The Leicester Symphony Orchestra is a registered charity, number: 1078708. Comments and suggestions about this site to
LSO logo Leicester Symphony Orchestra
Home Page Home Page
Concert diary Concert diary
Tickets Tickets
How to join and vacancies How to join and vacancies
Friends and Patrons Friends and Patrons
John Andrews John Andrews
Photo gallery Photo gallery
Recent tours Recent tours
News and reviews News and reviews
History History
Contacts and links Contacts and links
Members' Info Members' Info
Player Profiles Player profiles
Book Book

f logo find us on Facebook

The LSO is grateful to
for their assistance with this website.

Profiles of people historically connected with the Leicester Symphony Orchestra

Select person:

Malcolm Sargent

Arthur Thornley

George R Tebbs

Michael Tippett

Karl Russell

Grace Burrows

Malcolm Sargent

This article is based on my recent research into the life of Malcolm Sargent which I have found fascinating, intriguing and compelling in equal measure. I have read a great deal and talked to many people who have memories of him and people who knew him including Sylvia Darley, Sir Malcolm's secretary for the last 20 years of his life. She has been extremely helpful and supportive.

This short biography aims to chart the story of how a boy from an ordinary family from the gasworks end of Stamford who became one of the best known and best loved musicians both in Britain and the wider world.

The photographs accompanying the article were kindly donated to the LSO archive by Mrs Janet Neaverson. They were originally collected by Olive, Malcolm's cousin on his mother's side. Additional material came from Malcolm's sister Dorothy. The collection was passed down to Janet's late husband Peter Neaverson.

Music, Music all the Way

Malcolm was born in 1895 and grew up in Stamford where his father, a clerk in a coal merchant's office, was a musician of considerable talent who did everything he could to encourage music in his son. On Sundays dad was organist and choirmaster at St John's church in the town. At the age of 8 Malcolm joined the choir and even then he knew he was driven by an obsession akin to a religious fervour. So intense were the feelings generated by music, on many occasions he was known to pass out when playing or singing.

Malcolm always had an eye for forensic detail. At 14 he had his first taste of conducting when, without notice, he stood in for a two hour rehearsal of the Stamford Operatic Society. People were astounded at his briskness and fluency. He further sharpened and progressed his musical skills under his piano teacher, the aptly named Mrs Tinkler, and later was articled at Peterborough cathedral. Until then he had been 'single minded' about music. Now it was total immersion. In addition to his articles he studied for a degree with Durham. He was never happier and in his own words, 'It was music, music, music all the way.'

With his mastery of church, classical and popular music, he put himself at the centre of musical life in Melton Mowbray, where he was appointed organist and choirmaster in 1914. He was introduced into wider Melton society which was dominated by foxhunting. With his musical abilities, his natural wit and charm and the fact that he was never overawed by his social superiors, he soon became a guest at any number of parties and society occasions. He became a sort of unofficial 'court entertainer' to the aristocracy.

De Montfort Hall, Leicester was the setting for Malcolm's big breakthrough in February 1921. He conducted the Queen's Hall Orchestra in his own composition, An Impression on a Windy Day in front of Sir Henry Wood, the father of British conducting. Wood saw Malcolm's talent and helped promote his career in the direction of conducting, rather than composing . Malcolm quickly attracted devoted followers, his buoyant personality enabling him to communicate his love of music to players, singers and audiences alike. His sense of theatre, elegant dress and sheer panache propelled a meteoric career in Britain and throughout the world.

A local business man and impresario Karl Russell was so impressed, with the 'Windy Day' concert, he arranged four concerts featuring Malcolm and their success led to the creation of the Leicester Symphony Orchestra (LSO) in 1922. Members of LSO, Melton Operatic, and Stamford Operatic, voiced their universal enthusiasm for their young conductor, 'He turned nobodies into somebodies, small talents into sizeable ones. When he arrived for rehearsals he made everybody feel enormously glad to be alive simply because he looked enormously glad to be alive himself'.

Malcolm had a generous nature and spent freely. Outwardly he appeared extremely confident but underneath was an insecurity and a need to be loved. Women found him very attractive and there were many affairs – or more accurately flings – with young ladies from local music societies, middle aged aristocrats and later, even with royalty. He was 'caught out' in 1923 and had to marry Eileen, who he never loved. The couple had two children; Pamela and Peter. As his fame grew the affairs continued and the couple were divorced in 1946.

He could sometimes seem vain and arrogant making an uninhibited display of his enjoyment of the high life which unsurprisingly attracted hostility and ridicule. He was commonly known, not altogether flatteringly, as Flash Harry. There was some resentment from rank and file members of British orchestras who found him over controlling but equally many liked his clear and precise instructions. There was real hostility when Malcolm tried to tackle fundamental problems in the orchestra.

