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Story: Watkins, Gladys Elinor

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Watkins, Gladys Elinor


Music teacher, pianist, carillonist

This biography, written by Peter Downes, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Gladys Elinor Watkins was born in Akaroa on 20 October 1884, the 11th child of English-born parents Elizabeth Ellen Pavitt and her husband, Stephen Watkins, a gardener. She was educated at Miss Freeman's ladies' school (later Chilton House School), Wellington and at 17 began what was to become a highly successful music-teaching practice in that city. She was also a skilled accompanist and over the years gave freely of her services in assisting many causes. During the First World War she belonged to a musical group that presented regular popular concerts at Trentham Military Camp. As a singer she was a member of the Royal Wellington Choral Union and of the choir at St Mark's Church, where her brother Laurence was organist.

In the mid 1920s, when plans were being advanced for building a national war memorial that would include a carillon, Gladys Watkins explored the possibility of learning to play the instrument with a view to being appointed the official carillonist. She travelled to Europe in 1929 and, with financial support from the Wellington War Memorial Carillon Society, studied at the Belgian national carillon school in Malines (Mechelen). After 18 months' tuition with the eminent carillonist Chevalier Josef (Jef) Denyn, she graduated with distinction: the first British woman to do so. She undertook recital tours of carillons in Belgium, France and Holland, and during visits to London gave several highly acclaimed performances on the newly cast bells destined for the memorial in Wellington. These were set up temporarily in Hyde Park for nine months during 1930 and it was here, on 29 September 1930, that she also made two recordings of four carillon arrangements for His Master's Voice. In December 1930, during her journey home, she gave recitals on the University of Sydney war memorial carillon.

The New Zealand National War Memorial carillon was dedicated and formally opened on Anzac Day 1932, and Gladys Watkins shared the honour of playing at the inauguration with the English carillonist Clifford Ball. On Ball's return to England a few weeks after the event, Watkins took up full duties as carillonist. These involved playing on the anniversaries of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force's principal engagements, royal anniversaries and the like.

Over the next four years she was to give 307 recitals from the clavier installed high in the bell tower and approachable, at that time, only by a long and steep set of stairs and ladders. As many of these performances were broadcast on radio, she was also responsible for introducing the sound of the carillon to many thousands of listeners and popularising it throughout New Zealand.

In 1936 serious illness forced her to retire, and while recuperating in Sydney, on 18 October 1937, she married Ernest Edward Muir, chief reporter for the Wellington Evening Post. In the 1920s Muir had been at the forefront of the campaign to have the war memorial campanile erected and the carillon installed. Since its opening he had been one of its strongest supporters. After appearing to make excellent progress towards a return to full health, Gladys died suddenly at her home in Wellington on 30 October 1939. She was survived by her husband.

Gladys Watkins was the first official carillonist of New Zealand's only carillon. Quiet and unassuming, she enjoyed the international distinction of being one of the few women in the profession. Her slight stature belied the considerable physical strength required to play the instrument. Highly regarded as a talented performer, she was also an enthusiastic promoter and explorer of its potential, giving many talks and interviews and writing numerous articles about carillons and the intricacies of playing them. She held strong views concerning the best locations for audiences to listen: 'not nearer than 200 yards' in 'positions in which [there] is the least traffic'. A tireless transcriber of music for the instrument, she was equally noted for her original compositions, several of which were published by the Dutch Carillon Society. Her extensive collection of manuscript music, press clippings and ephemera form the basis of the National War Memorial Carillon Archives.

How to cite this page:

Peter Downes. 'Watkins, Gladys Elinor', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4w6/watkins-gladys-elinor (accessed 13 July 2024)