The website for Dr Martin Shaw OBE FRCM (1875 –1958)

"...Martin was ‘heady’ and all sweetness and calibre"

Joan Cobbold

 Sepia photo taken in 1916 of a young woman (Joan Cobbold) wearing a white blouse, ruched at front gathered into her waist, over her long dark skirt standing next to Martin Shaw who stands in a seemingly austere but proud pose to turn the disfigured side of his face away from the camera, he wears a three piece suit; his a trilby hat has the brim pulled down over his face to distract from his facial disfigurement.


How we Met: Joan Cobbold and Martin Shaw


In this piece taken from notes in the Martin Shaw Archive, Joan Cobbold details how she met her future husband Martin Shaw.

Joan was one of the eight children of Alfred Townsend Cobbold OBE, a senior solicitor and civil servant in Ipswich.

The Cobbold family came of yeoman stock, though some had married into aristocracy. This gave them a certain social standing in Suffolk, which they were expected to maintain. The family lived at Bramford House, just north of Ipswich, but it was rented (as was most property in Victorian times), not owned.

Maintaining a large household such as Bramford was the equivalent today of running a small business, with all the responsibilies for its employees that that entails. It was a responsibility that weighed heavily on Joan's father from time to time, as this narrative shows.

Joan’s mother, Alice B. Nunn, was the daughter of musician and writer R. Lindley Nunn. A virtuoso pianist before her marriage, a family story tells how aged only sixteen she had entered a piano-playing competition in Paris and had won first prize - a grand piano. She had not let on how young she was, as the competiton was intended for adults, but had entered it anyway. Joan's adventurous and determined nature seems to have been inherited from her mother.


Our large Family

When I was 14 my mother said ‘Poor Father, he was saying yesterday, “All these mouths to feed” ’. We were living in the country at the time, in a pleasant house of about 20 rooms with 20 acres of ground in which to range. There were 3 horses in the stables, and a boat on the river. It had never occurred to me that feeding was anything less natural than the grass as it grew.

All the Mouths to Feed

The next day I looked round at family prayers, and counted the cook, the parlour- maid, 2 housemaids and the between-maid. Nurse was upstairs with the baby; the personal maid was R.C. so excused, as was the charwoman and boot-boy. The governess, of course, sat with us. Seven of us, and one in the nursery. A groom and 3 gardeners had to be added to the numbers I was hastily adding up, and of course my mother and father must eat too. Twenty-four mouths to feed!


I Decide to be One Less

It was then I decided that as soon as I was old enough I would make it one less. I mention all this because it was unpopular in those days to consider a job unless you were incredibly poor; so I kept it dark, and it governed my future considerably.


I go out to work

At 19 I took my L.R.A.M. as being the quickest passport to a livelihood, and at 21 I was appointed Lecturer in Music to Whitelands College, then in Chelsea. My duties included directing choral sessions, playing the organ for daily Chapel, organising the Saturday socials, and I had to carry out the demands of the Syllabus for the Board of Education.

The May Day Celebrations at Whitelands College

Once a year Whitelands held May Day celebrations. These had been started by Ruskin and were attended by celebrities such as Princess Mary, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the President of the Royal Academy and so forth. Sir Henry Newbolt wrote a masque for us in my time, – I also produced Ben Jonson’s Masques and a Choral Sequence on a May Day theme.


The Headmistress Asks me to Dinner with Geoffrey and Martin Shaw

Geoffrey Shaw, newly appointed as a Schools Inspector for the Board of Education, wrote the music for the Ben Jonson, called ‘Pan’s Anniversary’. One evening, the Principal (Miss C. G. Luard), asked me to dinner to help her entertain Geoffrey, who was bringing his brother Martin. It was our first meeting. His physical disfigurement agonized me – his conversation was sheer magic.

Martin –All Sweetness and Calibre

My nervousness was over –holding unofficial conversation with my Schools Inspector was forgotten, for Martin was ‘heady’ and all sweetness and calibre. Both his brothers had been to Cambridge – Geoffrey to Gaius, and Jules to St. John’s. Martin had never been up, yet could hold his own in any conversation on almost any subject. He had read widely, and moved among men who might be considered ‘in the top stream of intellect and art’.


Martin Comes to the May Day Celebrations

Martin came to the May Day Celebrations, and as he walked down the Hall it flashed into my mind “Fancy if one should be Mrs Martin Shaw”! Shocked and ashamed of my forward thought, a second flash (of one word) followed: “Ass!” And the thought didn’t re- occur.

I Play Martin’s Music ‘Fast Enough’

My accompaniment to a small song of his, County Guy, during a sylvan scene, attracted Martin’s attention, for he said later that it was the first time he had heard his music played fast enough! Certainly pace was very different in those days.

I took a group of students shortly afterwards to help with a singing rehearsal to be held in St Paul’s. As we left Martin drew me aside to confirm times and places. A look passed between us, and Life began. I wouldn’t admit this at the time, even to myself, but so it was.


I Help with a Pageant

During May 1916 I helped with a pageant which took place in the Churchyard of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Rehearsals took place 3 times a day, with singers from 10 voluntary choirs. Martin became hopelessly confused as to which choir he was managing, and a good deal of ‘Ladies, ladies, this is deplorable’ was heard, coupled with plaintive appeals from the singers to me: “Miss Cobbold, you seem to have some influence with him, do tell him we have never seen it before!”

A Bookshop in the Charing Cross Road

By June 5th we found ourselves in a second-hand bookshop in Charing Cross Road and Martin bought me a first edition of Masefield’s Shakespeare. It was 5/- and we were both shocked at the extravagance. What a treasure it has been, what many beautiful passages it contains. Five days later we were engaged, and we married the following month.

© Joan Shaw 1974