The London concert of Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic in 1930 made a deep impression on him and sent shock waves through the musical establishment. It was abundantly clear that the sound of the NYP was leagues ahead of that of any British orchestra. Malcolm was convinced that the way to achieve such standards, however unpopular, was to adopt Toscanini's practice of using short term contracts so that players who were not up to the job could be levered out. There was a huge improvement in standards but the resentment generated blighted Malcolm's career for many years.

He remained extremely popular with choirs and the public, almost invariably attracting capacity audiences. He gained respect when during the war he took on a punishing schedule of 'Blitz Tour' concerts, bringing cheap morale boosting concerts to thousands in devastated industrial areas. Over his career he gave countless children's concerts, often in the poorest areas of cities. Both served to increase his popularity but it was his appearances on the BBC radio programme, the Brains Trust which earned him recognition far outside the bounds of classical music.

To many listeners, he was the common sense voice of the man in the street giving lively answers and generating a full post bag whatever the topic. New audiences were attracted to classical music. He did more in this direction than any other musician and in 1942 his superstar status was confirmed when the British Council called upon him to take a series of concerts and talks in neutral countries. He was soon dubbed 'Britain's Musical Ambassador' in the press. After the war he continued taking every opportunity to promote Britain and British music on his many overseas tours. He was knighted in 1947.

In the same year took over the BBC Proms which he quickly put his own stamp on; the excitement of the Last Night being his creation. He conducted his 500th prom in 1966 and in the final years, the old 'Flash Harry' jibe was turned round by thousands of adoring Prommers chanting and singing, 'We want Flash! We want Flash!' He died of pancreatic cancer in 1967, his death provoking a remarkable demonstration of sorrow and admiration. A lifetime of great music making had won him the loyalty, respect and affection of countless music-lovers worldwide. What they loved most was his irrepressible love of music and his irrepressible love of life. There was a real sense that a great force for joy had been taken from us.

Sam Dobson – with thanks to Thomas Armstrong, Charles Reid, Richard Aldous, Sylvia Darley and others

Sylvia Darley        Sylvia Darley who has given
       so much help and support

Sargents parents        Studio photo of Malcolm's parents

Sargent aged 4        Cousin Olive's photo marked,
       'Uncle Harry and Aggie, Malcolm
        + Dorothy taken in their garden'

Sargent in costume        Malcolm in costume. Stamford Operatic

Sargent in garden        Sitting in garden. No date or whereabouts

Sargent wedding        Wedding, Beyton Suffolk 1923

Sargent publicity photo        Publicity photo London 1928

Melbourne arrival    Arrival Essendon Aerodrome, Melbourne 1936

Australia NZ        Publicity portrait Australia 1936

Oxford degree        Honorary degree with (left) William Walton
        Oxford 1942

Buenos Aires    Publicity portrait Buenos Aires 1950

Searle cartoon   Copy of Ronald Searle cartoon, Punch 1956

Moscow        Newspaper clipping with Rostropovich,
       Moscow 1956

Mexico        Greetings from Mexico 1963

Daily Telegraph photo        Lighter moment in rehearsal. Daily Telegraph
       in the mid 1960s

Arthur Thornley

Thornley 1950

Arthur Thornley (1905 - 1977) was a mainstay of the Leicester Symphony Orchestra for almost 50 years. He was educated at Wyggeston Grammar School where he created the first school orchestra, giving an early indication of his talent and enthusism for music.

He became a printer in the family business but his heart was in music. He joined the LSO in its early days, playing oboe, cor anglais and sometimes percussion. He was soon appointed Honorary Secretary and it is thanks to Thornley's meticulous record keeping that we know so much about the early history of the orchestra.

It was through music that Thornley met his wife Mary, née Ashmell. She had shown outstanding talent as a violinist from a very young age and played in the LSO for just short of 70 years - probably unequalled anywhere. They married in September 1934. Mary remembered, "So devoted was he to his work that after we married, the typewriter came on honeymoon with us."

Arthur Thornley about 1950,
courtesy of Neil Crutchley

In 1933 LSO's superstar conductor Dr Malcolm Sargent was struck down with tuberculosis, from which he very nearly died. Thornley guided LSO through the subsequent appointment of a replacement conductor, the merger with, and later demerger from, the Leicester Philharmonic Choir.

Sargent had the highest regard for Thornley both as musician and administrator and Thornley became the vital and trusted link between Sargent and the orchestra. One of Thornley's difficulties was simply getting hold of Sargent, who was always on the go. His wife Mary recalled Sargent's proposed solution, "get on the train tomorrow morning with me, as far as Kettering and we will get the four concerts arranged for next season." Mary added, "This happened on several occasions and it worked very well. Malcolm Sargent had an amazingly quick brain."

Thornley family 1942
A family affair. Wife Mary, daughter Olga with Arthur in 1942.
Olga later became LSO harpist, a position she held for many years

During the early years of the war it was necessary to scale down the LSO and give concerts in the New Walk Art Gallery on a Saturday afternoon under the name People's Concerts. Thornley conducted almost 50 concerts over a two year period. They reverted back to the LSO title on the odd occasion when Sargent was able to appear as guest conductor.

