Posted by Admin on 25 July 2011, 12:36 pm

Thinking it highly probable that people (gardeners or artisans for instance) who had known Albert Ketelbey during his retirement in Cowes would still exist, I wrote a request for information which appeared in our local newspaper – a ploy that brought me three letters; one from a lady who had sold her house to the second Mrs Ketelbey; one that contained erroneous information from someone who evidently confused Ketelbey with Alford (the composer of the march Colonel Bogey); and one from a man who had worked on the composer’s bungalow, Rookstones, and was able to tell me that Ketelbey was a stickler for punctuality. Most rewarding, however, was the contact I made with Mr Wilfred Dorrington, a retired taxi-owner who on many occasions had taken Mr and Mrs Ketelbey on shopping expeditions, and while the latter shopped had conversed in the car with her husband who was always willing to talk about himself and his musical career.

Describing the composer, Mr Dorrington said he was a short man (about five feet four or five inches in height) with long white hair brushed back after the fashion worn at that time mainly by musicians and poets. This was topped by a black Homburg hat. In spite of his lack of inches, and what might have been short legs, his appearance was distinguished. Although mellowed by retirement, he gave the impression of having been a pompous man, and at their first meeting he peremptorily ordered Mr Dorrington to follow his wife in order to carry her parcels. The second Mrs Ketelbey thought this absurd, and it never happened again.

During their chats Mr Dorrington learnt that Ketelbey’s first wife was Charlotte, the wealthy daughter of L. Curzon. His current wife, Maud, was the widow of an Island man, L. S. Pritchett. The composer and Maud had been brought together when the former, who often lived in hotels, was staying in one of which Mrs Pritchett was the manageress. A quarrel that developed when she vetoed his wish to have a piano put in his room was hardly a good augury for subsequent romance. In Mr Dorrington’s opinion Maud was a down-to-earth and good-natured person.

Further proof of Ketelbey’s arrogance may be found in an anecdote of his concerning In a Persian Market. A producer had asked for a piece of Eastern music lasting ten minutes. When given to him it ran for fifteen. Requested to shorten it, Ketelbey refused. “What am I to do?” asked the producer. “Lengthen the scene by introducing more bloody camels,” replied A.W.K. – and that was what was done.

At another time when a piece of music was commissioned. Ketelbey wrote Bells Across the Meadow which his client rejected, saying it had no future. Not convinced, the composer persuaded the conductor of a Bournemouth orchestra to include it in a programme, and its success was instantaneous.

During one of their conversations Ketelbey revealed his modus operandi. When scraps of music entered his head he jotted them down and stored them for future use. Commissioned to produce a score, he would then select a suitable fragment and elaborate it until it met his client’s requirement.

He said that when real soldiers were employed as supernumeraries complaints from the tax-paying public were received. By substituting stage uniforms for the authentic ones he and the producer placated the public and stopped the protests.

In 1984 Mr Dorrington was interviewed in his home by a BBC producer who was planning to include information concerning Ketelbey in the Woman’s Hour programme. When visiting Mr Dorrington I was allowed to hear his cassette recording of the broadcast – one in which the people responsible, with their usual arbitrariness, had cut a lot of the material supplied by Mr Dorrington to make room for a far less interesting young man who told how ‘for fun’ a Ketelbey Society had been founded at Cardiff University. The programme revealed also that during the war the composer had been a special constable.

When living in retirement at Cowes, Albert Ketelbey apparently took no part in the Island’s musical activities apart from presenting a set of drums to the Cowes Town Band. These, at a later date, unfortunately were sold.

According to Mr Dorrington, in whose taxi he made the journey, the composer’s last public appearance took place when he was interviewed by Barry Westwood on Southern TV.

On November 26th, 1959, Albert William Ketelbey died at the age of eighty-four. He was cremated at Golders Green. Neither marriage had produced any children.

Later, when Mr Dorrington took the widow to make arrangements for the disposal of her husband’s ashes, he was probably the last Islander to handle them, for Mrs Ketelbey was reluctant to touch the urn. A spot on a wall was chosen, and the sum of two hundred pounds paid to cover a plaque which would be displayed for fifty years. Whether any other memorial was subsequently created, or whether he is immortalised only by his music, I am at present unable to say.

T. C. Hudson

© T. C. Hudson.
This article may not be reproduced without prior permission of the author.

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