Charles Henry Compton: Championing the Hill

by David Shield


The bouquet for publicly proposing and raising funds for a pipe organ to be placed in the Adelaide Town Hall may be given to Charles Henry Compton. Bachelor, competent musician and fortune hunter, Compton was to play an important but fleeting role in the musical development of three Australian colonies. Members of the Compton family arrived in Victoria and spread to Western Australia. Charles, after a brief initial stay in Adelaide, returned to Victoria, traveled to India and China where he speculated in trade, then moved to Western Australia. Prominent in musical circles wherever he went Compton finally returned to South Australia in 1880. Before succumbing to cancer he gave a concert on the 1875 Hill & Son Grand organ in the Adelaide Town Hall, under the patronage of the Governor and the Mayor of the City.


The full genealogy of the Compton family and the reasons for their migration to Australia in the mid nineteenth century have yet to be determined. It would seem that Charles’ elder brother George and his young wife Elizabeth were the first to emigrate, arriving in Victoria in January of 1857.[1] Charles himself came on the Planet from London via Plymouth leaving in September 1858 and landing in January of 1859. He was organist at Christ Church South Yarra in 1860.[2] His siblings had followed. Anna Maria Hoyle, Henry, Jane, and Mary G Compton, arrived as Chief Cabin Passengers on the Prince of Wales in late March 1859.[3] Why Charles went to Adelaide by July 1861 is unclear, but other relatives may have been there already.[4] Perhaps it was simply a matter of employment opportunity.


In July of 1861 Compton advertised as a music teacher giving lessons in singing and on the pianoforte and harmonium.[5] From an early age he had been a pupil at the Royal Academy of Music. For many years he was to officiate at the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy London, being leader of the choir and organist to Queen Victoria. Here it is probable that he played the two manual Bishop organ of 1843.[6]


He quickly became involved in the various aspects of musical life in the colony. He was engaged as organist to Christ Church North Adelaide, which had a small instrument that had been installed by Robert Daws in 1854.[7] In February 1862 the South Australian Institute established an evening class for the study of vocal music under the superintendence of Mr. C H Compton. Using Hullah’s method he intended to get as many pupils as possible and select from them a few that would be competent to perform on public or festive occasions. He must have attained a measure of success as his classes had 45 in regular attendance from a roll of 60, and by mid year he intended forming an elementary class.[8] The choir, however, did not seem to materialize.


Compton clearly saw himself, and was regarded as, a gentleman. Apparently insulted by James Penn Boucaut, Member of the House of Assembly for Adelaide and a member of the Institute Board, Compton challenged him, demanding an apology. On confronting Boucaut in the street, Compton presented him with a note of complaint. The letter was torn up, prompting Compton to strike Boucaut with his whip. Fists were then applied, equally in both directions, with the result that Compton landed in the gutter and Boucaut was helped inside a nearby shop. Although Compton recalled the content of the note verbatim the actual cause of dispute was not stated. In taking legal action Boucaut simply wanted Compton, not penalized but bound over to hold the peace. The latter was required to pay costs and enter into a recognizance and find sureties for £20 to keep the peace towards Mr. Boucaut for six months. Compton gained few friends from the Advertiser “had Mr. Compton been hammered ten times as severely as he was we should say it served him right; the person who commences such an outrage deserves all he gets”. The Register was more circumspect, staying with a far more objective commentary.[9]


An institution that was to play a continuing role in the acquisition of an organ for Adelaide, the Adelaide Philharmonic Society, was to emerge in June of 1862. The new Society was to have a rocky existence but became an established fact with enrolled members of more than 50. They met at White’s Assembly Rooms and, with Linly Norman at the piano and under the conductorship of Herr Carl Schmitt, began rehearsing the Messiah. It is reasonable to assume Compton would have been amongst them. On occasion he accompanied them on harmonium and they assisted at his farewell benefit concert in 1864.[10]


