Last month, we told the story of the rise of the Tily family, who had an ironmonger’s shop in Castle Street, Farnham, from humble brush makers to a knighthood among them. Now we can reveal how another Tily son made a name for himself in the worlds of music and business across the Atlantic.
This latest twist in the Tily tale comes from Annette Savill, who writes: “Following Pat Seale’s research into the Tilys in Peeps into the Past (February 16, 2023), I would like to add my own research into the family, which I did while I was church administrator at the Spire Church (formerly known as Farnham United Reformed Church, and before that the Congregational Church) as the Tily family has some very strong and special links with this building.
“I also used notes made by Nellie Hawkins, our wonderful church archivist for many decades. Pat Seale mentioned two brothers, Walter and Lewis, who were organists at this church, and I would like to add some fascinating details to this branch of the Tily family.
“In February 2019, the Spire Church had a surprise visit from a young lady called Jennifer Mitchell and her partner. Jennifer was visiting from Philadelphia and made a special trip to Farnham, and in particular our church, because of some very close family ties.
“To our surprise, she told us she was the great-great-grand-niece of Lewis and Walter Tily, who had spanned the years from 1870 to 1919 as church organists.
“The two brothers are commemorated in the stained-glass window in the sanctuary (pictured), which was donated by Jennifer’s grandfather Herbert Tily.
“Jennifer was absolutely thrilled to see this window and experience the place where her two great-great-great uncles had been such a vital part of church life.
“Jennifer’s great-great-grandfather – brother of the organists — was James Tily, who was born in Farnham on October 15, 1842 and died in Pennsylvania on May 28, 1911. James and his wife S. Letitia Coleman had a son Dr Herbert James Tily (born in Farnham in 1866, who died in Pennsylvania 1948), who is Jennifer’s great-grandfather and Lewis and Walter’s nephew.
“Herbert James moved to Pennsylvania with his parents when he was two years old and throughout his impressive life it appears everything he turned his hand to became a success.
“From childhood, Herbert James was a passionate and talented musician, having been taught by his mother, who instilled in him a lifelong love for art and culture, and he was also an equally successful businessman.
“His heritage of shop-keeping thanks to his Farnham ancestors must have been in his blood, as his first job took him into a major department store – Strawbridge’s Clothing Company in Philadelphia – where at the age of 14 he started work as a messenger boy.
“Over the years, he advanced to bookkeeper, auditor and chief accountant before being made general manager in 1905. Herbert James became a member of Strawbridge’s Clothing Company in 1918, vice-president in 1922, and finally president in 1927, the first person outside the founding families to hold that post.
“In its heyday in the 1980s, this department store was worth several billion US dollars. It was eventually sold to May Department Stores and finally to Macy’s Inc before it was closed in 2006.
“Herbert James was not just a successful businessman, but also active in both trade and civic affairs and had a lifelong passionate connection with music, in particular organ music.
“He was known as a gifted musician, composer and conductor. He wrote music for his staff choir at Strawbridge’s and conducted this choir, too.
“At his parish church, St John’s in Lower Merion, he donated the funds for a fine pipe organ that is still in the church today.
“Herbert James served at that church as organist and choirmaster and also in the vestry for over 30 years, following in the footsteps of his two uncles in Farnham. In addition to the organ, he donated the organ screen and some of the windows in the nave, which are also still in situ today.
“His talent for music and management came to the fore at the Sesqui-centennial Exposition in Philadelphia – organised to mark the 150th anniversary of the signing of the United States Declaration of Independence – in 1926, when he joined the board of the directors and was made chairman of the Music Committee, effectively putting him in sole charge of the music programme for this large event.
“As such Herbert James oversaw one of the largest music festivals ever seen. It included a series of symphony concerts twice a week, conducted by the world’s leading conductors, 20 choral concerts, daily organ recitals, outdoor pageants and events showcasing the broad diversity that music in America had to offer at that time, a composition competition with various symphonic and opera categories, daily band concerts and a mixed chorus of 5,000 singers.
“It is possible, but not proven, that he was also involved in the design of the gigantic organ which was specially constructed for the Exposition.
“This organ that survives in part as the Curtis Organ at the University of Philadelphia, is still considered one of the largest pipe organs in the world, with 162 ranks and 10.731 pipes.
“In importance, it ranks alongside the Wanamaker organ, now owned by Macy’s Inc – an interesting connection between the two department stores – and still in use at their flagship department store in Pennsylvania today.”
From Farnham to Philadelphia, the Tily family clearly made their mark.