By 1942 Sargent's growing reputation and demands both in Britain and abroad meant that it was no longer possible for him to conduct LSO. In Thornley's own words, "Dr Sargent handed the baton over to me with instructions to keep the Orchestra going as well as I could." Thornley liked to recall the time he was given his one and only lesson in conducting. This happened in the Grand Hotel, Leicester, with music propped inside the lid of Sargent's open suit case.

It is no exaggeration to say that it was the extraordinary determination of Thornley that kept LSO afloat in these difficult years. In the words of the Leicester Mercury, "No one has worked harder during the war to keep music alive than Mr Arthur Thornley." The same paper also noted, "Mr Arthur Thornley is generally acknowledged to be the most versatile musician in Leicester at the present time. Not only can he play just about every instrument in the orchestra but he can orchestrate and conduct."

Thornley's transcription of Bach's Toccata and Fugue was made in response to many requests, no doubt sparked by Stokowski's transcription used in Disney's 1940 film Fantasia. Bach's work is probably one of the most well known and popular organ pieces ever written and has been transcribed many times but at the time of Thornley's transcription there was no available version for full symphony orchestra. It was given its first performance in De Montfort Hall in January 1942. The work has remained popular and has been played 4 times by the LSO in the 70 years since it was written.

Thornley 1971 After the war he founded and directed the Leicester Opera Club and often had to arrange and transcribe music. Arthur Thornley often said he was "an amateur and proud of it". The only thing he ever got paid for was a reduced version of the Grand March from Aida published by Novello. This was done for the Little Theatre - no room for a big orchestra.

Arthur Thornley steered LSO through the lean post war years. His tireless efforts and many musical talents helped restore the orchestra to its former standard, one of the best orchestras of its type in the country.

Sam Dobson
Thornley family knowledge and records
Neil Crutchley's book on the LSO -
on sale on this website
Leicester Mercury

Arthur Thornley about 1971,
courtesy of Neil Crutchley

go back to the top

George R Tebbs

GR Tebbs 1913 George Robert TEBBS (1871 – 1923) was a modest man at the centre of music making in Leicester in the decade before the Leicester Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1922. He was the much loved founder of the De Montfort Orchestra, Leicester's first full symphony orchestra to perform on a frequent and regular basis. George was acknowledged to have played a significant part in laying the solid foundations on which the LSO was built.

He was born to Robert and Frances Tebbs in Melton Mowbray on 28th February 1871. His father Robert was 47 and trading as a brazier or worker in brass, and the family were living over their shop in the Market Place. The census of 1871 shows that his grandmother Elizabeth Tebbs, a lady of 78, was living with the family and assisting with the business.

GRT Melton School George attended the British School in Melton Mowbray and on this school photograph taken when George was about ten, he is indicated centre right, with a cross. His father, now 57 years of age, had retired. In 1886 his father died and left a will which provided that George should inherit his piano. This could be taken as an indication of George's active interest in music which was to play such a huge part in his life.

GRT Family The census of 1891 shows that the family business had moved to Leicester and George, who was employed as an ironmonger's assistant, was living with his widowed mother. One year later George married Janet Stafford of Ashley, Northants. A son, Rupert Egerton was born 1893 and a daughter, Alice Marjorie known as Marjorie, was born 1894. The picture on the next page shows the young family. The census of 1901 shows that George's mother Frances was still living with the family and they also had a live-in domestic servant.

George Tebbs with young family.

In 1895 George set up his own ironmongery business at 20 Humberstone Road, Leicester and for nine years the family lived over the shop. The business prospered and expanded into additional premises in Wharf Street. Success in business however was contrasted with events of the most heart rending kind for the family.

In 1903 the eight year old Marjorie died of diphtheria and within three years fate had dealt an unimaginable second blow, when George's wife Janet died at the age of 33. The death certificate gives the cause as heart trouble but the story passed down through the family was more definite. She had died of a broken heart following the death of her daughter.

GRT with cello and friends George had always taken a keen interest in music and it seems likely that this double tragedy acted to increase his involvement. In 1906 he moved to 158 Melbourne Road and a friend commented that it was rare to pass his house without hearing the sound of music coming from within. We see him here pictured playing his cello with a small group of friends.

George Tebbs, with cello, and friends

George was an accomplished all round musician, who could play trumpet, cello, cornet, trombone and percussion. His knowledge and skills were much in demand in the Wesley Hall Orchestra which he joined soon after the opening of the Wesley Hall Methodist Church in Highfields in 1897.

Developing this orchestra became George's life's work and the process by which this happened was described by a friend and fellow member, William Taylor. 'George Tebbs was a modest man who started as trumpet but was soon pressed into service as deputy conductor, and later as conductor. A small string band was developed into a complete orchestra, a self supporting society had been founded, a large library of standard compositions had been purchased and every requisite for their rendering provided.