For some time the erection of a Town Hall had been urged on the citizens and City Council of Adelaide with little public sympathy. In 1861 competitive designs were sought and seven plans submitted. Early in 1862, the Observer suggested the proposed erection was “less pressing than slaughter houses and City Baths”. With a view to the possibility of an organ, Pounsett’s Journal followed the developments with interest. On Friday January 30 1863 it noted, “the City Corporation have at length agreed to the expediency of erecting a Town Hall”. In May, 4 days after the laying of the foundation stone, it said “this important building has now really commenced above ground … we have, However, a present satisfaction in knowing that a gallery has been designed in the grand hall for the city organ.”[11]


During 1862 Compton was to take advantage of the push for a new Civic centre. Shortly after his public fracas it was announced in the Press that a fund had been started to raise money for a great public organ.[12] Compton had apparently initiated the idea for the purchase of “an organ of great power to be the property of the city, to be placed in the future Town Hall, or large room of the Institute, or whatever building may be most suitable for its reception and use, for grand choral services oratorios, or sacred concerts.” Picking up on the talk of an organ J Y Ashton wrote to the Press. His letter did little more than quote in full an article from the Liverpool Mercury of 16 May 1862. This piece outlined the new organ recently erected in the parish church of West Derby near Liverpool by Gray & Davidson but evoked no further public response.[13]


To follow his words with action Compton gave a lecture. Entitled the “ludicrous side of life”, all proceeds were to be devoted to the fund and an amount of £1000 to £1200 was proposed, with subscriptions of £400 already promised. The Mayor and Lavington Glyde MP were trustees to the fund.[14] How successful he was, or how much was raised, is not known as no report appeared in the Press. It was to be years before sufficient funds were accumulated.


Further contributing to the Colony’s musical life, Compton staged a grand concert in December which was intended to be an annual event. His friends, Richard Baxter White, violinist, Henry Rothwell Pounsett, organist and singer, and Linly Norman, pianist, along with the Adelaide Glee Society, Mr. Ball, Madame Stuttaford and Mrs. Wishart joined him in a popularist programme, which may well have reflected Compton’s personality. Held in White’s Assembly Rooms, capable of holding 800 people, the attendance was not as large as might have been expected, indeed it was “thinly attended”. The comment was passed that the concert was “the last that is likely to take place in Adelaide for some time”. The performances of the instrumentalists were applauded and the singing, judging from the manner in which it was received was well appreciated.[15]


Compton was not to let the matter of an organ rest. He wrote letters to England seeking quotations from organ builders. In June he had embarked on a country tour with R B White to Gawler Kapunda and Clare.[16] Shortly after his return he received replies from Gray and Davidson and Hill and Son and wrote a letter to the editor of the Register Newspaper on August 18 1863. Here he outlined his proposal for a suitable instrument to an amount of £1500 and was confident the money would be raised. His reasons are interesting reflecting the arguments that saw the rise of the concert organ in England.[17] He appealed to those who had a “love for the divine art”, suggested it would be “ a powerful and kindly agent in our social existence” would be “an impetus for the study and exercise of music” and one result would be that “church singing would be improved”. He quoted Mons Guizot on the contribution of music “to the happiness and prosperity of men” and suggested a triennial music festival for Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. His friends Goss and Hopkins were prepared to supervise the building of the instrument. The editor noted the quotes from Gray and Davidson and one from Hill & Son. It is interesting to see that Compton did not suggest instruments by Bishop, Eagles or Walker, though each builder had exported instruments to the colonies.[18] The letter only drew one response from “Harmony” who applauded the project but derided the idea of a music festival.[19]


For whatever reason at the end of the year Compton chose to leave Adelaide and move to Melbourne. He was sufficiently well thought of to be given a benefit concert before moving. Again his friends, Norman, White, Pounsett, and Mrs. Wishart participated. Shrader’s and Chapman’s Bands were to assist and the choruses strengthened by the Philharmonic Society. “The lovers of good music had a really excellent treat provided for them”. White’s large room was two-thirds full.[20] It was to be a further 17 years before he returned to Adelaide during which time others took up the cause of the organ, leading to the installation of the 1875 Hill & Son Grand organ. As we shall see Compton was able to give one concert on this instrument before succumbing to illness in 1883.


