Mary Wood was the wife of William Sterndale Bennett, a composer, pianist and music teacher much feted in Victorian times but now largely forgotten. Mary was the eldest daughter of Commander James Wood, RN and his wife Sarah, who – during her husband’s tours of duty overseas – ran a seminary for young ladies at Oriental House in Vincent’s Walk. Mary was a talented pianist. She studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where one of her tutors was William Sterndale Bennett. A three-year courtship began in 1841, when Mary was 16 years old and Sterndale Bennett 25 years old. Bennett spent the latter months of 1841 and the early months of 1842 in Germany, studying under his patron Felix Mendelssohn. William corresponded with his fiancée several times a week, the letters according to his biographer filling 56 quarto pages of minute handwriting. On his return to England in March 1842, Bennett divided his time between lodgings in Upper Charlotte Street, London and the Wood family’s residence in Vincent’s Walk. In August 1843 he wrote an overture – Marie du Bois – in honour of “my dear Mary”. It lay in manuscript for 15 years until annexed to his pastoral cantata The May Queen written for the Leeds Musical Festival in 1858.

Marriage was impossible until Mary’s father returned from New Zealand in October 1843. The couple were married by licence on Easter Tuesday, 9 April 1844 at All Saints Church, the groom within a few days of his 28th birthday and the bride 19. Tragedy struck eight weeks later when Mary suffered serious burns when, at their lodgings in Upper Charlotte Place, her clothes caught fire. She was effectively an invalid for the rest of her life. The couple spent most of their time in London, but Sterndale Bennett frequently stayed with the Woods in Southampton, first at Hill House (at the bottom of Hill Lane) and then at 13 Hanover Buildings. Mary died on 17 October 1862, a great invalid.

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