William Sterndale Bennett : A family tale

Bennett in the uniform of a student of the Royal Academy of Music. James Warren Childe, c. 1832.

Bennett in the uniform of a student of the Royal Academy of Music.
Painted by James Warren Childe, c. 1832.

William Sterndale Bennett was born 13th April 1816 in Sheffield and orphaned three years later. He went to live with his paternal grandfather in Cambridge.  He joined King’s College Chapel choir when he was seven. He was Professor of Music at Cambridge University from 1856 to 1866.

I never really took seriously the fact that I was related to Sterndale Bennett until one day Allan Wicks, organist of Canterbury Cathedral in the 1970’s, visited my school.  My music teacher told him I was related to Sterndale Bennett.  Allan Wicks was very impressed so perhaps it was now time to take the family tree seriously.


ER 8843. Still going strong. Copyright Bob Lovelock

ER 8843. Still going strong.
Copyright Bob Lovelock

After my dad died I was unable to find out where I fitted into the family tree. He had explained the family tree to a vicar on a visit to the Isle of Sheppey in the early 1970’s whilst he was collecting a box to go on the back of his Wolseley 1927 E6 16-45 Landaulette (cars had boxes not boots in those days), which once belonged to a former President of Queens’ College Cambridge.  According to the internet the car still exists and is still going. I was later told by Sterndale Bennett’s great-great-grandson Barry Sterndale Bennett that Sterndale Bennett was my great-great-grandmother’s nephew.  My name is on his family tree.

BBC Radio 3 played some of his music in 1975, the hundredth anniversary of his death.  Starting Monday 11th April 2016 Sterndale Bennett is a Radio 3 Composer of the week.

Rosemary Williamson has compiled a thematic catalogue of the works of Sterndale Bennett (MRR.28.BEN.11).  The Woman of Samaria may not be performed any more but God is a Spirit is sung as an anthem in churches where choirs still exist.  I was encouraged by a former organist at St Marks’s Church, Newnham, Cambridge to turn up one Sunday to hear it sung by the choir.

Sir William Sterndale Bennett died 1st February 1875 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.  We had to pay to see his grave in Westminster Abbey which was very near the ticket office.

But there is no charge to see the exhibition in the Anderson Room and the foyer outside, so enjoy! The exhibition about his life, work, and descendants(!) will run from Monday 4th April to 29th April.

Justin Burrows



About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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