6 ISSUES FOR £6 Subscribe to Hertfordshire Life today click here

The remarkable Miss Poston

PUBLISHED: 18:28 28 July 2014 | UPDATED: 18:28 28 July 2014

Elizabeth Poston in the 1930s

Elizabeth Poston in the 1930s


The life of a Stevenage composer, performer, critic, broadcaster and friend of novelist E M Forster can now be studied in detail thanks to the donation of her private papers to the Hertfordshire Archives. Dr John Alabaster of the Friends of the Forster Country reveals the remarkable Elizabeth Poston

Rooks Nest House. Photo: Margaret AshbyRooks Nest House. Photo: Margaret Ashby

The private papers of the musician Elizabeth Poston, preserved since her death in 1987 in some 100 box files by her literary executor, copyright holder and publisher, Simon Campion, have been deposited in the Hertfordshire Archives and Rural Studies in Hertford. They form an invaluable, accessible part of our social and cultural heritage.

Her letters, beautifully written in English, French and German, provide a great insight into her thoughts about music, music-making and musicians, and in particular about people.

They also touch on her early years of privilege and foreign travel in the 1930s; her part in the development of the BBC and its intelligence work during the war years; the place of women in society; the impact of Stevenage New Town; and, above all, the nature of friendship, for she engaged with a wide spectrum of society, often keeping quite separate the many professional and private elements.

Her copious writings show how, nurtured in rural Hertfordshire, she loved the countryside – its wildlife, its peace and beauty – and especially the views to the west of her home, Rooks Nest House in Stevenage. These views were equally beloved by her friend E M Forster, who lived in the house as a boy and wrote about them and the house and its inhabitants in his novel Howards End. Appropriately, when the book was televised by the BBC in 1970, it was Elizabeth who wrote the music for it.

Elizabeth Poston wearing her old French shepherd’s coat. Image: Margaret AshbyElizabeth Poston wearing her old French shepherd’s coat. Image: Margaret Ashby

In her papers she makes many references to the rhythms and sounds of the countryside. She had a perceptive ear – for the cawing of resident rooks holding their parliaments on her lawn, the swish of steel scything through surrounding grassy meadows and the rhythmic variations and ‘pail pitch’ of hand milking from the farm nearby. She relished too the lilt of the local country dialect; indeed, it was the music of words, as well as her love of literature, that guided Elizabeth in her choice of texts for her song arrangements. Her best-known work is Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, often broadcast at Christmas by King’s College Chapel Choir. That she is not better known for her other 300 compositions is attributable partly to the fact that, after being performed, she set most of them aside in her attic.

Most are choral works, solo songs, song arrangements and vocal collections, for she favoured small-scale, intimate, subtle composition.

Elizabeth was much involved with the BBC. In 1942 she was director of music for the European Service and after the war was asked to establish a new BBC Third Programme of quality music and literature – what she called ‘that splendidly idealistic phoenix that was to arise from the jaws of hell’.

Details of her intelligence work at the corporation she never divulged. Her BBC commissioned work reached a peak in the 1950s and she was subsequently engaged to report to the music advisory panel on broadcast music, filing perceptive and fair criticism of several hundred programmes and thousands of performers.

View accross 'Forster country'. Photo: JSAView accross 'Forster country'. Photo: JSA

Without regular salaried employment, however, her financial position was generally precarious, made more so by her determination to preserve Rooks Nest House for the nation, despite the expansion of Stevenage. This threatened to destroy both the house and surrounding beloved countryside, and remained a continual, debilitating worry throughout her life. Her fears were held at bay by the ready help of Forster, international support and, eventually, a local group, the Friends of the Forster Country. But the panorama that Forster described as ‘the loveliest in England’ is still under threat.

She continued to cope with the problems of life at Rooks Nest House – care of the property, deteriorating health of her beloved mother and ailing old servant and, finally, her own health following a fall in 1986 at the age of 81. Despite this, she continued to compose – a setting for massed voices called My Settled Rest and a book of carols, later completed by Malcolm Williamson, Master of the Queen’s Music.

Elizabeth’s story has not yet been told in full, and nearly 80 per cent of her music remains unpublished. But those who knew her or have read what she has written and, especially, who have heard her music, are left with a deep impression of a truly remarkable person.

She was someone of undoubted talent as a musician, demanding the highest standards of herself and of others; a meticulous scholar; impressive behind the microphone; a great raconteur, given to a little spicy exaggeration; always elegant whether in evening gown or draped in her French shepherd’s woolly jacket over jeans; and, above all, a person of humanity, sympathetic to the interests and needs of others.

Memorial to Forster next to a plaque commemorating Poston at St Nicholas Church, Stevenage. Image JSAMemorial to Forster next to a plaque commemorating Poston at St Nicholas Church, Stevenage. Image JSA

Elizabeth received a belated Civil List Award, which carried a special pension, but she died before she could receive any benefit from it. Her own ‘settled rest’ had finally come on March 18 1987. A plaque next to the monument to Forster in the graveyard of St Nicholas Church, Stevenage, where her parents are interred commemorates the centenary of her birth.


Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Hertfordshire visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Hertfordshire staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Hertfordshire account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

More from People

Friday, April 21, 2017

Codicote singer-guitarist Lawrence Hill on his rise and fall on ITV talent show The Voice

Read more
Friday, April 21, 2017

Celebrating the very best of our county’s fabulous food and drink offering, the Surrey Life Food & Drink Awards are back for another year. With voting now open across 16 categories, from the best restaurants and pubs to local foodie shops, here we reveal this year’s judging panel...

Read more
Friday, April 21, 2017

Aiming to re-invent ravioli with Surrey ingredients is a bold ambition, but having launched RaviOllie last year it’s one that Kingston upon Thames-based chef Oliver Greenhalgh takes seriously…

Read more
Thursday, April 20, 2017

From gliding around behind Meryl Streep to ducking from the explosive antics of Tom Hardy in Taboo, a Wendover former teacher gets to see it all. Sandra Smith met her

Read more
Thursday, April 20, 2017

When it comes to dream jobs, Kerry Witt has hit the naughty but nice jackpot. The pastry chef turned New Forest chocolatier spills the (cacao) beans on her confections to Faith Eckersall

Read more
Thursday, April 20, 2017

As honky tonk pianist Nick, Bexhill’s Derek Nicholas sold more than 500,000 records. Duncan Hall learns about his other on-going obsession

Read more
Thursday, April 20, 2017

The case of Tini and Hugh Owens shows the need for English divorce laws to be updated. Debenhams Ottaway can help

Read more
Thursday, April 20, 2017

There are more family businesses in the South East of England than any other area of the UK. They form an important part of the UK economy and - just like other businesses, across all sectors, they are affected by fast-changing technology.

Read more
Thursday, April 20, 2017

As the 2017 Cheshire Life Food and Drink Awards approaches we reveal which charity will benefit.

Read more
Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Brighton-based Sharon Duggal’s debut novel The Handsworth Times tells of the disaffection, violence and unemployment behind the 1981 riots. It is this year’s City Read, and has been called “a book for our times”. Jenny Mark-Bell finds out why

Read more

Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory

Job search in your local area

Local Business Directory

Hertfordshire's trusted business finder

Search For a Car In Your Area

Property Search