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Palmerston North Music Club

1925 – 1982

This essay written by Adrienne Simpson was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

In the 1920s Palmerston North was a strong centre of amateur music-making, with a senior and junior orchestra, several choirs, and a thriving operatic society. However, a respected local piano teacher, Howel Edward Gunter, realised that many girls allowed their skills to lapse after finishing formal music lessons, either privately or at school. He suggested the formation of a group that would provide performance opportunities for talented young women and foster both a continuing love of music and an ambition to excel at it. The result was the Palmerston North Girls' Music Club, which held its first meeting in July 1925.

Although Gunter was its patron until his death in 1951, the club was run by women for women. The first president, Chrissie Gilmour, was an early holder of a performer's diploma from the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. Her successor, Florence Fisher (1926–32), was a fine violinist who had had a distinguished nursing career in World War I. In 1926 she oversaw the formalising of the club rules, which included lowering the entry age limit, setting a regular monthly meeting date, and instituting a 'guest evening' to which male friends could be invited.

Although membership remained largely amateur, professional women musicians were always welcome. Cordial relations were maintained with local music teachers, one of whom, Evelyn Rawlins, became the club's longest-serving president, holding office three times (1938–48, 1953–56, and 1962–67). A later president, Mavis Francis (1967–71), was a leading member of the Society of Registered Music Teachers.

Despite recurring problems over suitable meeting venues and the availability of pianos, the club flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, setting high standards and encouraging active participation. At the meetings members enjoyed hearing each other perform eclectic programmes of piano, vocal and chamber music. Members formed an orchestra and glee club, and entertained visiting artists. Public concerts by the most talented members became gala events.

Membership also had a strong social cachet. At ordinary meetings, 'long frocks were practically de rigueur and the informality of cardigans frowned upon. Adverse comment ... on some enterprising members who brought their knitting to meetings was entered in the books with the request that something be done about it.' [1]

From 1935, members had made donations to worthwhile causes; but when World War II began, fundraising and providing entertainments for forces personnel on leave in the city became the club's top priority. Pianists able to accompany community singing were much prized, and members regularly contributed to the free public concerts sponsored by the civic authorities during the 1940s and 1950s.

In 1944, acknowledging the rising average age of membership, members changed the name to the Palmerston North Music Club. Although Howel Gunter remained its patron until his death in 1951, it continued to be run by women for women. The original concept of women meeting to play and enjoy music together in a supportive atmosphere remained unaltered, but the aim of encouraging young people was now achieved by awarding scholarships and, in 1953, forming a special section for schoolgirls, known as the Etude group.

The club celebrated its fortieth anniversary in style in June 1965, with a weekend of concerts and social activities which drew former members from all over the country. The event marked the end of an era. In the years that followed, changing fashions in recreation began to affect the organisation. The average age of those attending meetings was now increasing noticeably. The Etude group folded for lack of support, and the late 1960s saw the deaths of several long-time members.

Meetings continued regularly during the 1970s, and the club's Golden Jubilee in 1975 was marked by a celebratory dinner and concert. By then, however, recruitment had become a problem. To ensure that every member had regular opportunities to participate in the music-making, the active membership had always been restricted to 50. For the first time, vacancies became difficult to fill. The club finally ceased to function in 1982. The following year its remaining members amalgamated with the Dorian Society, a mixed-sex group, to become the Musica Viva Manawatu Inc., still flourishing in 1993.

For 57 years the club provided moral support and performing opportunities for more than 800 women, and made an important contribution to furthering local musical activities. In 1993 the scholarships it founded still existed; the name of its longest-serving president lived on in the Rawlins Trust, which made annual grants to worthy causes, and in the Evelyn Rawlins Collection, which the club inaugurated in 1979 with a generous presentation of music scores to the Palmerston North Public Library.

Adrienne Simpson


[1] Woodhouse, [n.d.], p. 25.

Unpublished sources

Francis, Mavis, personal communication, 1992

Palmerston North Music Club minute books, 1925–82, Palmerston North Public Library

Published sources

Woodhouse, E.D., Airs and Graces: The Palmerston North Music Club, formerly the Girls' Music Club, An Historical Sketch, 1925–1970, PNMC, Palmerston North, [n.d.]