William Ashton Ellis and the Englishing of Richard Wagner [1]

David Cormack


Part 1


In accordance with his wishes, Richard Wagner’s earthly remains were laid in the tomb he had prepared in the garden of his villa Wahnfried, on 18 February 1883. An eyewitness report in the London Times of the funeral of ‘The Late Richard Wagner’ noted that ‘Among the English mourners there was a Mr. Cyriax and a Mr. Hatton, from London, the latter, a son of the well-known composer of the same name, and but for the shortness of notice and the long way to come, British art would have been much more numerously represented. As it was, several handsome wreathes were sent from London and, among others, one to the “immortal poet and musician,” from Messrs. Ashton Ellis and Godfrey H. Thornton.’ [2]

William Ashton Ellis’s ‘handsome wreathe’ is the only tangible bridge between the genius and his admirer. It might never even have made it to the hallowed burial ground: ‘The bulk of the wreathes had been left behind at the station to be sent direct to the theatre, where they were still on view many years afterwards’. [3] It can safely be said that Wilhelm Richard Wagner had never heard of William Ashton Ellis.

Aged thirty at the time of Wagner’s death, Ellis was acutely aware that he had arrived too late to impinge physically on the great man’s consciousness. But by then he had also become convinced that the end of one individual’s earthly journey could bear upon another. ‘For my own part,’ as he put it, ‘I shall never forget the impression produced upon me’,

when, a few weeks after Wagner’s death, the whole of the Grand Canal, as far as the eye could reach, was thronged by a concourse of gondolas, each freight in rapt attention to the strains of a band of German musicians, who had moored their barge in front of the palace in Venice where the Meister had sojourned during his last halt in his earthly journey. [4]

Like Parsifal, Ellis witnessed a funereal ceremony from the wings, and would draw heavy inferences about how that ‘earthly journey’ should be interpreted.


‘It would be affectation,’ Ellis would assure us,

to pretend that the translation has not been an arduous task; but I can honestly say that it was not by reason of the unwonted difficulties often alleged to exist in the original. Any one who has a moderate knowledge of German, and is accustomed to thinking a little deeper than the ordinary light literature of the day, can read Wagner’s prose in the original, and profit by it.

Wagner’s prose and light literature? It’s a statement that could only be made by someone with a confident, rather than moderate, knowledge of German, and with an intrinsic habit of deep thinking. Perhaps it’s well-intentioned, urging readers to approach Wagner’s prose in the original. But it knows all along that those it flatters, those sensible people with their moderate knowledge of German, are in fact waiting for ‘the original’ to be served up to them in digestible form. The implication is that this task should fall to someone ready and able to do what Thomas Carlyle did for Goethe (and who would happily accept the charge of epigonism).

‘No,’ he insists -

the same difficulty exists in every attempt to render faithfully and readably into English any of the more serious products of German literature. However rich our own language may be, we have to depend, for philosophic and aesthetic terms, too much upon words of Greek or Latin derivation; whereas the German classic has at his disposal words that have sprung from the spirit of the language, words that, however philosophically used, have still a direct relation with what may be called concrete - as opposed to abstract - modes of thought. The difficulty, therefore, is to translate these expressions into terms that shall not be so conventional as to rob them of their vital play of meaning.

In other words, English-speakers must fall back upon an impoverished Greek and Latin linguistic heritage, still suitable, if not for shopkeepers, then for lawyers or doctors - but no longer capable of rendering other than conventional ideas. The German-speaker, however, is fortunate enough to possess a still-vital language even for abstractions. And in translation from German into English, punctuation itself becomes as much an impediment as an interpretative tool:

[...] we English are impatient of delay in getting to the end of a sentence; we object to waiting for the qualifications of a thought before we reach the thought itself. [...] Thus, in translation from German into English, one always has to be on the look out for the saving efficacy of a comma. I may say that that comma is the most difficult of all to translate; it is used in another fashion to ours, and often represents our semicolon. So one has to stand over one’s rough transcript with a pepper-box of commas, semicolons, colons and full stops, ready to spice it up for the English table. [5]

That unexpectedly quaint turn of phrase (‘a pepper-box of commas’) marks him out as a late-Victorian eccentric. He’s apologetic for the limitations of his own language, but he has chosen to apply it to the elaboration of a deeper ‘German’, a ‘philosophic’ message. Few nowadays appreciate the ironic rhapsodies of Thomas Carlyle’s pseudo-biographic Professor Teufelsdröckh in Sartor Resartis, who inhabits a vaguely similar intellectual world. Even fewer are likely to be drawn to William Ashton Ellis’s stylistic idiosyncrasies.

In the real world, the language difficulties were well known early on. The German-born Francis (Franz) Hueffer (1843-89), had arrived in England in 1869. Linguistically gifted, he quickly mastered the Queen’s English (though he became a British national only in 1882), and was able to succeed the fearsomely conservative and quirky James Davison as music critic for The Times in 1878. In 1888 he translated the Correspondence of Wagner and Liszt, and warned:

That the task of reproducing these minutiae [i.e. mannerisms] without doing too much violence to the English idiom was an extremely difficult one, the experienced reader need not be told. Liszt, it is true, writes generally in a simple and straightforward manner, and his letters, especially those written in French, present no very great obstacles; but with Wagner the case is different. He also is plain and lucid enough where the ordinary affairs of life are concerned, but as soon as he comes upon a topic that really interests him, be it music or Buddhism, metaphysics or the iniquities of the Jews, his brain gets on fire, and his pen courses over the paper with the swiftness and recklessness of a race-horse, regardless of the obstacles of style and construction, and sometimes of grammar. His meaning is always deep, but to arrive at that meaning in such terrible letters […] sometimes seems to set human ingenuity at defiance. [6]

Until recently modern English translators and critics have preferred to tackle Wagner’s letters before the prose works. As Hueffer observed, it’s simply that the letters, being generally shorter, written with immediacy, and usually with some material purpose in view, are more translatable. Line for line the letters can yield more biographical information about Wagner than page after page of didactic or ‘philosophical’ prose, however well translated. But William Ashton Ellis’s translations of the composer’s letters, let alone the prose works, have generally been declared unacceptable for modern scholarly purposes. In 1987 Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington put together the most important single volume of Wagner’s Selected Letters, with Wagner’s German freshly translated. Yet their declared aims resembled Ellis’s: ‘the translation aims to reproduce a nineteenth-century literary style in keeping with Wagner’s own ornate and often highly poetical language.’ They were rather less worried about Ellis’s ‘saving efficacy’ of commas: ‘Wagner’s own idiosyncratic punctuation has been retained, except in those cases where to have done so would have impaired understanding.’ And they paid tribute to those ingenious forerunners whose ‘occasional felicities of style [...] it would have been short-sighted (and ungracious) not to have borrowed.’ [7]

Exceptionally, John Deathridge’s 1991 edition of Wagner’s Family Letters chose explicitly to rework Ellis’s first (and only) edition. Macmillan, Ellis’s publisher in 1911, co-operated eighty years later in an experiment that hasn’t really been given full credit for its critical approach. Deathridge’s edition carefully sets Ellis’s in context with his own introduction, notes, expansions and additions, but it deliberately retains much of the typography, layout and ‘feel’ of the 1911 edition. ‘Ellis thought long and hard about the problems of rendering Wagner into English,’ Deathridge explained, but

hard as Ellis tried to feel his way into Wagner’s writings - with touching devotion and often true understanding it should be said - he arrived at an ‘equivalent’ of the Master’s style that was unmistakeably [sic] his own, including the quasi-biblical inflections, inelegant archaisms and other dotty traits of Ellis-speak that have irritated generations of English Wagnerites ever since. Ellis’s translations of Wagner’s letters [...] are less annoying probably because the original German is clearer and more spontaneous, though the reader still has to endure the bouts of mad-translator disease to which Ellis was always prone. [...] Yet to dismiss Ellis out of hand is a mistake. For one thing, his ‘invention’ of Wagner in English has become too much part and parcel of the literature for it to be simply ignored. For another, the translations are closer in time to the original and capture a part of the historical ‘aura’ of the texts that a modern translation never could. [8]

An aura appears, of course, at the edge of an object. In fact it’s usually detectable only after direct contact with the object has been lost. The present study makes no claims for any centrality to Wagner scholarship. In more than one sense it focuses not on the original but on the translation. It takes in peripheral, curious, and downright unfashionable aspects of Wagner’s reception in Britain. I'm afraid it indulges in Ellis’s own predilection for pregnant footnotes, especially in poignant details unearthed from death certificates, census returns and other secondary sources (dug out diligently at the time of my first researches, but many now accessible and verifiable on-line). In this scaled-down lens I hope that William Ashton Ellis’s much-disparaged attempt at an English ‘equivalence’ of Wagner’s writings can in fact be seen to disclose some valuable conceptual and receptive issues.


