Papers and correspondence of Henry George Farmer, 1882-1965, musician and orientalist

Scope and Content

Papers and correspondence of Henry George Farmer (1882-1965), musician and orientalist
The collection includes diaries, drafts of books and articles, and correspondence with contemporary composers and music critics such as Learmont Drysdale, Hamish MacCunn, Ernest Newman
The subjects covered include military and oriental music, Scottish music, concerts and variety theatre in Glasgow, socialism and trade unions, and the Paris Commune

Administrative / Biographical History

Henry George Farmer was born in 1882 in Birr Barracks, Crinkle, Ireland, when his father was serving with the Leinster regiment. His musical abilities showed early in his life when lessons on the piano, violin and clarinet lead to performances in local concerts with his sister. In 1895 he visited London with his father, attending a concert by the Royal Artillery Band at the Royal Albert Hall. The band boasted a full symphony orchestra and, fired with enthusiasm, the following year Farmer became 'Boy Farmer' as a clarinettist and violinist.

His formal education ended at the turn of the century with the death of his tutor and his father, but he was destined for a lifetime of study. He had published his first monograph based on the Royal Artillery Band by 1904. He was soon regarded as an authority on military music and bands. Frustrated with playing second violin in the Artillery orchestra, he took horn lessons privately and by 1902 was principal horn. He played with other local orchestras and began his career as a conductor.

Farmer also developed many other interests, setting up the Woolwich Branch of the National Secular Society in 1906. Farmer had a strong religious faith and had originally intended to enter the clergy. He was victimised within the Band for his religious beliefs, making it impossible to fulfil concert engagement for the National Sunday League. He left the Artillery Band in 1911 due to a inguinal hernia, but it was possibly this victimisation that was the real driving force.

Soon after leaving the Army, Farmer became musical director at one of Moss' Empire theatres, the Broadway, at New Cross in London. Whilst here, his interest in oriental music developed, manifesting itself in incidental music that he wrote for pantomimes and plays. He began to study oriental and Arabic music. He enrolled at the University of Glasgow as an external student where he studied Arabic for several sessions, but in 1921 he matriculated as an Arts student and graduated with his first degree in 1924. He published articles on Arabic and Scottish music.

He became involved with the Musicians' Union in 1917 as a committee member and then president of the Glasgow Branch, making the executive committee in 1928. In 1918 he founded the Scottish Musicians' Home and Orphanage Fund and although it did not prove possible to raise sufficient funds to establish the planned home, the charity itself continued with its support to players requiring financial assistance after illness or other difficulties.

In 1919, he set up the Glasgow Symphony Orchestra whose main function was to provide Sunday concerts in the Glasgow parks. The orchestra remained in existence until 1943 playing many modern works of composers Farmer vigorously supported. Oriental music and Scottish music also appeared in the orchestra's programmes and he was a prime mover in the foundation of the Scottish Music Society in 1936 that aimed to encourage awareness of the works of a number of early Scottish composers.

In 1929 he took up editorship of the Musician's Union's quarterly Musicians' Journal, and during his time in this post which he held until 1933 he penned many of the contributions himself under various pseudonyms: Gerald Barry, Abe Beeseer, Stan Brunton, Padraig Krinkill, Montague E'Strange, Haydn O'Donnell and Evan Williams.

He continued to work in Moss' Empire theatre at the same time as undertaking his own research and travelling. He lectured to learned societies and worked on his great work 'A History of Arabian Musical Instruments'. He visited the Congress of Arabian Music in Egypt in 1932 as the only British representative, compiling two scrapbooks relating to the event. He continued to publish articles concerning Arabian and Scottish music, and returned to writing about military music in the late 1940s. The 1950s saw him contribute over 200 articles to the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and over 60 to the Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart and he also wrote for the Encyclopaedia of Islam in the 1930s.

Farmer was awarded a DLitt from the University of Glasgow in 1941 and an honorary doctorate from Edinburgh University in 1949. He was also appointed a governor or the Royal Scottish Academy of Music in 1950, a position he held until 1962. He was involved in the cataloguing of Scottish music at the Glasgow University Library, in particular the Euing Collection/ He was appointed Music Librarian in 1951, retiring in September 1965, his death occurring only a few months later in December 1965.

Source: Carl Cowl and Shelia M Craik, Henry George farmer: a bibliography (Glasgow, 1999).


The arrangement of this material reflects the original order in which it was received

Access Information

Access is open, however an appointment may be required. Please email Archives and Special Collections for advice:

Acquisition Information

Gift: Henry George Farmer: April 1967: ACCN 4638

Other Finding Aids

See also University of Glasgow Collections

Unpublished typescript catalogue available in the searchroom

For details of printed books from this collection see Glasgow University Library Catalogue.

Conditions Governing Use

Reproduction subject to usual conditions: educational use and condition of documents. Applications for permission to quote should be sent to Archives and Special Collections, please email:

Appraisal Information

This material has been appraised in line with standard GB 247 procedures

Custodial History

Held by Henry George Farmer


Various gifts made to the Library by Farmer in his lifetime have subsequently been incorporated in the Farmer Collection

Related Material

Farmer’s considerable personal library - largely of modern books - was donated to the University along with his papers and is also held in Special Collections. For details, see the Rare Books search (Sp Coll Farmer shelfmark).