Jeanne Rathbone

Sir George Shearing plaque unveiling

Sir George plaqueThe Battersea Society commemorative plaque to Sir George Shearing on Northcote Lodge School 26 Bolingbroke Grove London SW11, formerly Linden Lodge School for the Blind, which he attended for four years was unveiled by Alyn Shipton on Saturday 22nd April 2017. I enjoyed organising it. It is like what I do in my day job as a Humanist celebrant except I don’t usually have an autobiography to help me.

The programme began with a welcome from Sir Malcolm Colquhoun, Alyn unveiling interspersed with excerpts from George’s autobiography and with musical tributes from three of the boys and Charlotte Kirwan ex-pupil of Linden Lodge who played a duet with George in 1962 when he visited the school and was also taught by Mr George Newell. Tributes  were read that had been sent by Lady Ellie Shearing,  Brian Kay of the King Singers and friend, Lord David Blunkett , Roger Legate OBE Principal of Linden Lodge and James Pearson resident pianist and musical director of Ronnie Scotts.

Alyn Shipton, jazz presenter, critic, author and bassist was editor of George’s autobiography Lullaby of Birdland. 

Alyn and george

The programme for the unveiling began when Sir Malcolm Colquhoun the Principal of Northcote Lodge School made a welcome speech. Sir Malcolm is the 9th Baronet of Luss.

Malcolm Coquhoun

Then Alyn spoke and unveiled the plaque by pulling the red cord! His daughter and grandaughter were in the audience.

Alyn Jane and I

Jane Ellison MP, Jeanne Rathbone and Alyn Shipton in front of the plaque on the music department

The following is an extract from Alyn Shipton’s speech at the unveiling, reproduced by by kind permission of the author:
George Shearing – a pianist, jazz musician, bandleader, composer, and as all who knew him will testify, a great wit as well – is being commemorated today, not least because he was the first British instrumentalist to become a household name in the United States – the birthplace of jazz. That’s an achievement in itself, but particularly so as George was blind from birth, and learned many of his skills as a pianist here in this very building in the 1920s and early ‘30s, when it was the Linden Lodge School for the Blind.

It was a privilege to know George and to work with him on his autobiography, but it all began when we met in 1998 in the now long-vanished BBC music studio at Pebble Mill. The piano tuner had had a good lunch – so much so that it had somewhat affected his work. George said, “We’ll begin when the tuner has been to sort out this piano.” A sleepy voice from the corner said, “I have done!” George was by no means happy, and borrowed the tuner’s toolkit to get the central octaves properly in tune. And then we began. The idea was for George to play pieces from across his long career, but as he began with “Mighty Like the Blues”, the first piece he had ever played on the BBC 60 years earlier, it quickly became apparent that he was going to tell me his life story in music. And so he did, with pieces from his days with Claude Bampton’s All-Blind Orchestra, and from the time in World War 2 when George was playing alongside Stephane Grappelli. One piece I particularly remember was George’s solo “Delayed Action”, a musical portrait of the terrifying time-delay bombs that had fallen on London during the blitz, with a seemingly impossibly endless pause leading to a furious explosion of stride. I suggested it was a reworking of Fats Waller’s “Alligator Crawl”, and George laughed, eased into “Keeping out of Mischief Now” and then said, “Fats! I met him in London in 1938. He had hands like a bunch of bananas. When I shook hands with him I felt his fingers and they just kept going on and on…He could stretch a 13th!”

The programme was recorded, and afterwards George and his wife Ellie took me aside and said, this has been so much fun, how would you like to come over and turn these conversations into a book? And so for the next three summers, when George was at his UK home in Stow on the Wold, I’d pop over between his beloved radio broadcasts of test matches (which could not be interrupted) or his occasional concert dates in Britain, to carry on working on the book.

I learned of his life with Stephane Grappelli’s quintet during the war, and his subsequent move to the USA. Of the clubs of 52nd Street, of the particular kindness and generosity of Charlie Parker, the encouragement of Lennie Tristano and the harmonic adventures of Monk and Powell. And of the formation of his famous quintet, whose record of “September in the Rain”, George told me, had sold “upwards of 900,000 copies”. Of course by the time we met, it had passed the million, but he was always too modest to say so directly.The band was a landmark in so many ways, not just for its popular success, but for featuring a female instrumentalist, Marjorie Hyams, and a racially integrated line-up with John Levy and Denzil Best, both African-American, joining the rhythm section. George always said he was colour and gender blind when it came to jazz – and as his line-ups over the years suggest, he always just chose the finest players, including Gary Burton, Toots Thielemans, Al McKibbon, Louis Stewart, and a host more. And in his long and dazzling recording career, there were some great highlights, including work with Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, Joe Williams, the Montgomery Brothers, the Kings’ Singers (remembering George’s abiding love of classical music) and – above all Mel Tormé, whom George always said was the other half of his musical brain.

