Composer, suffragette, sportswoman and resident of Surrey
Ethel Mary Smyth was born in Marylebone, London, on 22 April 1858, moving to Frimhurst, Frimley in 1867 when her father, General John Hall Smyth, was promoted to the command of the Royal Artillery, Aldershot. Determined from an early age to devote her life to music and to become a composer in her own right Dame Ethel Smyth, DBE, DMus, overcame her father’s vehement opposition to this intention and became a significant English composer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
From 1877 Smyth studied music in Germany. In Leipzig, with Heinrich von Herzogenberg, she became acquainted with Brahms, who was a frequent visitor, and met composers Grieg and Tchaikovsky during their visits to Germany, the latter advising her to study orchestration. In Germany she wrote piano music and work for a variety of Chamber ensembles. In 1890 she debuted in England at Crystal Palace with her Serenade in D. In 1893 her Mass in D was performend at the Royal Albert Hall by the Royal Choral Society. She wrote no less than six operas: her third opera, The Wreckers, and her great Mass in D were received with great acclaim at their debuts. She was made a Dame in 1922 for her services to music. Her hearing failed in later years and, finding musical composition increasingly difficult, spent more time writing books. She wrote ten in all, most of which are memoires comprising both autobiographical, biographical and polemical sections, the latter especially dealing with the difficulty of getting works by female composers published and performed.
The Suffragette Movement & war work
Ethel became interested in the Womens Social and Political Union (Suffragette movement) as a result of her friendship with the Pankhursts and decided to suspend most of her musical activities for two years to devote her energies to assisting and promoting the movement. In 1912, following a large scale Suffragette protest, she was sentenced to two months in Holloway prison for smashing a window of an anti-suffrage politician’s office. Her uncompromising and energetic spirit led her to become a driving force in the women’s movement and her battle song The March of the Women, was sung by suffragettes throughout London and elsewhere. An anecdote is told of how, when in prison, when her fellow prisoners marched around the exercise compound singing the march, she conducted them with a toothbrush through the cell window!
Hear Dame Ethel Smyth talking to the author Vera Brittain about her activities in the Suffragette window-smashing campaign of March 1912, which lead to her arrest http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/suffragettes/8314.shtml
This incredible photograph shows Emmeline Pankhurst being re-arrested on 26 May 1913, at the garden gate of Ethel Smyth’s home in Hook Heath, Woking, Surrey. Emmeline had been recuperating here following a hunger strike: she was re-arrested under the infamous ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act enacted by the government of the time. Ethel is seen sitting shielding a weary Emmeline with an umbrella, whilst Nurse Pine looks on with indignation. They are also accompanied by Dr Murray who always cared for Emmeline whilst she recovered from periods of hunger strike.
Ethel Smyth was a remarkable woman, she even trained as a radiographer during the First World War and subsequently was attached to the XIIIth Division of the French army at a large military hospital in Vichy. It was then that she commenced writing her memoires as she said it was impossible to compose music under the wartime conditions there.
Click here to read more about Dame Ethel’s experiences in the First World War.
Click on the images below to see larger versions.
Smyth had several romantic passions, mostly with women, and described her sexuality as an “everlasting puzzle”. In Impressions That Remained (1919), Ethel recounts that whilst living with the composer Heinrich von Herzogenberg and his wife Lisl, she became very close to Lisl. At that time the Herzogenbergs referred to Ethel as ‘their child’ (their marriage was childless) and the two women developed a deep affection for each other, particularly when Lisl nursed Ethel through illness. Lisl was Ethel’s first serious female love.
Lisl’s sister, Julia, was married to the American writer Henry Brewster, and in 1883, whilst in Italy, Ethel met Henry, and the two began a romantic relationship. Ethel even admits that she lost her virginity to Henry during a trip to Paris. She apparently did so deliberately, not wanting to remain what she called ‘a Stonehenge virgin’. This caused a rift which had devastating consequences for Ethel. The Brewsters supposedly had an open marriage and had previously agreed that they would part if one or other were to find somebody else. However, when put to the test by Henry falling in love with Ethel, Julia would not consent to part and he could no longer see Ethel. Lisl ended her friendship with Ethel (no doubt fuelled by her mother who hated her), and in 1885, following rejection from the Herzogenberg household, Ethel felt compelled to return to England. There was no reconciliation with Lisl, although Ethel did receive one letter from her after the rift, and she remarked that it was strange that on that occasion alone, Lisl had corresponded in English not German – Ethel believed it was to avoid using the German familiar ‘du’. Ethel later wrote that the years 1885-1891 were ‘the most miserable years of my life’.
Conversely, after five years without contact, Smyth and Henry Brewster met again in 1890, by chance, according to her memoirs: Brewster had heard that one of her works was to be performed at Crystal Palace, and she happened to spot him in the audience. Their friendship resumed thereafter. She had earlier confided to Brewster that it was “easier for me to love my own sex passionately, rather than yours”. Following Julia’s death Ethel rejected Henry’s offer of marriage on the grounds that it would interfere with her work as a composer.
There are a number of online sources for Smyth’s relationship with Henry Brewster and Lisl von Herzogenberg, including BBC Radio 3, Composer of the Week http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03g2y67.
And http://spartacus-educational.com/Jsmythe.htm, which features a number of quotes from Smyth’s autobiography.
(Information courtesy of Lewis Orchard, Dr Christopher Wiley and Dr Gill Stoker)
Golf – The other love!
