manx celtic music and dance

QUAYLE, John Edward

A mainstay of the Island's musical life for many years.

Born 1869 at Ballarobin Farm, in the Parish of Malew

Died 4th November 1957, Douglas

Father: Edward Quayle 1828 - 1889

Mother : Elizabeth Quayle nee Watterson 1838-1929

Married : Annie Quayle nee Gell

Issue: Wilfred born 1902; Maudie born 1904 

John Edward Quayle was born at Ballarobin Farm situated between the village of Grenaby and the wild country surrounding South Barrule, the only son of Edward Quayle, a farmer and accomplished musician who was a leading light in the West Gallery musical tradition of the Island, and his wife Elizabeth from Foxdale. Edward Quayle was a composer and collector of country anthems, a violinist and singer, and the young John Edward would play the violin in his father’s small ‘band’. Perhaps he was thinking of his father and the musical tradition he grew up in when he delivered these lines at a lecture to the Manx Natural History and Antiquarian Society in 1937 on the story of Manx music:

In saying farewell to these old tunes it behoves us to spare a thought for these people – our ancestors – who made them. A simple, sturdy people, and of a good heart, who sang their little songs and carvals in church and cottage, in workshop (s) and (sic) on the highways . . . they are worth (preserving).

Sometime around the year 1875, the family moved to Kerroomooar, a nearby farm, and were largely self-sufficient in eggs, milk, salted beef, ham, herrings, vegetables, home-made bread and oatcakes. John Edward became a pupil at Grenaby School, but would frequently disappear for hours on the slopes of South Barrule, or walk the three and a half miles to Foxdale, then a thriving mining village, to buy sweets.

In 1880, when John Edward was eleven years old, his father retired from farming and the family moved to Queen Street, Castletown. Described in the 1881 census as a ‘Shoemaker and retired farmer’, Edward Quayle nevertheless continued to be active in local music-making. John Edward probably attended the Grammar School at Castletown – just a few minutes walk from the family home - until he was sixteen years of age. When he matriculated, he entered the Rolls Office - now the General Registry - as third clerk, a civil service appointment with responsibility for Land Registration and the records of the Manx High Court of Justice. His modestly remunerated career in the Rolls Office would last nearly fifty years, although progress through the career-structure was slow. He became second clerk at the age of forty-nine in 1918, and Chief Clerk in 1925. Despite the lowly-sounding title, the position of Chief Clerk was in fact a fairly senior one, and before he retired he was adjudged to be one of the ‘Hundred Leading Men and Women of the Isle of Man’, and one of the thirty-four ‘Principal Manx Officials’.

 In 1901, John Edward married Annie Gell, the daughter of his next door neighbour in Castletown; their first child, Wilfred was born in 1902, and a daughter, Maudie, in 1904. The family was a close-knit one, and both siblings lived at the family home well into adulthood. Early in his marriage, John Edward began a correspondence course in order to attain the degree of Bachelor of Music (B-Mus) from Durham University, which he achieved, after a re-sit, in 1912. This led to his being affectionately known as ‘Quayle Mus Bac’ in the Island’s musical circles. Sometime towards the end of 1900, he had founded the Castletown Orchestral Society – Patron, the Deputy Governor, Sir James Gell, CVO - and, in September 1901, at the end of their first concert season, was presented with a ceremonial baton with specially-wrought silver decorations.

 This amateur orchestra numbering some 25 players, may have ceased to exist c. 1907-8, but initially gave an annual concert in Castletown Town Hall in February, and was led on occasion by none other than Harry Wood, ‘Manxland’s King of Music.’ Surviving newspaper reports reveal enterprising programmes, sometimes including complete symphonies; the Haydn symphony included in their inaugural concert in February, 1901, may be the first time that a complete classical symphony was heard on the island. A suite of Manx dances also performed at that concert, may be a lost piece by J.E. Quayle himself. 

         By this time he had been active as a violinist for some years, and often led Harry Wood’s Student Orchestra, the Manx Music Festival Orchestra and other ad-hoc dance orchestras conducted by Harry Wood. He took part in the ground-breaking performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah at the Gaiety Theatre in May 1896, and the Grand Orchestral Concert at the Gaiety Theatre in March 1903, which included music by Gounod and Edward German and closed with an early performance on the Island of Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory. He was often joined in the violin section by other local musicians who would later enjoy significant careers in music, including the young virtuoso violinist Haydn Wood (brother of Harry Wood), and an even younger emerging talent from Laxey, the violinist Kathleen Rydings.

