John W. IVIMEY (1868-1961)


JOHN IVIMEY by John Hassall, creator of the Jolly Fisherman (‘Skegness is so Bracing’).

Unusually, for a composer born in the middle years of the century before last, his music is still in copyright in this country. So is his writing, a children’s book, first published over 100 years ago. This book is still regularly reprinted. Because copyright is determined by the date the originator died, rather than when the work was created, the illustrations are in the public domain, which is why I am able to reproduce them in this blog. Ivimey lived to a great age, dying at 92. He died  as recently as 1961 when I was twelve. It is remarkable to think that he lived into the modern era of motorways and the Mini (both introduced in 1959). This is a man who in 1888 had travelled to his first interview for a teaching post by horse and gig in a snow storm! He was born in what is now part of Greater London, but at the time of his birth – 1868 – West Ham was in Essex .

He was educated as a pupil of Henry Gadsby, a distinguished but largely self-taught musician who was a founding professor at the Guildhall School of Music. Ivimey was first educated in music in London. Later he was awarded a Doctorate of Music at Oxford University. At the age of 20 in 1888 he was appointed assistant Music Master at Wellington College. The Public School was then quite young, having been built as a monument to the Duke of Wellington in 1859. As you might expect the parents were largely Army officers. After two years he was appointed to a much older school, Harrow, in a similar capacity. Harrow is famous for its school songs of which Forty Years On is perhaps the best known.  A pupil of Harrow at this time was one Winston Churchill, but not I think a musical one.

He was divorced from his first wife in 1907. The couple had agreed to a separation in 1905. The divorce petition alleged both cruelty and adultery on the  husband’s part, both of which he denied. It is certainly the case that relations between the two had irretrievably broken down. John Ivimey only remarried after his former wife’s death in 1947. The couple had two children, a girl and a boy and had been married in 1893. Ivimey resigned from Harrow school in the year of his marriage. Since 1891 he had been organist of St Paul’s, Onslow Square, South Kensington and before that he had another church appointment. Presumably he intended to concentrate on his work as an organist, having just qualified as a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists.

For a decade from 1905 he was the Musical Director of the Cambridge Footlights. This was only a part-time job and it only occupied him when a production was in progress. The Cambridge Footlights Club has produced a number of well-known performers over the years, notably Peter Cook and more recently Stephen Fry. He was already involved in musical theatre before the Cambridge appointment, being musical director for a play called The Mutineers in Manchester some five years earlier.


1904 was the year he published his magnum opus. It was not a piece of music however, but a children’s book called the Complete Version of Ye Three Blind Mice. This was about the time when Warne, his publishers, were  also publishing Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit (1902). His Three Blind Mice has been republished 36 times in Britain, Australia and the United States; it has even been published in South Africa in Africaans. The most recent edition dates from the twenty-first century.

The story is an account of the three blind mice which is made less bloodthirsty (but also less true to life) by the eventual restoration of the mice’s tails and even their sight.  The tails regrew after the application of medicine from a Re-Tail Chemist! The work owes much of its popularity, I believe, to the excellent illustrations by Walton Courbold, about half of which were in colour. Colour printing was a very recent development when this was first published and must have been a delight to children. There is a musical element of course, with the score of the round Three Blind Mice printed as a frontispiece.


The March East Anglia was written for the Great Eastern Railway Musical Society. It was published by the author and there is no copy referred to in the list of his publications in the British Library catalogue, so I assume it is quite rare. The first performance of the march was given in the orchestral version –which would have been in manuscript, and must have been lost – in 1909 at the  Great Eastern Hotel (Liverpool Street Station) in London.

From 1889 for over 10 years his brother Joseph, a violinist, ran a series of chamber music concerts at Surbiton with his quartet. J. W. Ivimey played the piano at concerts they gave. Although not himself a violinist he was prevailed upon to take the place of a second violin who was indisposed. He wrote a piece for the quartet with exacting parts for other players, who were too engrossed to notice that the second violin part consisted mainly of notes played on the open strings! They traditionally ended their performances with Beethoven’s septet in E flat op 20.

In 1920 Joseph Ivimey was conductor of the Great Western Railway Musical Society. The family seems to have had affinity with railway musicians. You will notice J. W. Ivimey’s March East Anglia has  at its head the dedication to Lady Claud Hamilton. This lady’s husband Lord Claud Hamilton was the Chairman of the Great Eastern Railway, and had a famous type of express engine named after him (see my blog for February 25 2012 for these locomotives). You will observe that the March was Expressly written for the music society! The Great Eastern Musical Society was the idea of another director of the railway, William Johnson Galloway, an enthusiastic amateur musician. The choir and orchestra were drawn exclusively from employees of the railway. It was formed in 1908, the year previous to the first performance of the March East Anglia. With an informality far in advance of its time the concerts were relaxed affairs with the audience sitting not in rows but around tables in the Hamilton Hall of the hotel. Refreshments were served between items. Even today concerts are not so agreeable! The society acquired an impressive reputation, performing far beyond East Anglia, in such places as York and Edinburgh, and could call on the services of the best professional conductors of the time.

