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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Harrhy, Edith Mary (1893–1969)

by Kay Dreyfus

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Edith Mary Harrhy (1893-1969), composer and entertainer, was born on 19 December 1893 in London, daughter of Jonathan Harrhy, a council inspector from Monmouthshire, Wales, and his wife Annie, née Rose. Edith always attributed her musical gift to her Welsh heritage. Educated at Shenley House School, London, she began her musical studies early and took her first Trinity College examination at the age of 7. Later, as Ernest Palmer scholar, she entered the Guildhall School of Music, under (Sir) Landon Ronald, where she studied piano, singing, harmony, counterpoint and opera, winning annual scholarships and numerous prizes.

In 1914 Edith left the Guildhall school to tour with the English violinist Mary Law. The duo visited Australia in 1915 and South Africa in 1916, and made some gramophone recordings. In Australia Edith had met William Constant Beckx Daly; they were married on 8 April 1919 at St Andrew's parish church, Whitehall Park, London. From September, they lived with the Daly family in Melbourne, a situation which facilitated Edith's professional life, but caused some strain in the marriage.

During the 1920s Edith accommodated her career to her husband's work as a commercial traveller in pharmaceuticals; she travelled with him, broadcasting and giving recitals for charities, clubs and societies. Her concerts centred on performances of her own compositions, with Edith singing, playing piano and accompanying the other musicians—usually two singers and a violinist. The nursery songs she composed for her two daughters proved particularly appealing and successful.

In 1930-33 the family lived in England where Edith gave recitals in London and the provinces. On her return to Melbourne, she began her work with amateur and semi-professional musical-theatre groups. She was associated with Gertrude Johnson's Australian National Theatre Movement from its inception in 1935, and was its musical director in 1940-48. She also worked as musical director with the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Victoria, the Q Guild, the Lyric Light Opera Society and—as staff coach and accompanist from 1950—the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music Opera Society. In these years her light operas, Alaya and The Jolly Friar, had a number of productions, as did her two operettas for children. In addition to her musical activities, Harrhy was a life governor of Prince Henry's Hospital and a member of the Lyceum Club. She died on 24 February 1969 at Oxley, Brisbane, and was cremated; her daughters survived her. The Music Theatre Guild's Edith Harrhy award commemorates her service to musical theatre.

Fair haired and tiny, Harrhy had been acutely conscious of her age and repeatedly gave her year of birth as 1903. She was a gifted coach, a pianist 'of refined and delicate style', a versatile entertainer, beguiling, charming and funny, with a delightful mezzo-soprano voice. She is remembered chiefly for her sweetly simple songs—she claimed to have published (from 1920) two hundred of the thousand she composed. The best known of them, What The Red Haired Bosun Said, was recorded by John Brownlee.

Select Bibliography

  • A. L. Cohen, International Encyclopedia of Women Composers (NY, 1987)
  • K. R. Snell, Australian Popular Music: Composer Index (Melb, 1987)
  • L. Marsi (compiler), Index to the Australian Musical News 1911-1963 (Melb, 1990)
  • Harrhy papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Kay Dreyfus, 'Harrhy, Edith Mary (1893–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 1 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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