Pearsall and Bitton

Robert Lucas Pearsall’s association with  St Mary’s began in 1816 when his widowed mother purchased Willsbridge House, a mile west of the village, from her financially distressed brother-in-law. The next year, Henry T Ellacombe, a young, newly ordained clergyman, was appointed as curate and priest in charge of the parish.  It seems likely that the two men quickly established a friendship: they were of a similar age and shared a fascination for the past.

Very little is known of Pearsall’s musical or social life prior to his departure from England in 1825, but the prolific correspondence he maintained with Ellacombe, from the moment of his departure to months before his death, is evidence of a well-established friendship. The letters demonstrate that both men regularly sought the counsel and opinion of each other; the exchanges range across a vast array of subjects, and touch on family matters, lengthy discussions on music, and church architecture and history.

In 1817 the church was in a poor state of repair; Ellacombe set about remodelling the interior of the church, cutting down the box pews reordering the seating so that the whole congregation faced east.

Ellacombe’s sympathy with the Oxford Movement rhymed with Pearsall’s growing interest in plainsong and the Latin rite.  His first three compositions are settings of Latin religious texts and the music of the Catholic Church remained a source of inspiration for him. His research brought him to the carol for whose arrangement Pearsall is probably best known, ‘In Dulci Jubilo’—a Christmas hymn with alternating verses originally  in Latin and German. When writing to Ellacombe in 1833, he said of the tune, ‘such melodies cannot be composed nowadays. They were the emanations of a pure and sincerely religious spirit, and this spirit is now no more’.

Henry Thomas Ellacombe in 1817, the year he arrived in Bitton and began his lifelong friendship with Pearsall

Home Thoughts from Abroad

Although he continued to consider Bitton his home, Pearsall was, from 1825, largely absent.  He and his family had left that year, most probably connected to his health.

In 1836, Pearsall’s mother—still resident at Willsbridge—died, leaving him sole heir to her estate. He returned to England that year, and stayed for some fourteen months while he tied up the affairs and sold the house. During this time he was a frequent guest at Bitton Vicarage. There Pearsall was able to enlist the musical efforts of Ellacombe’s family and their friends; stories abound of musical evenings when they would trial Pearsall’s first efforts at madrigal writing.

At Ellacombe’s request, Pearsall paid for the new pulpit at St Mary’s. Its construction and funding had evidently been a matter of some difficulty to Ellacombe. Pearsall wrote to him on 14 March 1838:

My dear Ellacombe, Let me thank you for…the very neat drawing of a really beautiful pulpit. Its beauty is, however, something like that of many a shining insect—all very pretty until it pitches on you, and then admiration makes its exit. Oh, these matters of finance, they are horrible things!.. For your sake, and for that of a neighbourhood which will not go away from my heart, I will try to help you out of your difficulties.

Pearsall was very particular that his coat of arms, newly embellished with the cross of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, be repainted under Ellacombe’s direction in the church, most likely as one of the embellishments of the pew doors (removed in the 1880s). He included this sketch of it [right] in a later letter to Ellacombe in 1838. It is the same coat of arms that is carved into the head of the tombstone.

Ellacombe devised a new pulpit that made use of some old steps he had uncovered in the north wall of the church. It was an extravagant affair and was installed in 1838.  Pearsall paid for its construction from his newly inherited wealth and his donation is recorded by a wall inscription.  The pulpit in the church today is probably just a remnant of that pulpit having been cut down and remodelled in a quite ugly fashion in the 1920s.

A continuing relationship

In 1839 Pearsall returned to Bitton as a guest of the Ellacombe family. Also staying at the Vicarage was a Miss Saunders, who recalled, ‘He sits all day when he is here composing and copying music and practising madrigals with my cousins and Miss Ellacombe… We had a very pleasant little sort of party here on Thursday, ten people singing the whole time.’

One of his most ardent supporters, both in life and after his death, was Elizabeth Ellacombe, the eldest daughter of Canon H T Ellacombe. She was born at Bitton in 1820 and lived to be 90 years old.  The reredos behind the altar in St Mary’s is dedicated to her and notes her place of death as Westminster. In her earlier life she had painstakingly copied out and collected Pearsall’s music when he was at Bitton.  Pearsall is alleged to have written much music for use at St Mary’s, including hymns and other pieces for the choir, but it is believed that most, if not all, of this work was unfortunately disposed of when Elizabeth Ellacombe died.  Her brother, Henry Nicholson Ellacombe, who had succeeded his father as vicar, was unable to visit London to retrieve any valuable items; as a result much of the music was destroyed when the house was cleared.

Pearsall’s visits continued until only a few years before his death in 1856, and he maintained close contact with all of the Ellacombe family.  One of his last compositions was an exercise for a singing class ‘Presented to the Bitton Church Choir by R L Pearsall of Willsbridge, February 1854.’

Absence from Bitton, despite his exotic life in Germany and then Switzerland, evidently troubled Pearsall. Often in his letters he would talk of his dream to return to England. In 1848 he wrote to Ellacombe, ‘…what I should like would be to build a Swiss house by the side of Bitton brook and bring my days to a close there.’

One of Pearsall’s last pieces of music written for Bitton – an exercise for the choir, written in 1854

(Reproduced from the Hunt biography)

Philippa Swinerton Hughes (nee Pearsall)

Pearsall’s greatest admirer and the keeper of his memory, was his youngest daughter Philippa.

Following her father’s death she returned to England and married the barrister, John Hughes.  Her marriage certificate gives her surname as de Pearsall.  She resided in London for the rest of her life, dying in 1917 at the age of 93.

She retained connections to Bitton and the Ellacombe family for many years.

For the  hundredth anniversary of Pearsall’s birth, in 1895, the  Bristol Madrigal  Society gave a concert of his music. Mrs Swinerton Hughes stayed at Bitton for the occasion.  Her presence at the concert was greatly appreciated and  she was greeted with a great ovation.