From the outset a fine social spirit had been sustained, rehearsals became hours of pleasant recreation, summer excursions and an annual reunion induced good fellowship and the biggest thing of all – an audience had been created.'

Mr Taylor continued, 'One steady purpose ran through it all, a determination that the poorest citizen should have opportunity to hear good music well rendered. Gradually most of the capable instrumentalists of the town attached themselves to the organization, symphonies were performed with every part going, and a crowd of working people came to listen to Beethoven and other great composers.'

GRT batons Two conductor's batons are included in the family's collection relating to George. It can be assumed that these were presented by the orchestra as a token of appreciation following major musical events. One is dated 1909, the other is undated.

Two ceremonial batons presented to George.

Inaugural concert

The inaugural concert at the new De Montfort Hall: 18 September 1913

The orchestra changed its name to the De Montfort Orchestra on the occasion of the opening of the De Montfort Hall in September 1913. It performed the inaugural concert of the new venue and this magnificent photograph was taken to mark the occasion, a copy of which is held in the Leicester Records Office. The orchestra is seen with its much loved conductor in the centre with baton. Most of the other musicians have been identified. There were free Sunday night concerts once a fortnight, which were very popular. Classics were interspersed with lighter popular pieces. George Tebbs had achieved something not done before - he had created Leicester's first full symphony orchestra which played on a frequent and regular basis.

Friends paid tribute to George's generous nature and unselfish values. It was noted that, 'all who came into intimate fellowship with the De Montfort Orchestra found inspiration in the example of the conductor... His enthusiasm for music resulted in a great service, the full value of which is scarcely yet known.'

By the age of 45 George had sold his business and done so well that he was able to retire and devote himself full time to music. In addition to running his orchestra George was a familiar figure in local music circles and regularly helped with the organisation of military and brass band contests. He took a keen interest in the Leicester Imperial Band and attended all their contests for many years, wherever and whenever they occurred.

On many occasions George gave help and advice to Councillor George Hilton, the Musical Director for the Corporation. This was usually on the arrangements needed when staging popular events, whether in the parks or at De Montfort Hall. Councillor Hilton acknowledged the value of the practical help given by Mr Tebbs which he said, 'cannot be over estimated'.

Engraved cigarette case

Engraving on inside of cigarette case from 1917

George also conducted the Leicester Amateur and Dramatic Society (the Amateurs) in a selection of Gilbert and Sullivan operas over a six year period. As a conductor his readings were, 'always sound and musicianly'. On several occasions he was presented with engraved items such as this hallmarked cigarette case, aside, given after the 1917 production of the Mikado.

Early in 1919 George conducted the Amateurs in the Gondoliers at the Leicester Royal Opera House. On the afternoon of the matinee a young Dr (later Sir Malcolm) Sargent, organist and choirmaster from Melton Mowbray, came with his friends. Such was their enthusiasm that by the time they had motored back to Melton they had made a decision - to set up their own amateur operatic society in Melton.

Programme 1920

Cover of programme featuring De Montfort Orchestra from November 1920

In the summer of 1922 auditions were held for a new orchestra the Leicester Symphony Orchestra, initiated by William Russell a music shop owner and his son Karl. It seems that the De Montfort Orchestra, which had served the city so well for ten years, was no longer attracting the audiences it once had. It now faced a serious threat from the new orchestra which was to be conducted by the charismatic and exceptionally gifted Malcolm Sargent, who was destined to become one of this country's greatest conductors. Sargent was rapidly gathering followers and had already shown that he was capable of attracting capacity audiences to the vast De Montfort Hall.

The Leicester Symphony Orchestra drew musicians from far and wide but the nucleus of players was recruited from George Tebbs' De Montfort Orchestra. Grace Burrows, regarded as Leicester's best violinist, led both orchestras over a 30 year period. George's son Rupert who was a keen French horn player also played for both orchestras.

- 0 - 0 - 0 - 0 - 0 -

George died unexpectedly at the age of 52. He had not been feeling well and was admitted to the Leicester Royal Infirmary where he died following an operation. The cause of death was given as kidney failure. He died 12th December 1923, not 1925 as recorded on his grave stone.

The mourners at his funeral in Belgrave Cemetery reflected George's unique position at the centre of music making in Leicester. As well as family, there were members of De Montfort Orchestra, the Leicester Competitive Music Festival, Leicester Brass Bands, Leicester Symphony Orchestra and Leicester Amateur and Dramatic Society. There were wreaths from Leicester City Orchestra, Leicester YMCA Orchestra and Leicester Choral Union.

George was laid to rest with his wife Janet and Marjorie, his daughter. He would be joined eventually by his mother Frances who died in 1938 aged 96 years, and his son Rupert who died in 1975 age 82 years.

