Above: Studio photograph of Lily in about 1921, approximately 44 years of age.
Madame Lily Payling (1877-1967)
Australian Dramatic Contralto
“Endowed by nature with a voice of unusual range and power, rich timbre and deliberate style, there is no questioning the rare beauty of Madame Payling’s voice.” [Daily Telegraph]
Lily was born on her father’s trading ship in Manila, Philippine Islands, the first of eleven children born to William Burrow Haffenden, master mariner, and his second wife Rachel Louisa née Harrod. The family lived in London until 1885 when, following the birth of their fourth child, they relocated to Australia, settling in Sydney.
Lily had a musical upbringing: her mother was an accomplished pianist and taught her daughter to play and sing from an early age. She matured into a singer with a rich contralto voice capable of spanning three octaves. Aged 14, she composed and staged an operetta, and by age 23 she had given her first series of concerts at Sydney Town Hall.
In 1901 Lily married William Edmund Smith, adopting the surname Haffenden-Smith. They had two daughters, Laurie and Eileen, before tragedy struck in 1908 when William died of typhoid. In 1910 she remarried to Leonard Payling, who came from a Nottinghamshire farming family. They had a daughter, Noelle. Over the following years Leonard helped Lily with tours and publicity as she embarked on a professional singing career. Her reputation blossomed and she was widely applauded.
The Paylings sailed to England with their family in 1919. They settled first in Sydenham, in a house called Florian in Lawrie Park Avenue. Later, in 1926, they moved to Lyncombe, 1 Crescent Wood Road, Sydenham Hill, a mansion of some thirty rooms.
Lily’s first concert, notably, was in London’s Royal Albert Hall. It was on 21st April l921, before a large audience and was so successful it cemented a musical career in England that was to last forty years. In the 1920s and 1930s she appeared quite frequently at both the Albert Hall and the smaller Queen’s Hall (which was in Langham Place, burned down by an incendiary bomb in 1941 and never rebuilt). Press notices were wide and appreciative. However, although she loved to perform, her driving force was to teach and to give up-and-coming artists a chance to perform before an audience.
Her teaching placed great emphasis on the importance of correct breathing; her students were forbidden to sing a note for weeks while she corrected their breathing and gave them exercises to strengthen the diaphragm. She maintained throughout her life that breathing control was a tremendous aid to good health. When mastery of this was achieved, the student would be advanced to scales, which were endlessly practised before graduation to songs.
There were three professional milestones in the years up to 1940. Firstly, in 1922, there was a significant event in the rapidly-growing industry of radio. Lily was invited by the Daily Mail to travel to The Hague to broadcast back to England (in fact, over a 1,000-mile radius) as part of an hour-long concert, the first of its kind. This engendered huge public interest right across the country, and many big shops and offices erected giant loudspeakers so that people might gather to listen. Reception turned out to be fragmented, mainly because of jamming by amateur radio operators trying to tune in. But some places reported good reception, and Lily Payling’s strong and confident renditions were clearly heard. She had chosen to sing ‘Una voce poco fa’ by Rossini and Elgar’s ‘Land of Hope and Glory’.
Some twelve years later in 1934, the event was recalled by a Daily Sketch editorial: Few people who remember the first broadcast concert by Madame Lily Payling from The Hague in July of 1922 would be willing to grant that such vast strides in broadcasting as a medium of entertainment could possibly have been foreseen. Judged by present-day standards, that broadcast was a fiasco, but the glamour of novelty which Madame Payling gave to it made it a very amazing achievement and the forerunner of present-day accomplishments.
In April 1923, the BBC set up a radio broadcast, when Lily, during an Albert Hall recital, was motored to studios in the Strand from where she broadcast back to the Hall, all the while accompanied by her pianist, still on stage. This was not an entire success as her voice was over-amplified from loudspeakers set up in the organ loft, which lost all nuance of tone and expression, but it was a further test in the radio story.
Secondly, in 1924, Lily introduced scholarships to help those who could not afford tuition fees. Press coverage and her by now celebrated voice brought literally thousands to her door, giving rise to audition days that became a permanent feature.
And thirdly, in 1925-26, Lily presented her first of many seasons of subscription concerts. A season ticket costing one guinea admitted the holder to eight separate concerts, comprising one season. She wanted to widen the concert-going public by offering a mix of music in the programme – orchestral, instrumental and vocal – with music that was more accessible to untrained ears than that of an exclusively classical content.
Early misgivings about the ‘Payling Pops’ gave way to widespread approval; the concept was a huge success and audiences at both the Queen’s Hall and later in the Albert Hall, were very enthusiastic. The press gave their blessing and announced that it was anticipated that they would continue into further seasons, which they did. They gave Lily the opportunity to present new artists, while also appearing herself. Not for nothing had she been labelled ‘dynamic’.
These years were full-on with performing, teaching, auditioning, promoting, touring the provinces and giving concerts in aid of charities. But the onset of World War II brought it almost all to a close. Many students abandoned their singing lessons to join up or help the war effort. Then, in 1942, Leonard died, aged 55. In 1943, Lily surrendered the lease of Lyncombe and moved to Holland Park.
In 1946 and 1947, Lily gave two farewell concerts; the first at the Albert Hall, the final one at the Davis Theatre, Croydon. And then, undaunted, she formed the Payling Musical Society and enjoyed another fourteen years of musical activity promoting concerts and artists and tapping into the mass of small amateur choirs who welcomed the chance to join together to perform in the Albert Hall.
The last concert was given on 19th October 1960.
• The Website is very grateful to Mary Rance, a granddaughter of Lily Payling, for writing this article.