The use of mundane or secondary material might be decried as historicism. But secondary or peripheral issues do seem to recur, strangely enough when commentators are looking for a new 'angle’. Sometimes they’re mischievously invoked and exaggerated in order to ‘spice up’ for a new generation an interpretation of the stale past. Wagner’s own attempts in his lifetime to condition his posterity through autobiography and re-editing has engendered a whole cottage industry devoted to discovering the untruths and half-truths about him. [9] Immediately after the composer’s death it was felt loyal and natural to establish a tradition of appropriation, selection, editing, and emendation of at least the recorded documents and facts. And this was not necessarily pernicious. John Deathridge quoted Ernest Newman’s ‘charitable view’ that

It stands to reason that the nearer the publication stood to the date of Wagner’s death, and the more people who were still alive at the time, the more scruples Wahnfried would have about publication in full. Perhaps what Cosima and the others did was no more than any other widow and any friends would do in similar circumstances. [10]

The urge of successive generations to condition Wagner needs to be examined in its own right. After he ceased to speak for himself, ‘Wagner’ came to us through the mediation of his successors, hagiographic or hostile, scholarly or dilettante, over the last two hundred years. We have lost direct contact with Wagner and are left with ‘interpretation’, of which translation is a pretty violent form. Patrice Chéreau’s 1976 centenary production of the Ring at Bayreuth is universally accepted as a dramaturgical watershed. More or less self consciously (usually more), productions since then have had to seek new modes of interpretation and expression. Engagement with, or antagonism towards, the audience has become increasingly commonplace, not least at Bayreuth. Over the decades we have had continually to ‘invent’ our relationship with Wagner, to seek an ‘equivalence’ for our times. Patrick Carnegy has documented the always unsatisfying but endlessly absorbing dichotomy between Werktreue and Regietheater. [11] Wagner’s work now calls for invention (or intervention) beyond the stage. Over the decades Fritz Lang, Hans Jürgen Syberberg and Bill Viola, in film or video, have offered entertainment with or without offence along the way. Video backdrop or front-screen projections are now almost de rigeur; more multimedia experiment can (and should) be expected on-stage and off.

And Wagner himself has become opera, as in the late Jonathan Harvey’s buddhistic Wagner Dream of 2007. Wagner-biography has sought to make its mark as a literary genre with degrees of psychologising or politicising, from Nietzsche and Ferdinand Praeger, to Martin Gregor-Dellin and Joachim Köhler. [12] For most of the twentieth century ‘Wagner literature’ – the serious prose by, after and about Wagner – resided off the stage, off the screen, and on the higher shelves of the critic’s library, or in condensed or selective texts in programme-notes. But in the twenty-first century there has been a growing number of attempts to grapple with Wagner’s prose writings. The premise now is that whatever Wagner wished us to read about his ambition can’t be ignored in any appraisal of his achievement. [13] Most artists would probably wish this. Ernest Newman made it clear as early as 1914 that the man can’t be separated from the artist. But the sheer shelf-space of the prose Wagner produced, and the primary and secondary biographical and exegetical material left in its train, has made this an extraordinary challenge. And this is before taking into account the tragic subsequent, or rather retrospective, historical context that Wagner couldn’t possibly have imagined, however much his genes (or Cosima’s, or Winifred’s) contributed to it.


Given the shelf-space, almost all concert-goers and probably most opera goers seem to be content with the performances, if not the dramaturgy. Those who go to boo at Bayreuth are also highly privileged. But for stay-at-home English language readers, with enough shelf-space, William Ashton Ellis remains unique – or possibly heroically alone – in his determination to deliver unto us the exhaustive translation and propagation of Wagner’s prose opera as something no less essential than the mises-en-scène or the Life. Ellis’s eight-volume translation of Wagner’s Prose Works, as Stewart Spencer said, ‘for all its waywardness, remains the standard English version of Wagner’s writings in prose. No new translation of the complete writings is planned at the time of going to press.’ [14] This is as true now as it was in 1992. John Deathridge’s ‘Checklist of Writings’ in the Wagner Handbook dutifully cross-referenced the Sämtliche Schriften und Dichtungen with ‘the standard English translation of Wagner’s prose works (Ellis)’. [15] Ellis’s volumes were reprinted in their entirety in the USA in 1967 and 1972. In 1964, Albert Goldman and Evert Sprinchorn brought out a selection of extracts under the title Wagner on Music and Drama, the publishers on both sides of the Atlantic attributing the translation through several reprints to one H. Ashton Ellis. [16] The 1991 English edition of Dieter Borchmeyer’s authoritatively exegetical Richard Wagner, Theory and Theatre, however, was resolutely anti-Ellis. Its translator (Stewart Spencer again) informed the reader that ‘All the passages from Wagner’s prose writings have been newly translated, although earlier versions have occasionally been consulted and plundered where appropriate. Little would have been served, however, by including references to Ashton Ellis’s eight-volume translation of the Prose Works (London, 1892-9), a translation as unedifying as it is unobtainable.’ [17] This verdict somehow failed to deter the University of Nebraska Press from launching in 1994-96 a paperback reprint of Ellis’s eight volumes, re-titled but otherwise unchanged, with a cover blurb describing him as ‘one of the most important translators of nineteenth-century musicology’ [sic]. Despite better-informed opinion there seems to persist in the English-speaking world a need for a ‘standard’ complete English translation of Wagner’s prose works. And for the time being William Ashton Ellis’s still seems to serve, even if we know little about the man who provided it.

There have always been caveats about him personally. ‘No one who has had occasion to work in detail at Wagner’s life and letters,’ Ernest Newman wrote, ‘can have anything but respect for Ellis’s untiring industry and his patience in disentangling complicated threads.’ But the results of Ellis’s industry were - and always had been - questionable, since

unfortunately the peculiar kind of English he employs in his versions of the prose works and some of the letters gives a touch of the ridiculous to them that is not in the original. As long ago as 1893 Houston Stewart Chamberlain had to express to Cosima his regret that the task of Englishing Wagner had fallen into the hands of Ellis, for whom, as a man, he had considerable respect – ‘the good Ellis’, as he calls him in a letter of the 4th October of that year. ‘But ah!’ he continues, ‘that is a sad business! Only now have I been able to examine his work as translator [of the prose works], and I have to look upon it as a pure calamity.’ Later he wrote to Cosima, ‘I must talk to you some other time about Ellis’s translations. I did not mean, as you appear to think, that they are not faithful; but they are not English. No Englishman who does not understand German can understand this Ellis-style. Ellis is faithful enough to the word - too faithful; but not to the sense.’ [18]

Newman clearly meant that to be the last word on Ellis, by then dead for seventeen years. Ellis had been aged thirty when Wagner died. He was in his early twenties when he was first struck by the phenomenon of the composer, but it was only after Wagner’s death that Ellis’s lifelong mission began. What John Deathridge called the ‘aura’, Ellis found to be in everything that had come from the composer’s hand and mind. Few could now share his blasé view of Wagner as not merely ‘the greatest composer of dramatic music ever born’ but ‘a philosopher and aesthetician’ whose - not theories, not conclusions, but – ‘opinions, whether they be eventually accepted or not, are pregnant with deep meaning.’ [19] All that Wagner did, said or wrote was taken by Ellis to be conducive to that whole ‘deep meaning’, and deserving therefore of wider communication through translation. The structure Ellis chose for his English version of the composer’s Prose Works was logical enough; the determination and consistency with which he realised the project was impressive, though it was the only large-scale endeavour which Ellis was to see through from conception to completion. It was interwoven with commentaries in The Meister (out of which it grew), and with independent studies and articles; ultimately it underpinned the edifice of Ellis’s later (uncompleted) Life of Richard Wagner.