Tribute The general sense of loss was voiced by Malcolm Sargent at a rehearsal of the recently formed Leicester Symphony Orchestra. A respectful Sargent paid tribute praising, 'the noble work of one who for so long fostered the cause of orchestral music in Leicester' and, 'it should be remembered that to Mr Tebbs was owing a great debt of gratitude, in that he realised the great possibilities of orchestral music in Leicester.'

Leicester Mercury report of LSO tribute

Sargent fully recognised that in developing the Leicester Symphony Orchestra he was to a large extent building on the solid foundations so carefully laid by George Tebbs.

The De Montfort Orchestra survived the death of its conductor and the depletion of players drawn away by Malcolm Sargent and the Leicester Symphony Orchestra. It moved back to its old base in the Wesley Hall and was finally extinguished by the Second World War.

Sam Dobson

Further information and copies of photographs are available on application by e-mail to or through the LSO website

Tebbs family knowledge and archive
Leicester Mercury
Charles Reid's biography of Malcolm Sargent
Neil Crutchley: Leicester Symphony Orchestra - The First 90 Years

The author would welcome hearing from anyone who has more information on
George Tebbs or the De Montfort Orchestra. Please contact by e-mail at or the website

go back to the top

Michael Tippett

Michael Tippett 1965

Michael Tippett (1905-1998), later Sir Michael, has no direct connection with Leicester Symphony Orchestra but I have included an entry on him here because his path crossed that of Malcolm Sargent significantly during his formative years. It was after seeing one of Sargent's Russell Subscription Concerts - the forerunner of the LSO – that Tippett decided that he was going to be a composer. Later, he conducted the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra many times in De Montfort Hall, Leicester. This picture is from 1965 by kind permission of the LSSO.


Michael Tippett was 10 years younger than Malcolm Sargent. Both were pupils at Stamford School and both took piano lessons with Mrs Tinkler in the town. During his Melton years Sargent supplemented his income by teaching at Stamford School. Tippett, who was beginning to show an interest in music, clearly recalls becoming aware of the 'slim, well dressed' music teacher who was known as 'the Young Doctor'. He was frightened but fascinated by Sargent who he described as so, 'un-school'.

It was soon after this, in February 1922, that Tippett was one of a coach party of boys from the school that went to De Montfort Hall to hear Sargent in one of the Russell Series Concerts. Tippett was considering a career in music and this was a turning point. It was the first time he had heard a symphony orchestra – the programme is shown aside - the concert included a modern work: Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, which made a great impression on him. The concert strengthened his determination to take up a career in music. What is more, he would become a composer.

Merrie England

Michael Tippett was an enthusiastic member of many of Sargent's stage productions both for the school and for the Stamford Amateur Operatic Society. The picture aside, from 1923 shows the SAOS production of Merrie England, with Sargent in the centre and an 18 year old Michael Tippett as the King's Fool, bottom right.

Tippett’s parents wrote to Sargent telling him they wished to, 'put Michael to music' and Sargent advised against it, citing how precarious the career of a professional musician could be. Happily his advice was ignored and Tippett entered the Royal College of Music where his tutor in the conducting class was none other than Malcolm Sargent. Tippett went on to become one of the greatest British composers of the second half of the twentieth century.

Tippet renewed his association with Leicestershire in 1964 when he agreed to become patron of the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra. Surprisingly, for a composer so much in demand, he was very active in his role as patron until the 1980s and was greatly loved by the young musicians whose company he enjoyed. He conducted the LSSO on numerous occasions in Leicester and other English towns and on foreign visits. He concentrated mostly on twentieth century music, including pieces he composed especially for the LSSO. Under Tippett the LSSO established new standards for music-making in an educational context.

Sam Dobson
Charles Reid's biography of Malcolm Sargent
Neil Crutchley: Leicester Symphony Orchestra - The First 90 Years
Leicestershire & Rutland County Records Office, Wigston

go back to the top

Karl Russell

Sargent and Russell 1940

George Karl Russell (c1888 – c1960), known as Karl, was the driving force behind the establishment of the Leicester Symphony Orchestra. This followed the astounding success of Malcolm Sargent's debut 'Windy Day' concert in February 1921. As well as helping to run his father's music shop he was passionate about music and arranged countless concerts for Leicester audiences. He was an enormously extravagant man who moved among celebrities but whose life ended in the disappointment of business failure.

Karl's father, William H Russell or Billy, was known as a rough diamond. In 1885 he started selling second-hand pianos and harmoniums from his house in Saxe-Coburg Street, later renamed Saxby Street. The business prospered and by the 1920s it was formally known as Wm H Russell & Son, with a shop, 'City Piano Salon', established at 7 London Road. Later, following redesignation, the same property is given as 99 Granby Street. For a short spell in the 1930s the business expanded into premises in Belvoir Street but this proved unsustainable.

