William Fear Dyer

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61 (now 24) Park Street

In his memoirs, Symonds recorded his youthful love for Willie Dyer, a tailor’s son who served in the Bristol Cathedral choir, and later played the organ at the cathedral and nearby churches. Symonds’ descriptions of Willie’s career correspond to William Fear Dyer,1 organist at St. Paul’s, and St. Nicholas’ churches, and deputy-organist of Bristol Cathedral.

Born in 1843, William Fear Dyer was the eldest child of tailor and draper William Dyer and his wife Susannah Dyer (née Fear.) The family lived around half a mile fromClifton Hill House, on the busy commercial thoroughfare of Park Street.  At the time of the meeting described by Symonds, William was the eldest of six children in the busy household, with a sister soon to be born. His mother Susannah died in 1866 aged 44, leaving seven surviving children.2

Symonds first met Willie while the latter was a chorister at Bristol Cathedral.3 There, a small number of vocally gifted pupils, often belonging to “a poor class”,4 received instruction in music, reading, writing,  arithmetic, and potentially some classical training. Dyer and Symonds roamed together, travelling by Rownham Ferry to the shade of Nightingale Valley,5 but the friendship was interrupted when Symonds confessed their association to his father. Counselling him that their relationship would arouse suspicion, Doctor Symonds advised a “cautious withdrawl from the intimacy” for the sake of both families. Symonds obeyed the letter of his father’s instruction, but not the spirit, seeing Dyer privately though he could not acknowledge him in public.6

Though social pressures made a continued intimacy impossible, Symonds “paid the organist of Bristol Cathedral fifty guineas as premium for Willie’s musical education and thus was responsible for starting him in a career he wished to follow.”7 Reports of W. F. Dyer’s career show that he served as deputy organist of the cathedral, in tandem with former chorister and future Cathedral organist George Riseley.8 In 1861, the “young and talented” musician was also appointed as organist atSt. Paul’s Church, not far from Clifton Hill House.

Symonds’ letters record his visits to hear Dyer play at the Cathedral, but secrecy made the connection a strained one:

“But what is human life other than successive states of untruth and conforming to custom? We are, all of us, composite beings, made up, heaven knows how, out of the compromises we have effected between our impulses and instincts and the social laws that gird us round. Had Willie been a boy of my own rank, our friendship need not have been broken; or had English institutions favoured equality like those I admire in Switzerland, he might have been admitted to my father’s home. As it was, I continued for some years to keep up an awkward and uncomfortable intercourse with him, corresponding by letters, meeting him in churches where he played the organ, and going with him now and then to concerts.”9

Dyer lived at 61 Park Street for a number of years, before relocating to number 18 with his father and younger siblings . After many years as organist of St Pauls, he took up the position of organist at St Nicholas’ church – a role which he held until his death.10  At the age of forty, Dyer married Mary Louisa Austin,11 in the church where he was organist. The pair lived together, apparently without children, until Dyer’s death in 1905.

  1. Details of Dyer’s musical career, father’s professon, and age accord with the identification, which has been listed unsourced in Symonds’ wikipedia article since a revision at 16:39, 8 May 2010 by Brian Pearson 22. []
  2. Census records and Bristol directories show William Fear Dyer living with the family unit throughout the 1850s – 1880s. At the time of the 1881 census, Dyer was living at 18 Park Street with his father, four unmarried siblings, and one servant. []
  3. John Addington Symonds, The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds, ed. by Phyllis Groskurth (New York: Random House, 1984), p. 103. []
  4. Schools Enquiry Comission 1869 []
  5. Memoirs, p105 []
  6. Symonds, Memoirs, p116 – 117 []
  7. Symonds, Memoirs, p117 []
  8. Riseley’s career was more famous, and briefly infamous, than Dyer’s, but an 1899 retrospective of Riseley’s life in the Western Daily Press mentions that the two shared the deputyship. Surprisingly, reports of Dyer’s performance in 1871 still mention him as deputy, in addition to his role at St Nicholas’s Church. []
  9. Symonds, Memoirs, p117 []
  10. Matthews’ Bristol & Clifton Directory lists him as organist at St Pauls until 1868, the year after the near-complete destruction and rebuilding of the church. Newspaper reports show him present at the consecration of the new building. From 1869 until the year of his death, Dyer appears as organist of St Nicholas’s church. []
  11. Daughter of  E. Austin, proprietor of the Clifton Chronicle. []