It is great to see so many people here today, including members of the Shearing family, and his many friends from the music world, including the most wonderful singer Ian Partridge, who, like George has given so many of us so much pleasure through the power of music. And so now it is my most pleasant duty to unveil this blue plaque to remember one of the most distinguished musicians this country has ever produced.”

lullaby-of-birdland-autobiography-of-georege-shearingHere is the excerpt I read from the chapter headed Linden Lodge from George’s autobiography.

The greatest boon to, as far as learning to be blind and to live with blindness, was the 4 years I spent at Linden Lodge residential school between the ages of 12 and 16. I always got the feeling that the place was an old house, with balconies and things on the outside and there seemed to be a lot of glass in the internal decorations.

There was a big garden which seemed to us to cover a lot of ground. There was a gardener who was there on a Friday when we had our weekly bath and I can recall his voice saying ‘Come on shearing Scrub those knees’. When we went to church on Sundays we had to put our ties on. Each of us kept our ties in a tin that we kept in our lockers our bedrooms. There were 17 boys in one dormitory.

He talks of handball which was devised for blind lads using a football in the gym but all done with hands and the cricket adapted with a rubbery ball with a bell on it and stumps with a different sound to the ball of the bat.

George was a picky eater. No fish, cheese, few sauces, mainly roast meats and omelettes and was indulged by his parents who would bring him jam tarts, sponge cakes and pots of jam to the school.

 He mentions roller skating being popular at school and recalled visiting the school in the fifties and being impressed at their whizzing around on the asphalt at top speed and to know how far they could go when they need to turn a corner.

He said; ‘The whole experience of Linden Lodge was good for me. It was at school that I really mastered the art of typing. I started really serious piano lessens getting an hours practise a day often played for an hour or two to play piano in the sitting room during the evening. I went through a period of learning classical pieces, or diligently practising scales and exercises which I continued to do at home.

I was already experimenting with playing jazz things I’d heard on disc or the radio. What touched me most about it was the spirit of the music. It wasn’t the sweetest sound this side of heaven but I loved the American sound of jazz bands with no smooth vibrato, whose brass and reeds cut right through the ensemble.

By the time I was 16 the music teacher George Newell had said to my parents ‘It is obvious this boy is going to become a jazz pianist and any further  study of classical music would be a waste of time’.

When George visited the school in 1962 he told Mr Newell that he had learned some classical music in the interim to play full length concertos by Bach and Mozart with symphony orchestras across the United States. And asked if he would have given the same advise he said ‘I suspect your main dollar still comes from playing jazz.’ He was a very wise man that Mr Newell and a very accomplished musician

The Survey of London Battersea tells us

Appleby sold a large plot on Bolingbroke Grove of 100ft frontage to Marjory Jane Peddie, a wealthy spinster and retired headmistress, for whom Robson designed the biggest of all his houses here (now No. 26). Appleby offset the £900 purchase price against his mortgage debts of £10,000, and Robson had a perspective view and a puff published in the Building News, which the two men must have hoped would excite interest. Miss Peddie’s house was described as the ‘first of a series of houses in the old English Style, somewhat incorrectly called “Queen Anne”’.

Named  Linden Lodge by Miss Peddie, the house was set back elegantly some 120ft from the roadway behind a carriage drive, and enjoyed over an acre and a half of garden and grounds. Inside, her accommodation included, on the ground floor, a library, dining-room and large L-shaped drawing-room with a bay window; upstairs were four bedrooms, a dressing-room and bathroom, with further rooms on a smaller second floor. Kitchen facilities and servants’ quarters were provided by Robson in what was essentially a separate two-storey cottage attached to the west wall of the main three-storey house.

On Peddie’s death in 1879, the building was purchased by the School for the Indigent Blindf  then located at St George’s Fields Southwark, which opened a school for junior pupils. In 1902, the entire school moved to Leatherhead, Surrey and the house was put up for sale again. The building was subsequently taken over by the London School Board and Linden Lodge School (as it is still known today) opened on 10 December 1902. The school educated around fifty blind boys aged between 13 and 16, of whom around forty were boarders. A similar school for visually impaired girls was opened at Elm Court in  West Norwood the same year.

