William Christian Selle – the unknown Victorian

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William Christian Sellé was a distinguished musician in his own day, but is now almost forgotten

His name does not appear in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, or Who’s Who or even Groves Dictionary of Music. Yet William Christian Sellé was appointed the Musician in Ordinary to Queen Victoria, was organist at the Chapel Royal, Hampton Court for 46 years and was also a gifted violinist, owning a Stradivarius.

His father, John Kristian Sellé, also a violinist, had come from Hanover to enter the service of the Duke of Cumberland, the fifth son of George III. Shortly after he arrived, John Kristian married the daughter of a Suffolk farmer, settled in Kew and later died aged 87.

William Sellé himself was born in 1813 and, when 19, married a girl called Selina Daniel, aged 17, who was described in his obituary, as his ‘girl-wife’. They set up home in Richmond and he earned his living primarily by teaching the piano and organ, rather than his favourite instrument, the violin.

One of his pupils was Princess Mary, daughter of the Duke of Cambridge. She married Prince Francis of Teck and Sellé played the organ at her wedding at St. Anne’s Church, Kew. Her daughter, Princess Mary of Teck, married the then Duke of York, who later became George V.

Sellé was sufficiently regarded as a musician in his own day to be awarded a ‘Lambeth’ doctorate in music; the Archbishop of Canterbury has the ancient right to confer degrees under the Ecclesiastical Licences Act 1533.

Sellé was also a composer, but here he met with less success. In October 1894 he provided the music for a lyrical drama of Shelley’s poem, Hellas, which he regarded as his best work, but the press was not kind, with the The Morning Post even going as far to say that the poem should never have been put to music!

Sellé was a member of the Richmond Vestry, playing a leading role in local politics as a Liberal. His 1853 campaign to set up a Richmond Public Library was un-successful – it took another 28 years for the library to be created.

When a number of clergymen said that Hampton Court had become a den of iniquity after it had opened to the public in the 1840s, Sellé, as the organist there, was able to persuade the authorities that there was no evidence to support this.

In later life he became a well-known character in Richmond, regularly wearing a large hat. He died suddenly of a heart attack in 1898, aged 85, while having a pint at the Greyhound pub and hotel in George St, Richmond – where the Gant shop now stands.

John Moses

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