The extent of Ellis’s known literary undertaking - the articles, revisions, editing, the translation of letters and of the prose works, the biography – can be summarised:

1886 ‘Theosophy in the Works of Richard Wagner’ (article in the Transactions of the London Lodge of the Theosophical Society)

1886-87 ‘Wagner’s Parsifal’ (two-part article extracted from ‘Theosophy in the Works of Richard Wagner’) in H.P. Blavatsky’s monthly The Theosophist

1887 ‘Richard Wagner, as Poet, Musician and Mystic’ (lecture published by the Society for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts)

1887-88 at least six contributions (one anonymous) to H.P. Blavatsky’s monthly Lucifer

1888-89 translates (most of) E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Elixir of the Devil in Lucifer

1888-95 edits (and writes most of) The Meister (quarterly journal of the London Wagner Society)

1889 translates Hans von Wolzogen’s Thematischer Leitfaden as A Key to Parsifal

1891 translates Arthur Smolian’s The Themes of Tannhäuser

1892 two lectures at Trinity College, London, on ‘Richard Wagner’s “Art-work of the Future”’ (reviewed in the Musical Times but not apparently published)

1892 ‘Aus dem Briefe eines Engländers an einen Deutschen’, in the Bayreuther Blätter

1892 1849. A Vindication

1892 ‘Richard Wagner’s Prose’ (lecture published in the Proceedings of the Musical Association)

1892 Richard Wagner’s Prose Works I

1893 ‘Richard Wagner’s (prosaische) Schriften’ (German version of the ‘Translator’s Preface’ to the Prose Works I), in the Bayreuther Blätter

1893 translates Ferdinand Graf Sporck’s libretto for Cyrill Kistler’s Kunihild and the Bride-Ride on Kynast

1893 ‘Kunihild at Würzburg’ (review of Kistler’s opera in the Musical Times)

1893 Richard Wagner’s Prose Works II

1894 Richard Wagner’s Prose Works III

1894-98 edits 23 programmes and ‘books of words’ for the Schulz-Curtius Wagner Concerts at the Queen’s Hall

1895 Richard Wagner’s Prose Works IV

1896 Richard Wagner’s Prose Works V

1896 ‘Erlösendes Weltentat’, in the Bayreuther Blätter

1897 Richard Wagner’s Prose Works VI

1897 edits and indexes Francis Hueffer’s translation of the Correspondence of Wagner and Liszt

1898 Richard Wagner’s Prose Works VII

1898 provides the ‘authorized’ English translation of the libretto for Siegfried Wagner’s Der Bärenhäuter

1899 ‘Wagner and Schopenhauer’ (article in the Fortnightly Review)

1899 translates Richard Wagner: Letters to Wesendonck et al.

1899 translates Letters of Richard Wagner to Emil Heckel

1899 Richard Wagner’s Prose Works VIII

1899 translates the libretto of Siegfried Wagner’s Der Bärenhäuter

1900 Life of Richard Wagner I

1902 Life of Richard Wagner II

1903 Life of Richard Wagner III

1904 ‘Die verschiedenen Fassungen von Siegfrieds Tod’ (two-part article in Die Musik)

1904 Life of Richard Wagner IV

1905 translates letters of Richard Wagner to Mathilde Wesendonck

1905 ‘Richard and Minna Wagner’ (article in the Fortnightly Review)

1906 Life of Richard Wagner V

1908 Life of Richard Wagner VI

1909 translates letters from Richard to Minna Wagner

1910 ‘The Pessimist: Added Testimony in Wagner’s Case’ (as chapter XI in George M. Gould’s Biographic Clinics, vol. VI)

1911 translates ‘Letters of Wagner to His Schoolfellow, [Theodor] Apel’ in The English Review (in four parts)

1911 translates Family Letters of Richard Wagner

1911 The New ‘Wagner-Liszt’ (three-part review of Erich Kloss’s 1910 edition of the Briefwechsel zwischen Wagner und Liszt) in the Musical Times

1915 ‘Richard Wagner contra Militarism’, ‘Wagner and Latter-day France’, and ‘Nietzsche Unveiled’ (in the Musical Times)

This literary output [20] began after the formative ages of nineteen to twenty-six during which Ellis trained as a surgeon and physician and the next nine years in which he practised that profession. There is clear evidence of his commitment to and ability in his profession. Yet he resigned his medical post in 1887, and from that year forward until 1915, his career as a physician gave way to Wagner-translation, biography and propagandising.

As for his own biographical details, the man was an enigma. Ellis was coy even about his age. Until the appearance of the first version of the present study in 1993, no commentator knew the true date of William Ashton Ellis’s birth. [21] Ellis was an infant when Wagner conducted for the Old Philharmonic Society in London from March to June 1855. He was trained for and accomplished in the medical profession, but seems to have become self-made in the arts. He does not reveal when and how he acquired his German, and he was to describe his musical knowledge - probably with false modesty - as amateur. He was a medical student during Wagner’s Albert Hall concert ‘festival’ in May 1877, and only on the fringe of an older generation of Wagner-acolytes in London who actually glad-handed the great man. He never did meet Wagner, but he felt himself to be his first genuinely English (as opposed to expatriate German) exponent. He never married, never had children. He was a member of the Theosophical Society, but no member of that or any other society seems to have claimed to be his friend. Outside the London Wagner Society, he never mixed in ‘society’. Until now no photograph of him has been discovered, though he himself was an amateur photographer. [22] The autographs of his writings appear to have vanished. His Wagnerian endeavours met with only qualified appreciation by his most sympathetic contemporaries, Bernard Shaw, David Irvine and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and the next generation, in particular Ernest Newman, William Wallace and W.H. Hadow, took critical, if not scornful, issue with them. Ellis felt betrayed by unacknowledged borrowings made by others from his work, and by younger writers who went on from where he had left off. He rejoiced in the growth of Wagner’s popularity in London in the 1890s and in the artistic and financial consolidation of the Bayreuth Festivals under Cosima and Siegfried Wagner, then saw it all collapse with the onset of war between Britain and Germany. He was realistic enough not to expect his writings on Wagner to be remunerative, and George Bernard Shaw was compassionate enough to argue for a Civil List pension for him. After war broke out Ellis returned to his former medical post, perhaps as much out of financial need as for humanitarian reasons. He died in his rooms at the Western Dispensary, having suffered the removal of his piano and books in order to make way for an air raid shelter, and at odds with his staff. So who was he?





William Ashton Ellis’s paternal origins were in North Wales. His father, Robert Ellis (one of a number of first-born scions bearing that name), was born in Ruthin, Denbighshire, in 1823. He was the ‘Son’ of Robert Ellis & Son, ‘manufacturing chymist’ and mineral water manufacturer at Mwrog Street in Ruthin, a company established in 1825. It became well-known and obtained Royal Warrants: the firm survived until 1924 and is apparently still appreciated by glass bottle collectors today. [23] The son did not follow the father into the mineral water business (though two grandsons would). A medical career beckoned, and in the first English census of 1841 ‘Robt. Ellis, 20 [he would in fact have been 18], Med. Student’ is found lodging at 7 Leicester-street in the Parish of St. Anne’s, Westminster (just off Leicester Square). Little else is discoverable about Robert’s life until 1844 when, after studying at the newly founded London University, he qualified as a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. [24]

On 5 August 1845, Robert Ellis married Mary Ann Eliza Uther, two years his senior, and living next door to his lodgings. Her father Charles Bagley Uther had risen in 1819 from foreman to owner of the famous London gunmakers’ firm of Alexander Forsyth & Co. With his daughter and son, Charles William Anthony Uther, he now occupied the firm’s premises at 8 Leicester Street, Leicester Square, Soho, after its founder retreated to enjoy his renown in his native Aberdeenshire. [25] Despite the bridegroom’s Welsh origin, the marriage of Robert Ellis and Mary Ann Eliza Uther was performed according to the rites and ceremonies of the established church of England and Ireland. And despite his scientific career Robert Ellis was to display a typically mid-Victorian deference towards the God of that church.

Both ‘Robert Ellis of Ruthin in the County of Denbigh Gentleman’ and ‘my son in law the said Robert Ellis the younger’ were beneficiaries of Uther’s will made on 5 August 1858, ‘proved at London 20th day of July 1860 by the oaths of Robert Ellis Esquire and Robert Ellis the younger’. Uther’s own wife, Mary Ann (née Colman) was not mentioned in the will. This wasn’t surprising - in 1826 she had been divorced by her husband on the grounds of adultery. ‘The parties married in October, 1819’, according to the judgment,

and cohabited till April, 1823, when, owing to some differences, they separated, and Mr. Uther procured lodgings for his wife, and allowed her 1/- per week. She left these lodgings and hired others, where she resided till September, 1824. She was proved before this period to have been frequently in the habit of being out late at night, and was visited by Joseph Henry Hedley, sometimes called Anderson, who occasionally was represented as Mr. Uther. With this person there was abundant evidence to show that an adulterous intercourse was carried on by Mrs. Uther, who was delivered of a daughter, the expenses attending whose birth and subsequent funeral were defrayed by Hedley. Other facts respecting Mrs. Uther’s misconduct were also pleaded; Mr. Uther was not distinctly aware of it until July 1825. [The case was not resisted.]

