Dame Clara Butt - Voice of the Empire


Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free,

How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?

Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set;

God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet,

God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.

This stirring patriotic chorus, sung with such gusto every year at the Last Night of the Proms, was first performed in 1902 by Clara Butt, born in Southwick, the daughter of an oyster dredgerman.

In 1902 the British Empire was at its height and preparing for the coronation of the new King Emperor Edward VII and Edward Elgar, arguably the greatest British composer of the time was asked to write music for the ceremony. The king himself suggested that words be written to accompany the “trio" theme from Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1.  Elgar incorporated the suggestion in his Coronation Ode and asked the poet and essayist A. C. Benson to write the words.  When the coronation was postponed because of the  king’s illness Elgar produced Land of Hope and Glory as a separate song.  Clara was already well known to Elgar and she was a natural choice to perform the work.

Clara’s professional debut was on 7 December 1892 when she sang Sir Arthur Sullivan’s cantata The Golden Legend at the Royal Albert Hall.  She was obviously impressive as Bernard Shaw, then working as a music critic, wrote that she, “far surpassed the utmost expectations that could reasonably be entertained”. With a strong contralto voice and at 6ft 2in tall she certainly had a commanding presence.

Clara was born on 1 February 1872 at 27 Adur Terrace, Southwick to Henry Albert and Clara Butt (nee Hook). 

Henry had been born in 1848 in Jersey and was now working in Southwick as an oyster dredgerman.  Although some sources describe him as a “sea captain” this is certainly not true; if only because he was illiterate and a ship’s officer would have needed to be able to read and write.

Henry married Clara Hook in St Michael’s parish church, Southwick in 1869 and both signed the register with a cross.  Henry was described as a mariner.  Clara had been born in Shoreham and was 18 years old, her father was also a mariner.

Clara (named after her mother) was baptized in the Wesleyan Methodist chapel which was then sited a short distance east of their home on the top floor of Robert Penney’s sail loft.  It is likely that the family were Methodists and their wedding took place in the parish church because this was the only place in Southwick licensed for marriages.

The family did not stay long in Southwick and by January 1874 they were living in Jersey.  In 1880, they moved again, this time to Bristol where Clara was educated at South Bristol High School.  Her singing talent soon led to professional training and her joining the Bristol Festival Chorus. In 1890 she went to the Royal School of Music on a scholarship and in her fourth year there she spent three months studying in Paris.  She also went on to train in Berlin and Italy.

Performing in England she soon gained a magnificent reputation as a concert singer and also began a recording career.  She was amongst the first women (or indeed men) to become a recording star.

Sir Edward Elgar, composed his song-cycle Sea Pictures for contralto and orchestra with Clara Butt in mind as the soloist.  She sang at the first performance of the work at the Norwich Festival on 5 October 1899, with the composer conducting.

She married baritone singer Kennerley Rumford in 1900 and they often appeared in concerts together. They had three children.  Clara appeared in royal command performances for Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V.  She toured extensively in Europe, Australia, Japan, Canada and the United States.

The Great War saw her touring extensively in the UK, organising and singing in numerous services charity concerts.  Her war work was recognised by her being made a Dame Commander of the British Empire, one of the first women to be so honoured.

Although Clara had left Sussex so young in life she later returned, performing in the Great Hall of the old Hove Town Hall and having a flat on Hove seafront.

Sadly in the 1920s she contracted cancer of the spine and many of her later recordings were made with her seated in a wheelchair. Clara died at her home in North Stoke, Oxfordshire in 1931.  Some of her recordings are still commercially available.



The houses in Adur Terrace were relatively new when Clara was born and were occupied by a fairly wide range of people, many of whom were connected to the sea in some way.  The terrace stood on the north side of the coast road between what is now Victoria Road (then a path across the fields) and Ann’s Place a short distance west of Grange Road.  The houses looked out on the eastern arm of
the river Adur.  There was no Turberville Wharf then, just a beach and oyster beds.

The houses were demolished in the 1960s and the site is now covered by a lorry park.

Clara’s home is clearly given as number 27 Adur Terrace on her birth certificate but there has always been a persistent tradition that she was actually born in Anne’s Place, a short terrace at the east end of Adur Terrace.

Number 27 has been identified as the house next to “Alston House” (a slightly larger building in the terrace) and a bronze plaque was placed on it by Southwick Council.  However, there has also been debate as to whether, due to renumbering, this was actually the right house.  The census return for 1871 shows her family living in Adur Terrace but unfortunately no house numbers are given and one can
never be sure that the census enumerator went to each house in strict order.  The plaque was lost after demolition of the house and its current whereabouts are unknown.


Methodism began in Southwick in 1856 when lay missionaries from Shoreham, Abraham Atherfold, Martin Pennifold, James Gigins and Fred Wood came to Southwick to start a Sunday School.  They were helped by the ship owner Robert Penney (himself a Quaker) who lent them a room in his sail loft which stood east of his house in Grange Road facing the sea. The Sunday School grew and soon a Methodist Society was formed.  They needed more space and Robert Penney’s business was growing so he built them a new room on the top floor of the sail loft.  During this work the congregation met in Penney’s Corn Store on Penney’s wharf on the opposite side of the coast road.  The Methodists knew it as the “rat store”!

Clara was baptised at the chapel in the sail loft, the later, purpose-built chapel in Albion Street so well-known to later generations was not opened until 1876.

Tradition has it that Clara was baptised in the conch/clam shell font still used in Southwick Methodist Church.  The shell was brought home from the South Seas by Capt. Glazebrook, one of Robert Penney’s ship masters.  There is some debate as to whether the shell was in use in the sail loft or if was presented on the opening of the Albion Street chapel. (As I was told the story by Doris Randall whose parents were among Southwick’s Methodist pioneers I tend to believe that Clara was baptised in shell NFD).

To add to the many mysteries surrounding Clara in Southwick there were two Captains Glazebrook at the time, James and Thomas. It is believed that it was Thomas who presented the shell.

In 1909 the sail loft became a seamen’s mission. Much later it became the offices of the Shoreham Shipping and Coal Company who operated from Turberville Wharf on the opposite side of the road.  The building was demolished in the 1960s, as were Robert Penney’s house, offices and warehouses.



It is often said that Butts Road was named in honour of Clara but this is not true.  The road was built on the Butts meadow and the field had this name long before Clara’s birth.  It is likely to preserve the name of the butts where Southwick men practised their archery as they were required to do by law until the 17th century.


In the mid-19th century the oyster fishery was a major industry in Southwick employing many people.  The trade attracted experienced men from elsewhere and there are many examples of men coming to work from Essex and Hampshire.  It is certainly not surprising that Clara’s father should find work here.  Originally oysters were a cheap and plentiful food but disease and over fishing destroyed the local trade as the century progressed.  There were oyster beds were in the river opposite Adur Terrace.

August 2015