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Sydney Lionel May (1882–1968)

by Gordon D. Spearritt

This article was published:

Sydney Lionel May (1882-1968), organist and music lecturer, was born on 30 May 1882 at Tent Hill, Rothschild, New South Wales, son of native-born parents Walter James May, teacher, and his wife Margaret, née Dodds. From Dunolly Public School he won a bursary to East Maitland High School (1896-98), but transferred to Sydney Boys' High School (1898-99). He gained a certificate in geology and metallurgy after two years at the Sydney Technical College School of Mines, and in 1902 became assistant metallurgist with the Sulphide Corporation at Cockle Creek, Newcastle. Eye trouble prevented him from continuing as a metallurgist.

Having studied the piano as a child he was now drawn to a career in music. May became organist and choirmaster at St John's Church of England, Newcastle, until late 1904, then took up duties as organist and choirmaster (1905-20) at the Central Congregational Church, Ipswich, Queensland. He taught the piano and music theory privately, conducted the Esk Musical Union (1907-10) and organized many concerts and musical evenings in Ipswich, Esk and Boonah. On 25 April 1910 he married Mary Ellen Williams in the church in which he performed. He lived in Ipswich till his death, although his work and interests were to take him away increasingly. May followed Percy Brier as organist at the Brisbane City Tabernacle Baptist Church in 1920-35.

By 1924 he was a member of the University of Queensland Music Advisory Board, and in 1928 the university appointed him part-time organizer of Queensland examinations for the Australian Music Examinations Board. May became full-time organizer and lecturer from 1 January 1934, not without some controversy as he lacked any formal tertiary training. He maintained this position by one-year appointments until his retirement in 1952.

May was proud of his achievement in establishing the examination system in music and speech on a firm footing in Queensland. When he took over the university position it ran at a financial loss with about 700 entries in 1927. He worked hard over many years, travelling extensively even to small centres in outback regions to persuade teachers to submit candidates for examination. The scheme was soon financially self-sufficient and by 1952 over 11,000 candidates were entering annually. May organized summer schools in music and speech from 1946 to 1953 in Brisbane and Toowoomba, attracting hundreds of teachers and students. In 1955 he was on the Conservatorium Advisory Council, having been prominent in campaigns to establish a conservatorium of music in Queensland.

The university evidently lacked confidence in May's ability to offer worthwhile studies in music towards a B.A. degree, as only about one-tenth of the units for that degree could be taken in music during his time as lecturer. In his retirement he was somewhat embittered by the university's lukewarm acknowledgement of his contribution to the development of music over twenty-five years of service, and joined forces with Mrs Grace MacGibbon to found in 1963 a rival examinations body, the Council of Music and Drama in Queensland.

Particularly from about 1936 May developed enthusiasm for collecting the origins of place names and was, for a time, honorary secretary of the Queensland Place Names Committee. In Local Government (1957-64) he discussed at least 1900 place names, Aboriginal names and Melba's Queensland years. His theory on the origins of 'Waltzing Matilda' in The Story of Waltzing Matilda (Brisbane, 1944) suffers from insubstantial evidence and irrelevancies.

Of sturdy build, with fair hair and somewhat rugged features, May often seemed forbidding on first acquaintance; he was gregarious, nevertheless, and loved travelling round Queensland, renewing friendships and discussing music and place names. He died at Ipswich on 21 November 1968, and was cremated. Two sons and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Brier, One Hundred Years and More of Music in Queensland (Brisb, 1971)
  • Local Government, June 1957, p 31
  • Historical Papers (Royal Historical Society of Queensland), 2, no 3, 1981-82, p 15
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 24 Dec 1949
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 27 Nov 1968
  • P. J. Fleming, History of C.M.D. (typescript, no date, Council of Music and Drama, Brisbane) State Library of Queensland
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

Gordon D. Spearritt, 'May, Sydney Lionel (1882–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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