Leith Hill Place

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
by Peter Judge

Ralph Vaughan Williams was one of Britain’s foremost 20th-century composers. Although born outside the county, he grew up at Leith Hill Place and lived in the Dorking area for 24 years. One of his greatest contributions to Surrey was in helping to establish the annual Leith Hill Musical Festival, but he is also known for his work in recording local folk songs. The well-known tune to the Christmas Carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem, was adapted from one such melody, sung to Vaughan Williams by an elderly farmer from Ockley in 1903.

Statue of Ralph Vaughan Williams outside the Dorking Halls in Reigate Road, Dorking, Surrey in June 2024. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in Gloucestershire in 1872, but moved to Leith Hill Place near Dorking following his father’s death less than three years later. He began learning the piano at the age of five and took up the violin the following year. He joined Charterhouse School in January 1887, where he was encouraged to develop his musical talent. After studying at the Royal College of Music and at Cambridge University, he settled in London, but maintained strong links with the Dorking area. In particular, he was involved in founding the annual Leith Hill Musical Festival in 1905, serving as its conductor until 1953.

One of Vaughan Williams’ most well-known compositions, The Lark Ascending, was originally composed for violin and piano in 1914. It was inspired by the 1881 poem of the same name, written by George Meredith, who lived at Flint Cottage at the foot of Box Hill. Following the end of the First World War, Vaughan Williams rewrote the piece for solo violin and orchestra, and it is this version that is best known today.

In 1929, Vaughan Williams returned to Surrey, moving to White Gates in Dorking. In addition to his musical activities, he played an important role in the civic life of the local area. In 1938 he founded the Dorking and District Refugee Committee with the novelist E.M. Forster to assist those fleeing from persecution in Nazi Germany. In July 1943, as chair of the Dorking and Leith Hill Preservation Society, he coordinated the purchase of the Deepdene House gardens to protect them from development.

In 1953, following his second marriage, Vaughan Williams moved to a house in Hanover Terrace, London. He died suddenly in August 1958 and his ashes were later interred in Westminster Abbey. Vaughan Williams’ influence on the cultural life of Surrey remains strong, over 65 years after his death. His statue, arms raised as if conducting an orchestra, stands proudly outside the Dorking Halls, welcoming performers and audience members alike. As the composer himself wrote “The art of music above all the other arts is the expression of the soul of a nation,” and Surrey was undeniably the county that influenced his art more than any other.

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