In Victoria Compton continued to follow his profession before venturing overseas and entering into speculative investment ventures. He was employed as an organist but it is unclear at which church. The South Australian Register reported he had been appointed to St Peters Church Melbourne. His obituaries however are conflicting. The Advertiser indicated “a leading church connected with the Anglican denomination” whereas the Register said he “acted as organist of St Patrick’s Cathedral”. He is also said to have been employed as musical and dramatic critic to the Melbourne Argus and had “received the flattering appointment of conductor of the Melbourne Orpheus Union, the principal Musical Society in Victoria”.[21]


A restless soul, in 1868 he left Victoria for India perhaps in search of his fortune. Initially he went as leader of the orchestra with Mr. G B W Lewis of Melbourne and a dramatic company. He accepted the position of organist of St Paul’s Church Calcutta which he kept for some time, surrendering it to carry out a large contract for supplying the Indian Government with West Australian timber for railway sleepers, and traveling between Calcutta and Perth. At one point his travels extended to China. Brother George, and his young family, had moved to Western Australia in 1869.[22] As George was working at this time as an importer and commercial agent it is reasonable to assume the brothers collaborated in what was a very successful speculation. New ventures were to turn out disastrously and swallowed up any gains. In 1870, Charles settled in Perth.


Both brothers apparently had musical skills. The foundation stone of the Perth Town Hall had been laid on 24 May 1867 and it was completed three years later. To raise funds for a concert piano and celebrate the opening there were concerts in the 1870’s. Among the moving spirits in these events are named, among others, Charles H Compton and Charles Leonard Clifton, a bank manager.[23] George S Compton was also seen as a leader in musical circles and conducted the “Minstrels of the West” during the whole of their existence from 1872. In 1886 he also presented the 1st performance in WA of Handel’s Messiah by the Perth Musical Union, which had been formed in 1880.[24]


From 1874, George was employed as clerk to the Magistrate in Fremantle. Charles returned to Calcutta in 1875 where he accepted the post of leader of the orchestra at the Corinthian Theatre. The story is told that the members of the orchestra were all Italians, left there by Signor Cagli. They objected to being conducted by an Englishman and the management canceled Compton’s engagement. Compton commenced a suit for salary for the balance of the season, which terminated in his favour. He then left Calcutta and returned to West Australia once again, arriving in Perth in November 1877.[25]


On his return he was appointed as temporary organist at St George’s Cathedral Perth during the absence of C Trotter.[26] Here there was a two manual Hill & Son organ (job no 1554) of 15 stops and mechanical action built in [1874-5.] Installed by Robert Mackenzie it was maintained by Robert Cecil Clifton for 26 years until the arrival of the firm of J E Dodd & Sons. The temporary position extended to two years before Compton was again to move on. He gave a farewell organ recital on 13 Nov 1879 and returned to South Australia.[27]

On his return he was again appointed to the position of organist at Christ Church North Adelaide. This was probably following Landergan, who had come from and returned to New Zealand.[28]

In March 1880, under the patronage of the Governor and the Mayor, Compton announced a recital of Sacred Music on the Town Hall Organ “by desire”. Whose desire, his own, his friends, or some other body, is unclear. Tickets were available from Woodman’s Music warehouse.


As a pipe organist it would seem that Compton was not a recitalist. The critics of his one and only public performance on a civic instrument give the only indication of his abilities. The overall programme was considered “a fine selection” but the organ pieces were such as those “ordinarily played in churches”. The critics would have preferred a choice of pieces to exhibit Compton’s abilities as for example Bach Hesse and Batiste. While his playing style was recognised as “vigorous and decisive” it was suggested pieces of a lighter character could have been chosen to give contrast. Compton, it seems, liked it loud and lacked sympathy with the soloist! The playing itself was described as having “a high order of merit”. Starting at 8 o’clock, Compton dispensed with the “orthodox interval” and with no encores the concert was finished by nine. As to attendance the press were divided. One indicated a “moderate attendance”, the other “a large attendance in the body of the Hall but the gallery was empty”. Overall the entertainment was a decided success. [29]


As to his general employment he was “engaged in business on ‘Change” and “also contributed to the press”. Apparently in April of 1881 he returned to West Australia as musical director of a Gilbert and Sullivan group performing in HMS Pinafore in Perth and Geraldton.[30] In Adelaide he continued to make an occasional appearance before the public as a pianist.


