A Short History of Music and Music Education in Hamilton

Hamilton Conservatory of Music

The original home of the Hamilton Conservatory of Music
The original home of the Hamilton Conservatory of Music

In 1888 the Hamilton Musical Institute was formed by D.J. O'Brien. Prior to this, musical instruction was carried out in private educational institutions such as the Wesleyan Ladies College or Loretto College. Public schools also offered some musical instruction as part of their curriculum. The institute was renamed the Hamilton College of Music in 1889 and remained in operation until 1899 when the property at Main and Charles streets became the new home of the Hamilton Conservatory of Music. This music school had been founded in 1897 by C.L.M. Harris while acting as organist-choirmaster at St. Paul's Presbyterian Church in Hamilton. In 1904 the Conservatory was incorporated and moved to James St. South. Musical instruction has taken place almost continuously at this address ever since. In 1906, affiliation with the University of Toronto allowed the conservatory to prepare its students for the Bachelor of Music degree granted by that institution with 'disaffiliation' occurring in 1918 when the conservatory set up its own system of examinations.

Over the next six decades the conservatory thrived. Student enrollment expanded into the thousands and several branches of the school were opened throughout the city and within other communities in Southern Ontario. The conservatory received a royal charter in 1965 and was renamed the Royal Hamilton College of Music. Sadly the College closed in 1980 due to financial problems.

In 1997 after 17 long years, the beautiful old structure on James St. South was reopened as the Hamilton Conservatory of the Arts and once again offers music instruction along with art, performance and dance. 

Hamilton Conservatory of Music, Royal Hamilton College of Music, and now Hamilton Conservatory of the Arts
Hamilton Conservatory of Music, Royal Hamilton College of Music, and now Hamilton Conservatory of the Arts


Hamilton has a rich history of musical performance from its earliest days with many concerts, festivals and pantomimes featuring local talent as well as guest musicians and singers. In the early 19th century, Hamilton had an abundance of good music and good musicians but as the city was "almost entirely populated by people from the British Isles, where a singing tradition always has been strong" , a lot of the music presented was of a vocal and choral nature.

However, Hamilton possessed a wealth of military bands and talented church organists where the seeds of rich instrumental musical tradition were sown. Often musically inclined individuals and families dominated the music scene as both performers and teachers. Names like Littlehale, Stares, Nelligan, Carey, Robinson, Aldous, Ambrose and Hewlett are frequently mentioned in any discussion of Hamilton's musical past.

G. Roy Fenwick, Some Musical Memories, 1964 Wentworth Bygones, No. 6


Hamilton Musical Organizations

13th (Royal Regiment Bugle Band) Battalion Band  (1866)

Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders (1903), formed by Harry Stares

Bach Choir (1932), formed by Graham Godfrey

Bach Elgar Choir (1946)

Canadian Orpheus Male Choir (1977), formed by Lyn Harry

Chamber Music Hamilton (2000)

ChamberWORKS (1993)

Czech Quartet

Dofasco Male Chorus (1945)

Elgar Choir (1905) , founded by Bruce Carey

East Hamilton Conservative Club Brass Band

East Hamilton Progressive Association Band

Fred Purser and the Washingtons

Hamilton All-Star Jazz Band (1984)

Hamilton Chamber Music Society (1951-1977)

Hamilton Children's Choir

Hamilton Choral Society (1883) , later known as the Hamilton Philharmonic Society

Hamilton Duet Club (1889 - ) founded by Ellen Ambrose

Hamilton Firefighters Drum Corps (1961)

Hamilton Male Quartet

Hamilton Musical Union

Hamilton Orchestral Society (1884)

Hamilton Orchestral Club (1885), founded by J.E.P. Aldous

Hamilton Opera Company (1898)

Hamilton Operatic Society (1926)

Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra (1949 - 1996), (2000-)

Hamilton Philharmonic Youth Orchestra (1965)

Hamilton Symphony Orchestra (1900)

Hamilton College of Music

Hamilton Conservatory of Music (1897-1965)

Handel Society

Harlequin Singers (1967), founded by Marilyn Alex

Harris Orchestral Club (1887), founded by C.M. Harris

Harry Waller and his Orchestra

John Laing Singers (1981)

Ladies String Orchestra (1908-)

McMaster Chamber Orchestra

Mendelssohn Society

Opera Hamilton (1980)

Ron Wicken Band

Royal Hamilton College of Music (1965-1980)

Royal Hamilton Light Infantry Band (1866)

Sacred Harmonic Society

Sons of Temperance (1851)

Stelco Male Chorus (1941), formed by Cyril Hampshire

Symphony Hamilton

Te Deum Orchestra & Singers

Third Canadian Machine Gun Brigade Band

Vox Nouveau Singers (1990)

Waddington Venetian Orchestra

Wally Mack and his Orchestra


J.P. Aldous, William Hewlett, and Bruce Carey all played important roles in Hamilton's musical history and the Hamilton Conservatory of Music
J.P. Aldous, William Hewlett, and Bruce Carey all played important roles in Hamilton's musical history and the Hamilton Conservatory of Music


Early Music Venues of Hamilton

In the nineteenth century most musical performances took place in the larger churches of the city or in the concert hall located on the top floor of the Mechanics Hall on James St. North. In 1880, the Grand Opera House with a capacity to seat 1100 people was opened also on James St. North and provided the city with a "proper auditorium for theatrical and musical presentations". Other early venues were the auditorium of the YMCA, the Masonic Hall and larger school halls.

In 1973 a new concert hall, Hamilton Place, was officially opened as part of the city of Hamilton's massive urban renewal project. The hall seats 2193 and has been a popular venue in Southern Ontario ever since.

During the era of the big band, Hamilton was a destination for many of the top North American bands as well as local talent, like the Wally Mack Orchestra. Many of these later venues are also found here.


Association Hall (top of YMCA) 1889-1914

The Alexandra - James St. S. (1906 - 1964)

Duke's Lounge - Royal Connaught Hotel

Grand Opera House - James St. N. - opened in 1880

Mechanics Hall - James St.

Brant Inn, Beach Blvd., Burlington

Duke's Lounge - Royal Connaught Hotel

Oakwood Place

Winter Gardens

The Royal

The Downstairs Club- McNab St.

The Flamingo Lounge - McNab St. S.

The Grange Tavern - King St. W.

Golden Rail - King St. E. 

The Junction

The Jockey Club - Barton St. E.

St. Nick's - Barton St. E.

The Silhouette Club - corner of Main St E. and Walnut St. S.

The Sportsman Lanes and Lounge

Wondergrove - Parkdale & Main


Hamilton Musicians, Composers, and Personalities with Notable Connections to Hamilton

Teenage Head

Conway Twitty

Richard Newell aka "King Biscuit Boy" (1944-2003)

Robert Ambrose (1824-1908)

George Washington Johnson (1839-1917)

George Roy Fenwick

Gordie Tapp

Jackie Washington (1919-2009)


Related Materials and Works cited in this Article

Bailey, Thomas, Hamilton Chronicle of a City, 1983

Wentworth Bygones, No.6

Hamilton Spectator

Canadian Digital Collections

Canadian Encyclopedia of Music

Carter, Doug, Cool Fool Blues Rockin' In The Hammer, 2010