Henry Stevenson: Singing teacher

by Bob Davenport


Henry Stevenson (1835–1901), as depicted on his headstone in Islington Cemetery


The above genial portrait relief comes from a headstone in Islington Cemetery with the inscription

Sacred to the memory of
Henry Stevenson, G.T.S.C.
of Herne Hill, Surrey,
who died 9th December 1901,
aged 66 years.

‘G.T.S.C.’ doesn’t seem to be in any modern dictionary of abbreviations, but presumably stands for ‘Graduate of the Tonic Sol-fa College’, for Stevenson was an adherent of the system of musical notation now perhaps best known from Oscar Hammerstein II’s lyrics for The Sound of Music:

Let’s start at the very beginning,
A very good place to start.
When you read you begin with A, B, C.
When you sing you begin with do–re–mi.

Do–re–mi? Do–re–mi.
The first three notes just happen to be
Do–re–mi! Do–re–mi!

Do–re–mi–fa–so–la–ti …

To start at the very beginning for Stevenson, he was born in Eckington, Derbyshire, in 1835, the son of Ephraim Stevenson, a wood-cutter, and his wife, Sarah. By 1859 he had moved to London, for in March that year, in Islington parish church, he married Eliza Ann Champniss, a fishmonger’s daughter from Southwark.

Two years later, the 1861 census shows them living at Bemerton Terrace in Islington, with Henry working as a jewellery-case maker. By the time of the 1871 census they had moved to Red Lion Square in a household also including John Stevenson – eight years Henry’s senior; perhaps a cousin – his wife, Louisa, and their five sons, aged from 2 to 16. John was described as a jewel-case maker, employing 7 men, 3 women, 2 boys and a girl, and Henry as a jewel-case fitter. But ten years later Henry and Eliza were in Marlborough Terrace (later Shakespeare Road), Lambeth, and Henry was a teacher of singing.

In 1841 the Congregational Church had asked a young minister named John Curwen to devise an efficient method of teaching children to sing. Curwen was known as an excellent teacher, but his ignorance of musical notation meant that he had struggled to teach his own pupils more than simple tunes, and he found musical textbooks incomprehensible. But eventually he came across the simplified notation devised by Sarah Anna Glover for teaching her Sunday-school pupils in Norwich and in 1835 published as Scheme for Rendering Psalmody Congregational, and he adapted this to produce what he called the Tonic Sol-fa method, first outlined in articles in the Congregationalist Independent Magazine in 1842 and then detailed in a number of books. After he wrote a series of articles for Cassell’s weekly Popular Educator magazine, in 1852, the method became more widely known beyond Nonconformist circles, and in the following year it was estimated that there were 2,000 people studying it; in 1863 the number had increased to 186,000 in the UK alone, and its use by missionaries meant the method was also spreading to Africa, Asia, Australasia and the Americas. The Tonic Sol-fa Reporter (later renamed the Musical Herald) was established to popularise it, and in 1869 the Tonic Sol-fa College was founded to train instructors – of whom Stevenson became one.

In 1869 Stevenson was among those who were awarded a first-class certificate in the elementary musical composition exams of the Society of Arts with the help of tonic sol-fa courses of instruction.

In 1870 he began offering an elementary tonic sol-fa class at the Offord Road Chapel in Islington. He told the Tonic Sol-fa Reporter, ‘Our minister has promised to preach on the subject of praise the Sunday before the class commences. I have given him a copy of [John Curwen’s] “Music in Worship,” and hope he may catch something of its spirit.’

In January 1880 he conducted William B. Bradbury’s Esther, the Beautiful Queen – a piece written for community music-making which has been described as ‘arguably, the most popular large-scale choral work written by an American composer in the nineteenth century’ – in front of a ‘large and appreciative’ audience at the City Temple in London in a performance which the Tonic Sol-fa Reporter reckoned a ‘great success’. In June that year he was among the mourners at John Curwen’s funeral, at the City of London Cemetery, Ilford.

A year or two later he began teaching music to the children of Stockwell Orphanage, founded in 1867 by the preacher C. H. Spurgeon, whose immensely popular but very theatrical preaching style had been a target of the 1861 hit ‘The Great Sensation Song’, popularised by J. H. Stead:

Mr. Spurgeon ask’d me if
I’d like to be his mate, Sir,
He would preach and I should have
To go round with the plate, Sir,
To sing a comic song or two
To please the congregation.
‘Any dodge is fair,’ says he,
‘To raise a good sensation.’

The orphanage was the precursor of the present-day children’s charity called Spurgeons, and its choir regularly toured the country – and in 1896 a contingent even visited America – to raise money for it.


Stockwell Orphanage, from Charles Ray’s The Life of Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1903)


Stevenson was still teaching at the orphanage in 1899, when the Nonconformist Musical Journal described the music-making there:

As soon as [orphaned boys and girls] enter the Institution their musical education and training begins. Under the skilful tuition of Mr. Henry Stevenson, G.T.S.C., who has held the appointment for the past eighteen years, their progress is assured. Examinations for the Tonic Sol-fa College Certificates are held at stated intervals, the tests including time, tune, ear and sight singing, and the number of passes is most gratifying. For many years a large contingent has taken part in the Sol-fa Festivals at the Crystal Palace …

During the Jubilee Year 1897 Mr. Stevenson trained a choir of boys and girls for the competition at the Earl’s Court Exhibition. This was open to all England, and some of the best Board Schools, which have been competing for years for the Challenge Trophy, entered the list. The Stockwell choir came within two points of securing the Trophy, and was highly commended by the judge, who remarked, ‘I have no fault to find!’


A photograph of Henry Stevenson from the Nonconformist Musical Journal


In June 1894 Stevenson conducted the orphanage children’s choir and the band of the Brixton police in ‘Prayer’ from Rossini’s Moses, the Musical Herald declaring the performance ‘excellent, the quality of the voices being full yet not strained’.

He also taught singing at the Licensed Victuallers’s School in Kennington.

He died of chronic bronchitis on 9 December 1901, and was buried in Islington Cemetery four days later.

In November 1902, at a concert of the Tonic Sol-fa Composition Club, the Peckham Tonic Sol-fa Choir began their performance with a glee he had composed, in his memory.


Henry Stevenson’s headstone in Islington Cemetery



• William B. Bradbury, Esther, the Beautiful Queen, ed. Juanita Karpf (Madison, Wis.: A-R Editions, 2000)
• J. Spencer Curwen, Memorials of John Curwen (London: J. Curwen & Sons, 1882)
• John Curwen, The Standard Course of Lessons and Exercises in the Tonic Sol-Fa Method of Teaching Music, new edn (London: Tonic Sol-fa Agency, 1872)
• Frank Hall, ‘The Great Sensation Song’ (London: Foster & Co., [1861?])
Musical Herald, 2 July 1894 (‘Concerts’), 1 December 1902 (‘Tonic Sol-fa Composition Club’)
Nonconformist Musical Journal, March 1899 (‘Music at Stockwell Orphanage’)
• Bernarr Rainbow, ‘Glover, Sarah Anna (1786–1867)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, October 2008
• Bernarr Rainbow and Charles Edward McGuire, ‘Tonic Sol-fa’, Grove Music Online, Oxford University Press, July 2014
South London Press, 21 December 1901 (‘Deaths’)
• W. B. Squire, ‘Curwen, John (1816–1880)’, rev. Peter Ward Jones, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, October 2007
Tonic Sol-fa Reporter, 1 July 1869 (‘Society of Arts’ Examinations’), 1 January 1871 (‘Tonic Sol-fa Work’), 1 March 1880 (‘Concerts’)