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Mary Louisa Wood

Epithet: 'The Mother of Manx Music' (1839-1925)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

The indomitable Miss M.L. Wood (as she was always known), a forceful maiden lady typical of the period in which she lived, laid claim to the text 'Blessed be drudgery'. Speaking at a musical event in 1892, she explained that `to be a great musician you must drudge at it', adding that, as she didn't love drudgery, she was talking to herself too.

This glimpse of Miss Wood gives some indication of her strength of character. She believed fervently that every child should be taught music, not only as a means of stimulating mental training but also to strengthen delicate people by teaching them to sing. This was a theme that constantly recurs. The Isle of Man Examiner of 11th November 1905 tells how she had visited Kirk Michael one Sunday night and had heard 'bands of young people singing along the roads with such excellent voices. If only she thought, 'they could be persuaded to train, and learn how to make the most of the natural advantages which the possession of a good voice gives'.

She certainly practised what she preached. She was a conductor of choirs and a church organist, and taught at Douglas High School right up to the time of her death. She was a firm believer in the use of tonic solia, sometimes teaching classes of up to 200, and a keen supporter of graded music examinations. She was also a fruitful composer and arranger, collaborating with writers such as Josephine Kermode ('Cushag'). Perhaps her most famous song is 'The Bells of Old Kirk Braddan', and her piano versions of Manx tunes made an important contribution to Arthur William Moore's Manx Ballads and Music (1896).

But probably her greatest contribution to the music of the Island was her pioneering role in founding the Isle of Man Fine Arts and Industrial Guild in 1892. In this she was inspired by the example of Mary Wakefield, who had set up the Kendal Music Festival some years before. The first classes, held over one day, inevitably reflected Miss Wood's own interests, with classes for choirs, sight-reading and hymn-writing, with solo-singing and instrumental classes introduced within a few years. 'The Guild', as the Manx Music Festival is still known, has had a remarkable impact on Island life. Countless thousands of children have met the challenge of standing on the stage at the Villa Marina to perform as soloist, chorister or ensemble member. Many have gone on to compete in the open classes and a chosen few have become Cleveland medallists. For many, it marked the first step towards careers as professional musicians.

Born in 1839, Miss Wood came to the Isle of Man in 1857 from Manchester where her parents then lived. `She was small in build, with her hair parted in the middle, wore glasses, and had a collar and tie like a man'. These are the childhood recollections of Canon John Gelling, who also recalled that she had 'rather a severe expression'. She travelled the Island in all weathers, going from town to town as a teacher and organist. The severity of her appearance was sometimes contradicted by her behaviour; at her memorial concert it was remembered that 'her appearance on the Guild stage was always greeted by tremendous applause, the ovation being acknowledged by the old lady with smiles and bows, and by blowing kisses to the audience'.

She was one of those rare recipients of the Manchester Manx Society Medal for conspicuous service to Ellan Vannin. It is perhaps unsurprising that she was a supporter of women's suffrage and she was often observed wearing a rosette in their colours.

She died peacefully and painlessly at her home in Albert Terrace, Douglas, on the same day as Edmund Evans Greaves Goodwin, after deciding that she was too unwell to attend the morning service at St Matthew's Church. She is buried in Onchan Churchyard.

She is still remembered today. Each year the M.L. Wood Scholarship is awarded to the most promising boys and girls in the instrumental classes of The Guild. The value of the award has stayed constant at £5. Her achievements are summarised on an impressive plaque in Douglas Town Hall on which she is described as 'The Mother of Manx Music'.

Biography written by Fenella Bazin.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.471-2.)

Culture Vannin


Gender: Female

Date of birth: 1839

Date of death: 4 January 1925

Name Variant: Wood, M.L., Miss


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