Robert Harris


Robert Harris - the Eastbourne Boy Soprano
“A boy’s voice of remarkable purity and strength”

In the Summer edition of Evergreen magazine we appealed for information regarding the present whereabouts of Robert Harris, the boy soprano who had recorded and broadcast from The Grand Hotel Eastbourne in the 1930s. His recordings of Who is Sylvia and Birdsong at Eventide accompanied by Leslie Jeffries and his orchestra was featured on The Better Land, three CDs of famous boy sopranos of the twentieth century, which have just been released.

Evergreen reader Leonard Prosser from California quickly responded and was able to supply the information we had been waiting and hoping for - Robert Harris, now aged eighty-one, was alive and well. Leonard had been an old friend of Robert’s sister, who is still living in St. Leonard’s-on-Sea. Stephen Beet, who has managed to trace so many of the ‘lost’ voices featured on the Better Land and the Evergreen CD, Boy Sopranos, was soon put in touch with Robert whom he arranged to visit in his Cheshire home. He found an incredibly young-looking Robert more than willing to tell the story of his boyhood singing career.

Robert Harris was born in March 1920, and from the age of nine he sang in the choir of St. Ethelburga’s Church, St. Leonard’s-on-Sea. He was trained to sing by Miss Lilian Cordell, a well-known Hastings teacher who was entirely responsible for his training until he reached the age of twelve. It was she who entered Robert for various Musical Festivals where the Headmaster of Downsmeade School, Eastbourne, Mr. F.E. Wilson, who was also organist and choirmaster of Holy Trinity Church, noticed his fine voice. He offered Robert a free education if he would sing in the choir of Holy Trinity. So Robert left the tutelage of Miss Cordell and became a boarder at the school. For the next four years from 1933 - 1936 he took first prize in the Brighton Music Festivals. On one occasion, the adjudicator, Mr. Harold Fry was so impressed with his singing of the test piece, Who is Sylvia that he asked him to repeat it for the pure pleasure of listening to his voice. “ I have never heard such a lovely voice” he remarked. Robert was also successful at the Hastings and Stratford Festivals. He was even presented with a silver watch on one occasion, and after winning the cup at Brighton three years in a row, he was allowed to keep it. Robert still proudly treasures both the cup and the silver watch.

Early in 1934, when Robert was almost fourteen, Leslie Jeffries invited him to sing at the Grand Hotel, Eastbound. It was to be the first of many performances and records which he made from that famous lounge with the Palm Court Orchestra. One of the songs he was called upon to sing, One Night of Love was considered to have most unsuitable words for a fourteen-year-old boy to sing. So to avoid any criticism, the line ‘I find my lover gone’ was changed to the even less suitable ‘I wake to greet the morn’!

Later, Leslie Jeffries wrote to Robert's mother: ‘He has a very excellent voice and is such a charming and unspoilt boy with it.’

Robert went on performing until around 1937. Although his speaking voice had broken by that time, Robert was able to continue singing because of the head-tone training he had received. “I stopped before it broke, but I can remember it becoming a little more difficult towards the end. We used to sing in a head-voice in those days. Miss Cordell taught me to throw the voice up into the back of the head. It was really very easy to do, and very different from the technique that seems to be taught these days.

Robert explained that his voice was slightly different from that of a typical chorister of those days. “I had a good range, and a break in my voice so that I could really get power on the lower notes. A choirboy wouldn’t have that break - he would sing head-tone throughout the range. The difficulty was actually singing smoothly through the break at around C. I always listen for that on my records.”

Robert told me that he used to get quite a lot of time off school in order to pursue his singing career. “I suppose 1933-35 were my best years. The other boys at school were completely indifferent to what I was doing. I once was taken up to London at short notice to sing in a cantata in a church in Kensington. The lady soloist had fallen ill, so I had just three days to learn the big solo. We had a test run on the Saturday and the next day, the great Doctor George Thalben-Ball appeared on the organ. He decided that it would suit my voice better if the pitch were lowered; so he reduced it by half a tone at sight and without a second thought!”

Robert told me what great pleasure his singing had given him. Although he often appeared in public concerts, all his broadcasts were done from the Grand Hotel. “For recordings I had to stand in front of a cone-like microphone which was shaped like a dunce’s cap. It was necessary to take a pace back just before hitting a high note, and then take a pace forward again. Sometimes we had to speed up a song or slow it down in order to fit it onto the wax recording disc which was housed in the recording van parked outside the hotel!” “I remember one of the records being played by Christopher Stone, the first BBC Disc Jockey. It actually ran over and delayed the nine o’clock news.”

Sadly most of Robert’s close school friends pictured with him were killed in the war. In 1940 he joined the Royal Engineers and served until 1946, leaving the army with the rank of Captain. He then embarked upon a distinguished career in industry, which took him abroad. Beginning on the Nigerian Railways, he was involved in creating the Nigerian Ports Authority. In 1960 he became Assistant Manager for the Manchester Ship Canal Company and was responsible for manpower matters. Retiring at sixty-five he was able to add the OBE for services to industry to his proud collection of boyhood singing cups and medals.

I asked him if he had continued his career in music after his voice had settled down. “As a boy I could sing any note with ease: it was never a problem. After the war I trained part-time at the Guildhall School of Music, but I could have done with a couple of extra notes at both ends of the baritone range. It was a bit of a strain; and when I listened to the others, they all had such marvellous voices. So I realised it was really a waste of time. I would never be as good as I had been as a boy.”