Sir C. ROBINSON, in pronouncing sentence, observed that there could be no doubt of the fact of adultery: the only scruple on the part of the Court could be, whether the husband, considering the unprotected state in which the wife lived so long, was or was not privy, and in collusion Separation was no bar to divorce; but the Court was not, merely from the act being proved, to take part with the husband.. In this case, the wife had so misconducted herself by habits of intoxication, and by such violence as induced the husband to swear the peace against her, as to exonerate him from the consequences which followed; and the wife had admitted that he was a mild well-disposed man, and willing to be reconciled to her, could he have done so consistently with the interests of his family. The Court therefore pronounced for the divorce. [26]

Charles Bagley Uther was left in custody of two young children, the six-year-old Mary Ann Eliza and his four-year-old son, Charles William Anthony Uther, born on 11 December 1822. By the time of Uther’s will in 1858 he and his daughter were both living with his son-in-law Robert Ellis. Charles William Anthony was ‘now presumed to be living in Australia’. [27]

William Ashton Ellis would leave a fragmentary reminiscence of Charles Bagley Uther: ‘For years,' he would write, '[Schopenhauer] passed an hour each day in playing through the operas of Rossini seriatim on his flute - and very aptly do they suit that instrument, as I know to my cost through early experience of the musical achievements of an old gentleman of somewhere about his [Schopenhauer’s] generation.’ [28] Uther was born in 1782, Schopenhauer in 1788: both died in 1860. It’s doubtful whether Ellis ever discovered the truth about his maternal grandmother, whose names his mother carried. He was later to confide to Bernard Shaw, ‘I fancy my Welsh blood is of larger proportion in me than my Irish & Cornish (or at least I suppose Uther, my mother’s family (now extinct), must be Cornish, cf. – Pendragon’). [29]

At the time of his marriage, Robert Ellis was living at 59 Brompton Crescent, practising as surgeon and ‘accoucheur’ to the Chelsea, Brompton and Belgrave Dispensary at 41 Sloane Square. [30] His first child, Robert Uther, was born on 26 April 1847, but by the time a daughter, Ada Matilda, arrived in 1849 the family had moved nearer the dispensary, to 63 Sloane Street. Robert Ellis had evidently begun to enjoy success. He became a regular attender at St Saviour’s on Walton Street, where all his children would be christened. Henry Holland’s neoclassical Sloane Street was a favoured location for the professional middle class. No fewer than ten medical practitioners had addresses there during the 1850s. Most notably at number 62, next to the Ellis family across Hans Street which intervened, there was born and lived Francis Seymour Haden. Haden, whose no less famous surgeon father had introduced the stethoscope to England, ran a large private practice at 62 Sloane Street from 1847 to 1878, almost exactly the same period as Robert Ellis’s occupation of number 63. An early champion of ovariotomy, Haden became renowned not only as a surgeon. In 1875, in a series of letters to The Times, he advocated ‘Earth to Earth’ burial using papier mâche coffins, and attacked the proponents of cremation on grounds of cost and hygiene. He eventually gave up surgery in 1887 to pursue an even better-known career as an artist, becoming knighted and President of the Society of Painter Etchers. [31] The occupation of surgeon was by now thoroughly respectable, and, if successful enough, permitted some interesting sidelines.

In 1848 Robert Ellis had approached the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge with a proposal to contribute a ‘Chemical History of Vegetation’. The Society recorded that it ‘Read a letter from Mr. Robt. Ellis offering to write a book or a series of books upon subjects connected with Natural History and Philosophy. Mr. Ellis forwarded a prospectus of a work “The Life of a Tree,” together with Specimens of Articles written by him and published in Chambers’ Edinburgh Magazine. / Mr. Ellis’s prospectus was approved and it was Agreed That he be encouraged to proceed with the proposed work.’ [32] The work eventually published by the S.P.C.K. was The Chemistry of Creation: being an outline of the chemistries of the earth, the air, the ocean, etc. Ellis had contacted the photographic pioneer W.H. Fox Talbot (1800-1877) about the possibility of including ‘Talbotype’ (or Calotype) illustrations ‘as an aid to the faithful representation of Geological structure’ in his book.

63 Sloane Street

London –

May 22 1850.

Dear Sir,

I feel much obliged by your polite answer to my note.

The volume I sent you is a fair illustration of the work I propose to write, and it is to be published by the same Society –

I can at once state that highly though the Talbotype process would be valued by me as an aid to the faithful representation of Geological structure, the proposal to employ it for this purpose is wholly my own, being simply anxious to make the views scientifically accurate. I feel therefore that it would be impossible – especially as the art is to be only indirectly employed, & artists to reduce, & correct the sketches have to be paid just as much as if the sketches had been taken by the pencil by my own hand – to offer any pecuniary equivalent for permission to use the Talbotype process. This society does not feel at all anxious for the use of photographic originals: and it would be consequently in vain to [illegible deletion] expect that a licence for using the Talbotype would be sanctioned by their committee. The whole proposition came from me, & the responsibility of its success rests entirely upon me. I hope I distinctly expressed myself that the views themselves are not to be introduced.

Messrs Henneman & Malone having stated in their prospectus that amateurs could pursue this beautiful art for their own amusement; I felt that for the purposes of science it would be equally freely available.

The volume is only intended to be a small contribution to popular science, and would contain many sketches taken by pencil as well as by the sunbeam.

I trust this explanation will be deemed satisfactory, & hope that your consent will not be withheld. From the fact just mentioned I had not indeed thought that it would have been necessary to obtain permission – only I felt that it was not polite to employ your discovery, even for a scientific object, without communicating with you on the subject –

As I am shortly about to leave England, I should consider a favor if you would kindly reply to this communication by an early post.

With much [illegible] for your labours in science, & congratulations for the success which has at length crowned your efforts,

I am, Dr Sir, Yours very faithfully

Robert Ellis

H Fox Talbot Esqr . [33]

As Ellis foresaw, the S.P.C.K. proved unwilling to pay Fox Talbot for a patent licence, and Fox Talbot was evidently unwilling to grant Ellis an individual concession. The Chemistry of Creation appeared in 1850 with simple line drawings and engravings.

In June 1852, with William Ashton Ellis a babe in arms, Robert Ellis published Disease in Childhood, its common causes and directions for its practical management. It was dedicated ‘To the Rev. Sir H.R. Dukinfield, Bart., Chairman of the Committee of the Hospital for Sick Children in admiration of his long-continued and successful labours in the cause of neglected and suffering humanity [...] by his obliged friend, The Author’. ‘Upwards of twenty-five thousand seven hundred children,’ observed The Author, ‘die in London every year, the oldest not having seen sixteen summers.’ Infant death was commonplace:

The loss of a single little child to the community of which it formed one, is an event regarded as but of minor importance in comparison with that of an adult; and this is a natural result of that disposition of the mind which leads us to regard the present rather than the future, and also of the comparatively narrow social circle in which the presence of this little being was felt to be precious. [34]

Ellis could draw on mortality statistics from ‘the records of a Dispensary [the Chelsea, Brompton, and Belgrave Dispensary, Sloane Square] in the vicinity of the spot where I reside.’ It’s possible to infer something of how he must have regarded his own offspring:

Was ever an “extraordinarily clever child” seen, except in a delicate little body? Children need at first to be gifted with vigour of body; that of mind comes after. All infant prodigies are short-lived. [...]

A child can never be too early, nor too diligently, instructed in that fear of the Lord which has been so beautifully described as “the beginning of wisdom,” or in all the moral duties it enforces. [...] However great may be our power of opening up a child’s mind, and filling it at a very early age with premature wisdom, we are powerless as regards its heart, save as instruments in His hands who alone can open that wild and wayward casket of the soul.

