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The Music of Life – Charles T Smith and Glengall Road School


Glengall Road School Early 20th Century (photo Island History and Heritage)

In the early years  of the 20th Century, the Isle of Dogs was the location of a radical education experiment by a teacher named Charles Thomas Smith.

Charles T Smith developed a system of teaching Music and Drama that enabled children even from disadvantaged backgrounds to learn complex musical arrangements.

The children of Glengall Road School put on a number of Opera’s and shows which were widely praised. In 1919 Charles T Smith published a book called a Music of Life that explained and promoted his methods developed at Glengall School. The book generated a large amount of interest as the following newspaper report in 1921 illustrates.


The children who attend the Glengall Road School, situated in the ‘Isle of Dogs’ one of the poorest and most unattractive districts of London— have for some years received a remarkably thorough and comprehensive training in music. In the junior classes special attention has been devoted to time and rhythm, and the children have been trained to execute maypole and morris dances, hornpipes, reels, and other folk dances. They have also been taught to analyse  these dance tunes, and to name the various phrases and sections of the music. This training in rhythm is continued in the higher grades, where more intricate movements are practised. Other topics studied in these classes are the evolution and history of music, the development of song; forms, the great composers and their chief works, the development of opera and oratorio, and the various forms of instrumental music. Harmony and counterpoint have been explained with such simplicity and clearness that many children have been enabled to harmonize simple melodies, and even to compose tunes suitable for use in schools. Mr Charles Smith, who has been chiefly responsible for the musical work of this school, has also trained his scholars to give public performances of several well known operas. Such works as ‘Maritana’ and ‘Faust’ (suitably arranged for children’s voices) have been sung and acted by his pupils with wonderful completeness in the matter of scenery and costumes (mostly ‘homemade’), instrumental accompaniment, and other essentials. Mr Smith’s scholars have held their own successfully in other school subjects, as well as in music. Their work is the more  remarkable when their uncongenial environment and the poverty of their homes are taken into consideration. Under the title of ‘The Music of life,’ Mr Smith has published a most interesting account of the methods by which these unusual results have been achieved. He has dearly proved that, even in the limited time available for school singing lessons, it is possible to do much more for the musical education of children than has yet been attempted in most public schools.


Glengall School  1937 (photo Island History and Heritage)

Charles T Smith followed up the Music of Life with another book called the School of Life. The Spectator in 1921 published the following review.

The School of Life. By Charles T. Smith.

An account of the attempt of an Elementary School master to educate his scholars mainly through contact with music and the drama. The book illustrates the application of the author’s principles through the performance, by Elementary School children in the Isle of Dogs, of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Mr Smith is clearly an educational genius. Though his book is extremely interesting and we are in agreement with the greater number of his contentions, he is obviously a man who could infuse life into a study of Sanskrit grammar. Thus, his contention that the drama and music are the readiest methods of humanizing the child, though perhaps true, remains unproved in this book.

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Glengall School Early 20th Century (photo Island History and Heritage)

The Spectator review illustrated the problem facing Mr Smith which was people could see the merit of the approach but thought that it  would be more difficult to replicate in other schools.

Charles Smith went on to write further books about teaching and became involved in the Rationalist Press Association , although largely forgotten now, his ideas about raising aspirations and developing the talents of children  still has relevance in the modern educational system.

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