Dame Ethel was an active sportswoman throughout her life. In her younger days she was a keen horse-rider and tennis player and enjoyed rock climbing, mainly in the Alps. She was an enthusiastic member of the Woking Tennis Club and donated a book as a tournament prize. She lived in Surrey for most of her life – first at the Smyth family house ‘Frimhurst’ in Frimley Green, then in a cottage nearby and finally at ‘Coign’ (now renamed Brettanby Cottage) at Hook Heath in Woking, near the golf course. She was a passionate golfer and a stalwart member of the Ladies section of Woking Golf Club: typically she was known to have marched through the Men’s section on at least one occasion an act forbidden at the time. It was her proud boast that she never lost a golf ball and she would spend hours, accompanied by her dog, searching through the rough for the result of a ‘directional error’!
Dame Ethel died in 1944 and at her own request, after cremation at Woking Crematorium, her ashes were scattered in the woodland next to the golf course by her brother Robert.
One of her many enigmatic quotes reads:
“Because I have conducted my own operas and love sheep-dogs;
Because I generally dress in tweeds, and sometimes, at winter afternoon concerts, have even conducted in them;
Because I was a militant suffragette and seized a chance of beating time to The March of the Women from the window of my cell in Holloway Prison with a tooth-brush;
Because I have written books, spoken speeches, broadcast, and don’t always make sure that my hat is on straight;
For these and other equally pertinent reasons, in a certain sense I am well known.“
Click on the image to see a larger version.
The female attraction
Ethel made no secret of her relationships with other women. She frequently wore male attire and at the tender age of 71 she met and fell in love with Virginia Woolf, who, both alarmed and amused by this wrote that it was “like being caught by a giant crab”. However, the two became great friends.
Ethel’s many letters and diaries record fascinating sketches of the famous people she knew and descriptions of her friendships with her women friends including the Empress Eugenie, Pauline Trevelyan, Princess Edmond de Polignac, Lady Mary Ponsonby, Edith Somerville and Virginia Woolf.
Although not a universally supported theory, it has been argued by Rebecca Jennings, in A Lesbian History of Britain (2007), that Smyth was a lesbian and that she was probably the lover of Emmeline Pankhurst, Edith Craig (theatre director, suffragette and the daughter of actress Ellen Terry), and Christabel Marshall (daughter of novelist Hugh Graham Marshall and Craig’s flat-mate).
A Lesbian History of Britain by Rebecca Jennings (2007), is available for research in the Heather D Hawker Room at Surrey History Centre.
For part of her life, Dame Ethel Smyth lived at ‘Frimhurst’, Guildford Road, Frimley. Read more about this interesting building.
Dame Ethel Smyth is an LGBT history icon.
Below is the link to an online video about Ethel Smyth, created by Pyrford TV Arts and filmed at Woking Golf Club, including an interview with Dr Chris Wiley from the University of Surrey. It features images from Surrey History Centre’s Lewis Orchard collection and lots about her suffrage work, music and local life.
Sources for Ethel Smyth held elsewhere
The Ethel Smyth Research Centre based at the University of Detmold/Paderborn, in Germany plans to edit the whole of Dame Ethel’s composed and written works, as well as the diaries, letters and other documents. The idea of founding the Research Centre arose during the Ethel Smyth Festival, which was held at the Musicological Seminar Detmold/Paderborn in November 2008. See their website for further details http://muwi-detmold-paderborn.de/en/research/ethel-smyth-research-centre.html#c1860
Surrey Performing Arts Library, in Dorking, holds copies of Smyth’s composed works which can be consulted and borrowed click here for the website.
The Women’s Library based at the London School of Economics, documents all aspects of women’s lives, with a particular emphasis on the lives of women in the UK and the great political, economic and social changes of the past 150 years. They hold collections relating to the Suffragette movement including papers relating to Ethel Smyth (Ref.NA501). The catalogue can be consulted online at http://www.lse.ac.uk/library/collections/featuredCollections/womensLibraryLSE.aspx
Link to the Oxford University Press blog: “Five facts about Dame Ethel Smyth” by Christopher Wiley, Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of Surrey.
The British Library acquired letters of Ethel Smyth in 2014, read more about them here.
The Hamburg School for Music and Theatre website contains detailed information about Smyth and her musical output, with a focus on music and gender http://mugi.hfmt-hamburg.de/artikel/Ethel_Smyth.
For letters from Ethel Smyth to Edith Craig (at Smallhythe Place, Kent, owned by the National Trust), including correspondence relating to Smyth’s suffrage anthem ‘The March of the Women’, see the Ellen Terry and Edith Craig Database (http://www.ellenterryarchive.hull.ac.uk) which has been compiled by Prof. Katharine Cockin, author of Edith Craig and the Theatres of Art (Bloomsbury Methuen Drama 2017; https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/edith-craig-and-the-theatres-of-art-9781472570642/)
For a discussion of Ethel Smyth on the Women’s History blog ‘Sheroes of History’, see https://sheroesofhistory.wordpress.com/2014/06/05/dame-ethel-smyth-composer-suffragette/
For a musical biography of Ethel Smyth and links to her other life events see http://www.52composers.com/ethel-smyth.html.
Ethel Smyth received an honorary degree from St Andrew’s University when she was 70 years old. The University’s Special Collections Archive holds the papers of Principal Sir James Irvine, which contain a series of letters written by Dame Ethel Smyth to Mabel, Lady Irvine, between April 1928 and June 1929 (Ref: UYUY250/Irvine/2/9f). Find out more at
Main text provided by Lewis Orchard with contributions by Surrey Heath Museum and Surrey Heritage.