JOHN IVIMEY in later life

The March is a jolly piece of light music, but it has a central section of quite exotic chromatic harmonies. I have been able to enjoy it through producing a midi version to play on my computer. Apart from his position of Musical Director of the Great Eastern Musical Society (and that job was based in London) Ivimey does not seem to have had much connection with East Anglia, although being born in Essex and being involved with the Cambridge Footlights give him a slightly “eastern” bearing. Nevertheless, he was really a Londoner. He travelled in East Anglia however, and during the First World War he was staying Lowestoft when it was hit by a Zeppelin raid. This was in September of 1915, although he does not reveal what he was doing there. Air raids were a new and terrifying experience at the time, although by comparison with Second World War air raids the bombing from airships scarcely made any impression on the country.

In 1906 he had been appointed organist of Dulwich College chapel, and he remained at Dulwich until 1910.  During the time he was at Dulwich he would have come into contact with Gordon Jacob, the composer whose arrangement of the National Anthem was used at the  Queen’s Coronation in 1953. On leaving Dulwich College in 1910 he worked lecturing on music at an evening institutes in London, but this employment ceased on the outbreak of war in August 1914. It was while he was in Cambridge for May Week 1914, conducting a musical he had written for the Footlights Revue, that he was asked if he would consider another appointment as school musician. At the time he had no reason to believe his adult education duties would soon be at an end but he was in the event glad to return to school employment. Cheltenham, the school that employed him, is another school of the Victorian era; it was founded in 1841 by two local residents “for the education of the sons of gentlemen”. The Great War was a overturning the lives of younger men, and Mr Dyer the organist of Cheltenham College was leaving to join the Navy. Ivimey spent the war years happily fulfilling the organist’s duties at Cheltenham but with return of peace Mr Dyer returned from the Navy and resumed his former employment.

Fortunately in 1919 Ivimey was offered the position of Musical Director of Marlborough College, now perhaps best known as the Duchess of Cambridge’s alma mater. He remained at the college until he retired in 1933.  Just as Wellington was intended for the sons of military families and Cheltenham for the sons of “gentlemen”, so Marlborough was originally aimed at the sons of Church of England clergymen. Those whose parents were not in holy orders paid more, thereby subsidising the members of the cloth.

Arriving at the school in the early 1920s was the young Louis Macniece, later namely for his poetry. Another poet who was educated at Marlborough during these years was John Betjeman. In his blank verse autobiography Summoned by Bells, Betjeman devotes a chapter to his life at Marlborough. It wasn’t all good, but the place he loved most of all was the school chapel – Ivimey’s special domain.

After retiring from his final position at Marlborough College in 1933 he wrote his memoirs of a lifetime in school teaching. It was published in 1936 at the cost of 3/6.  Boys and Music was a short paperback of 99 pages and mostly aimed (I suspect) at old boys of Marlborough and other distinguished public schools where he had taught. However he also directed it more generally at anybody with a son at public school, who wished to learn more about music teaching in the private sector. This was a subject which he claimed had not been dealt with before. The book was published in Marlborough by the local paper.

With an impressive list of pupils whom he had taught and a diverse composing and writing career I feel John Ivimey deserves this short biography. Besides the works already mentioned, the following are those of Ivymey’s publications I know of, but it is undoubtedly incomplete. World Cat mentions 78 works. This however is my list:

Part-writing for Beginners,        Crispinian (Hymn),         Six Kyries suitable for congregational use,          Six Introits adapted from Palestrina ‘Congaudeat turbo fidelium’,        Eleventh Century Carol, (arranged by)            Thou comest here to the Land. Arranged for S. A. T. B.            The Baby on the Shore. Arranged as a Quartette for male voices,             The Lyrics of the New Dean. A musical absurdity in 2 acts,              Clacton-on-Sea Gavotte,               The Road to Ballybay,               Our Girls. Burlesque operatic duet for tenor and baritone,               The Headmistress (A Musical Extravaganza In Two Acts),                 O God of Love  Vesper Hymn,            The Harvest Home  A Berkshire Ballad,            Flagrant Flapper (Chorus),               The British Navy, song,             Eight Songs from the Hon’ary Degree,           Trio in D,               Salonstucke in G for the Pianoforte  Op. 2. No. 1 & 2,             Graceful Dance in the olden Style for Pianoforte  Op. 3. No. 1,              Bourree in the olden Style for the Pianoforte  Op. 3. No. 2,             Minuet in the olden Style, for the Pianoforte. Op. 3. No. 3,              Chant d’amour, for Violoncello and Pianoforte. Op. 4,                     A Spring Morning.  Idyll for the Pianoforte. Op. 5,               The Witch of the Wood : an operetta for children in one act  Op. 8,             Andante religioso in E flat. for Organ Op. 9.                  Sonata in D Major for the Organ Op. 10 (1922).



2 responses

  1. This is most interesting. I went to a boarding school in Nigeria (King’s College, Lagos) whose school song was written by John Ivimey. We only recently discovered that our cherished school song belonged to another English boarding school (Queen Mary’s I think) when we saw a video of its alumni singing what we thought was our very own unique school song. It was quite a traumatic realization for us. It must have been slightly adapted for use at our school.


  2. […] on the storyAbout the author – John W. IvimeyAbout the illustrator – Paul […]


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