[From The Barrovian #133]

Composer, Writer, Artist

By W. Cubbon, F.R.S.A. (From the Isle of Man Times).

To all but the wilfully blind or the hopelessly unobservant, it is painfully evident that we Manx people are fast, losing our national distinctiveness and our racial characteristics in the mad desire for worldly gain. National customs, traits, and ideals are disappearing. gain. are densely ignorant of our history and of almost everything relating to our past-our customs, our social system, our folk-lore, and of the language which enshrined them. Of all these we, as a nation, now seem to care little.

Among the few Manxmen who have helped to check the progress of the now almost complete Anglicisation of the Manx people was William H. Gill, who died at Worthing in the South of England, in the 84th year of his age. There was something of real sublimity in Mr. Gill's ideals. He desired to link Manxmen with their past, that they may the better face their future; to make clear to them that, just as Mann has a past of which all Manxmen may be proud, so she ought to have a future of a self-respecting character, and a duty to preserve her nationality.

W. H. Gill expressed the most characteristic ideals of the Celtic movement. He, and T. E. Brown, and A. W. Moore are the three men whose literary woik is of the most lasting and intrinsic value to the nation. - They have awakened Manx affections, and they seem to have created a new element in patriotic endeavour, moulded out of Manx life and tradition.

W. H. Gill (born 24th October. 1839, and died 27th June, 1923), was the son of Joseph Gill and Charlotte Augusta, daughter of the Rev. Thomas Stephen, Vicar General. He was born at Marsala, in Sicily, where his father owned vineyard property. He came to the Isle of Man at the age of nine. His brother, John Frederick Gill, who was nearly three years younger, followed him five years afterwards. The latter, in the course of time, became the well known and learned Deemster Gill. The genealogical tree of the Gill family goes back many hundred years, and it is claimed that every item in the long list is pure Manx.

On arriving home in the Island, he was placed under the care of his uncle. the Rev. William Gill, Vicar of Malew. who was the father of the Ven. the Archdeacon Gill. The Vicar was a most remarkable man. He was one of the earliest professed abstainers from liquor. By his self-denial, he ,vas enabled, not only to keep - open house" for the poor, and his friends, but to send four of his sons to the Universities. and the fifth to the Manx Bar, besides educating his four daughters. He virtually adopted the subject of this sketch and his brother, Fred, as his sons. And his living, all told. was less than 200 a year ! The old Vicar was an indomitably hard worker. He improved his glebe; he built a vicarage at a cost of 500 (the largest subscription he received towards this was £2) ; he rebuilt the parish school-house and took charge of the educational system in the parish ; he was the diocesan secretary ; he edited the :Manx-English portion of Kelly's Dictionary ; he was the offical translator of the Acts of the Legislature. At that time, the whole of the texts of the Acts were translated, not the headings only, as at present. It is no wonder that a man of such personal character impressed the mind of young W. H. Gill. But the ruling spirit in this busy household was " The Old Lady," as everyone called her ; " the brightest, bravest, sunniest soul that ever trod God's earth," and it was her who had most to do with the development of young Gill's mind and heart, his love of nature and music, and -of everything that was homely and lovely, wholesome and good.

In a series of autobiographical sketches in Mannin, nine or ten years ago, he throws some interesting side-lights upon his early days-his firm belief in the fairies, his experiences in the sweet Malew home, where, soon after his arrival as a boy from Sicily, he, for the first time, met his kinsman, T. E. Brown, the great poet, who was his senior by nine years.

An old-fashioned vicarage home, with its peculiar social life in the middle of last century, close to the old metropolis of Castletown-the town-must. surely have provided much entertainment and variety to the Gill family.

In his reminiscences he describes his early musical experiences; his first lessons in sight-reading; his meeting with Chalse-e-Kille", and later on with the Lancashire singing master, Shepherd, -who first taught a tonic solfa system in Castletown to the sons and daughters of the elite there.

The genial, warm handshake of T. E. Brown, his kinsman, had struck in young Gill's heart the keynote of a lifelong friendship. The boy of nine had instinctively taken the measure of the young man of eighteen, and vowed the vow of hero-worship. Brown was a musician, and could play the organ. And besides, had he not heard him play one Sunday afternoon on the " Seraphine," the old barrel organ, in Kirk Malew ?

Brown, soon after, left his home for Oxford, took high honours there, and, crowned with academic glory, learning and distinction, returned to his old school, King William's College, as Vice-Principal. Young Gill gratefully acknowledges how the influence of Brown's personality there acted as a stimulant upon him, and particularly in connection with the revival of Manx music in after years.

But pupil and master had soon, perforce, to part, and each pursue his destined way. Gill proceeded from King William's College to London in 1858, aged 19 years, and went into the Post Office as a Civil Servant, while Brown went to Gloucester three years after. But the seeds of friendship, happily sown, retained their vitality, and, though so far sundered, were, as Gill says, " Constantly drawn together by that sacred and irresistible power called Patriotism." On his part, Brown, with his characteristic 'how Baynes lingo : " The anchor holds, well gripped among the dullish and the tangles; I ride with a short scope, and feel the very chafing of the boulders."

