Winter on the Downs

Today, between Rackham and Chanctonbury. Mild and breezy.


Christmas Eve, 1904

For many years the month of December was, for John Ireland, one associated with carols and the church. On 24 December 1904, in his new role as organist and choir director at St Luke’s, Chelsea, he managed his first full choral evensong for Christmas Eve, ‘when the warmth and brightness of the large Church within must have contrasted pleasantly with the murky, misty atmosphere outside’ (St Luke’s parish magazines, 1905, p.12). To begin, the hymn ‘All my heart this night rejoices‘ was sung. The usual anthem was replaced with the carol ‘The manger throne’, and the offertory hymn was ‘It came upon the midnight clear’. After the blessing Ireland and his choir performed ‘A Virgin unspotted, the prophet foretold‘. The church was richly decorated with laurel and holly. Red tulips stood in dramatic contrast to white chrysanthemums and narcissus flowers.


A Guernsey megalith

When Ireland moved to Guernsey in 1939 one of his homes was in the district of St Martin’s, where he rented a house called ‘Woodside’, set on Blanche Pierre Lane, which sits between the village centre and the sea. In one direction Ireland could walk to the dramatic coastline at Fermain Bay. Going the other way, a short daily walk took him to St Martin’s Church, which held great appeal for the composer for its bringing together of Christian and pagan worship. The church stands on the site of an ancient tomb-shrine, below which emerge two springs. A famous megalith stands outside the church, going by the name of La Gran’mère du Chimquière. This dates from around 2000BC, and historically has seen many offerings from parishioners in search of medical cures or to ensure fertility.

Ireland at St Barnabas

While it is well known that Ireland was the organist at two Chelsea churches, Holy Trinity and St Luke’s, it is less common knowledge that for a short time in 1897 he took over from Vaughan Williams as organist of St Barnabas, South Lambeth. Ireland recalled that Vaughan Williams’s duties at the church were ‘prodigious’, and in addition to the normal work of a church organist and choirmaster, he ran a choral society and an orchestral society in connection with this church. Indeed, Ireland’s first duties on taking over were to prepare performances of two big choral works: Mendelssohn’s Lauda Sion and Stanford’s Revenge (‘Tributes to Vaughan Williams’, The Musical Times, October 1958, p.536). Vaughan Williams returned to the post after six months, leaving the church in 1899.

Ireland at the pantomime

During his time at St Luke’s, Chelsea, Ireland would attend the annual dinner for adult members of the choir, as well as the summer seaside outing for the choirboys, always to either Sussex or Essex. He also, though less regularly, accompanied his young choristers to the pantomime. One such occasion took place on 6 February 1909, when the performance in question was Dick Whittington at the Drury Lane Theatre, a show that had already been highly successful in the previous year.

Ireland was there along with several members of the clergy, including his good friend Paul Walde. The boys were very taken with the scenery, which included a lavish set depicting Highgate Hill, with London seen in the distance (St Luke’s parish magazine, 1909, p.97).

Dick was played by vaudeville star, Queenie Leighton. The highlight for the choristers of St Luke’s, however, was a fleeting appearance in a comic song by Manchester-born Wilkie Bard, a famous music hall entertainer.











‘Inglewood’ in 1879

InglewoodAbove is a map showing Bowdon in 1879, as the local landscape looked in the year when John Ireland was born. From the map, his family home ‘Inglewood’ can be seen to be a fine mansion house surrounded by other similar properties and backing on to fields. It was built for Alexander Ireland in 1869, on land bought by him from the Dunham Massey estate. Morris & Co.’s Directory & Gazetteer of Cheshire confirms who the neighbours were in 1874. Haigh Lawn was owned by George Hodgkinson. The Johnsons had the other neighbouring house, Silverlands. Bowdon Lodge was the home of John Finnie Esquire, a Scottish merchant who died in 1875. Most of the wealthy owners in this part of Cheshire were businessmen.

The house next to Inglewood, Haigh Lawn, has a fascinating history. Also built in 1869, it was loaned as a hospital during the First World War, as discussed in this interesting article on Bowdon’s heritage. Bowdon Lodge was eventually transformed into Altrincham Grammar School for Girls. When the Irelands left their Bowdon house, it was bought by John Hopkinson, another of Manchester’s successful businessmen. On the death of Hopkinson’s wife in 1910, the house was sold to John Gill, a retired manufacturing chemist.

This area has strong musical and literary associations in addition to those of Ireland and his parents. In 1900, a little after the Ireland family left Bowdon, conductor Hans Richter settled down the road at 27, The Firs. The eminent violinist Adolf Brodsky was also a resident, living in East Little Grey RabbitDowns Road for over 25 years. Arthur Ransome lived very close to the Irelands in the 1870s, in Devisdale House. In the 1920s Alison Uttley wrote the Little Grey Rabbit books while living in Downs House.