Karl Russell and Malcolm Sargent : 1940

February 1922 poster

Karl was quick to act following Malcolm Sargent's astounding success at his 'Windy Day' concert in February 1921. The young choir master and organist from Melton Mowbray had conducted his own specially composed piece An Impression on a Windy Day to a packed De Montfort Hall. It was clear from the audience's enthusiasm and even adulation, that Sargent was someone with mass appeal; for the Russells, a business opportunity too good to miss and an effective way of fighting the dominance of business rival J Herbert Marshall, Leicester's leading music shop. Russell and Sargent quickly agreed on how things should proceed.

Four “Russell” Subscription Concerts featuring Dr Sargent were arranged for the following season and a prominant advert placed in the Leicester Mercury, 'The Hon directors have been fortunate in securing the services of Dr Malcolm Sargent as their Musical director. These concerts will give Dr Sargent every opportunity to display his undoubted Genius and amazing Versatility as Composer, Conductor, Pianist and Organist. These concerts will be Brilliant and Fascinating.' It seems this was no exaggeration. Two of the original programmes, aside, are held in the Wigston Records Office.

April 1922 poster

Karl Russell was clearly pleased with the early results as, after the first of the four concerts, he and Sargent were already making plans. The third concert had a professional orchestra but for the first, second and fourth concerts local musicians were brought together for each concert separately. This was impractical and a decision was taken to build a full sized symphony orchestra to give regular concerts for the following season and beyond. An essential part of the plan was to enlist Grace Burrows, recognised as Leicester's outstanding violinist, as leader. She would also help manage the new orchestra, to be called Leicester Symphony Orchestra. The first concert was to be given October 1922. For Sargent, the new orchestra would allow him further opportunities to build support and win national recognition.

Sargent remembered Karl Russell as, 'a small dapper man who was very particular about his appearence, went to London regularly to get his hair dressed, played the piano plausibly, collected expensive editions of the classics and lived in a big, tastefully furnished house in Ratcliffe Road, Stoneygate'. The photograph above shows Russell and Sargent, in front of the French doors at the rear of this house.

Fancy Dress

A vital feature of Russell's music shop was its ticket office. This brought large numbers of concert and theatre-goers into the shop. Many of the events had been promoted by Karl Russell himself.

The shop holds fond memories by many former staff. The most important thing according to one former employee quoted in the Leicester Mercury in 2011 was, 'Mr Karl Russell himself, bringing top artists, orchestras and entertainers to Leicester. Accomplished musicians practising, famous people visiting, it was all there – Russell's was a wonderful place to work.'

The illustrations below show Russell's publicity from the Leicester Symphony Orchestra archive. The brown one is from 1925; note that the words salon, salons and saloons seem to be interchangeable. The blue one is from 1933.

Piano shop 1925

The photograph above was supplied by Olga Weston, the daughter of Arthur and Mary Thornley. Olga particularly remembers Karl Russell's very fashionable light grey suits. This is the only picture she has of Karl, taken at a fancy dress event in the post war years. All of the group were heavily involved in music making in Leicester. They are; Frank Muston – played violin and viola in the LSO and was headmaster of Alderman Newton Boy's School, Arthur Thornley, Mary Thornley, Haydn Hopkins, the Thomases – both involved in light opera and Karl Russell.

Haydn Hopkins (for many years lead cello of the LSO) worked with Karl Russell for 20 years from 1929 when he left school. He became a partner in the business but this was dissolved in 1950 when he left to become a teacher at Roundhill School. On one occasion they travelled together, in pursuit of music, to a Wagner festival in Bayreuth. Karl was enormously extravagant. He went to London frequently, often to Covent Garden to dine at the Savoy. He met countless celebrities including Eva Turner, famous for Turandot and many Wagnerian roles. The last time she sang Turandot was in 1948 on which occasion she dined with Karl Russell.

Piano shop 1933

It is clear that until the 1950s both father and son had made a very good living out of their business. Unfortunately Karl failed to keep up with the changing landscape of the retail world. He seemed to be blind to the changes or just refused to acknowledge them. By the mid 1950s the business had failed.

Karl Russell retired to the south coast and in 1958 Sargent, conducting in Hastings with the BBC orchestra, took the opportunity to call on the man who, nearly 40 years earlier, had helped launch his career with the four “Russell” Subscription Concerts and the founding of Leicester Symphony Orchestra. Sargent's description of Karl Russell shows that much had changed. Karl was, 'battered by ill fortune and folly' and 'a pathetic old man – with two years to live'.

Sam Dobson

Charles Reid's biography of Malcolm Sargent
Neil Crutchley: Leicester Symphony Orchestra
                                     - The First 90 Years
Leicestershire and Rutland County Records Office, Wigston
Thornley family knowledge
Hopkins family knowledge
Leicester Mercury

Grace Burrows

Grace 1914 1

Grace Burrows (1893–1981) was an accomplished violinist at the forefront of performing and teaching in Leicester for 30 years. She played a central role in setting up and running Leicester Symphony Orchestra (LSO) which she led for 20 years. She actively promoted the cause of women musicians by her own example and by her work conducting and leading the pioneering British Women's Symphony Orchestra. She was described by Malcolm Sargent as, 'a remarkable young woman'.