[...] It is difficult to understand the precise motives which have prescribed woollen trousers for boys of ten, and cotton drawers for the more delicate child of five years old. [...] So much has been said against stays for girls, that I feel almost in despair at finding any allusion to such destructive contrivances being still as much needed as ever. When it is known that stays shorten life, interfere with and injure the most important functions of the body, and are wholly unnecessary and artificial things, it might be thought that no parent would permit their use to her children; such, however, is not the case. [35]

These strictures on parenting weren’t to be borne alone by Mary Ann Eliza Ellis, however. The following advertisement appeared in The Times on Saturday 17 October 1857:

WANTED, a NURSE and a HOUSEMAID, in a Christian family. The nurse must be able to take a baby from the month and have tact in managing children. The housemaid must be cleanly and active in her duties, and be able to wait at table. Both must be good needlewomen. The nurse to apply this day, and the housemaid on Monday at 63 Sloane-street, S.W., from 2 to 5 p.m.

In 1862 The Lancet printed Robert Ellis’s letter to the editor on ‘The effects of railway travelling upon uterine diseases’: ‘So decided is my opinion of the injury likely to be inflicted by railway motion upon women who are suffering from uterine disorder, that I have refused permission to persons coming up to town for consultation to return again the same day.’ [36] Ellis was elected a Fellow of the Obstetrical Society of London in 1861, and through the 1860s both The Lancet and the Transactions of the Obstetrical Society would report on and illustrate his innovative devices and procedures. [37] In 1866 there appeared an 80-page treatise On the Safe Abolition of Pain in Labour and Surgical Operations by Anæsthesia with Mixed Vapours with woodcut illustrations of ‘Mr. Robt. Ellis’s Compound Inhaler’. [38] His mixture - alcohol, chloroform and ether - remained in use as ‘A.C.E.’ until the 1920s. Robert Ellis, described on his title-pages as sometime Fellow of the Linnean Society, and Surgeon to the National Society’s Training Institution for Schoolmistresses and to the Hans Town Industrial School, [39] was obviously more than a mere sawbones.

A decade earlier, on the strength of the polymathic Chemistry of Creation, the Royal Commissioners had appointed the young Robert Ellis as ‘scientific editor’ of the Official Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue of the Great Exhibition 1851. Ellis provided a general preface to the Catalogue, offering ‘a simple statement of the part fulfilled by the writer in connection with this work’. The material had been compiled from official forms returned by exhibitors (coloured according to their classification into Sculpture and Fine Art, Raw Materials, Machinery and Manufactures). Ellis’s role had been ‘the general literary and scientific superintendence and management of the work [...] and for these he may be held responsible.’ He regarded the work as a contribution in the great tradition of English scientific and mercantile coadjutation. ‘In the seventeenth century,’ he wrote in a section describing the ‘Scientific Revision and Preparation of the Catalogue’, ‘ROBERT BOYLE perceived the important results likely to arise from the “naturalist’s insight into trades.” It may be hoped that such results will not now fail of their accomplishment.’ Charles Dickens’ Household Words made the Catalogue speak for itself:

I am a Catalogue of the Great Exhibition. You are the public. [...] Now, you have made a Chimborazo of the Exhibition, and it towers in Hyde Park, and you are astounded, and you do not look at the surrounding elevations. Call the peak Paxton, if you please; but I tell you that this peak is the centre of a mountain system which presents grand and bold heights to your view. Call me a mountain, and my peaks, if you will, you may call Ellis, Playfair, Yapp (my compilers), Clowes (my printer), and so forth. [40]

Ruefully, however, one of those ‘peaks’ had to condescend to more humble levels:

At the period when this work makes its appearance in a complete state, the Exhibition is about to close. The first function of a Descriptive Catalogue can therefore scarcely be fulfilled ere the great spectacle it illustrates will pass away. To these wonders of Art and Industry which Man, taught by God, has been by Him enabled to accomplish, it will prove a guide but for a brief period. But its more permanently valuable offices then commence; and it may be reasonably hoped that, as a record of the most varied and wonderful collection of objects ever beheld, and as book of reference to the philosopher, merchant and manufacturer, it will constantly prove both interesting and instructive to the reader. [41]

In his work on the Catalogue, Ellis was assisted by a team of twenty-five ‘annotators’, headed by the eminent Professor Richard Owen, F.R.S., and Baron Justus Liebig, F.R.S., and no fewer than eleven other Fellows of the Royal Society. Ellis himself was a mere F.L.S. – a Fellow of the Linnean Society. As ‘Robert Ellis Esq. Member of the Royal College of Surgeons, 63 Sloane Street, a Gentleman much attached to the Study of Natural History,’ he had been elected to the Society on 5 November 1850. The physician, public health reformer and botanist Edwin Lankester (1814-74) was one of his sponsors. In 1852 the title-page of Disease in Childhood described its author as Robert Ellis, F.L.S., but curiously his name ceased to appear in the List of Fellows of the Linnean Society published in 1855. For reasons which are unknown he had withdrawn from Fellowship in 1854 - coincidentally the year in which Charles Darwin was elected. [42]

In late 1866 Robert Ellis’s name made the newspapers for reasons more sensational than scholarly. Under the dramatic headline ‘APPALLING DEATH OF A FEMALE THROUGH CRINOLINE AND FIRE’ the Surrey Advertiser reported the Westminster coroner’s enquiry into the death of Silvia Bennett, aged 15, in service with Charlotte Bell, a widow, at her lodging-house at number 61 Sloane Street. ‘On Thursday last, about twelve o’clock,’ ran the report, ‘she was cleaning up a bed-room on the third-floor, when she suddenly ran downstairs screaming into the kitchen enveloped in flames.’ Failing to find water in the kitchen she made it to the street door ‘all in a blaze’, where ‘a French gentleman and Mr. Ellis, a surgeon, attended her, and removed her in a blanket to St. George’s Hospital.’ Sadly she could not be saved, and at the coroner’s enquiry,

Mr. Ellis, surgeon, of 63, Sloane-street, gave an account of the affair. Evidence was then given that deceased, while in the hospital, said she was dusting the mantel-piece, and as she turned round towards the dust-pan her clothes must have caught fire. Some remarks were made relative to the conduct of the cabman who had refused to take the girl to the hospital, when Mr. Inspector Rolls, B division, in reply to the coroner, said he believed that a cabman was not compelled to take a fare whereby his cab might be injured. If Mr. Ellis, or any gentleman who met with the driver’s refusal, were to complain to the commissioners, the man could be found and the matter would be investigated. The Coroner said it wat [sic] the first case of the kind he had met with, for cabmen were humane as well as other people – so he had found it. A verdict of accidental death was recorded. [43]

No doubt the nine-year-old William Ashton Ellis heard his father describe this immolation and its mundanely tragic circumstances. Perhaps he heard the word ‘humane’ for the first time. Later, he may have heard another side of his father’s compassionate temperament if this advertisement is anything to go by:

A MEDICAL POCKETBOOK LOST, by a London surgeon, travelling from Victoria to Brighton, by express stopping at East Croydon at 6.21 pm in the afternoon of Tuesday April 22nd. The owner will feel deeply obliged to any one who may have found this book returning it at once to the Station Master at East Croydon; or to Mr. Robert Ellis, 63 Sloane-street, London S.W. The pocketbook is valueless to any other person, but contains engagements of great importance to a large number of sick persons. A reward will, if required, be willingly given and all expenses paid. [44]

In 1871 Robert Ellis published letters in The Times drawing attention to the need to vaccinate all classes of persons in a household, not only the superior classes, against smallpox. [45] And in 1887 he graphically described a case of typhoid where the patient was found to be an otherwise robust Scottish footman brought by a family to ‘the lofty realm of fashion and the sang bleu’ for ‘the season’:

In front the house seemed tolerably fresh and inodorous, and I could not trace the true source of the empoisoned state in which I found the poor Highlander. It is next to hopeless to ask questions: every house in Belgravia is to be deemed immaculate, and bold is the doctor to denounces – still worse if he convicts – these grand fever receptacles of laying, wounding and maiming the persons who dwell therein, in the fierce heats of the “season”. [46]

A characteristic example of his wider scientific and social concern is this article which appeared in The Times the following month:

