To read Part 1 of this series of papers please click HERE and for Part 2 Click HERE 


The third article in the Northern School of Music series takes us into wartime. What happens to music students at a time of war?

Building momentum

In the first two decades of the Northern School of Music, a lot had happened. There were already national successes with the students. For instance, piano students Edna Jamieson and John Pye has won accolades for their exceptional national examination successes in 1926 and 1939 respectively. Students had already appeared in BBC Radio performances by 1929, and in 1930 the school reports in The Guardian that

“despite the trade depression there has been an increase in the number of students attending the school.”

So much so in fact that they have enough students to programme regular orchestral concerts.

Needless to say that by this point there were countless teaching posts fulfilled by alumni of the school, across the North West of England. The influence and reputation of the school was undeniable. It seemed nothing could slow its momentum.

Keeping calm and carrying on

As the Second World War broke out, the first murmurs we hear from the school is a simple announcement in The Guardian that “the curriculum is being carried on as usual. Adequate A.R.P. accommodation. Children may be visited in certain outlying districts.” The biggest setback was that as children were evacuated to these “outlying districts”, the student body fell and therefore activity slowed. The momentum was finding resistance. But, the passion for the school’s activities and purpose swells in response to the challenges that times of conflict exacerbate.

The Old Students’ Association magazine for 1939 forecasts that

“world events this year have been so momentous that we have wondered at times whether there was a future of the Magazine, for Music, or indeed, for any of us.” Music, they reassure the reader, seems to be one of the most connective forces, especially “in our schools, too, refugee children battling with subjects in an unfamiliar tongue have brightened visibly to find that Beethoven is the same in Manchester as in Prague.”

In the same year, Walter Carroll gives a speech at the school’s Distribution of Awards and is reported as insisting on of the value of music in wartime.

“I would have everybody call their studies in music national work… this school is one of many throughout the country which are doing national work as surely as those who are making shells and rifles. Now is not the time to drop music. Now, above every other, is the time to continue music.”


War stock receipts & notes belonging to Ida Carroll of the Northern School of Music, 1941.

The Manchester Blitz

Behind the scenes however, things weren’t as tally-ho as they seemed. By this point the school Secretary Ida Carroll was already in training to function as an Air Raid Precaution Warden in Didsbury. She was also temporarily taking over the running of the school as its principal Hilda Collens is felled by a particularly nasty stretch of shingles for several months. References to the strain and worry on Ida’s workload are littering the lines of the letters sent from her boyfriend Geoffrey Griffiths (more from these in the next article).

Given this context, it is even more astounding when we learn about the resilience of Ida in response to the momentous event that was the Manchester Blitz.

Over a few nights just before Christmas, Manchester city was besieged by bombs and chunks of the city was destroyed. Luckily, the school’s premises remained standing. However, the windows of the building were destroyed. The story is that Ida Carroll turned up to on the final morning and, strong arming the employees of the shop below the school’s rooms, marched off down to the road for rolls of brown linoleum to boarder up the windows. After recruiting even the shop manager to her cause, the school was open for business. Lessons were given by lamplight until the windows could be replaced.

It is this resilient spirit that, numerous alumni insist, was the driving force behind the school’s atmosphere. Many teachers at the time of their attendance in the ‘50s-‘70s were either staff or students during the war. They speculate that it was the attitude of the time and the momentum of war work that kept the spirited approach of pure pragmatic problem solving pushing the school’s work forward.

Torpedoes, volunteering and concert

In September 1939 the ocean liner Athenia was travelling to Canada with over three hundred passengers, when it was torpedoed without warning by the German forces. It was later deemed a mistake and simultaneously denied by the German forces, with much debate reported in the newspapers. Alumna Helen Wright was aboard the ship, on her way back to a teaching position. She managed to make her way to a lifeboat and after several hours was rescued. Many weren’t as fortunate, with over 120 persons listed as missing.

Alongside Helen’s story, a long list of female alumni’s volunteering activities is reported in the Old Students’ Association magazine. One alumna was doing laundry work, inspecting factories, driving the milk-van for the Buxton Co-operative, acting as an assistant horticulture supervisor helping five hundred Ashton students to “dig for victory”, and others were members of the Women’s Land Army. George Fisher, another ex-student, carried music to the trenches for his spare time study and Diana Lockhart volunteered to drive a mobile canteen through France, using the canteen’s “drop sides” as a platform for performing concert work. Others raised money from recitals to support charitable efforts and gave concerts in factories.

Concert life continued, albeit with a polite notice saying that “respirators must be brought by all who attend.” German music wasn’t struck off the programme list, as you might expect. Very Germanic composers’ work was performed, including a concert consisting of Beethoven, Brahms and Bruch in 1941. This could show that British patriotism didn’t necessarily equate to a rebuttal of Germanic repertoire which predated the contemporary political identities of, for instance, the Imperial State of Germany and after. This correlated with programming trends we previously found in our investigations into repertoire in the First World War (Making Music in Manchester During WW1 project 2016-2017, funded by AHRC).

Editorial of the Old Students Association magazine 1941

More contemporary British composers such as Greville Cook and Montague Philips seemed to carry the standard for patriotism, programmed alongside German, Polish and Russian composers of the Classical to Romantic music eras.

We don’t have the whole story and unfortunately are unable to go back in time and observe the activities and attitudes of the Northern School of Music in wartime. From these small glimpses, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to posit that the stalwart forward march of the school through the negotiations in the ‘50s-‘70s, which created the Royal Northern College of Music, stem from its diligent and relentless push through wartime obstacles and opportunities.

Article © of Heather Roberts 


The story continues

To Part 4 of this series click HERE 

The archive and memories of the students are both full of fascinating features. Thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund, we now have the resources to explore them in greater detail.

In the meantime, to learn more about the archive, head over to the website

For hundreds of digitised images from the Northern School of Music’s various collections, visit our friends at Manchester Digital Music Archive

For a sneak peek at more of the history of the school, discover some key dates on the timeline here