During the Second World War the children of both schools were evacuated away from London. The boys returned to Bolingbroke Grove in 1945. Elm Court School had suffered considerable bomb damage during the Blitz and after several years at temporary locations the girls were moved to North House in Wimbledon which was designed by Luteyns in 1934 now the main school site and from 1949 onwards Linden Lodge operated as a single coed school split between two locations, under the control of one headmaster.

Linden Lodge School Lutyens In 2006 Sprunt Architects extensively refurbished the original Lutyens House, designed a new residential building for the students and restored the original Gertrude Jekyll garden. The senior girls were transported by bus each morning to join the older boys for lessons on the Bolingbroke Grove site. The Bolingbroke Grove site was closed in 1964, when the senior boys moved to a purpose built school in the grounds of North House. Today, 26 Bolingbroke Grove is Northcote Lodge School.

From Lady Ellie Shearing:   First of all, I would like to extend my personal thanks to both the Battersea Society and to Jeanne Rathbone for their diligence in having the Battersea Society commemorative plaque placed on the Music Department building of Northcote Lodge, formerly The Linden Lodge School for the Blind.  This honor ranks among the highest of the many honors that have been bestowed upon my late husband, Sir George Shearing.

Sir George spoke often of the early education he received at Linden Lodge for the Blind.  He especially felt that it was a member of the music faculty, Mr. Newell, who gave him his start.  Though talented, George could be exasperating!  For instance, the word, PRACTICE, was never in George’s vocabulary……not at Linden Lodge nor even when he became world-famous!  He told me that Mr. Newell would assign him 12 bars of music to memorize for his next piano lesson in a week’s time.  George would agree.  But, when it came time for George to play those 12 bars at his next lesson, he made a complete hash of it.  Mr. Newell, in total frustration, would scold George saying, “You foolish boy, it goes like this” and then would play it for him again.  George would listen.  And, then he would sit down at the piano and, immediately, play it back perfectly.  What could Mr. Newell say?

I witnessed a rather extraordinary afternoon many years later during a Master Class that George was giving at The Guildhall School of Music and Drama in the City of London.  Three or four students were assigned to play for George, who would then critique them and offer helpful suggestions on how to improve their performances.  The first student, this particular day, was a young pianist.  He announced that he would play one of his own compositions.  He then sat down and tore into it with amazing agility.  It was loud.  It was fast.  His hands flew over the keys from top to bottom…never missing a note.  When he finished, the room erupted in applause.

While this impressive performance was going on, George stood at the bass end of the keyboard, listening.  When the applause ended, George asked the young man, “Why do you hate the piano?”  I must admit that I gasped along with the rest of the audience.  It was a shocking question.  George continued, saying, “You attacked that piano.”  He then asked the student to move off the bench and George sat down to play.  He astonished the entire room by playing this young man’s entire composition back to him but in a style totally opposite from what we had just heard.  George played it softly, slowly and brought out melodies that we hadn’t heard because of the young man’s bravado.  George used that same ability that Mr. Newell had witnessed at Linden Lodge.  And, he showed that he still didn’t need to practice!  However, I can testify that George did practice once in a while.  He practiced a little bit before a recording session.  He practiced a bit more if he were going to play a concert with an extraordinary American jazz pianist by the name of Dick Hyman.  George referred to him as “Mr. Perfect” because he warmed up every day with finger exercises……which George thought was just too much work!

Mr. Newell, at Linden Lodge, gave George the encouragement that George did not receive at home.  In fact, Mr. Newell got George his first audition at the BBC. However, when George appeared for his next piano lesson, Mr. Newell asked him why he hadn’t shown up for the audition he had arranged for him.   It was then that George found out that his father and brother had turned down the audition.  When George confronted them, he learned that because his father and brother both had to work and his mother had an ulcerated leg, there was no one to take him to the audition.  Mr. Newell managed to set up another audition and this time George appeared, played, and was given a weekly 15-minute BBC music program.

Now you know why this blind kid from Battersea, who became so well-known, never forgot his early days at Linden Lodge for the Blind.  If he were with you today, he would thank you from the bottom of his heart for providing him with a teacher who believed in him.  He would also tell you how proud he was in receiving this wonderful honor that you all have given him today.   Because of his absence, please allow me to give you his heartfelt thanks in his stead.

With my warmest regards, Eleanor, Lady Shearing
george_and ellie

Roger Legate OBE Principal Linden Lodge School 

It is with regret that I cannot be with you this morning to join you in the celebration and appreciation of George Shearing as a renowned musician and champion of disability and visual impairment.