ARCTIC LIME JUICE. Mr. Robert Ellis, of Sloane-street, writes to us with reference to the rumours from Germany and from New York touching fresh Arctic Expeditions. On the subject of lime-juice, which has been recognized as an indispensable concomitant of such expeditions, he says: - “May I ask whether you ever tasted this stuff? I mean the lime juice supplied to our Royal Navy. Not to put too fine a point on it – as said the worthy law stationer in ‘Bleak House’ – did you ever happen to have to drink our favourite medical prescription for effervescing physic? – mixed, not with the delicious fragrance and cleansing sharpness of lemon juice, just squeezed from the golden cells of the lemon, concerning which Sydney Smith said to be ten miles from it was savagedom and heathendom, but made up by the British chymist, of citric, or even worse, tartaric acid, water, and a drop of lemon essence (or even of true lemon juice), which has become mouldy and covered with a layer of fungoid growth – did any of your readers or yourself taste it? If so, it is easy for you to understand how our bluejackets hate it, and but for actual coercion would not touch it. It is no wonder to me that this is really so. And to swallow lime juice icy cold and of repulsive taste and smell! It is a downright shame and disgrace to present to the men such abominable stuff as this; and I can only admire the discipline – and the disciplined – which gets this stuff down the throats of the sailors, even with the assurance from the officers that it will do them good. There, let us say, lies the hated drug, now turned to stone by awful cold, and it has to be chopped up like paving-stones, and only half molten given to the men. I do not wonder that the men prefer, as Lord Palmerston the gout, the threat of scurvy to the abominations of the lime-juice. Now, Sir, for the remedy. It is this: - After separating the albuminous parts of the juice, by heat or in other ways, let the liquid be well filtered through a thick flannel bag, and run off into glass or earthenware bottles; then a few drops of freshly prepared oil of lemons will be judiciously added to it. Now for my grand secret. Sweeten it with the purest glycerine obtainable, and, after a slight second heating, put it into properly prepared vessels, rigidly excluded from the atmosphere. Here is my prescription for a compound pleasant to drink, free of fungoid growths, and, above all, capable of preserving its fluid condition down to a very low point indeed. If any feel disposed to doubt the fact last named, let him go to the Chelsea Glaciarium and he will see there glycerine holding substances in suspension and in the liquid state and sending them flowing through; ipseat [sic] a temperature far below our ice mixtures – and so telling us how in future to prevent our poor sailors being disgusted with their best friend – and by this means made fluid and remaining so. It is this persistent fluidity which I here suggest, and hope it may be valuable. It will be a true gratification to me to learn that this humble memorandum leads to success – not less to you, by whose kindness I am allowed to make it known. The Glaciarium, used as a skating rink, in Chelsea is a most valuable and interesting illustration of the wonderfully resisting power of glycerine, and possibly of other sweet compounds, against the force of the frost. It carries through many tubes its ‘cold,’ and – colder than ice – freezes without freezing. Add a lump or two of loaf sugar and a soupçon of lemon oil, and then a good jorum of hot water and fluid lime juice and old rum – and here you have a dainty cup to set before the Queen and the Queen’s gallant sailors.” [47]

But Robert Ellis’s professional specialisation was obstetrics. Practical results of this can be seen in the measured spacing of the births of all nine of his surviving children: Robert Uther (1847-1921), Ada Matilda (1849-1936), William Ashton (1852-1919), Ernest Charles (1854-1921), Reginald Henry Uther (1857-1926), Douglas Uther (1859-1898), Florence Mabel (1861-1916), Evelyn Campbell (1865-1920) and Claude Bertram (1867-1919). There had been one loss. The Times of 10 April 1860 reported the death, ‘On Good Friday afternoon, [of] Florence Mary, the beloved child of Robert Ellis, Esq., of 63 Sloane-street, aged 4 years.’ Florence Mary Ellis succumbed on 6 April 1860 to meningitis, which her father had diagnosed fourteen days earlier.

Charles Bagley Uther was present in the Ellis household at 63 Sloane Street during the census of 1851, and since Forsyth & Co. ceased trading at Leicester Street the following year he must have relocated there from the old premises above the shop. Uther died there from phthisis (tuberculosis) aged 78, in the presence of his surgeon son-in-law, on 20 May 1860. For the the young William Ashton Ellis the loss of his four-year-old sister Florence Mary a month earlier was the first of a series of encounters with mortality. Florence’s death had been registered not by her surgeon father, but by ‘Robert Ellis Sen.r in attendance’. The paternal grandfather gave his address as 1 Walton Place, Chelsea. Born in Ruthin in 1797, he may have come to London to support his son Robert junior in this first family crisis, but the 1861 census recorded him as resident nearby at 1 Walton Place as a widower and ‘retired gen. merchant’. Another son, Charles G. Ellis, 34, a solicitor, also born in Ruthin, was with him, and there was a boarder, Charles Uther, 29, described as a ‘fund holder’. Though there is a date discrepancy if this age is true, he was most likely Charles Bagley Uther’s son Charles William Anthony Uther.

The death of yet another brother to Robert Ellis the younger, was announced in The Times on 9 January 1861: ‘On the 5th inst., aged 22, of acute bronchitis, Francis Edgar, youngest son of Robert Ellis, Esq., of No. 1, Walton-place, Chelsea, and Glan-ŷ-don, Rhyl.’ (The death was registered in Aston, Warwickshire.) Robert Ellis senior would be the subject of two other notices in The Times. On 4 December 1862, the marriage was reported, ‘On the 26th Nov., at St. Luke’s Church, Chelsea, by the Rev. Francis Synge, [of] Robert Ellis, Esq., of 1, Walton-place, and Glan-y-don, Rhyl, to Susan Campbell, of Glebelands, Mitcham, Surrey.’ Then on 8 November 1867, the death, ‘On the 5th inst., at 1, Walton-place, Hans-place, Chelsea, [of] ROBERT ELLIS, Esq., late of Ruthin, North Wales, aged 70. Friends will be so kind as to accept this intimation.’ The cause of death was certified as ‘bronchitis 10 days, laryngitis 5 days, exhaustion.’ By the age of 15, William Ashton Ellis had lost a sister, a couple of uncles, and both grandfathers.

The next child of Robert Ellis the younger and Mary Ann Eliza was also christened Florence: she survived. Commenting in his later years on Richard Wagner’s place also as one of ten (eight surviving) children, William Ashton Ellis would draw on his own ‘personal experience of a similar quiverful’ as confirmation that ‘attitudinising’ in such company was out of the question: ‘elder brothers and sisters knock all that sort of thing out of their juniors mighty soon.’ [48] William seems to have had an affectionate relationship with his elder sister Ada Matilda (who survived him by seventeen years, remaining a spinster [49]), but it would be going too far to conclude that he must therefore have received a ‘knocking’ at the hands of his elder brother Robert. Robert Uther Ellis, in any case, had left the family by William’s nineteenth year, probably in order to train as a dentist, but certainly in order to get married. [50]

Mary Ann Eliza Ellis does not disclose her side of things. She does not emerge from history, not even as dedicatee of any of Robert Ellis’s writings; she may in fact have been treated shamefully, as we shall see. But the Uther line left its impression. Three of Robert Ellis’s sons bore their mother’s maiden name among their Christian-names, though not the third child born to Mary Ann Eliza Ellis on 20 August 1852 in the family home. In the Parish church of St Saviour, Upper Chelsea, he was baptised William Ashton Ellis on 8 December. Since there was no rush to perform the ceremony, it can be taken he was a healthy infant. Twelve years later, master William Ashton Ellis was entered at Westminster School. Robert Ellis found that after all he had an ‘extraordinarily clever child’ on his hands. William successfully examined to become one of the forty Queen’s Scholars at St Peter’s College (as the school is otherwise known) in 1867. His brothers Ernest Charles, Reginald Uther and Douglas Uther would also be taught at Westminster, but none showed the same scholastic promise as William. His father’s example beckoned. After leaving Westminster School in December 1870, William entered the medical school at St George’s Hospital at Hyde Park Corner on 1 May 1871, where in August the next year he won the Governors’ Prize of ten guineas for general proficiency among first year medical students. [51] He would have been a day scholar: in the 1871 census Robert and Mary Ann Eliza Ellis would still be recorded at 63 Sloane Street, Chelsea, together with all their children save the eldest (Robert Uther Ellis, now aged 24 and about to be married); not to mention a cook, head nurse, under-nurse, upper housemaid, under-housemaid, footman, and boarder.


