Sir Thomas Beecham was born in a small, terraced house adjoining the Beecham’s Pill Factory in Westfield Street, St Helens on 29 April 1879. The grandson of the factory’s founder, Sir Thomas Beecham, became one of the world’s greatest conductors and is thus considered one of St Helens most famous sons. His first concert was conducting the Halle Orchestra at St Helens Town Hall at the inauguration of his father Joseph Beecham as Mayor of St Helens in 1899. He was the founder of several orchestras including the London Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras.
Sir Thomas Beecham (1879 – 1961)
After attending a local concert aged six, Thomas Beecham discovered his love of music and started to learn the piano. As he grew up, his family moved to Huyton, due to his childhood home being demolished to extend the Beecham’s factory, and he attended Rossall public school in Fleetwood, Lancashire. Thomas’s ambition was to travel to Germany to continue his musical pursuits. However, upon his father’s request, he was sent to study classics at Wadham College, Oxford, 1897. He remained there only for a year as in 1898 he decided to return to St Helens.
Despite having to work for his father’s and grandfather’s pill company, his passion for music was always at the forefront of his mind. In 1899, Beecham became one of the founders of the St. Helens Choral and Orchestral Society. Within the same year, he also made his debut as a conductor of a professional orchestra. This orchestra took part in his father Joseph’s inauguration as Mayor in St Helens. Joseph was persuaded by his son that he put himself forward to conduct the Halle Orchestra and did so to critical acclaim at St Helens Town Hall 6th December 1899.
The early 1900s saw a dramatic turn of events in Thomas’s life. Some might say for the better. He fell out with his father and moved down to London, and it was during this period he married Utica Welles, daughter of an American diplomat. His bold move enhanced his reputation as a major figure in the British musical business, as over the next few years he achieved the following:
1903 – Beecham worked as a second conductor to a small opera company run by Kelson Truman and collaborated with Charles Kennedy Scott in the formation of the Oriana Madrigal Choir.
1905 – Beecham conducted his first London concert
1906 – Conducted for the New Symphony Orchestra
1907 – Beecham started to become one of the leading orchestral conductors in London
1908 – Beecham created an orchestra “from scratch” which was aptly named Beecham Symphony Orchestra
1910 – Beecham had achieved two landmarks in his career, namely the making of his first records and the conducting of his first Opera Season at Covent Garden.
Beecham’s father Joseph died in 1916. Joseph’s baronetcy was automatically given to Thomas, and by the end of the year Thomas also received his knighthood for his contributions to music throughout his life. During the next few years after his father’s death, Sir Thomas Beecham rarely had time to concentrate on his music, instead sorting his family affairs which took up most of his time.
However, in March1923, he made a northern concert comeback with the Halle Orchestra at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. Beecham stayed in England for a further 20 years, during which time he formed the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted performances, and managed Covent Garden with Geoffrey Toye.
In 1940, Beecham travelled to Australia, Canada, and the USA for fours years of performing and conducting. It was also during this period that his divorce from Utica Welles was finalised, from whom he had been separated since 1912, marrying Betty Humby, an English pianist a month later.
Beecham returned home to England in 1944, and conducted for the London Philharmonic Orchestra in London, Manchester, and Liverpool. Two years later, Beecham founded the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and proceeded over the next few years to tour with them along the length and breadth of the UK, which resulted in numerous personal awards and honours, including:
1953 – White Rose of Finland after conducting a concert for the Finnish Sibelius Fund
1957 – Made a Companion of Honour
Unfortunately, even though Beecham was recognised all over the world as one of the most prestigious musicians of the 20th century, his personal life was somewhat different. His wife Betty had fallen ill in 1958 whilst touring with her husband in Buernos Aires, and not long after suffered a heart attack and died. Beecham was heartbroken, and his coping mechanism was to immerse himself in his work and he continued to travel to the USA for concerts. In 1959, not long after his 80th birthday, Beecham married for a third time to Shirley Hudson, the Administrator of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
Sir Thomas Beecham was still conducting in the USA in 1960 when he started to fall ill. As a result, he returned home to England, and due to failing health only performed at two more concerts. One at the Royal Festival Hall, and on the 7th May 1960 was his final performance at the Guildhall. Despite his ill health, he tried to continue to make plans for recording sessions and concerts for most of 1960 and early 1961. Sadly, none of his plans came to fruition, and he died on the 8th March 1961. He was buried at Brookwood cemetery in Surrey.
Guide to the Beecham’s Collection at St Helens Archive Service
On 17 March 1975 the St. Helens Central Library, Music Library was renamed the Beecham Music Library by the conductor Denis Vaughan. This act commemorated the fact that Sir Thomas Beecham was born in St. Helens in 1879 where his family had been associated with the town since 1860, when his grandfather Thomas Beecham established the Beecham Pills Company in Westfield Street.
Part of the remit of the newly named library was to gather material and information on the life and work of the conductor, thus forming a Beecham Collection of vinyl records, cassettes, books, scores, and general memorabilia. This material was housed along with the general music scores, books, vinyl records, and cassettes.
In 1986 it was decided as part of a departmental restructuring process that the Beecham Music Library was no longer appropriate to the needs of the public. As a result, it was closed, and all the Sir Thomas Beecham material was transferred to what was known at the time as the Local History and Archives Library, now St Helens Archive Service.
Using the reference code BE/B, you can search for books that are about Sir Thomas Beecham. A few autobiographical, where he writes about his own life, and biographical which contains recollections from other musicians who worked closely with Sir Thomas, and friends and colleagues who had the honour in playing in one of his orchestras. Also, books of those which are primarily concerned with some other aspect of music but contain substantial references to his work.
The cassettes contain music conducted by Thomas Beecham and works by other conductors. Other cassettes include recordings which relate to Beecham such as speeches and lectures.
Concert & Opera Programmes
With reference code BE/P, there are more than 300 original and photocopies programmes, prospectuses, and advertisements in the library, spanning the whole of Beecham’s long and varied career. The material is derived from concert appearances and opera presentations.
There are over 80 different critical reviews of Beecham concert and opera performances which are derived from a wide variety of sources, including for the St. Helens Reporter to the ‘Sunday Times.’ The cuttings give a good account of nearly the whole of Beecham’s career, from its start in 1899 up to 1959.
Cuttings and News Articles
The collection of newspaper and magazine cuttings contains nearly 250 items, mostly original cuttings, and some photocopies. They encompass various aspects of Beecham’s life and career, covering articles written about Beecham or in some manner connected with his work. Some are even written by Beecham himself.
With the reference code BE/PH, the photograph collection is comprised of some 200 different prints of Sir Thomas Beecham and other related subjects. The photographs are of Beecham ‘in action’ on the conductor’s podium and others are of Beecham relaxing at home with his wife. Several photographs are reproductions of works of art depicting Beecham and represented by the work of Edmund X. Kapp, whose many line drawings are well represented in the collection.
Records and Record Reviews
Our collections spans over 260 records and covers the whole of Beecham’s recording career. Visit our catalogue for more information using the reference code BE/R – www.sthelens.gov.uk/history. Please note that due to their age and fragility, these recordings may not currently be suitable to access. Please contact the archive service for more information.
The archive has over 200 cuttings from newspapers and music magazines which give critical reviews of Beecham’s record releases, writing about his recording career quite extensively.
A collection consisting of Beecham related items including:
- Beecham Society Publications
- Music Scores
- Posters and Leaflets