We are so very proud of George who is a former Linden Lodger and who has been such an example of someone who overcame his sensory disability and made such an amazing contribution to the world of music ; bringing so much joy and appreciation as a pianist.

Linden Lodge has a long standing reputation and history as a specialist school for visual impairment.  I am so very fortunate in that I have been the Principal at Linden for the last 22 years.  It has been a privilege and honour to work with the children and families to maximise opportunity and enable the children to be as independent as possible.

George was such a great role model for demonstrating total independence as well as excellence and talent in the field of music and performing arts.  George was such a rare talent, however his legacy will live long at Linden Lodge.  The school has a reputation for music and performing arts.  We are an Artsmark Gold Award winner on 3 occasions over 8 years and we are currently striving for a Platinum award.

We have a wide sensory programme of individual music teachers which is part of the specialism for complex needs children.   As George did so very well we champion all of our children.  However now at Linden Lodge the profile of Special Educational Needs is very different to when George was a pupil at the school.

Linden Lodge now has 141 children, of which 38 board.  They come to us from 33 local authorities across London & the South East, mainly living within the M25 ring.  Our profile now is for children who are multi disabled visually impaired, (MDYI) children with more profound learning needs (PHLD) and a high proportion of children with life limiting conditions.

Pupils such as George would now be supported in mainstream Primary and Secondary Schools.  We support a further 700 children through our outreach services and our Hearing Support Team provide the Auditory Implant programme at St Georges Hospital.

We continue with our regional and national specialist reputation and we are very highly regarded.  I could say so much about how proud I am of children at Linden Lodge and that parents and carers strive very hard to gain a place at the school.   We have a fantastic campus in Southfields, but the school’s roots stem from Battersea, where the school started its journey.

I hope the marking of George’s contribution in Battersea and the local area goes well.  George is much respected as a former Linden Lodger and I am sure those gathering today will share many experiences and very fond memories.  George is embedded in the history of the school and his music legacy live on with the current and future generations of children coming to Linden.

We have a remarkable Performing Arts Centre, a water therapy centre and we are now building a new £1.5m Family Centre which will be the hub of our organisation.  I have said too much, but in many ways can only pay a small tribute to a remarkable and talented Linden Lodger ,who has given so much too so many.

I hope you have a wonderful day.

Roger Legate

Roger Legate OBE Principal of Linden Lodge School



I was intrigued and pleased to read about George’s visit to Ireland and finding the aeroplane safety notices in Braille. This 2nd excerpt is about this visit to Ireland for the Cork jazz festival and how, on the plane over for the first time, he found the safety notices in Braille and then when he got there he was taken to a convention for blind people where the hotel handed clients a map of their bedroom. He was very impressed and asked where the signs had come from and was told Arbour Hill prison had a Braille making rehabilitation programme in Dublin.

Apparently, prisoners had watched when George was by Michael Parkinson and had mentioned the lack of safety notices in Braille. They went to their governor and said ‘We don’t want Mr Shearing to say that about Ireland’ so they successfully lobbied Aer Lingus. George decided he would like to play for them which he did a few years later. He recalled the sinister sound of the outer gate slamming. He was given a tour of their library of Braille books. At the tea with the governor he spoke to one of the prisoners who specialised in Braille music. George said he would love to see more of his music next time and the chap replied that he was getting out in a fortnight and had a job as a music Brailler. George concluded that he and Ireland had a minor role in making the world safer for blind people.

Brian Kay

Brian Kay of the King Singers.

Brian Kay’s tribute was read by one of the Northcote pupils.

Now, sadly, I cannot be with you on the day, much as I would LOVE to have been. A dear friend and neighbour is getting married that day in Burford church and I have long since agreed to direct the music. As even I am not able to be in two places at once, I can be with you only in spirit.

‘I first met George back in the early 80s, when we King’s Singers were performing at the Metropolitan Museum, just round the corner from their apartment in New York. He and Ellie came to the concert and we were introduced afterwards. When I told them I lived in the Cotswolds, they told me the story of George’s agent, who kept being told to leave space in a European tour he was organising, for them to visit the Cotswolds. George and Ellie were so insistent that in the end, the agent said: “These Cotswolds must be really good friends of yours”!

The next year they did indeed visit the Cotswolds and loved them so much that they came every year for the next fifteen years, treating it as their second home and allowing us the constant joy of their incomparable company. George would lie on a lounger in the garden listening to Test Match Special (one of the great loves of his life) and would join us whenever possible for his favourite meal – roast lamb, with fresh garden peas, new potatoes and mint sauce! As Ellie always said: he was ‘British to the bone’! And all those outrageous puns and limericks … he was unstoppable! 

