Mary Caroline Palmer – Founder of the Bedford Choir
by Linda Ayres
The Palmer family were talented musicians. Mary’s youngest son Marshall Palmer was organist at St. Mary’s Church, Woburn, and music teacher at Owen’s School, Bedford. In 1941, Marshall Palmer formed the new Bedford Musical Society. Her granddaughter is Felicity Palmer the world-famous mezzo-soprano and music professor. She was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1993 and Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2011.
Mary Caroline Palmer, formerly Cowley, was born in 1868 at Brighton. She was the youngest of six children born to Thomas and Kesia Cowley. The family lived at 106 Weston Road, Brighton from where her father ran his own bakery and confectionery.
Mary won scholarships at the Brighton School of Music, (then an unofficial branch of the Royal Academy of Music in London). She studied the piano under German pianist Professor Wilhelm Kuhe of the Royal Academy of Music, and singing under Mr. Robert Taylor, conductor of the Brighton Sacred Harmonic Society and teacher. As a singer and pianist, she was in great demand at Brighton concerts. Her soprano voice was notable for its purity and high range.
The ‘Brighton Gazette and Sussex Daily Telegraph’ Monday March 15th, 1886, reported, “The students concert at Messrs Harper’s Music Warehouse in Ship Street, Brighton. ‘The trio from Haydn’s Creation,” On thee each living soul awaits,’ performed by Miss M. Cowley, Mr W. Clowser, and Mr C. H. Buckman received a fair interpretation, the tenor and bass voices being effective.”
Mary performed at Dorking Y.M.C.A Capital Concert at the public hall. The Dorking Advertiser of January 21st 1893, reports, ‘A silver medallist, Miss Mary Cowley, of the Brighton School of Music, appeared, and her fine soprano voice was heard to such advantage in “Tell my Heart” that the accomplished young lady was obliged to respond to the call for an encore. She then gave “When Love is Kind,” a quaint old ditty from which time appears to efface none of its sweetness.”
On the 21st of June 1894, at Brighton, Mary married William Palmer of Woodford. He was the editor of Hazell’s Annual (a Cyclopaedic Record of Men). It was reported that the wedding presents were numerous and costly. Soon after, they moved to Bedford at 26 Merton Road. William was the editor of the Bedfordshire Times and Independent from 1895 until his death in 1922.
Soon after World War I, the Bedfordshire Musical Festival opened, and Mary became one of the keenest supporters. In the early years, she trained children’s choirs to compete. Choral music was one of the main interests of her life. In the autumn of 1924, she formed her womens’ choir and she first sang at the County Festival in March of the following year. A few months later, she began a mixed choir that made its first public appearance at Northampton in the November. The women’s choir always totalled about 30 members and joined by about 20 men to help form the mixed choir. The Mary Palmer Choirs took part in musical festivals in many places up and down the country, and they gained an enviable reputation wherever they sang.
In May 1927, the choir broadcasted from Savoy Hill, Broadcasting House in London. Ten years later, Mary conducted her singers at Broadcasting House and once more in 1938. On each occasion, the choir sung half an hour’s programme on national and local radio.
In 1937, 1938, and 1939 the choir formed the basis of a larger choir for the summer Festival Service of Music in Woburn Church, an event set up by Mary’s youngest son, Mr. H. Marshall Palmer. Mary, herself, sang in this combined choir and took a great deal of interest in the Festival.
In latter years, Mary was an active member of the Woburn Sands Women’s Institute, serving on the committee and singing in the Institute choir, which competed at the County Festival. She often conducted community singing when the members met.
Although Mary moved to Woburn Sands in 1935, she stayed a member of Bunyan Meeting, Bedford. For many years, she was secretary of the Bunyan Mothers’ Meeting from whose members she formed a choir. This choir competed under her conductorship on two occasions at the County Festival. Mary used to take members of her family and friends to entertain the Mothers’ Meeting with carols. Similar carol singing parties also visited the Poor Law Institution and the Bedford Prison regularly for over ten years, and people much appreciated Mary’s friendly talks.
Mary had suffered ill health for many years. For some years before and during the war, she was often in London hospitals and nursing homes or recuperating at hydropathical establishments. In the last twenty years of her life, Mary’s health showed some improvement and she was able to return to her music. Such was her love of music that on the day before she died, Mary asked for gramophone records of choruses from Handel’s “Messiah” to be played outside her room. She died in the early hours of the following morning on Saturday January 7th, 1941 at the age of 73 years.
The funeral service held in St, Mary’s Church, Woburn, preceded the interment in the grave of Mary’s husband, located in a leafy area behind the chapel.
Grave Ref: E6.192
Bedfordshire Times and Standard 17th January 1941
Bedford Directory 1914
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