They Lived in Headingley

Lilian Stiles-Allen (1890-1982)

Shire Oak Road century always attracted its share of grand residents but surely none have been grander than Lilian Stiles-Allen who lived at the Old Farm (now the Yorkshire College of Music and Drama) from 1941 to 1981. Miss Stiles-Allen or ‘Madame’ as she preferred to be called, was a renowned concert soprano, trained at the Guildhall School of Music and in Vienna. Although her voice has been compared with that of the great Norwegian singer, Kirsten Flagstad, Miss Stiles-Allen’s physical appearance was unsuited to the operatic stage though she did sing in opera for the radio. In the concert hall she performed with all the great conductors of the first half of the 20th century, Sir Henry Wood, Sir Thomas Beecham, Sir Malcolm Sargent and Sir John Barbirolli. Her last concert performance was in 1938 and thereafter she devoted herself to teaching. Today she is probably best remembered as Julie Andrews’ singing teacher.

It is not clear why Madame Stiles-Allen came to Leeds, neither she nor her husband, Sidney George Jeffries-Harris (known as ‘Jeff’), a former major in the Indian Army, seem to have had any previous connections with the city. Perhaps as the mother of a young child, she was anxious to escape the London Blitz and needed a home in a place with a strong musical tradition that would ensure a steady supply of pupils. At first she also travelled to London once a week to teach and it was here that Julie Andrews aged eight, began her lessons with Madame. When Miss Stiles-Allen stopped teaching in London, Julie continued her classes coming to Leeds for weekends and more occasionally for whole weeks. It seems amazing to us now that despite her young age, Julie was put on the train at Kings Cross and travelled alone to Leeds where she was collected by Jeff and driven to Headingley.

Julie Andrews has given us a delightful, albeit somewhat bizarre picture of Madame: ‘a short, very stout woman, with thick ankles, an ample backside, and a heavy bosom …Always bejewelled, she dressed in long skirts to her ankles and sensible lace-up shoes on tiny feet …She walked with a strong cane and often donned in a wonderful velvet cloak and beret’. Despite this rather formidable image, Julie always found her gentle and kind and remained in touch until Miss Stiles-Allen died in 1982.

The Old Farm was still lit by gas and heating the rambling place in wartime winters was difficult: domestic life orientated around the kitchen-cum-dining room with its large fireplace, Aga cooker and sofa and armchairs covered in faded chintz. Upstairs was a vast music room with bookcases piled high with books and files, a grand piano and an old hand-turned gramophone on which Madame would listen to Caruso, Gigli and Adelina Patti. Too large to heat adequately, pupils were usually taught in a smaller adjoining room where there was an upright piano and a small electric fire. 

Although Miss Stiles-Allen was an atrocious accompanist, she was an inspiring voice coach, emphasising the importance of words as providing the foundation and the directional impulse for the voice. Julie Andrews recounts that she was taught to think of ‘each note as the latest in a beautiful string of pearls’. Another of Madame’s adages was ‘the amateur works until he (sic!) can get it right. The professional works until he cannot go wrong’.

Julie remembers evenings spent at the Old Farm in a small study drinking Jeff’s home-brewed ginger beer that Madame loved despite it causing her to belch  very loudly – her ‘trombone slides’, she called them.  Then off to bed which for Julie meant going down a long draughty gas–lit corridor to ‘a freezing cold room with a chamber pot under the bed. Once between the sheets, I never dare get out – not merely because of the temperature, but because I was convinced the place was haunted’ . This fear of apparitions was not helped by the fact that Madame was a spiritualist (as was Julie’s mother) who believed that Julie was the reincarnation of Adelina Patti! Julie’s career as we know, took a different turn working in the musical theatre rather than the opera, nevertheless she continued to have singing classes with Madame until 1954 when she went to America to appear in ‘The Boyfriend’.

The Yorkshire College of Music and Drama was founded in 1894 by the Haddock family who had been associated with the music scene in Leeds for most of the 19th century and when in 1964 the college found itself without premises, Miss Stiles-Allen invited them to share her home and a generous bequest following her death enabled the College to buy the Old Farm.

Janet Douglas