Of course he was a natural genius and it is with enormous pride that I now wear several of George’s jackets and sweaters, so generously bequeathed to me by Ellie after his death. The richly deserved Knighthood he was awarded was the icing on the considerable cake of his remarkable life and the sound of his playing will fortunately be with us for ever: a truly great man and a very dear friend. 

George and stephane

George, Stephane and Michael Aspel

Brian and the King Singers were amongst the contributors to the George Shearing edition of This is Your Life in 1992.

Scriptwriter Roy Bottomley recalls the experience of this particular edition of This Is Your Life in his book This Is Your Life: The Story of Television’s Famous Big Red Book…

One of the most unusual pick-ups in the history of the Life was at Ronnie Scott’s world famous Soho jazz club on 17 December 1991. Very unusual: the ‘This Is Your Life’ message on the Big Red Book was in braille.

This was so that blind jazz pianist George Shearing could trace the message when Ronnie Scott invited Michael Aspel on to the club’s stage.

Mel Torme, Peggy Lee, Henry Mancini, the King’s Singers, John Dankworth and Stephane Grapelli  paid their tributes to this Battersea coalman’s son. Blind from birth, George had played his way from local pub pianist to international stardom.

George and birdland

James Pearson resident pianist and musical director of Ronnie Scott’s is big fan of George’s and has held a tribute concerts to him. f

James Pearson wrote: Alas, I will not be able to come in person as I am performing in Manchester with the Halle orchestra. Ironically I am the soloist in a concert called ‘Giants of Jazz’ and we are actually playing George’s original version of Lullaby of Birdland… which is quite apt.

I often perform a concert called a ‘portrait of George Shearing’ which honours the man and his music and I always mention the Linden Lodge School.

My best wishes to you and all on Saturday and it’s great that you have managed to honour George in this way.

Lord David Blunkett’s tribute was read by Giles in the school Library after we had to take refuge when an April shower arrived.

From Lord David Blunkett     “It was my pleasure and privilege to contribute along with so many, to the recognition of George, his life and his music, in obtaining a knighthood which properly acknowledged the pleasure he brought to so many.

I also had the privilege after the award of the knighthood in meeting and having tea with George and his immediate friends and talking a little about his remarkable life.

One of the twists of fate is that the site you are now on which used to be Linden Lodge, transferred to Southfields (Wimbledon) and for some considerable time I occupied a small house literally across the wall from the school!

Unfortunately, I am not a great musician although I love music and I’m so glad that George was able to develop and bring his talent to offer such a remarkable contribution of his lifetime.

From playing in the local pub to be knighted in the Palace, is something to be proud of.”



Armando Peraza London 1999

Peraza was introduced to British pianist George Shearing and joined George’s band for the next 12 years and was a collaboration that found Peraza at the forefront of a new wave of popularity for Afro-Cuban music. Shearing’s music is now regarded as “light” in jazz terms, but the rhythms and harmonic structures Peraza introduced to the pianist’s music were unerringly authentic. It was during his time with Shearing that Peraza emerged as a composer, writing and recording twenty-one songs for Shearing, such as “Mambo in Chimes”, “Mambo in Miami”,”Ritmo Africano”, “Armando’s Hideaway”, “This is Africa”, “Estampa Cubana” and many others.

I read this tribute that he wrote when George died.  During most of my time with George, touring the U.S. was always littered with racial land mines, not always in the South.

When we would travel by car, it didn’t matter what part of the country, we would constantly get stopped and ticketed by the cops because of the mix of colors inside the car.

It was against the law in a lot of States for race mixing and the Shearing band was one of the first integrated groups in the business. Many times we’d show up at a gig and the club owner, promoter or manager would freak out because they didn’t know we were a mixed race band and would refuse to let us enter the club. That’s when George would mess with these people. He would ask them what was the problem. The offender would say he can’t have Black people in his club and George would then ask “What is a color?”

Since George was blind from birth, technically it was true that he didn’t know what the hell a color was, but George wanted to make the person explain their own racism to a person who couldn’t see. The person would try and always fail to logically explain it and would eventually give in and let us play, especially when George would say “If my musicians can’t enter, then neither will I.”

The rain stopped and we went out for tea and cake in the front of the school. I took this photo of the thirteen relatives of George’s who attended through contact with Les Pethybridge via Battersea Memories Facebook website.

Shearing relatives

George’s relatives who attended the unveiling of the commemorative plaque.

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