Early in 1883 his health began to fail. The symptoms of cancer of the stomach appeared and in the few months before his death he was looked after by Mr. & Mrs. Woodman and Mr. Joseph Bennett. Exactly where he was living at this time is unclear. The Adelaide Observer claims he died at his residence, the Register reported that his remains were removed from the residence of Mr. Wallace, Böhm terrace North Adelaide. He died on 22 September 1883 aged 52 and was interred in the North Road Cemetery.[31] Although there is a record of burial, there is no headstone.


Either the Advertiser critic of the fracas of 1862 mellowed, or a different author wrote Compton’s obituary. Charles Henry Compton was to be remembered favourably, having a wide circle of friends. He was said to have had a “genial kindly disposition” and “agreeably and instructively exercised conversational powers”. “His knowledge of the world, varied experience, pleasant humour, and his rare faculty of imparting the results of his observations upon men and things in a lively and entertaining manner, made him a delightful companion”.[32]


Charles Henry Compton, bachelor, competent musician, adventurer, deserves the bouquet for championing an organ for the Adelaide Town Hall. During his absence from the Colony others were to take up the cause, taking 16 years for the dream to be accomplished. Compton returned to South Australia and did indeed play on the Hill & Son Grand Organ before his death at the comparatively young age of 52.


Note For a complete assessment of Compton’s life, Victorian, West Australian, and overseas information needs further corroboration from local sources. Unless otherwise indicated, English genealogy prior to 1837 is traced from, and after 1837 from . State indexes were referenced for Australian genealogy. Early English directories are to be found at The work of Father Bruce Naylor, Naylor B A Organ building in South Australia (unpub. Thesis M Mus University of Adelaide 1973), forms a starting point to this paper and is duly acknowledged


[1]: George Spencer Compton married spouse Elizabeth at St James Church Westminster on 2 November 1856. They departed London 11th November on the Queen of the Seas arriving Pt Phillip Heads 26 January 1857. Melbourne Argus 29/1/1957 4.1,4.2. He had three children born in Victoria Kate 1862-1959; Louise Maud 1865; Edward Alfred Frederick 1867, and was to have three more in Perth, Edith Jane, Cecil Ernest 1869 and Charles Henry Spencer 1871-1871 Rita Erickson Dictionary of Western Australians 1829-1914 v4 part 1 A-K, The Challenging Years 1868-1888, Compton George Spencer.

[2] Matthews E N, Colonial Organs And Organ Builders, 1969, p153

[3] Apart from George Spencer Compton, Christian, 27/6/1826, Mary Jane, 8/10/1827 Charles Henry 10 August 1830, Anna Maria Hoyle(s) 7 January 1832, and Frederick Spencer Cavendish Compton 6/12/1835, were all born at Totnes in the county of Devon with Henry Compton given as father. Two dates are given for George Spencer Compton, 5 March 1829 and 3 April 1833, so it is presumed one child died. Other sources vary slightly. The obituary for Charles, Register 22/9/1883 4.7, corroborates Devonshire but gives the date as 1831. Rita Erickson op cit, Compton Charles Henry, gives his birthdate as 1829 The same source indicates Henry Compton as the parent of George and states his date of birth as 1833 The arrival of the Planet is noted in the Argus 20/1/1859 4.1; the Prince of Wales in the Argus of 30/3/1859 4.1. A Henry Compton married Margaret Duncan in 1861 in Victoria [was this a second marriage for their father?] and Anna Maria Hoyle Compton married Edward Dundas Holroyd in 1862 (ref 01406).

