large detached house

Sarah Sophia Mills (c. 1850-1924): ‘A Teacher of Rare Gifts’ - this article was written by Mike Dudding and originally published by the Friends of West Norwood Cemetery (FoWNC) in their newsletter. Sarah Mills lived at Kent Lodge, now 22 Turney Road. We reproduce it here with thanks to the FoWNC.

Mike Dudding noted an obituary on Sarah Mills which appeared in The Times dated 20 January 2024. This is included below along with some additional notes from The South London Observer and details of the family grave in the West Norwood Cemetery.

Sarah Sophia Mills (grave 25,543, square 78) died on 16 January 1924 aged 70 years at Kent Lodge, Turney Road, Dulwich, the only sister of Edward Mills, who lived at the same address. On her passing, The South London Observer noted that she was ‘a very well-known character. She gave singing lessons to very small children and her name has been a household word in the homes of the great for two, if not three, generations.

She had methods entirely her own and had achieved remarkable results with some of her small pupils, who, at a very early age, were able to read at eight any piece of music from the blackboard’. The Times published a generous appreciation submitted by Lady Betty Balfour, who described Sophia Mills as ‘a teacher of rare gifts’. Lady Betty continued that, ‘to a whole generation of London men and women, to their children, and even in some cases to their grandchildren, Miss Mills’s name is a link which binds them all the world over. “Used you to go to Miss Mills?” was a question asked on the veldt in the Boer War from one British officer to another, when a voice singing a good second roused the question. An answer in the affirmative led to an instantaneous handshake, and forming of a friendship. Many fighters in the Great War must have felt the bond of similar memories.

For about half a century Miss Mills taught children to sing. She began with elementary school children, when she was herself but a child of 15. The gifted daughters of Mr Vernon Lushington were among her earliest private pupils. Their introductions led to the forming of her first private classes, and these only ended with her life. For her there was to be no retirement, no resting on her laurels in a peaceful old age. Her work was her life. She gave of her best so unstintingly that there was nothing left for herself. When her breakdown came there could be no recovery. Outside her teaching work her life, after the death of her mother, was without intimate companionship. She was proud of the home which she had made, but it was lonely. Her real family were her pupils, and they are scattered far and wide over the world. She was much more than a teacher of music. She stimulated and developed every type of mental capacity in her pupils, and at the same time she taught their parents to understand their own children. One parent writes: “I owe her both for myself and for our boys more than any other teacher we have ever had”. A very early pupil writes: “My memory of Miss Mills goes back as far as 1876. My gratitude to her is unlimited. In every fresh musical enterprise that I ever do I think of her teaching”.

Her classes were a weekly excitement. It was interesting to watch a new class of rather listless, conventionally taught children become alive under her inspiration, and so eager that the end of the class came like the closing of a story book at the most exciting place, “Can’t we go on?” the beseeching cry. Who but Miss Mills could make a lesson on common or compound time as fascinating as a romantic drama, and yet so logically clear that it could never be forgotten? It was her firm conviction that all who could hear could sing, and she was proudest of her unmusical pupils, and the wonders she could work with them. ‘What an amazing figure she was, with the long flowing skirts, worn long after the fashion for short ones had come in. Her immense hats on her immense head. How alarming she could be – to parents as much as to children – and also how kind, and how infinitely patient. How much more she delighted in character than in brains, and how she nodded approval of a fearless answer, even when it told against herself.
She taught music, and she gave her pupils ears to hear, yet she never struck one as being very musical herself. Her greatness was as a teacher. Her lessons were unforgettable, and set before one a stimulating ideal of how to teach. She worked till she dropped, and did not live to let us thank her. But her work lives on, and her memory will be kept green. Sarah is buried with her parents, James Mills (who died in December 1893) and Eliza Sarah Mills (who died in June 1916). Unfortunately, the memorial does not survive.