Sir Thomas Beecham once said of Dame Clara Butt: ‘On a clear day, you could’ve heard her across the English Channel’. This off the cuff comment upset a lot of people, so they clubbed together and purchased a DAB radio for Sir Thomas so he could hear her with clarity irrespective of the weather.
Dame Clara Butt came to Bristol at the age of 8 with her family in 1880. It was in her adopted city that her talent for powerful singing was nurtured and then blossomed. Her ability to belt out a song was first recognised at South Bristol High School. This shows how loud her vocals were because she was attending North Bristol Grammar School at the time.
On the strength of numerous recommendations she was invited to join the Bristol Festival Chorus, this was because they were touring Australia at that moment. Upon her return, she was advised to profit from the lavatorial humour that could be mined from her name. With this in mind, in 1887 she became a semi-professional Lavatory Minstrel.
Lavatory Minstrels were employed by prudish Victorians to take up residence in their privies and play tunes when they were used to drown out the embarrassing sounds that were made within. For shy Victorians there were blind Lavatory Minstrels available, who judged by sound when to break out into song. However, many who used them complained that they were never able to water the roses in their garden ever again without hearing a rendition of Swanee River issuing from their outhouse.
The most famous Lavatory Minstrel was Harvelous Pimpkins from Mississippi. In attempting to find his long-lost mother so he could be her very own Lavatory Minstrel, he searched the whole of Europe and several far-flung outposts of the British Empire on foot before he eventually tracked her down to a terraced house in the Easton district of Bristol. It was then that he penned the immortal, Lavatory Minstrel classic that made his name: Mammy, Oh Mammy….I’ve Walked A Million Miles Just To Find You’ve Got Piles!’
Dame Clara Butt was much in demand as a Lavatory Minstrel at public events as she was able to drown out the shameful noises from a whole cacophony of portaloos single voiced. This further enhanced her reputation, to the extent that when she agreed to put on a performance, accompanied by other leading Lavatory Minstrels, at the Bristol General Hospital Loos during an outbreak of dysentery, a crowd estimated to be in the region of 78,000 gathered in the narrow streets outside. The police advised the concert to be delayed while they established order, but the excitement and anticipation of the spectators spilled over into shouting, violence and irrational behaviour. However, Dame Clara wasn’t blamed for the disorderly behaviour as it was all put down to pre-minstrel tension.
In 1890 the powerful, 6 ft 2 inch Clara Butt won a scholarship to the Royal Festival of Music in London. Soon after, Queen Victoria paid for her to study music at the prestigious Academy in Paris. Three months later she paid for her to study in Berlin, because she could still just about hear her in Paris.
Dame Clara has been credited with having the greatest vocal range of any singer in history. She was also the first to sing, and thereafter be identified with the Elgar anthem Land of Hope and Glory. She regularly performed before royalty and toured the world, only resting her voice – except when it was foggy – when voyaging on ship between continents.
In 1902 in a historic concert, that evoked memories of her Lavatory Minstrel days, she performed in Bristol’s sewers accompanied by the Bournemouth Philharmonic Orchestra and matching Wellington boots. It attracted an estimated listenership of 400,000, a record for pre-radio days, as her voice was conducted through all the pipework to the loos of her public. Unfortunately, her powerful voice unblocked all the toilets and drains in the area which led to the Bristol Society of Plumbers putting out a contract on her life. Dame Clara also disliked thereafter being labelled The First Lady of Pong.
She became the favourite of the British troops serving in the trenches in France with her free performances two evenings every week. However, this was curtailed in 1917 when Dame Clara had a double glazed window fitted to her bathroom in Staple Hill.
It was said that one only had to hear Dame Clara Butt’s voice to be moved. The evidence supports this as during her lifetime she had 18,937 different next door neighbours. One music critic stated that her vocals were so powerful and full of emotion that whenever she cried thousands upon thousands of others cried simultaneously. This was because they mistook it for an air raid siren and thought their homes and possessions were about to cop it.
When Clara Butt was made a Dame, all of Bristol was proud. Because Clarus is Latin for ‘Loud’, the Bristol Evening News used the Latin for ‘Our Dame’ to proclaim her ‘Noster Dame’ on their headline. This was bad news for Clara as Quasimodo instantly consulted a firm of solicitors specialising in compensation claims as he wanted to sue her for going deaf as he wasn’t getting far with his litigation against the bells.