out of college hours, when he would play and talk over new music with me, including his own early works. He would often say ‘Billy, I’ve a theme to play to you’; then would come something new of his own or something he had found.
“When I was preparing my exercise for the Mus. Bac. Degree he wrote out the score for me. I used to go down to his house, generally on Saturday afternoon, for this purpose, and he devoted many hours to the drudgery of copying for me. He afterwards went with me to Oxford, and acted as my Amanuensis in the final examination; and all this he did quite voluntary. I owe him, indeed, a debt of the deepest gratitude for these and other benefits to numerous to mention which he heaped on my unworthy head…I look back with affection on the happy hours I spent with him in his unknown days, and he still holds two high positions in my regard – those of best friend and best musician I have ever known.”
Whilst preparing for his degree William was assisted by Mr. T. Blackshaw, who was the organist at Saint John’s Church, Blackburn. Blackshaw was originally chosen to be Williams’s amanuensis, however, Elgar offered himself for the post and was accepted by William. Blackshaw did however accompany William to Oxford and stayed with him. One of William’s tasks while at university was to transcribe Beethoven’s “Fidelio” into Braille and memorise it, which was no mean feat. When William obtained his degree and became a Bachelor of Music, he was only the second blind person (the first being James Dawber, of Wigan) to achieve such a thing.
On returning to Blackburn in 1888, William accepted a position as organist at Saint Paul’s Church. He had to give six voluntaries a week at the church, four on Sunday and two at the Wednesday evening service, and it was said that he could go twelve month without repeating himself, such was his memory. He was able to memorise, after one hearing, long and intricate pieces of music and could also improvise on a given theme. It was at this time that he started to compose his own works
In 1897 a “Wolstenholme Society” was started in the town by A. W. King, secretary of the technical school in Blackburn, and other lovers of music. Concerts were held in Eccles’ Music Rooms in Station Road. William would prepare a new programme for each concert and at the last event of each season he would do works that he had composed himself. These concerts went on for five years, but eventually failed through lack of support. It seemed that the people of Blackburn did not appreciate his music as much as it deserved.
In January 1902 William left his home town after being appointed to succeed E. Barritt Lane as organist of the Congregationalist Chapel, King’s Weigh—House, London. He received letters of congratulations from all over the world. One concert promoter even offered to take him on a six month tour of the United States paying all his expenses, but the offer was refused. It was not until 1908 that he thought the time was right to tour the United States. He was accompanied on the tour by his sister Maude Furrell who had become his manageress. The tour was a huge success. He visited the cities of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and many others he also gave recitals at all the important university colleges. Among the organists in America there were many women and William formed a high opinion of their critical judgement, He said of them; “The lady organists really play very well, and are also keen on the various ways of registering and other technical details”. At Buffalo over two thousand people had to be turned away from the concert he gave, and at Rochester he performed a private recital for the millionaire George Eastman, the founder of Kodak. He also played before audiences’ of blind students, once at Philadelphia and once at Hamilton College Pennsylvania.
Back in England William gave lessons on the organ, and was visited by many American students who wanted lessons from him. When Sir Cyril Arthur Pearson died in 1921 William was chosen to play the organ at the memorial service held in the church of Saint Clement Danes, London.
In 1924 he was appointed organist at All Saints’ Church, St Johns Wood, London and 1925 saw him elected president of the London Society of Organists, he was also one of the joint editors of the Braille musical magazine. Throughout this time he did not forget his home town and would spend some of his holidays in Blackburn. He wrote “The Ballad of Sir Humphrey Gilbert” for the Blackburn Ladies’ choir. On Wednesday 13th June 1928 on a visit to Blackburn he performed two concerts arranged by the Education Committee for the school children of the town, one held in the morning and then repeated in the afternoon. Almost five thousand children attended the concerts which were held in King Georges Hall, Blackburn and after the concert he received rapturous applause from them. During another visit to Blackburn he gave a fantasia on the notes E D F which were the initials of his very good friend and brother in law Eric Duval Furrell.
In 1929 William received a honorary degree of Fellow of the Royal College of Organists, and a year later he composed an anthem, “Thou, O God, Are Praised In Sion”, which he dedicated to his friend Frank Duckworth, organist and choirmaster of Holy Trinity Church Blackburn and formerly conductor of the Blackburn Ladies Choir. The anthem was sung in the church at the harvest festival. The following week it was performed at Saint John’s Church, Blackpool, and the week after that it was broadcast in a service from Belfast.
William Wolstenholme died on Thursday 23rd of July 1931 after a long illness, he was aged 66. From the anonymity of a small northern Mill Town , William’s reputation as a organist and composer had grown to world wide prominence.
The following December, his home town of Blackburn honoured William by playing two of his best known compositions at the opening of the organ at the towns Rialto cinema. In 1965, Frederich William Andrews, Bachelor of Music (1892-1968) played a tribute in Saint John’s Church, Blackburn to celebrate the centenary of William’s birth. A fitting tribute to a outstanding Blackburn born musician.
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Blackburn’s Community History Library holds many scores by William Wolstenholme both in braille and manuscript.