H. W. Harpur was born in England in 1869 to Rev. George Harpur and and Miriam Browne. Rev. Harpur was initially a Congregational minister and later was Vicar of South Clifton in Nottinghamshire (a Church of England post, I presume).
The first year that mention is made of Horace Harpur in Vancouver directories is 1891; so he seems to have come to the city as an adult of about 22 years. It isn’t clear what musical training he received before emigrating. His occupation is described in the 1891 directory as a “musician” at Carter’s Temple of Music — located, for awhile, at the New York Block on Granville near Georgia St.
In 1894, Harpur was married to Annie Barker (also born in England) by pioneer Congregational minister, James W. Pedley. Horace was 24; Annie 20. One of the witnesses¹ at their wedding was Fred W. Dyke, another early Vancouver musician who would start his own music business in the city and would become director of music at the Vancouver Opera House. Harpur and Dyke would in 1901 be two of eight charter members of the Musicians Mutual Protective Union, Local 145 of the American Federation of Musicians.² (Fred Dyke and his brother, George, figure significantly in Harpur’s career).
Horace and Annie had a family of five: Reginald (1895), Norah (1897), Constance Miriam (1899), Harold (1901), and Vega (1905). For a few of their early years, the family resided at 247 Georgia (roughly across the street from what is today the CBC building), but by the early years of the 20th century, they were living at 974 Cardero (a home that is still standing today). Annie and Horace would live out their lives at the Cardero St. home.
In the middle and later 1890s, the Harpurs were affiliated with (if not members of) the Congregational Church (500 Georgia St), where Horace was the organist for a time.
Harpur, like other musicians of his day, couldn’t afford to tie himself too closely to any single Christian church. Judging from occasional press references in the Vancouver Daily World, while he initially played organ for the Congregationalists (which also included responsibility for leading the choir each week), he later moved to the better-attended Anglican churches in the city which were probably in a better position to remunerate him than was the relatively small Congregational church.
At a concert in 1896, to raise funds for the new organ at Christ Church (the church didn’t yet have cathedral status; that happened in 1929), Harpur was one of the featured organists. He rated pretty well in this delightfully brutal review in the Province:
The sacred concert held in Christ Church last week . . . was very largely attended, a substantial sum being contributed at the offertory towards the organ fund. Parts of the programme were most enjoyable, but the items of which it was composed might with advantage have been reduced by a third; nine organ solos in one evening are a weariness to the flesh, especially when only two or three of them are worth listening to at all. The playing of Mr. Horace Harpur was good, particularly in Shubert’s “Pensees Musicales No. 2” and also in “Spanish Chant” (Smart), though I must confess to a strong antipathy towards the ragging out of a simple air in thirds and runs and trills and all the other musical contortions known to one’s childish days when “Home, Sweet Home with variations” was par excellence our “show piece” . . . .Mrs. Burns-Dixon sang the same two solos from the “Messiah” in which we heard her last winter. The first one “He Shall Feed His Flock” was passable if a trifle flat, but over the second “How Beautiful are the Feet” let us draw the veil of silence.
— The Province 4 April 1896, p. 230
At least Harpur’s playing wasn’t found so wanting by the reviewer (as was poor Mrs. Burns-Dixon’s singing) as to merit the “veil of silence” treatment!
In order to feed and house his growing family, Harpur couldn’t rely solely on the income from various church organist positions he held over the years (at the Congregational Chuch, and later at St. James Church and Christ Church).
By 1896, his occupation appeared in city directories as “music teacher”. In 1897, Harpur joined the 5-person faculty of Vancouver Music Academy, the city’s first private conservatory. It had been started by Fred Dyke’s brother, George (Fred wasn’t on staff; he was busy earning a living as an entrepreneur at a music shop in the Arcade; this was located where the Dominion Building is today); the Academy continued until 1902, when its name was changed to the Vancouver Conservatory of Music.³
Harpur continued to offer private music lessons until about 1926.
Dance Band Leader
While his teaching gig was a source of steady income, Harpur became best known from the late 1890s until the outbreak of the War, as the leader of “Harpur’s Orchestra.” This was essentially a dance band of four or sometimes five players. One of the earliest appearances of a band of which Harpur was part (but not identified as the “leader”, per se) was at a reception held in Vancouver for the fifth Canadian Prime Minister, Sir Mackenzie Bowell in 1895. The band comprised, in addition to Harpur, Fred Dyke, W. Brand, Fred Cope, and J. Grant. The orchestra’s play list for the reception was included in the press account of the reception in the Vancouver Daily World. This was unusual. Equally uncommon was for the press to report who was playing in the band. The only other occasion I could find (in addition to the 1895 reception) was the 1902 Easter Ball sponsored by the Victorian Order of Nurses: H. W. Harpur (piano), John Cronshaw (clarinet), Charles Baylis (cornet), and F. Highland (bass) (VDW 2 April 1902, p. 5).
Harpur was evidently a capable composer in addition to his other musical abilities. Neither of his two compositions that we can identify today have survived the test of time, however. One was the item mentioned above – the waltz which he called Dream of the Sea. It was published in Vancouver by Fred Dyke in 1895.¤ The other was published in 1916 by an unknown publisher and was called The Army of the Empire.∞
This raises the surprising fact (to me, at any rate) that Harpur enlisted in 1916 – two years into the Great War – to join the 231st Battalion as band sergent. That unit was apparently later broken up, however, and he was drafted to the 72nd Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders. He was getting pretty long in the tooth for such things (he was 47); he plainly wanted to ‘do his bit’ for King and country.
He survived the war (better than did his eldest boy, Reginald, who was “severely wounded” at Passchendaele). Upon returning home to Vancouver, Horace picked up the band ‘baton’ again for the a few gigs. But, judging from the few press accounts of Harpur’s Orchestra in the post-war years, there wasn’t as much interest in employing his kind of band to play their kind of music. He seems to have finally put away his baton by the year of Annie’s death: 1933.
In 1927, Harpur took up a new occupation. It was still music-related, mind you, and drew upon skills he likely already had: he became a piano tuner and repairer. He seems to have tuned pianos for much of the rest of his life; certainly until 1934.
Horace died in 1937.
¹The other witness at their wedding was Eva Fewster. She was a music teacher. There is evidence here that Eva and Annie Harpur maintained a friendship for a number of years following the wedding of Mr. and Mrs. Harpur; also that the Harpurs maintained a connection with the Congregationalists at least as late as 1912.
²BC Federationist. 6 July 1912. The charter members of the union were: W. H. Harpur (misspelled in the Federationist as “Harper”), W. Brand, R. Chance, Fred T. Cope, C. Frey, and J. H. Smith.
³Dale McIntosh. History of Music in British Columbia: 1850-1950. 1989, p. 180. The first staff members of the Academy were: George J. Dyke (violin, guitar, mandolin), A. P. Freimuth (violin, viola, wind instruments, orchestra), Miss H. Bremer Bruun (piano), Miss M. Carr Walton (singing), and Horace Harpur (organ, piano, theory).
¤McIntosh, p. 234, 247.
∞The Morrisey Mention, November 30, 1916. “Military Mention“, p. 1. Digital copy available from UBC’s Open Collection.