Edward Miller

Doncaster’s famous organist, musician and local historian.

Edward Miller was born in Norwich in 1735 of a family with a street paving business and a boarding house. In his teens he was something of a musical protégée with a German flute. He became a pupil of Charles Burney who in 1751 was the church organist at Kings Lynn. Through Burney young Miller was introduced to Handel.

In 1756 Miller became the organist at St Georges church in Doncaster and in the same year published his first work: “A Collection of English Folk Songs and a Cantata set to Music”. The church had a new organ and the organist’s role invoked a yearly salary of £30. He arrived in Doncaster, which was still largely within the ‘bardyke’ and had a fine reputation for knitwear manufacture and had the new and improved Don navigation, and took up redidence at ‘clock corner’ on the west side of High Street. To integrate into society he became one of 16 men of Doncaster who joined the militia, commanded by the Marquess of Rockingham, and joined a group of music makers who met at Nehterhall, the house of Robert Copley.

In 1761 Miller published his “Six Solos for the German Flute”, which received national recognition. He also played flute solos on local concert platforms to supplement income and instructed the Corporation ‘Waites’ band on hautboy and bassoon.

On February 15th in 1763 Miller married Elizabeth Lee, daughter of a local Barber and Wig-maker. In the 10 years before Elizabeth’s death she bore three boys and seven girls, but only one, William Edward Miller reached more than the age of 23. With his wife and children Miller moved to St. Georges House, then known as Church Hill with a rear garden sloping gently down to the river Cheswold. The house had belonged to his wife’s father. Before the 19th century the area north east of the parish church was known as Fishergate.

One of Miller’s close friends was Mr Heschel, a young German musician and organist who stayed with Miller in Doncaster and participated in Netherhall music making. Herschel was to become church organist at Halifax and at Bath’s Octagon Chapel, but also had eclectic interests in astronomy and optics and by 1782 was Court astronomer. He discovered the planet Uranus, and designed a large telescope. Herschel, son of a bandmaster in the Hanoverian Guard, shared Miller’s ‘humble mansion’ in Doncaster but became one of the great pioneers in physics and astronomy, to be Knighted in 1816.

With the growing popularity of racing in gentry circles, Miller organised social musical events at the parish church, or the Mansion House, to entertain those not inclined to morning hunting before the races: hence a series of race-week concerts, one of which was held in 1768 (Handel’s Oratorio – ‘Judas Maccabaeus’) one morning with 80 vocalists and instrumentalists, with the Messiah on the next day with tickets sold for 7s. 6d. By the 1770’s Miller, a single parent, (his wife had died in 1772 aged 28) made a living from:

  • His organist salary
  • His published music
  • Private pupils
  • Concert conducting and organ recitals
  • Income from husbandry on leased land alongside the river Torne and on Potteric Carr

He didn’t re-marry but fathered a boy with 22 year old Elizabeth Brailsford who was called Isaac Brailsford, born in 1778 and died 1842. Isaac went on to succeed Miller as Doncaster organist. Miller had a friendship with Charles Watson Wentworth, 2nd Marquis of Rockingham, leader of the Whig party, Prime Minister and instigator of the St. Leger. However this failed to provide him with a Court musical appointment.

In the 1770’s Miller began to publish “Institutions of Music” or “An Essay Introduction to the Harpsichord”. He was linked to some of the first School Music Books written for young ladies at boarding schools – boys at school rarely found music on the curriculum!

He retained strong London links and chose the Handel Commemoration Concerts of 1784 at Westminster Abbey to launch an appeal for a charitable fund to benefit “deacyed musicians and their families” outside London. This led to a grand fundraising concert in April 1787 at the King’s Theatre in Haymarket for the benefit of the new musical fund – conducted by Dr Hayer of Oxford and Dr Miller of Doncaster. Miller had been made Doctor of Music in 1786. The following is from an advert of this era:

Mansion House – Doncaster

In the Grand Room on Friday evening, October 23rd 1789 will be a Ball with the clarinets and french horns of the Militia band to accompany the minuets. Previous to the Ball will be some favourite songs, glees and catches performed by Miss Hitchcock, Messrs Clifford, Rice Nutter etc. Concerts on the clarinet by Mr Wright. Concerto on the flute by Dr Darcy. To be conducted by Doctor Miller.

Tickets at 3s.6d. each. Begin at 7 O’clock.

A close friend by now was Lord Viscount Galway KB, of Serlby Hall in north Nottinghamshire. One of Miller’s psalm tunes ‘Galway’ is to be found in the book ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’.

Miller was something of an entreprenuerial businessman as well as organist, conductor, boys choirmaster, musician, publisher and author of ‘A History of Doncaster’. His business interests included:

  • Husbandry on leased land
  • Building Carr Grange on Carr House Road (later sold to Thomas Copley of Netherhall
  • Letting and sub-letting proposals including properties in Fishergate
  • Clay pipe making premises next to church house
  • Sandpits in Wheatley

In 1785 his son Thomas, the last survivor of his marriage was drowned at sea aged 15 whilst  serving as midshipman on the East India Company’s ‘Halsewell’. Just previously, Thomas on a visit home, had carved his initials in glass on a bedroom window at church hill – they are still there.

Hymn singing, popular with Wesleyan Methodists was less so with the conservative elements of the C of E who resisted ‘psalmody’ being overwhelmed by ‘hymnody’. Miller was a psalmist publishing his “Psalms of David for the use of Parish Churches” jointly with the Rev. George May Drummond, Vicar of Doncaster – it sold well on subscription. Two of his psalm tunes ‘Rockingham’ and ‘Galway’ ar still sung.

In 1804 Miller’s ‘The History and Antiquities of Doncaster and its Vicinity” was finally published ‘with anecdotes of Eminent men’ – a 400 page history of his town. Some of his history was collected from local antiquarians, including clergy – hence some of the villages are covered in more detail than others. On the evening of Saturday Septemer 12th, 1807 Miller died aged 71, after a two month illness. He had become very well known in the musical and literary circles as a man of ‘genius and integrity’ (Doncaster Gazette). Sadly his family memorial was destroyed in the great St Georges Church fire of 1853 as was the organ he and his son had played for over 90 years.The present oragn by Schulze was installed in 1862 and renovated in the 1990’s.