In January 1911 J.E. Quayle organised his first sacred concert as conductor of the Rosemount Church, Douglas, with a choir of fifty voices, in a well-received programme centred on Mendelssohn’s Psalm 42, excerpts from Haydn’s Creation and arias by Handel, Sullivan, Costa and others. In March that year he gave an illustrated lecture at the church entitled ‘English Music of the 19th Century’, in which he was joined by a full orchestra and guest soloists. In 1912, the family moved to 9 Queen’s Terrace, Douglas, by which time John Edward was a much sought-after and established musical director, and that year he directed a performance of Brahms’ German Requiem at Rosemount Church, Douglas - no small undertaking. He had also begun to compose music, such as the lovely Choral Variations on ‘Carval Abban Rushen’ for four-part choir and piano, to words by Archdeacon Kewley. On November 12th, 1913, (Hollantide) he took part in a the first Tom Brown Night at the Palace Coliseum during which the play Betsy Lee  was given by the Tom Brown Players with incidental music by J.E. Quayle.

In 1917, he was appointed musical director of the newly-formed Douglas Amateur Orchestral Society, the first permanent amateur orchestra in the Island’s history. The inaugural Grand Orchestral Concert took place at the Villa Marina on November 28th 1918 and was a huge success. During his years as musical director of the DAOS, he attempted with mixed success to introduce a number of innovations designed to enhance the musical life of the Island, including the formation of a Junior Orchestra under his conductorship, and a proposal to the Manx Music Festival that they introduce an Orchestral Class into the competition. In 1919, the orchestra was invited to participate in the Manx Music Festival final concert for the first time, a tradition which lasted until just after the Second World War. According to custom, he conducted the orchestra for the opening overture and closing march, whilst the guest conductor or adjudicator directed the combined choirs in a specially selected Festival choral work for the combined choirs. Later in life he became an active and highly respected member of the Festival committee.

Reflecting the range of his own musical taste and interests, he further proposed a series of chamber music concerts in the hope that playing members of the orchestra ‘would take up some work, or works in furtherance of this class of music’ with enthusiasm. Perhaps his most far-sighted innovation was to inaugurate a series of ‘Country Concerts’ in the smaller towns of Castletown, Peel, Port Erin, Port St Mary and Ramsey during the 1920-21 concert season. Although some of these concerts were poorly attended and barely viable financially, it was the start of a tradition which has lasted to the present day. Despite inevitable financial constraints, the orchestra under his baton introduced some eminent singers to the Island, both local and international: May Clague, Ada Mylchreest, Charles Tree, Muriel Brunskill, Giuseppe Lenghi-Cellini and Gladys Verona.

He remained the orchestra’s musical director until 1927, when the increasing pressures of his appointment as Chief Clerk in the Rolls Office forced him to relinquish the conductorship in favour of J. T. Wood, another experienced musician, who continued to direct the orchestra until its demise in 1930. His daughter, Maudie Davidson, recalled that her father’s conducting was ‘military in style, economical, with very taut discipline, like Sir Malcolm Sargent’. During his years as musical director he occasionally took up the position of orchestral leader from time-to-time, and in 1923, for example, led the DAOS in the first annual performance of Handel’s Messiah at the Villa Marina, conducted by Noah Moore. In June 1927, he shared the conductors rostrum with Harry and Haydn Wood at a Manx Celtic Concert at the Palace Coliseum, specially arranged for the Manx Homecomers from America and Canada, and directed a performance of his new concert overture, Mannin – an early version of Fantasy-Overture The Magic Isle -  with the DAOS.

Both John Edward and his wife were active members of the Manx Language Society, and took a particular interest in the preservation of authentic Manx melodies. He continued to play the violin and give the occasional illustrated lecture on Manx music throughout the 1930s, often in the company of the violinist Kathleen Rydings, a close musical colleague whom he had known since he led the orchestra for her concert debut under Harry Wood in 1897. He is also known to have taught many young violin pupils and possessed a number of valuable violins in his personal collection.

Prior to his retirement in 1934, and certainly by 1932, the Quayle family moved for the last time, to ‘Summerland’, Brunswick Road, Douglas, and John Edward, freed from the burden of the Rolls Office, began to plan and compose more ambitious musical works. In the early 1930s he composed two delightful pieces for small orchestra based on Manx tunes, but between 1935-8, he composed his first Fantasy-Overture, The Magic Isle, based on the lovely Manx tune ‘O, what if the Fowler my Blackbird hath taken’, which received its premier at the Manx Music Festival final concert of 1940 conducted by the composer, and again after the war, in Manchester in 1946, at a broadcast concert given by the BBC Northern Orchestra conducted by Charles Groves. This fine piece was re-discovered by John Edward’s grandson, Ewan Davidson, in Winchester in 2013, and performed by the Isle of Man Symphony Orchestra at the Villa Marina Centenary Concert in July that year.