[4] There seem to be links between the Compton and Bennett families but a direct connection has yet to be determined. There were many with these surnames in the counties of Devon, Dorset and Wiltshire that had connections with South Australia. Thomas Compton born in Wiltshire in 1825 and his bride Emma married in November 1848 arrived at Port Adelaide in August 1849. Sarah Ann Bennett was married to Henry W Compton a farmer of Lake Farm one mile north east of Thornford Dorsetshire, and was sister to “Mr. Bennett, Hindley St”. Notice of her death, aged 41, and the connection appearing in the Register of 2 April 1857 This would give her a birthdate circa 1816. His occupation and location is confirmed from Hunt & Co’s 1851 Directory of Dorset p.199, and the Post Office Directories of Dorset 1855 p88, and 1859 p.667 The only Bennett of Hindley St would appear to be Gabriel Bennett, a butcher, listed in Lewis PO Directory 1862. In the last months of his illness Compton was looked after by Mr. and Mrs. Woodman and Mr. Joseph Bennett, obituary Register 22/9/1883 4.7 The Woodmans were contemporaries of Charles, Joseph being born in 1833 Biographical Index of South Australians.p1740 Described as a music seller he had a business in Rundle Street Register 21/2/1879 3.4. On the other hand little is known of Joseph Bennett. A Joseph Bennett lived at Mill Terrace North Adelaide in 1863, and a Joseph Bennett born in Wiltshire in 1825, died in February 1887 (Advertiser 7/2/1887 4.4, 5.1). Whether he was one and the same is unclear. George Bennett, of Wiltshire, was prominent in musical circles in Adelaide from his arrival in 1840 (see Naylor thesis op cit.) Dieing in September 1854 he would have been a contemporary of Henry Compton of Totnes. The connection between Comptons of Devon and Dorset, and Bennett of Wiltshire, is circumstantial, needs further research, and may be no more than coincidental.

[5] Register Monday 22 July 1861 1.3

[6] Elvin L., Bishop & Son Organ Builders, Elvin 1984 p53, 132-4, 342.

[7] This early appointment is inferred from comment in the Register, obituary 22/9/1883 4.7; see also Bulbeck A L This Stone which I have set up, Christ Church North Adelaide 1849-1949 p45; Robert Daws was later to be involved with the installation of the Adelaide Town Hall organ in 1877 Register 30/5/1909 6.6.

[8] Advertiser 20/2/1862 2.7; Advertiser 19/3/1962 2.7, Advertiser 9/6/1862 1.6

[9] Advertiser Tues June 10 1862 2.4, 3.5; Register Tues June 10 1862 2.3, 3.2

[10] Register June 10 1862 2.3; Adelaide Musical Herald and Journal of Literature etc 5/6/1863 90.3 Note the proprietor was Compton’s friend Henry Rothwell Pounsett; Whites Rooms, also known as the Adelaide Assembly Concert Rooms, were built in 1856 for Mr. G White, father of Richard Baxter White also a student of the Royal Academy, and had seating for 800, Talbot M R A Chance to Read 1992, p.30-1; Manning G H 50 years of Singing 1996 p80; Register 9/1/1864 2.3

[11] Worsnop T History of the City of Adelaide 1878, pp184-7, 213; Observer 8/2/1862 5.3; Adelaide Musical Herald and Journal of Literature etc Fri Jan 30 1863 19.1; ibid Fri May 8 1863 74.3

[12] Adelaide Observer Saturday 9 August 1862 4.3

[13] Advertiser Tues Aug 12 1862 3.6. Joseph Yates Ashton, died 11/1/1869 after twenty years in the colony. A solicitor, “till lately” connected with the Lands Titles Department, he was a man of quiet and unobtrusive manners he had been in comparative ill health for some time Register Mon. 11/1/1869 2.2, 2.5. He was connected with the Pirie Street Methodist Church and was asked to open the new Eagles organ of 1855, Register 19/11/1855 4.2.

