Echoes of the past: The Simon Cowell of his day...

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One of the headstones at Lightcliffe Old Church cemetery is that of Luke Settle.

In some respects he could be described as the Simon Cowell of his day because Luke Settle is the man who discovered the youthful amateur singer Susan Sykes. She was to take the singing world of the time by storm.

Luke Settle (d: January 23 1863 aged 85 years) was a Blacksmith from the Slead Sike (Syke - note the spelling of that time) area and along with a George Lister, who was the organist at Lightcliffe; Ephraim Noble and a few other eminent local music teachers and psalm – tune composers helped to give Lightcliffe a reputation for musical excellence in both vocal and instrumental music.

Susan Sykes, born in April 1819 was the daughter of James and Hannah Sykes who lived at Spring Gardens, near Garden Road, Waring Green. The Sykes family like many other families had strong musical tastes. Susan initially went to J. Denham and Luke Settle for music tuition but once she had been taught all they could teach her she was then taught by Dan Sugden of Halifax.

It is widely recognised that Susan’s first public performance was on Wednesday September 25, 1833. This was at the Lightcliffe (Old) Church when she made her debut in a Oratorio which was held for the benefit of the widow and family of Robert Sladden of Hipperholme. It was at this concert as a 14 years old she was described at the ‘prima donna of the north’

In 1842 she appeared in London and the history books tell that she was personally complimented by the Prince Consort and the Duke of Cambridge. On November 2 1849 and in 1851 she took the lead in the ‘Messiah’ in London and again in the ‘Creation’ in 1855; ‘Elijah’ in January of the following year and again in the ‘Messiah’ in 1858. The most respected critics of the day were almost stumped for superlatives to express just what they thought of this singing sensation of the day. She was widely referred to as the ‘Yorkshire Queen of Song’both in the press and at concert performances.

She was in constant demand appearing at countless organ openings and festivals as well as the main concert halls and venues throughout England, Scotland and Ireland.

In August 1857 she was at the opening of The Peoples Park in Halifax when she sang the national anthem before a ’great multitude’. The following year she sang in the presence of royalty at the opening of the Leeds Town Hall. It was as a result of this performance that Queen Victoria commanded her to sing for and her beloved Albert at Buckingham Palace.

As a young policeman in the 1970s I remember visiting 90 years old Miss Nellie Brooke, a Lightcliffe resident, who could remember when she was a child living quite close to Spring Gardens she would stop at Mrs Sunderland’s garden gate and pass a respectful time of day with the great lady. Nellie always said that considering she was so famous she was always the same to everyone – a wonderful lady.

She married Henry Sunderland and had six children outliving four of them who died at a comparatively young age.

In honour of her Golden Wedding a concert was held at the Brighouse Town Hall (now the Civic Hall) on June 7 1888. It was during and following this event that she suggested that from the funds raised at the concert a music festival be organised and the event should take place in Huddersfield and be open only to Yorkshire natives or residents of five years standing, the maximum age to be 25.

The first ‘Mrs Sunderland’ vocal solo competition was held in April 1889 as a tribute to the great Yorkshire Soprano with just 37 competitors and comprised of 27 ladies and 10 pianists – the piano classes were held on alternate years with violin classes.

As they say the rest is history. Since its modest beginnings, the festival has expanded vastly so that it now covers nine days. As well as an extensive range of vocal solo classes, there are classes for adult and junior choirs, piano, brass, woodwind, recorder, strings and percussion, as well as school orchestras and bands.

There is also a Speech and Drama section which includes solo verse-speaking, prepared reading, solo and group dramatic classes and poetry-writing.

It is affiliated to the British & International Federation of Festivals for Music, Dance and Speech. The 2016 festival will be from the 18th to 27th February when 3,300 children and adults will be taking part.

Mrs Sunderland died on the 7th May 1905 aged 86. This week’s featured photograph shows the Charles Wood carriage taking her to Brighouse Cemetery. It was documented at the time the streets were lined all the way to the cemetery.