In 1950, John Edward completed a second Fantasy-Overture entitled On Maughold Head based on the Manx tune  ‘Jemmy as Nancy’; this fine piece is thought to evoke the long summers the Quayle family spent in the area during World War I, when civil servants were not allowed to leave the Island. John Edward’s surviving orchestral works are characterised by attractive orchestration and craftsman-like construction, and should be regarded as significant contributions to the Island’s musical heritage.

During World War II, John Edward and Annie, then in their mid-seventies, generously invited their daughter Maudie and her two boys, Ewan and Hugh, to live with them at ‘Summerland’ whilst her husband Alec Davidson was away on active service. Their son, Wilfred, and his wife Elspeth were also in residence by 1944, the year their son, Nicholas, was born. The household was completed by a friend from London and a nanny who lived in the attic room. John Edward would find escape in the comparative peace and quiet of his study, where he would compose, occasionally play the violin or the harmonium, listen to the music of Delius or Mendelssohn, both of whom he held in high regard, pore over his collection of rare books or read one of his favourite Sir Walter Scott novels.

Occasionally he would take out his violin and play through a favourite Pleyel violin duet with his grandson Ewan, and both Ewan and Hugh Davidson recall their grandfather showing them his collection of gold sovereigns, and an Imperial Service Order which he had been awarded by the Crown in 1929 for exceptional public service. During the day he maintained his routine of a two mile walk to Tromode and back with his dog and occasionally a four mile cycle ride to Baldwin with the boys. On Sundays, the family attended Rosemount Methodist Church, Douglas, and sat in their regular pew near the pulpit, with John Edward frequently dozing throughout long-winded sermons!

Annie died in 1951, and John Edward continued to live on at ‘Summerland’, looked after by his housekeeper, Miss ‘Gert’ Haben. In his last years he received daily visits from his daughter, Maudie, and continued to maintain the long tradition of tea on Tuesdays at ‘Summerland’. John Edward Quayle died at home from a heart attack on November 4th, 1957, and was buried in Malew Churchyard beside Annie. He had been reading Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels for the third time at the time of his death.

J. E. Quayle’s obituary in the Isle of Man Times stated: ‘His greatest joy was music’, and with the re-discovery of his Manx-inspired orchestral works, he has at long last taken his seat in the parliament of light music composers, as a hard-working and popular back-bencher, near to his good friend Haydn Wood. The voice of Manx orchestral music in the first half of the twentieth century is the voice of J. E. Quayle.

Maurice Powell, Andreas, October 2103.



Trio: As it fell upon a day (words from the Shakespeare sonnet) for three female voices (lost). Performed at the 1897 Manx Music Festival Concert and encored. JEQ received an ovation.

Song:  A Cavalier’s Song, c. 1897. Premiered at Harry Wood’s concert, Dec 9th, 1897.

Incidental music to a dramatised version of T E Brown’s Betsy Lee (c.1913. Unknown and probably lost)

Choral Variations on Carval Abban Rushen (pub. 1914)

Two unpublished pieces for small orchestra based on Manx folk tunes:

No. 1 Ny Kirree fo niaghtey (‘The Sheep under the snow’) with wordless soprano?

No. 2 O, what if the Fowler my Blackbird hath taken (1932)

Six Songs for soprano and piano to words by T E Brown, in the Manx National Songbook, The Manx Experience, 2011.

Fantasy-Overture Mannin (c. 1927. An earlier version of The Magic Isle.

Variations for organ.

Fantasy-Overture no. 1, The Magic Isle (c. 1935-8, unpublished)

Fantasy-Overture no. 2, On Maughold Head (1950, unpublished)


John Edward Quayle, ‘Big Dad’, from Pieces of Eight, the unpublished Memories of Eight Manx People by Hugh Davidson.

J. E. Quayle, ‘Manx Music’, in the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society Journal, 1937, vol. 4 no. 2, p.240-50. Report of an illustrated lecture.

Maurice Powell, ENCORE! The Story of the Isle of Man Symphony Orchestra, 2013.

Maurice Powell, A Very Gifted Lady’, the life of Kathleen Rydings.  Wibble Publishing,  2014.

Maurice Powell, ‘An Island Rediscovered’, in The Light Music Society Magazine, issue 61, Autumn 2013.

Maurice Powell, ‘The Magic Isle’, in Kiaull Manninagh Jiu, August 2013.

Maurice Powell, ‘On Maughold Head’, in Kiaull Manninagh Jiu, September 2013.

by Maurice Powell 2016