Leaving a legacy of music – Shirley Dunnicliffe, “Mrs D”

On 12 July at St Peter’s Church in Limpsfield Village, we said our official goodbyes to a much loved local music teacher, Shirley Dunnicliffe.

Mrs Dunnicliffe or “Mrs D” taught piano and music at St Michaels and Croydon High as well as teaching countless local Limpsfield children through piano lessons at her home on Saturday mornings.

I was one of those very fortunate children, taking lessons with her from the age of 4 until my mid teens, and she left an indelible mark on my life, inspiring a lifelong love of classical music, but particularly the piano.

Following is a brief overview of her amazing life, with contribution from her daughter, Susan.

OCTOBER 26TH 1932 – JUNE 16TH 2021

Born Shirley June Benford in Croydon on Wednesday October 26, 1932, she was the first of 2 daughters to Thomas Benford, a London policeman and Mildred Coysh. Their mother, a milliner, made costumes galore through Shirley’s early years participating in fancy dress, ballet, piano concerts and pantomimes, which fuelled Shirley’s love of music, the arts and dressing up!

She learnt to play the piano early on, and her piano skills gave her the opportunity to cycle to Outwood on a regular basis to give private lessons – a mere 10 miles each way! Proving to have quite a talent, and after finishing her studies at Coloma Convent School in Croydon, she earned a coveted place at the Royal Academy of Music under Frank Britton.

Always resourceful, while she studied, Shirley often cycled off to a seaside café in Herne Bay, Kent, entertaining customers with piano music to earn some pocket money.

A naturally adventurous spirit, and eager to travel, after graduating she spotted, applied for and accepted a Government teaching post in Hong Kong, sailing from Southampton and her career continued, teaching music at Maryknoll Convent School.

It was shortly after arriving in Hong Kong that she met her beloved Frederick, who was in the Royal HK Police. They were soon married and 3 children were born in quick succession, but that didn’t stop her from teaching, playing tennis, hiking after church on Sunday afternoons (with sometimes reluctant children in tow) and frequenting the nearby beaches, where they all enjoyed sandy sandwiches and learned to swim as toddlers.

In 1962 an illness meant a prolonged recovery in England for Shirley. She took baby Peter and stayed near her family in Addiscombe, while Frederick kept Rosemary and Susan with him, with the help of Ah Yik, the amah, when he worked. The 1960s proved to be dangerous times for the Royal Hong Kong Police during the riots and in 1967, the family decided to return to England permanently.

Life in England was very different. Frederick changed his career and Shirley resumed her music teaching and gave piano lessons at home on Saturday mornings and after school. Their kids rarely had a lie-in, as the sound of music penetrated upstairs far too easily!

Shirley became immersed in gardening, got a comprehensive gardening book and learned all the Latin names. From the first garden in Shirley near Croydon, her gardens were beautiful.

She taught at Baston in Bromley where she met Eileen Perryer, a future neighbour in Limpsfield and a couple of years later, the family moved to Limpsfield, with Mrs D commuting to Croydon High School to teach.

Family life revolved around St. Peter’s and the choir (that she led for many years), and Frederick continued his life-long contribution as a Server on Sundays under Rev. Roger Gaunt.

Shirley helped with the Summer Youth orchestral course at the church hall, led by the esteemed conductor, Jonathon Butcher and was active in the Oxted & Limpsfield Music Festival for many years.

After Croydon High, Shirley and Frederick surprised everyone by buying and living above the Limpsfield Bookshop. The grand piano had to be sold and an upright one was moved in through an upstairs window facing the High Street!

Frederick loved books, as did she, but she turned her attention to the stationery, and created a bespoke collection of writing paper, writing utensils, beautiful cards and gift wrap.

After a number of years and due to Fred’s leg amputation, the Dunnicliffes gave up the book shop and moved to Colts Corner behind the Old Lodge, off the High Street, where she continued to give local children – including me! – Saturday morning piano lessons.

Mrs Dunnicliffe’s many hobbies only increased after retiring from school teaching and after the very sad and early death of Frederick in February 1991.

At the Oxted pool complex (Tandridge Leisure Centre), she enjoyed “swimming, gyming and yoga-ing!” – but also enjoyed the coffee social afterwards, poolside.

She could be found digging in the garden; popping into London for the lunchtime concerts at St. Martin in the field or the Royal Academy; as well as delighting in exploring the ever-changing city she knew in her youth; joining her Fine Arts society trip to France; chauffeuring a companion to a National Trust garden; visiting the London museums; and later, her favourite Ashmolean museum in Oxford.

At the age of 78, Shirley left Limpsfield for Gloucestershire to be near family and continued to be a pillar of the community, playing the piano and organ at St. James Church, Longborough for Sunday services, as well as at weddings and funerals. She joined the Fine Art Society, and loved regular Yoga, TaiChi and Pilates. Piano lessons continued at home for years, stopping just 8 years ago when she grew tired of her last pupil, who ‘had no real interest or talent’!

She died in Gloucestershire on June 16th 2021.

Shirley June Dunnicliffe, the humble pianist, teacher and organist, was very kind person, who led a truly amazing life.

She was an awesome Mum, a doting Grandmother to James, Tom, Rebecca, Kathryn, Grace and Ollie, and just the past 5 years, a great grandmother to Isabella and Gabriel in America and Killian and Elliott in England.

I was very fortunate to take part in her funeral playing Fauré’s Dolly Berceuse, a duet I used to play with her at the end of each lesson – but only if I’d practised my scales – she was pretty strict about that and there were several occasions when I was not allowed my end of lesson treat!

An amazingly well travelled, multi-talented lady, she inspired a love of classical music and despite not playing properly for many years, I still listen to the piano pieces she taught me all the time.

I hadn’t actually intended to play at the funeral myself, but am truly glad I did and would like to thank Ann Osborn, a former choir colleague of Shirley and fellow musician, for playing with me and encouraging me to do it.

I’ve now bought myself a piano, and am resolved to keep practising and play the pieces I used to play for Mrs D.

Rest in Peace Mrs Dunnicliffe. I’m sure there’s plenty of music playing wherever you are…

One thought on “Leaving a legacy of music – Shirley Dunnicliffe, “Mrs D”

  1. I HAVE TREASURED A LARGE AMOUNT OFephemera on beatrice harrison not published but in her own handwriting,of meeti g with ELgar, DElius ectstaying at the palace ect I have now put this in auction playing with nightingales ,ect.
    Auction on 1st DEc BONHAMS KNIGHSBRIDGE.

    Apolagiies for above,but eyesight awful


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