Grace was born and lived in the Highfields, then a newly developed area for fairly prosperous families of Leicester. Music played a huge part in her upbringing. Both her parents were musical; being noted performers and teachers. Her mother, Mary Elizabeth, (born Gray 1867), known as Elizabeth, was an excellent pianist. Her father Benjamin Harper Burrows (1864-1915) played violin, viola and later cello. He was a scholar and teacher of some repute and was closely involved with the Leicester Orchestral Union (LOU) from 1884 until his death. The LOU gave, in total, 29 concerts, usually annually, mostly in the Temperance Hall on Granby Street, then Leicester's most important concert venue. With the death of her father and the outbreak of war there were no concerts for a six year period from 1914. It was decided that the LOU should be wound up. The final two concerts in 1920 and 1923 were led by Grace.

Grace 1913

Both Grace and her brother Benjamin (1891-1966) clearly inherited their parents' gifts in full measure. By the age of 20, Grace was already regarded as the best violinist in Leicester and was the natural choice of George Tebbs to lead his De Montfort Orchestra (DMO), Leicester's premier orchestra, which gave its first performance at the opening of De Montfort Hall in 1913. Grace led the DMO and gave solo recitals for more than 10 years. This close-up of Grace is taken from a marvellous photograph of the DMO, a copy of which was donated by Grace herself to the Leicester Records Office.

The main event shown in the programme below from 1914, is an organ recital by her brother Benjamin, with a violin solo from Grace. By this time Grace had qualifications in both teaching and performing. She had realistic hopes of furthering her violin studies under the great Ševcík in Prague ,and was bitterly disappointed when the outbreak of war made this impossible.

Grace inherited 40 or so pupils from her father, who she taught from her house in Highfield Street. The picture, also below, like the one at the head of this article was taken professionally for publicity purposes and comes from this time. With typical industry, Grace is known to have published a series of exercises for violin and piano to aid learning. In addition her Pupils' Orchestra met regularly in the Edward Wood Building (now Fraser Noble Hall) attracting numerous young musicians from Leicester and beyond. For one youngster, the gifted Mary Thornley (born Ashmell), Grace's Pupils' Orchestra was a gateway to recognition. Mary was recruited to the LSO by Grace when only 14, where she played a key role for an astounding 70 years.

1914 Organ Recital poster

By the early 1920s Karl Russell, a Leicester music shop owner, must have been very aware of Grace. She had been involved with most of Leicester's top music groups for ten years, either as leader in concerts and operas or as a soloist. It is also known she was leading the orchestra that accompanied the Melton Choral Society's very first concert in April 1918 at the Drill Hall in Melton Mowbray where Malcolm Sargent (1895–1967) was choir master and organist. This concert was significant in Sargent's career, being his conducting debut.

The most significant moment in Sargent's rise to fame came in February 1921 at Leicester's De Montfort Hall when he conducted his own specially composed piece An Impression on a Windy Day to a rapturous full house. Sir Henry Wood was so impressed by Sargent's conducting abilities that he invited him to conduct the work at the Proms. It was clear to all that Sargent could attract an audience and Karl Russell, a local music shop owner and something of a impresario, saw an opportunity and approached Sargent proposing a series of four “Russell” Subscription Concerts. It is not surprising that Grace was integral to his plan.

It was Grace who mobilised the various forces needed for three of the Russell Subscription Concerts, the remaining concert being with a professional orchestra. Over the series, she recruited a 'Festival Chorus' from Leicester Oriana Choral Society and Leicester Choral Union as well as Stamford and Melton Operatic Societies. Her 'Festival' orchestra was known to have quite a high proportion of professional players, mostly from theatres and cinema pits around Leicester. These were supplemented by amateurs and semi-professionals, many from George Tebbs' De Montfort Orchestra.

The first Russell concert was so successful that a decision was taken to build a full sized symphony orchestra to give regular concerts for the following season and beyond. Grace was appointed leader and took auditions for string players which were held on a hot Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1922. She also conducted rehearsals when Sargent was absent. As well as managing the new orchestra, the Leicester Symphony Orchestra, she had a seat on the governing body. The LSO gave its first concert in October 1922. There were to be four concerts a year, each concert having four rehearsals. In the first season the strength moved up from 70 to 80 players.

Grace 1914 2

Grace Burrows led the LSO in every concert until 1939. In one concert in October 1935 however , she replaced Sargent on the rostrum while he played a Mozart piano concerto, the Leicester Mercury reported that she, 'stood out both for her handling of the orchestra' and, in the same concert, 'for her delicate violin playing in the Dvorak New World Symphony'.