Mr. Gill had a successful professional career, and had ultimately risen to a good post in the office of the Chief Secretary to the Post Office. His annual holidavs were frequently spent in the homeland, gathering the old airs wherever he thought they might be found.

There collaborated with him his brother, Deemster Gill, and Dr. Clague (of Castletown) ; and thus they, together, secured over 260 local melodies.

The results of their labours were given to the public in "Manx National Songs," published by Boosey, in 1896, and in " Manx National Music," published by the same firm two years later. The latter volume was expressly arranged for the pianoforte. Both were produced in Boosey's Royal Edition of National Songs. The harmonies, the accompaniments, t'tie symphonies. and the arrangements generally, are the work of Mr. W. H. Gill.

The work involved in the production of these two volumes must have been enormous, and the memorv of Mr. Gill and his collaborators should be greatly honoured for performing such a useful and patriotic work as to rescue the old folk tunes, and place them upon record, for the use of this and the coming generations.

T. E. Brown was strongly of the opinion that a third volume should be undertaken, and offered to collaborate with Mr. Gill in the production of a work covering Modern Manx Music, the composition by native composers and poets of entirely new songs and melodies, preserving, at the same time, the national feeling of the country.

Brown was keen on this project. He wrote to Gill in1895 :

" I have written some songs. . . . would you make music for them ?.... Such songs would, I think, be acceptable to our countrymen. Here are two men, one with a whiff of the old times bloNving about his brain, the other haunted 'oy the 'oul ways and notions. quaint language, and homely insularity. Is it vain to think that such a pair are not likely to be repeated ?

An echo, if you will, even now all but dying away on the hills and in the glens of Mannin Veg Veen. But is it not worth while retaining, fixing ?..... The words by T.E.B., the music by W.H.G.?

Gill was always content with even a very little encouragement. He was never afraid, as many of us are, of undertaking lost causes; he gloried in adventure. He pluckily responded to Brown's appeal, and produced no less than four series, entitled " Songs of My Fatherland," each containing the work of Brown, " Cushag," and other Manx poets, with his own music, or his arrangement of traditional airs. "Songs of My Fatherland," having been started as a private venture by Mr. Gill, he must have lost considerable sums in their publication.. But it must be added here that local musicians, professional as well. as amateur, have regretfully failed to give due encouragement to this side of Gill's labours.

I have made a bibliographical note of Mr. Gill's published works, and find that they number no fewer than 67, comprising anthems, songs, carols, hymns, and voluntaries.

Being a capable artist, he was for many years honorary secretary of the London Ruskin Society, and, in the Ruskin Museum at Sheffield, a drawing of his occupies a place of honour. He made a large number of exquisite drawings of Manx scenery, several of which appeared in Mannin,

Having a working knowledge of Manx Gaelic, he was interested in the language revival movement, and was for two years President of the Manx Society.

I corresponded with him for upwards of twenty years, and have had the privilege of receiving from him about four score letters during that period.

In one of his exquisite stories. he described his last interview with the friend of his youth, T. E. Brown, They spent the evening in "a perfect bower of melody," going through Gill's collection of Manx airs. The scene is worth recording in Gill's own words :--" It was long after dewy eve when, the other members of the family having retired for the night, we two resumed our study. The light from a large lamp by the piano shone full on the music and on the face of my old friend as he stood, and occasionally sat, behind me, turning over the proof sheets as I played, singing here, humming there, criticising this, that, and the other. I had reserved, as a concluding piece, "The Harvest of Sea," in which we both heartily joined, and then as the two voices mingled for the last time in this world, in singing the concluding line of the hymn, "Grant us to join Thy Harvest Home above," the master's voice faltered, and then ceased with a sob; when the pupil, who was playing, suddenly looking round, saw a face suffused with tears, and heard that broken whisper, never to be forgotten: "Willie, Willie, that is-" and then, after a pause, as if feeling for a word adequately fitting, the speaker finished the sentence with a sigh of relief "That is heavenly ! "

W. H. Gill was a great man, a man of splendid genius, and one of the greatest of all Manxmen. During his life he never came into his own ; he had nothing like the reputation he ought to have had. But, as the dying Burns said of himself, it will be true of him, that he will be better known a hundred years hence than he is to-day. In coming generations, it will be to his works and to the works of the kinsman, Brown, and not to any other, however popular at the present moment, that men will go when they want to understand the manners, the humour and pathos, the comedy and tragedy of Manx life. The people of this country ought to love and cherish his memory, for never did any other love it and them as he did.

Edward Priestland. an Andreas boy, who was under the influence of both Gill and Brown at king William's College, wrote the following regarding the latter, and the words may also aptly be applied to the subject of this notice :

Mourn, Mona, thy sweet singer is no more,
Who sang because he loved, full love, full song
. .. He loved
His island mountains, everlasting hills,
The beauteous girdle of her azure sea,
And all her fairness plain to common eyes,
And all her saints, whose memory lingers still
In Manxmen's hearts; but with an equal love
He loved her cushags, curraghs, claddaghs, dubs;
Her ruined thaltans, and her crazy Chalse,
Her sinners and her saints; he loved his love,
For better or for worse. till death did part,
And would they know the beauty in his life,
Their love must be like his-a perfect love.


Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2009