In 1872, the year of Ellis’s student success, Edward Dannreuther (1844-1905) published a series of essays in the Monthly Musical Record entitled ‘Wagner and the reform of the opera’: they would form the basis of his book Richard Wagner: His Tendencies and Theories (1873), the first serious study of Wagner to appear in English. [52] The opening of Dannreuther’s book noted that in Europe ‘Competent and incompetent critics, fighting under every manner of flag, have assaulted the “musician of the future” or broken a lance in his honour. The Almanach des Deutschen Musikvereins for 1869 gives a surprisingly extensive list of books, pamphlets and articles put forth by Germans on the defensive side alone.’ It seemed absurd to Dannreuther that Germans should waste ‘so much ink and paper’ when ‘the master’s own expositions of his views’ could be consulted directly. In England, however, ‘where a genuine curiosity has only of late arisen’ (Dannreuther dated this to the 1870 production of L’Olandese Dannato at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane), ink and paper could justifiably be pressed into Wagner’s service. Dannreuther looked forward to the culmination of Wagner’s career then scheduled for 1874, the Ring at Bayreuth. Funds for the construction of the festival theatre ‘are being furnished by different “Wagner Societies” which have sprung up spontaneously, absolutely without agitation on the master’s part, and in most instances without his knowledge, in all parts of Germany, in London, Pesth, Milan, New York, &c.’ [53]

Dannreuther himself founded the first London Wagner Society in 1872. It grew out of a ‘Working Men’s Society’ formed in the 1860s to promote the ‘music of the future’ chiefly represented at the time by Liszt and Berlioz. [54] The first of a series of concerts of Wagner’s music took place on 19 February 1873. The organisers were ‘working men’ in the sense that they refused to be complacent consumers of conservative art, but were musical practitioners, teachers, theorists and critics who wished to associate themselves with the most advanced European music. They would transfer their allegiance to successive societies promoting progressive music, including successive Wagner Societies. Many were serious musical establishment figures who were prepared to risk controversy and put their academic and professional reputation on the line.

Edward Dannreuther’s energetic relationship with Wagner – undiminished by the distance between London and Bayreuth - was remarkable. It was he who, with Alfred Forman, found a London theatrical property master to provide the stage dragon – or at least most of it – and other fauna for the Bayreuth Ring-premiere in 1876. [55] He was the celebrity’s host during Wagner’s 1877 Albert Hall conducting season, and was instrumental in its arrangements, and in making subsequent financial amends for it. It was in Dannreuther’s Bayswater home that Wagner read the completed Parsifal-poem publicly for the first time. At Wagner’s request Dannreuther found a London manufacturer or importer of Chinese tam-tams to provide the (unsuccessfully) tuned resonances for Bayreuth’s Parsifal bells in 1882. [56] He was a practical ‘working man’ who could turn his hand to teaching (pupils including Hubert Parry), performing (not least the British premiere of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto), and making scholarly contributions to Grove’s Dictionary [57] and the Oxford History of Music.

Dannreuther prevailed upon the ageing (60-year-old) historian and bibliophile Lord Lindsay, Earl of Crawford and Balcarres, [58] to become the Wagner Society’s august President, and placed the following announcement in the press:


A number of PATRONATSCHEINE, at 300 thalers each, for the Three Complete Representations of “DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN” (Rheingold, Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung), which are to take place at Bayreuth in the summer of 1873 [sic], have been secured. They will be divided amongst the members so that each may have a first-rate seat for one entire performance of the work, i.e. four consecutive evenings, at the cost of £15.

Members will have special privileges at the series of orchestral concerts, under the direction of Mr. Edward Dannreuther, to be given by the Society next January, for the introduction of important compositions by Wagner, Liszt, Berlioz, Schubert, and Joachim.



TREASURER – J.S. Bergheim, Esq.

All communications to be addressed to Mr. DANNREUTHER, Granville Chambers, Granville Place, London, W. [59]

Franz (later Francis) Hüffer (later Hueffer), its ‘foreign secretary’, had settled in London in 1869 (he would be naturalised in January 1882), but evidently kept up his German connections. Dannreuther himself took the role of music director, and the next year the Society was advertising a season of six concerts at the St. James’s Hall including music by Beethoven, Berlioz and Wagner with an ‘Orchestra of 80 performers’ conducted by Dannreuther, and with Hans von Bülow as guest soloist in works by Raff and Liszt. [60]

In his twenties William Ashton Ellis must have attended some of those concerts. According to his own testimony, it was around 1875 that he became ‘a devotee of Wagner’s works [...] and devoured most of the literature then available on the subject’. [61] However, he did not join Dannreuther’s Wagner Society; his medical studies had first claim upon his time. On 27 January 1876 Ellis attended the Court of Examiners of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, paid his fee of fifteen guineas, and followed his father into Membership of that body, entering the Medical Register on 4 February. ‘I missed the great Nibelungen festival of 1876,’ Ellis tells us, but he avidly listened to first-hand reports of it. [62] Ellis seems also to have missed Wagner’s Albert Hall concerts in London in May 1877: at any rate he offers no first-hand account of them. But if he ‘devoured’ The Times he may soon after have seen Dannreuther’s appeal for contributions to a ‘Richard Wagner Testimonial’, a fund ‘with the object of making up to him the sum of £1,200’ in view of ‘Herr Wagner having declined to accept the greater part of the honorarium agreed upon for his services at the recent Festival Concerts in favour of his artist’s [sic] salaries’. [63] The Times carried the following notice on 25 June 1877:

We learn that Lord Lindsay, the President of the Wagner Society, and other members of the Committee, along with Mr. Dannreuther, the conductor of the concerts of 1873 and 1874, have resolved to raise a fund to present the composer with an adequate testimonial. They have taken this step in order to carry out that principle on which the association was based – namely, to assist Herr Wagner to establish the National Opera-House at Bayreuth. It is no secret, and its is to be regretted even by those professors and amateurs who do not concur with him in his views of the lyric drama, that Herr Wagner has been suffering severely under the load of the deficit at Bayreuth, and that the recent concerts at the Royal Albert Hall have been of little service to him. He is in ignorance of the present movement of his friends and admirers, who believe that the proposed testimonial is the only way of securing for him the leisure and rest necessary for the development of his creative powers. – Athenæum.

Ellis doesn’t say whether he dug into his pocket. In all likelihood he was still concentrating, with his father’s encouragement, on his professional future. The next year, 1878, he qualified as a physician (Licentiate of the Royal College). He quickly put his qualifications to use. On 6 August 1878 The London Gazette announced the appointment of “William Ashton Ellis, Gent., to be Acting-Surgeon” to the 10th Kent Artillery Volunteer Corps. That ‘acting’ military appointment, however, was probably no more than dutiful for the time; on 22 February 1884 the Gazette would record: ‘3rd Kent (Royal Arsenal), Acting Surgeon William Ashton Ellis resigns his appointment’. More substantively, almost as soon as he qualified as LRCP he had answered an advertisement in The Lancet announcing the vacancy of the post of Resident Medical Officer at the Western Dispensary, at a salary of £105 per annum ‘with furnished apartments, coals, gas and attendance.’ On the casting vote of the chairman of the Dispensary’s Committee of Management, ‘Wm. Ashdown [sic] Ellis’ won the job, and began his duties on 29 September 1878. [64]


The dispensaries were wound up on the creation of the National Health Service after the Second World War. Funded through philanthropy, they provided home medical care (especially midwifery) to the local poor, some of whom subscribed for the service on a means test basis. The Western Dispensary was connected with the United Westminster Almshouses, and among the great and the good providing for it were Baroness Burdett-Coutts [65] and Sir Rutherford Alcock (1809-97), celebrated surgeon, a Governor of Westminster Hospital, and organiser of the first exhibition of Japanese art in London. Soon after Ellis was appointed Resident Medical Officer, the Western Dispensary moved into new premises at 38 and 40 Rochester Row, next to the Almshouses. The building (like the almshouses, still extant, though remodelled in 1962-63) comprised a ground floor dispensary, a first floor boardroom, and residential accommodation on the second floor. In addition to the resident doctor, the Dispensary could draw on four honorary consultants, a dentist, six ‘attending doctors’, a dispenser and two midwives. In 1899, more than 21,000 attendances (the sick poor nursed in their own homes) would be recorded. The building ceased to be a Dispensary in December 1949, and its funds were handed over to the Almshouses in 1954. [66] The institution originated in 1789 through

the sympathetic action of one Dr. John Sims and friends [...] with the intention of offering advice and medicine to the sick poor of Westminster, and comfortable help for needy mothers at the birth of their children. [...] Patients were then, as now, required to attend personally except in cases of extreme illness, when the sick are visited by a medical man if they send their letters of recommendation by authorised hands before 10 a.m. A Midwifery Gratuitous Branch was established in 1822, and a Provident Branch in 1875. In this department, midwifery patients pay one shilling each on registration, and a fee of 15s. should a medical officer attend. A midwife’s fee is five shillings, and, in either case, half the fee is paid by the Institution. The charges for Provident Membership vary from 2d. to 6d. per month. These amounts are lessened for families, and widows’ children pay but one penny per month. [67]