In addition to her teaching and LSO commitments, which were substantial enough, Grace had the demands of a young family. She had married Horace William Lee (1889-1976) in March 1919 but maintained her professional name, Miss Grace Burrows for musical activities. The couple had three sons.

Grace in Quartet

Today, Grace would probably be regarded as a feminist as, contrary to common practise, she was absolutely determined to maintain all aspects of her musical life after marriage. The family moved to Chiswick in 1936; a career move for Horace. For three years, Grace travelled to Leicester for concerts but the outbreak of war in 1939 made this very difficult and her last known LSO concert was in May 1943.

By 1920 Grace was playing viola in the the Birmingham String Quartet, founded by its leader Percival Hodgson. Chamber concerts were given around the country throughout the 1920s and the quartet clearly established a considerable reputation, recognized by the BBC who made a 45 minute broadcast of a Cardiff concert in 1927. The announcement in the Radio Times was supported by a copy of this photograph. Grace is pictured on the right. Unusually for the time, the quartet comprised two men and two ladies.

Madrigal poster

Among her musical activities in Leicester, Grace led most of the leading orchestras of the town including Leicester Glee and Madrigal Society, as shown in the programme alongside. We know that she also founded and led her own 'Grace Burrows Orchestra', her own string quartet and string orchestra. Details are sketchy but these seem to have had some kind of educational role, as on occasions she conducted what were known as 'Lecture Concerts'. On more than one occasion, chamber concerts were given with Malcolm Sargent on the piano, such as the performance was given to the Leicester Chamber Music Society in 1934.

Grace was appointed part time lecturer in music by Leicester University in 1924. Her brother Benjamin was also appointed to the same department in the same year. Benjamin occasionally played with LSO whenever a supplementary pianist or organist was needed. The programme of December 1928, shown on the next page, is an example of this. Like his sister he is a highly significant figure in Leicester's musical history and deserves to be better known. For this reason he is the subject of a short separate article.

In 1932 Grace embarked on what was probably her most ambitious project, with the British Women's Symphony Orchestra (BWSO). We know that Grace conducted at least six performances and led the orchestra for two. She was publicly commended for her work on more than one occasion by the great Dame Ethel Smyth, a leading composer and well known supporter of votes for women, who she may have met in 1925 when Dame Ethel guest conducted the LSO. There is an interesting piece of Pathé film showing Grace conducting the BWSO at the Queen's Hall, then London's premier venue.

Sargent Article

The BWSO gave its first concert in 1924, under its founder Gwynne Kimpton. From 1925 Malcolm Sargent took over the baton until early in 1932, when Grace took over. The detail alongside from the 1935 LSO season brochure, explains her work with the BWSO as well as her chamber performances with Malcolm Sargent. At her final concert with the BWSO in March 1937, Grace led the orchestra, and special mention was made in the press of her, 'eloquent and persuasive solo passages in Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade'. I can find no mention of the BWSO after 1938 but it had clearly demonstrated that women could equal men in musicianship, virtuosity, application, and discipline and that a women's orchestra could be the equal of any men's orchestra. Today's reader may be surprised that any such demonstration was needed and credit must surely be given to pioneers like Grace, who were prepared to push the boundaries.

Ben Burrows 1928

In Chiswick, Grace soon gathered pupils from all over London and the Home Counties. She also played a characteristically full part in the local music scene, playing violin or viola in groups and orchestras such as the Surrey Philharmonic Orchestra and the Kathleen Riddick String Orchestra, giving concerts in Chiswick Old Town Hall. She was also a visiting violin teacher at Wycombe Abbey School for Girls.

In the post war years Grace made occasional visits to Leicester for concerts. Her most regular appearance was at the invitation of George Gray, the esteemed organist at Leicester Cathedral. This was to lead the orchestra in the Leicester Bach Choir annual Eastertide performance of works such as Bach's St Matthew Passion.

In 1966 her brother Benjamin died and Grace played violin at the memorial service at Victoria (now University) Road Church. This included several of Benjamin's own compositions. After his death she helped further the cause of his music by collecting and publicising his works. She had always felt proud of her brother's achievements; there seemed to be a special bond between them. Like many of the, admittedly few, people who knew Ben Burrows’ music, she genuinely believed much of it had great merit. The collection is held in the Leicester University Library Archive.

In her later years Grace moved, with her husband, to Warsash near Southampton, to be nearer her eldest son. She died aged 88 and is buried with Horace in Warsash.

Sam Dobson

Family Knowledge; Cedric Lee, Grace's only surviving son who most generously shared memories, and photographs. Interview 11 June 2017
Leicester Symphony Orchestra Archive
Charles Reid: biography of Malcolm Sargent
Family Knowledge; Olga Weston, daughter of Mary Thornley
County Records Office for Leicestershire and Rutland, Wigston

Full versions of the illustrations are available on request. The author would welcome hearing from anyone who has more information on Grace Burrows. Please contact by e-mail at or via the website

go back to the top