William Arthur Harry (1878-1938)

William Arthur Harry

Written by Kathleen Uren

Occupations: Choirmaster, Organist and Teacher

William Arthur Harry was born towards the end of 1878 in St. Hilary, near Penzance, Cornwall, the fourth of eleven children and the first child in the family to survive. When he was just over a year old, his parents, along with many Cornish tin-mining families, moved to work in the haematite mines of Furness and the family settled in North Row, Roose, Barrow-in-Furness. His grandfather and father were both miners although his father, William James Harry (1851-1927), was also surprisingly an organist—in 1886 he is recorded in the Barrow baptism record of one of his daughters as “miner and St. Luke’s Church organist”. So there was a continuity of musical gifts within this unusual family. The musical and artistic William Arthur somehow embarked on a scholarly career, being probably largely self-taught. Books from his library, mostly bearing the label of EJ Blanchard’s shop in Barrow, reveal a man of wide interests. They include works by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Ruskin, Pope, Descartes, and poetry by Tennyson and others.  At the age of 23 he is described in the census of 1901 as an “articled musician” and 3 years later he was appointed organist and choirmaster of St. Mary’s Church in Dalton. Here he remained till the end of his life in 1938, during which time he became a prominent and well-known leader of the musical life of the town. At the same time his own musical studies continued for a number of years and he took an ARCO in 1905, and in 1925 an external B.Mus from Durham University. 

Although his life was dominated by his organist duties for St. Mary’s, he composed a substantial amount of liturgical music ( his MSS are in Cumbria Archives at Barrow library), ran choral societies which staged many large oratorio performances in the area, and was an influential music teacher for the community at large. Aged 31 he married Marjorie Dempster (1885-1956), a well-known local amateur contralto, and daughter of James Dempster of Greenock ( 1847-1912) who ran a tobacconist’s shop in Dalton Road, Barrow. They produced four children, the first, a daughter Marjorie dying soon after birth. Three sons followed. Arthur (1911-1960), Roland Allan (1915-1963) and Hubert (1927-2010; DCB) all received a thorough musical education from their father. Arthur became an electrical draughtsman at Vickers Armstrong, and Allan a schoolmaster at Dowdales School in Dalton. After his mother’s death in 1956 Allan was appointed to the post of headmaster in a school in Corby, Northamptonshire. The youngest son, Hubert, emerged as a musical child prodigy and William had the foresight and unselfishness to hand over him over to a fine teacher in Manchester, Hilda Collens (1883-1956) the founder of the Northern School of Music, a precursor of the Royal Northern School of Music, and from the age of eight Hubert was taken by train for his piano lessons every Wednesday .The boy went on to become a fine concert pianist. Sadly his father did not live to see his success, dying suddenly at the age of 59. The lovely obituary in the local press following his death testifies to his character and his standing within the town :

“It is customary to speak of the passing of some active and gracious personality as a loss to the community and in that sense the death of Mr. W.A. Harry, which caused so much feeling of shock and of sympathy with the family, was a loss to Dalton indeed……..

No-one will ever know the full extent of his contribution to music. The numerous generations of boys who passed through his hands, the choirmen who received training, the men and women in his choral societies, all carried into different parts of the world his interpretation of the good and beautiful. He was an artist first and foremost, with all the beauties, all the difficulties of an artistic nature. As such we shall always remember him, and the sweetness of his disposition whenever one met him:-‘His life was gentle’ “

Marjorie Harry lived on until her death on 29th August 1956 at Romney House, Dalton-in-Furness.


  • Cornwall Online Parish Clerks
  • Cornwall censuses
  • Lancashire censuses
  • Ancestry.com
  • Heidi Harry, Hubert Harry - Pianist (2013)
  • Family information