[14] Register 13/8/1862 1.7, Advertiser 2.3 Thurs Aug 14 1862

[15] Register 10/12/1862 1.6, ibid 11/12/1862 2.8 Advertiser 10/12/1862 1.7 Wed. ibid 11/12/1862 2.6;

[16] Adel Musical Herald etc.19 June 1863 98.3 98.1

[17] Thistlethwaite N, The Making of the Victorian Organ 1990, p270-1

[18] Perhaps he was influenced by William Ebenezer Richardson, who he would have met at the Savoy, a man who had originally trained with William Hill (starting 1836), worked with John Gray till 1843, gained further experience with J W Walker before joining Bishop in 1850. He was to leave Bishop’s in 1861 to set up his own business. Elvin L., Bishop & Son Organ Builders, Elvin 1984 p53,132-4, 342. Richardson’s son, Charles, was to migrate to Sydney, see Rushworth Historic Organs of New South Wales, Hele, pp122-135. At one time Eagles was foreman with Bishop Elvin op cit p 53

[19] Register 20/8/1863 2.7

[20] Register 18/1/1864 2.8; Register 22/1/1864 2.4

[21] Register 3/3/1864 3.2; Register 22/9/1883 4.7;also quoted in Loyau G E Notable South Australians, 1885 p56-7

[22] Erikson op cit Compton, George Spencer

[23] Orchard W Arundel, Music in Australia, Melbourne 1952 p60; As a point of interest, Compton’s niece, Kate, married Charles Leonard Worsley Clifton in 1879. Was he a relative of Robert Cecil Clifton?

[24] Erickson op cit

[25] arrived Perth on the Siam 27/11/1877

[26] cited from website for St Georges Cathedral Perth, 3 June 2005

[27] website for St Georges Cathedral Perth,, 3 June 2005

[28] see Bulbeck op cit, and Newton R G Organa Cantuariensia, 1992 p426

[29] Advertiser 26/3/1880 1.3; Advertiser 27/3/1880 2.2; Register 27/3/1880 4.7

[30] Advertiser 22/9/1883 5.2; Erickson op cit Compton, Charles Henry

[31] Adelaide Observer 22/9/1883 Sat. 31.1; Register Sept 22 1863 2.1 Funeral notice. Böhm Terrace at 62-68 Archer street North Adelaide had only just been completed. The building consisted of four adjoined two-storey houses. Built in 1882 they were designed to attract wealthy tenants. An advertisement in the Register of 16 March 1883 indicated three were still available for rent so it would appear that Wallace had only been there for a short period. Marsden et al Heritage of the City of Adelaide 1990 p.318-9

[32] Advertiser 22/89/1883 5.2



Recent research in Tasmania has turned out more information about Compton. A poster exists advertising the fact that C H Compton would repeat his entertainment entitled “The Ballad Music of England” at the Mechanics Hall on Tuesday next.1 The year is not given but is calculated to be in the 1860’s and is probably after January 1864 when he left Adelaide for Melbourne. It is also unclear as to whether it was the Hobart Town Mechanic’s Institute or that in Launceston where the poster was printed. This lecture is the same as given to the Crafers Institute in South Australia in May 1863.2 One further piece of information from the poster is the fact that he was “organist of St Francis’s Cathedral, Melbourne” [see note 21 above].

A point of confusion arises in the fact that the Compton name was well founded in Northern Tasmania. A Charles Henry Compton, 26 year old bachelor, merchant’s clerk of Richmond in Victoria, was married to Elizabeth Harvey Tregurtha, 23, spinster of Launceston, by M B Brownrigg, in St John’s Church Launceston on 17 March 1869.3 The ages given clearly indicate different individuals. What the connection is between merchant’s clerk and traveling musician and teacher is a point for further research.


1 See Compton in Colonial Tasmanian Family Links at The poster may be found at

2 Adelaide Musical Herald 8/5/1863 Fri 75.1

3 marriage licence no 3304 March 11 1869; marriage certificate no 378 (134) March 17h 1869