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Sir Thomas Beecham
Sir Thomas Beecham

Milton Keynes Citizen, October 11, 2012

Good grief, it just beggars the imagination.

Apparently in today’s world of ‘pop starrr poppets’ one woman has been known to prance around warbling with a telephone on her head, while for reasons somewhat obscure another seems to have a thing about umbrellas, ellas, ellas.

O’ would that the Royal College of Music could produce such icons of melodic magnificence. But from the farcical to the fulsome, and a look at someone acquainted with our region who was truly possessed of musical talent, Sir Thomas Beecham.

He was the grandson of his namesake of Beechams Pills fame, whose story, and association with the village of Mursley, was the subject of a previous article.

At St Helen’s, Lancashire, Thomas’s father, Joseph, had courted a local girl, Josephine Burnett, and with the couple being married in 1873 it would seem that Thomas, born on April 29, 1879, had inherited his mother’s musical talents. Even at the age of five he displayed an early promise but the distractions of youth would soon take precedence and not least when he made the acquaintance of Utica Welles.

She was the daughter of the staff doctor at the American Embassy and when Thomas proposed, Utica accepted.

However, this happiness was to be marred by the lessening health of his mother who, due to her many pregnancies and her advancing years, had contracted a mild form of epilepsy.

Supposedly ‘for her own safety’ Joseph then made covert arrangements to have her committed to an asylum, and so one day Thomas and his elder sister, Emily, returned home to discover that their mother was missing. When Joseph refused to say where she was a dramatic scene ensued and in culmination he threw them both out.

Disinherited, they went to London to fight their father in the courts and for a while lodged at the home of the Welles family. During this period Thomas kept his mind occupied by composing operas and attending concerts but not until the whole unpleasant business was resolved would he feel free to marry Utica.

Eventually Josephine was traced to a Northampton home and with Thomas and Emily having sent solicitors to visit her, not surprisingly she began a petition for divorce.

Following a settlement of £4,500 a year she was then taken into the care of Emily and the Welles family and with the situation now resolved Thomas married Utica in July 1903. Joseph did not attend the wedding. Indeed the rift between father and son had become so great that Thomas could expect no form of paternal allowance although one day as a gift Joseph, without warning, sent a pony and trap to Mursley Hall, an accommodation that had been presented to the couple as a wedding present by Thomas’s grandfather.

In 1911 this then also became home to Josephine and Dr Welles and his family, when they all moved from London. Yet less harmonious was the relationship between Thomas and Utica, who despite her husband’s infidelity had no wish to divorce him.

Apart from the gift of Mursley Hall, Thomas Beecham had also presented his grandson with an allowance of £300 a year, but even with this welcome reprieve dire financial straits would have been the result, had not a timely reconciliation occurred with his father. In fact Joseph had developed an increasing admiration for his son’s musical ability, and after a rift of nearly ten years he suddenly announced “You dam’ well annoyed me.” “And you annoyed me too,” replied Thomas, after which they shook hands and that was that.

In October 1942 Sir Thomas Beecham (as he had now become) filed a suit for divorce from Utica and subsequently married Betty Thomas in New York. In later years he would retain an interest in Mursley by visiting village fêtes and today the family is remembered by The Beechams, built on the site of Mursley Hall. As for other local musical connections, Wing has a connection with Henry Purcell while as for my own musical abilities, well modesty forbids disclosing too much. But suffice to say I’m just off to practise my air guitar, for a star billing at the forthcoming Age Concern karaoke night.