William Ashton Ellis is named in this account of 1892 as a member of a standing medical committee, part of the committee of management of the dispensary, and Ellis would later claim to be a ‘life governor’. ‘An anniversary dinner,’ the account continues, ‘recommended by the first report, is held on the 25th of May, the Centennial Festival which occurred in 1889 having been presided over by Mr. W. Burdett-Coutts, M.P.’ An interestingly named ‘Marie Celeste Convalescent Branch’ (she was actually a benefactress) was formed in 1888-9. The King of the Belgians was succeeded by H.R.H. the Prince of Wales as Patron of the Dispensary in 1866, and Baroness Burdett-Coutts became president in 1885. [68] The work of the Resident Medical Officer, besides supervision of the medical staff and the making of regular statistical reports to the Committee of Management, included responsibility for the day-to-day running of the building. For instance, the Committee minutes for 15 February 1882 recorded that

Mr. Ellis drew the attention of the Committee to the fact that the balconies of the Almshouse had been built close up to the lead flat outside his bedroom window, so that persons could easily pass from one premises to the other, and the Committee after viewing the spot, instructed the secretary to confer with Mr. Chapple, the Builder, and to obtain his opinion and also an estimate of the cost of most effectually and at the least expense protecting that portion of the premises. [69]


On 19 July 1882 the Minutes record that the Resident Medical Officer had been granted five weeks’ leave of absence. Did Ellis go to Bayreuth for the first performances of Parsifal between 26 July and 29 August? It’s tempting to think so, but Ellis nowhere explicitly refers to the experience. In his Life of Wagner Ernest Newman mentions only Edward Dannreuther, Ferdinand Praeger and Julius Cyriax by name among ‘a number of London friends’ present (all of German origin). [70] Ellis would have known Dannreuther from his publications, but Praeger and Cyriax he came to know only later, after joining the reconstituted London Wagner Society. As he put it in his own Life of Richard Wagner, ‘I fancy it was in 1885 that I joined the then two-year old London Branch of the Wagner Society [...].’ [71] In fact Ellis joined the London ‘Zweigverein’ earlier than this, as his name appears in the Verzeichniss der Mitglieder des Allgemeinen Richard Wagner-Vereines 1884 published with the Bayreuther Blätter. The committee, under the presidency of the Right Honourable the Earl of Dysart, comprised Walter Bache, Avigdor Birnstingl, Julius Cyriax, Charles Dowdeswell, Alfred Forman, the Rev. H.R. Haweis, A.J. Hipkins, B.L. Mosely (honorary secretary), Ferdinand Praeger, and Frank Schuster. Ellis appears as an ordinary member, along with Carl Armbruster, Hermann Franke, Hubert Herkomer, Louis N. Parker, and an assortment of spouses and relatives both aristocratic and commoner. [72]

Many of these names will crop up again later in Ellis’s career, but one that doesn’t is Carrie Pringle (1859-1930). It’s ironic that the Chelsea-born Ellis had no idea that the so-called English Flowermaiden of the 1882 Parsifal premiere had close family connections in Earl’s Court and Chelsea between 1886 and 1906, and later in Brighton, while Ellis was also in Sussex. Through these Ellis could have made her acquaintance and scored something of a coup by scotching (or not) with her reminiscences the subsequent rumours about the part she had played in Wagner’s life - and death. [73]

According to the Minutes for 28 March 1883 Ellis and a Mrs Wilson organised a concert for the benefit of the Dispensary: it yielded the fair sum of £28.14s. Did Ellis see this also as a tribute to the Meister? Ellis applied for three weeks leave from the Dispensary to commence on 2 April. This was connected with that death in Venice. ‘For my own part,’ Ellis would record, ‘I shall never forget the impression produced upon me’,

when, a few weeks after Wagner’s death, the whole of the Grand Canal, as far as the eye could reach, was thronged by a concourse of gondolas, each freight in rapt attention to the strains of a band of German musicians, who had moored their barge in front of the palace in Venice where the Meister had sojourned during his last halt in his earthly journey. [74]

The ‘band of German musicians’ were from Angelo Neumann’s Touring Wagner Theatre, coincidentally in Venice, who played their tribute on 19 April 1883. As Neumann recalled it,

[That] afternoon on the Grand Canal, before the house where Richard Wagner lived and died, the members of the Master’s Opera Company arranged a stately tribute to his memory that was worthy of the name they bore. The municipality of Venice had placed at our disposal their great gondolas of state – and in these Anton Seidl and all his orchestra took their places. The artists followed in six smaller gondolas, and all about us darted the slender boats conducting us in state to the Palazzo Vendramin. Here they hovered about, - flower-decked and beauty-laden! All the nobility of Venice was on the Grand Canal, and as many strangers as could find a boat. All deeply impressed, they floated a silent throng, celebrating with us the apotheosis of our hero. [75]

And one of those strangers at the apotheosis was William Ashton Ellis.


Dannreuther’s original London Wagner Society was reconstituted in 1884 as the London branch (‘Zweigverein’) of the Universal or United Wagner Society (Allgemeiner Richard Wagner-Verein), whose central committee was then based in Munich. It’s not clear whether the old London Society retained any real function between Dannreuther’s last concert in May 1874 and Lord Lindsay’s death in December 1880. It was to (moneyed) society at large that Dannreuther had appealed after the Albert Hall embarrassment of 1877, and Hueffer was surely right when he said that the first Society had ‘existed essentially, like Schumann’s Davidsbund, in the head of its founder and musical director, Mr. Edward Dannreuther, to whom the present writer served as humble literary adviser and amanuensis.’ [76] In 1884 the founding secretary of the new London Branch of the United Wagner Society was the lawyer and amateur musician B. L. Mosely. [77] How Mosely had come by this appointment is uncertain. It’s probable that like Julius Cyriax he met Wagner in London during his Albert Hall ‘Festival’ in May 1877. Cosima’s Diary records that Wagner wrote to both Cyriax and a Herr Mosely on 3 June 1879. The editors of both the German and English editions of her Diary refer at this point to a letter in the Wahnfried archive from a ‘Dr. L. Mosely’. [78] In fact the letter to which Wagner replied, though in cursive German script, is clearly signed by B.L. Mosely, sent from his barristers’ chambers at 2 Brick Court, Temple, London, on 18 May 1879. [79] The Wagner-Briefe-Verzeichnis lists three letters from Wagner to Mosely between 1877 and 1881: one is accessible in the Richard-Wagner-Museum. Their correspondence appears to have been of little significance, Mosely mainly sending obsequious greetings (and at least one gift) on the occasion of Wagner’s birthday.

Even Cyriax seemed unsure why, but in March 1884, as he reported to Carl Friedrich Glasenapp, ‘The branch to be erected here [in London] is in the most capable hands. My friend Mosely has been appointed its representative (which I didn’t know) and seems to tackle the great cause with all energy.’ [80] His correspondence with Wagner, and his translation in 1884 of Wolzogen’s Guide to the Legend, Poem and Music of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde were probably Mosely’s main credentials for the job. In any event, with Bayreuth’s express authority Mosely placed advertisements in The Times in the spring of 1884:

UNITED RICHARD WAGNER SOCIETY of GERMANY. – LONDON BRANCH. – A branch of the above Society, under the presidency of the Right Honourable the Earl of Dysart, is in the course of formation, with the object of providing funds to defray the expenses of future representations of Wagner’s Music Dramas at Bayreuth; likewise to furnish poor musicians with the means of attending such representations free of cost, and generally to develop a taste for the works of that composer by combining his adherents in one organisation.

The Annual subscription for Members is 10s. They will be entitled to attend and vote at the general meetings of the United Wagner Society as well as those of the Branch Society. The “Bayreuther Blätter,” the organ of the Society, will be issued to them at the modest rate charge of 6s. per annum, and tickets of admission for prospective performances at Bayreuth will be offered to them at reduced rates should the Society’s funds permit.

Applications for membership to be addressed to B. L. Mosely, Esq., No. 55, Tavistock-square, who will also thankfully receive donations towards the funds of the Society. [81]

Though, as Glasenapp heard, there was ‘very low general interest’, Mosely ‘had received immediately a letter and visit from the Earl of Dysart, a 25-year-old Wagner enthusiast whose eagerness beats everything here. At present he [Mosely] is forming a most aristocratic committee (very important here).’ [82]

for continuation of article, click here


Return to Archive

LinksContactArchiveLinksContactArchiveCurrent issueCurrent issue