A life spent making music

Barnack Church organist Elizabeth Snowball with a copy of her book, The Three Musical Snowballs
Barnack Church organist Elizabeth Snowball with a copy of her book, The Three Musical Snowballs
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Jan Konik meets Elizabeth Snowball, whose new book tells her family’s fascinating story

Copies of a book about a local musical family sold out so quickly that the author is gearing up for a second print run.

The Three Musical Snowballs – the story of Elizabeth Snowball and her late parents Albert and Doris – took Elizabeth 10 years to write after she was goaded into it by friends.

All 150 copies, printed by Spiegl Press of Stamford, have gone and she now has a waiting list for more.

Elizabeth, Albert and Doris have been church organists at Barnack, Bainton and Helpston for decades and Elizabeth has had a stellar musical career – teaching at the London College of Music and playing in numerous orchestras, often as leader or as 1st or 2nd violin.

Her musical family is famous throughout the Stamford and Peterborough area as between them, and sometimes together, they provided the music for thousands of funerals, weddings and baptisms and hundreds of local operatic, pantomime and Gilbert and Sullivan Society productions.

Doris died in 1988 and Albert in 1991 but Elizabeth, at 74, is still going strong.

Known to her friends as Snowy or Snowball and a linchpin of the local and national musical community for 60 years, Miss Snowball retired two years ago, having spent her weekdays in London and weekends in Bainton, until moving recently to Helpston.

“Music has been my life,” she said.

Highlights have been playing with the Ernest Read Orchestra on the Saturday Spectacular television show with Arthur Askey and being part of the orchestra for the BBC2 programme Monitor. She has played at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, mostly remembered for her stiletto heels getting stuck in the grating outside the Mansion House.

She has played in the chapel at Windsor Castle, with the Ulster Orchestra, dodging bombs at the height of the Troubles, led classical orchestras and those for West End shows such as 
The King & I and West Side Story.

She was in Billy Connolly’s backing band for a tour, has twice broadcast live for television from the Royal Albert Hall and has worked with English Opera North, touring the UK with a production of Lilac Time.

She is also a member of the Christian Spiritualist Church in Bourne and has trained as a faith healer.

Elizabeth was born two months prematurely on an appropriately snowy day in 1939 in her parents’ bedroom at Bainton – and was pronounced dead.

The midwife put the 2lb 5oz “blue” baby on the floor and suddenly there was an almighty cry.

Wrapped in warm cotton wool and towels by the Hon Mrs Whitmore, of Ufford Hall, and carried in a clothes basket, she was driven by her father, the Whitmore’s part-time chauffeur, through thick snow to Stamford Hospital where she was immediately baptised and stayed for five months.

With instances of drama and mischief throughout the book – she nearly died more than once – Elizabeth paints an interesting picture of Bainton as well as her musical career.

The School House was her birthplace, her parents moved in during 1935 and her father had been a schoolboy there. In the middle of the 20th century the tiny village still had a post office, two bakers, a butcher, a grocer, a pub and a policeman, as well as the Snowballs’ own newsagents’ business.

Albert Snowball, organist at St Botolph’s, Helpston, taught himself music on an old piano in a garden shed and as a teenager gave lessons, staying one step ahead of his pupils as he learned himself. He walked and later cycled 10 miles to Peterborough Cathedral and back for organ lessons. Forced reluctantly to leave school at 12 to work on the land, by the age of 13 he was already a church organist.

Elizabeth followed this achievement, playing the organ for services at St Mary’s, Bainton on her 13th birthday.

Educated at the Priory Junior Infants School, Stamford and later at Glinton’s new Arthur Mellows College, she was awarded a three-year bursary to study as a professional musician by Peterborough’s education officer and chose the Guildhall School of Music.

When Albert was on his rounds delivering newspapers he would be told by customers to bring his wilful daughter back from London: “To get a proper job and get married”.

“But my father always supported me as I built my career,” she said.

The family business demanded 5am starts and Elizabeth would help out at weekends.

Her help became crucial in 1982 after her mother was badly injured in a cycling accident.

She came close to marrying only once, to a violinist from New Zealand.

“I realised I really didn’t want to live in New Zealand,” she said. “Another time in Tunisia a man said he would offer my father 13 camels for me – but it was hard to imagine camels wandering around Bainton!”

Elizabeth still plays organ at Barnack, Bainton and Helpston churches, for carol concerts at Upton and Peterborough Crematorium and for baptisms at Castor, Sutton and Upton. She also founded Stamford’s University of the Third Age choir.

At the funeral of 109-year-old Dorrie Richards at St Mary’s Church, Bainton on December 3, she made a mortifying gaffe - her mobile phone rang during the eulogy.

“Fortunately it was under a pile of music and I quickly threw my coat over it,” she said. “I asked the rector afterwards and he thinks nobody heard it!”

The Three Musical Snowballs also includes stories of Elizabeth’s travels around the world.

Anyone wanting a copy should write to her at 1 Almshouses, Helpston, Cambs PE6 7DY.

Elizabeth is listed in the International Who’s Who in Music and the Woman’s Who’s Who in Music.

She ends the book with: “I have had an extraordinary life in the world of music.

“I really have been very lucky and worked with some wonderful people.”