REA Dr William (1827 – 1903)


Situated in the Consecrated/West Section of Jesmond Old Cemetery.

William Rea was born in London in 1827. From being young, he showed a remarkable aptitude for music and at an early stage was placed under Mr. Joseph Pitman, organist of Christ Church, Spitalfields, who was one of the first generation of English Bach players. Dr. Rea made such rapid progress that before he was in his teens, he was acting as Deputy Organist to his Master at Spitalfields. After studying in Leipzig and Prague, he was appointed organist to the Harmonic Union in 1851 and in 1858 he became organist at St Michaels in Stockwell, London. In 1860, he was selected as the most outstanding candidate for the newly created Council Organist post in Newcastle, earning £150 a year, and moved his entire family north, where he was to spend the rest of his life.

The inscription is somewhat faded these days, but reads as follows:

In Loving Memory of
Who devoted more than forty years
to cultivating a love of good music
amongst the people of this City.
Born, March 25th, 1827; died, March 8th, 1903.
And his dearly beloved wife,
Daughter of Wesley Stoker Woolhouse F.R.A.S.
Born April 7th, 1835. Died May 6th, 1893
Also of his children, who died in 1861
Eleanor Gertrude, age 6 years: Emma Beatrice, age 3 years.
The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God
wisdom, chap 3  

The monument originally stood at over 7 feet high and includes a bronze medallion, set in the upper part of the monument, by the sculptor Francis Derwent Wood, who is probably more famous for his Machine Gun Corps Memorial in Hyde Park Corner and ‘Canadas Golgotha’ for the Canadian War Memorials Exhibition. He also modelled the wreaths for Lutyen’s Cenotaph. 

Dr. Rea made an immediate impact on the musical life of the region and within a few years had transformed Newcastle from a provincial musical backwater and revitalised the city’s interest in a higher form of musical culture that attracted notice beyond the region, attracting musicians from London to perform in the city, founding a long running series of Promenade Concerts and introducing the Corporation People’s Concerts. He had amazing energy and enthusiasm, and at various times fulfilled the role of organist, concert pianist, conductor, choir master, concert promoter, arranger and composer!! He was also a Fellow of the College of Organists and found time to give a series of lectures, musical classes and piano recitals of modern music at the Lit and Phil, Newcastle.

He held the posts of organist at St Thomas’s in Gateshead, St Andrew’s in Newcastle, St Mary’s, Tyne Dock, the Elswick Road Chapel and, from 1880 until his death, St Hilda’s in South Shields.

His wider contribution to musical life on Tyneside was recognised by Durham University, who in 1886 conferred upon him an honorary degree of Doctor of Music. He also received a public testimonial in 1889 for his musical services, which received wide support, particularly from the Newcastle Amateur Vocal Society, and was presented with a silver bowl and a cheque for 100 guineas by Alderman Jonathon Barker Ellis, who had worked closely with him as Chairman of the Newcastle Council’s People’s Concerts Committee. A report of the presentation ceremony in the Newcastle Courant highlighted Dr. Rea’s many achievements, particularly focussing on the fact that from 1880 until his retirement in 1888, over 400,000 people had attended his concerts at the Town Hall, resulting in profits of nearly £700, which had been spent on providing music in the Town’s parks during the summer months. Dr. Rea responded to the praise by saying that “he had been actuated by pure love for art and for disseminating a taste for good music”.

Following a short illness, Dr. Rea died at his home in Summerhill Grove, Newcastle, on the 8th March 1903. His estate was valued at £4,121. In his memory, three years later his two surviving sons, Charles Herbert Edmund Rea, an Actuary, of Clements Lane, London and William Cecil Rea, an Artist, of Landsdowne House, Holland Park, erected his fine gravestone in Jesmond Old Cemetery. 

In the June 5th 1903 edition of the Newcastle Daily Chronicle, Dr. Rea’s residence was advertised for sale by Messrs R. and W. Mack of Pilgrim Street, Newcastle. The house was described as:

a most substantial construction, containing a Entrance Hall, Drawing Room, Dining Room, Morning Room, five Bed and Dressing Rooms, Kitchen, Scullery and Pantry, with suitable in-door and out-door offices, and a large Garden in the rear. The gardens in front between Summerhill Grove and Ravensworth Terrace are reserved in perpetuity. Electric trams on the Westgate Road section pass within three minutes walk of the house

Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Joe Pegg, the memorial in Jesmond Old Cemetery to Dr. Rea is now a Grade II listed monument, despite it being broken in half.

Dr. Rea’s parents, James and Maria Rea, are also buried in Jesmond Old Cemetery.


Mr. Joe Pegg