One of the most remarkable things was that Robert had no further formal training after leaving Lilian Cordell in 1933. It was she who taught him the correct technique of breathing, which was so important. “ I spent ten minutes of every lesson trying to out-breath her, and she was no small lady!” His elder sister recently reminded him that he had had to cycle the eight miles from St Leonard’s to Hastings and back in order to receive his lessons.

Speaking about the reissue of his records, Robert said: “It’s given them a new life. I’m so pleased about it.”

S.R. Beet 1st February 2001

Robert Harris, age 81, at home in Cheshire.

Additional notes from "The Better Land - Volume IV"

“A boy’s voice of remarkable purity and strength” ...Eastbourne Gazette, October 1934

Robert Harris was born in March 1920, and from the age of nine he sang in the choir of St. Ethelburga’s Church, St.Leonard’s-on-Sea.  Up to the age of twelve, he was trained to sing by Miss Lilian Cordell, a well-known Hastings teacher.  It was she who entered Robert for various Musical Festivals where the Headmaster of Downsmeade School, Eastbourne, Mr. F.E. Wilson,  also organist and choirmaster of Holy Trinity Church, noticed his fine voice.  He offered Robert a free education if he would sing in the choir of Holy Trinity.  So Robert left the tutelage of Miss Cordell and became a boarder at the school.   For the next four years from 1933 - 1936 he took first prize in the Brighton Music Festivals.  On one occasion, the adjudicator, Mr. Harold Fry was so impressed with his singing of the test piece,  Who is Sylvia, (featured on Volume l ) that he asked him to repeat it for the pure pleasure of listening to his voice.  Robert was also successful at the Hastings and Stratford Festivals.  He was even presented with a silver watch on one occasion, and after winning the cup at Brighton three years in a row,  was allowed to keep it.  Robert still proudly treasures both the cup and the silver watch.

Early in 1934, when Robert was almost fourteen, Leslie Jeffries invited him to sing at the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne.   It was to be the first of many performances and records which he made from that famous lounge with the Palm Court Orchestra.  One of the songs he was called upon to sing, One Night of Love (featured on this CD) was considered to have most unsuitable words for a fourteen-year-old boy to sing.  So to avoid any criticism, the line  I find my lover gone  was changed to the even less suitable  I wake to greet the morn.

Robert went on performing until around 1937.  Although his speaking voice had broken by that time, he was able to continue singing because of the head-tone training he had received.  “I stopped before it broke, but I can remember it becoming a little more difficult towards the end.  We used to sing in a head-voice in those days.  Miss Cordell taught me to throw the voice up into the back of the head.  It was really very easy to do, and very different from the technique that seems to be taught these days.

“My voice was slightly different from that of a typical chorister of those days.  I had a good range, and a break in my voice so that I could really get power on the lower notes.  A choirboy wouldn’t have that break - he would sing head-tone throughout the range.”

Robert told me that he used to get quite a lot of time off school in order to pursue his singing career. “I suppose 1933-35 were my best years.  The other boys at school were completely indifferent to what I was doing.  I once was taken up to London at short notice to sing in a cantata in a church in Kensington.  The lady soloist had fallen ill, so I had just three days to learn the big solo.  We had a test run on the Saturday and the next day, the great Doctor George Thalben-Ball appeared on the organ.  He decided that it would suit my voice better if the pitch were lowered; so he reduced it by half a tone at sight and without a second thought!”

Robert told me what great pleasure his singing had given him.  Although he often appeared in public concerts, all his broadcasts were done from the Grand Hotel.  “For recordings I had to stand in front of a cone-like microphone which was shaped like a dunce’s cap.  It was necessary to take a pace back just before hitting a high note, and then take a pace forward again. Sometimes we had to speed up a song or slow it down in order to fit it onto the wax recording disc which was housed in the recording van parked outside the hotel!  I remember one of the records being played by Christopher Stone, the first BBC Disc Jockey.  It actually ran over and delayed the nine o’clock news.”

Sadly most of Robert’s close school friends were killed in the war.  In 1940 he joined the Royal Engineers and served until 1946, leaving the army with the rank of Captain.  He then embarked upon a distinguished career in industry, which took him abroad.  Retiring at sixty-five he was able to add the OBE for services to industry to his proud collection of boyhood singing cups and medals.

I asked him if he had continued his career in music after his voice had settled down.  “As a boy I could sing any note with ease: it was never a problem.  After the war I trained part-time at the Guildhall School of Music, but I could have done with a couple of extra notes at both ends of the baritone range.  It was a bit of a strain; and when I listened to the others, they all had such marvellous voices.  So I realised it was really a waste of time. I would never be as good as I had been as a boy.”

One of the most remarkable things was that Robert had no further formal training after leaving Lilian Cordell in 1933.  It was she who taught him the correct technique of breathing, which was so important. “ I spent ten minutes of every lesson trying to out-breath her, and she was no small lady!” 

Speaking about the reissue of his records, Robert said: “It’s given them a new life.  I’m so pleased about it.”

The Boys

Copyright © 2001 Stephen R. Beet


Copyright © 2006 thebetterland.org
This page was last modified on 10 March 2007