John Tallis

John Tallis studied in Paris with Marcel Dupre and Madame Bascouret in the late 20s and early 30s, and subsequently at the Royal College of Music in London.

On his return to Australia he concentrated on writing music for ballet and for small forces. Tallis was the 1995 Composer-of Honour in the Department of Music of Monash University.

A Memoir
Jack Morton Tallis (a.k.a. John Tallis)
Born: 15.12.1911

As one looks back into the past, it often becomes difficult to separate entirely reality from tradition. As time moves on, tradition tends to become accepted as reality. The old saying is true, though, that there is no smoke without fire; so there is generally a good deal of reality in most traditions.
But it is a fact that I was born at Santoi, 29 Prospect Hill Road, Camberwell in 1911, and I was christened at St. John’s Church on Burke Road.

Santoi was a large, two storey Federation-style house. I don’t think it stood in a large area of land; possibly the house was too big for the block, but I loved all of it. Yet my actually memory of it is vague. I think my earliest recollections were of flags being flown from the balcony at the end of World War 1, and asking why; children’s parties on the lower terrace with jellies and hundreds and thousands spread over everything; and other things, now that I come to think of them.

My parents were away a lot of the time. Father was connected with the famous theatrical firm of Williamson, Garner and Musgrove (later to be known as J.C. Williamson Ltd.) and Santoi was said to have been built from some of the profits made from an operetta of that name, based on a Chinese story, which had an enormous success during the early 1900s. Hence the rather strange name of the house.
Those were the days of Camberwell Grammar for my two brothers, and Milverton – a small school almost next door to us – for my sister and me. Those were the days of long afternoon walks to the violet farms of Burwood with Polly Krug, our nurse and faithful friend for many years. Sometimes the route would be varied to taken in the great church of Our Lady of Victories in Burke Road, then being built by Father Robinson, a remarkable man and a good friend of my father. As well as being a priest, he was an amateur impresario, and one of his successes was his sponsorship of the soprano, Amy Castles, who voice was considered to the equal of Melba’s.

Aunty Dee and her husband, Fred Nicholson, lived next door, which was also a Federation-style house, but single storeyed. Fred was my father’s cousin, and their house was named Pottlerath, after the Nicholson farm in Ireland. There was a gate in the fence between the two properties, but I think my aunt preferred us to use her front gate. However, there were always plenty of comings and goings, and it generally fell to her lot to look after us when our parents were away.

Those were the days, too, when Aunt Florrie Young (Mother’s sister) visited us, bringing with her a whiff of the glamorous theatrical world outside in which she starred, and presents for us all! And those were the days when the Hattams lived opposite in a romantic Italianate Villa, with a tower to boot, and surrounded by a mysterious and lovely garden. Judge and Mrs. Wasley lived just up the road. The Judge was my father’s old crony and, I believe, a good bridge player. I was really slightly in awe of him; I imagined him in gown and wig, sentencing people right and left! However, I think I remember him chiefly for saying, when referring to drink, that “one is not enough; two are two many…” and I forget how it goes on.

I was always fascinated by music and Santoi possessed a fine organ in the billiard room, but I can’t remember anyone playing it. I was not allowed to, although I had started to learn the piano. When we left Camberwell in about 1920 to go to our new home, Grosvenor in Malvern, I begged for the organ to be saved. It was not, and eventually even Santoi itself, and later Pottlerath, were destroyed. Grosvenor, as well, was destined to suffer the same fate. Sadly, preservation has not featured largely in the history of the Tallis family.

There were tears all round when we left Santoi, and it remained a mystery to me for some time why we did so. But there were, I believe, mutterings in the air that it was more the thing to be in the up and coming suburbs of Toorak and Malvern.

Nevertheless, I also grew very fond of lovely Grosvenor. Situated on a corner of Toorak and Glenferrie Roads, it was a two storey Italianate mansion, standing in acres of garden. It was difficult even then, and it would certainly be impossible now, to negotiate the great iron gates, giving as they did on to these two important roads. Everything has gone now, of course, and nine or more houses were built on the site of Grosvenor.

Father made many alterations to the house, and a large extension was built on the Melbourne side comprising a ballroom, with an immense fireplace, and a billiard room, with a suite above for his own use. He would come home from the theatre about 5.00 in the afternoon, retire to his rooms for a rest until dinner, and then return to the theatre until late at night. The house had to remain absolutely quiet form 5.00 to 6.30pm! It was a fairly ordered life, and it seemed as if it could go on forever. As an example of routine, Mr. Straub, the horologist, came over from Camberwell once a week to wind the many clocks in the house.

No doubt there were constant upheavals going on behind the scenes. Mother appeared to be always on the phone to Miss Allpress, who ran the best-known domestic employment agency in Melbourne, and new faces were seen among the staff from time to time. I understood that this was not supposed to be remarked upon.

For me, life at Grosvenor lasted only until 1929. Even then, it was intermittent. School, for a couple of years, was at Glamorgan, a preparatory school in Toorak Village, now a part of Geelong Grammar School. Getting there from home in the morning created rather a problem, as the cable tram did not extend to Glenferrie Road. I shared a cab with three or four other boys from our vicinity, and we were expected to walk home after school. A good deal of my spare time was spent in a tree-house on the Toorak Road side of our garden. IT gave me an excellent view towards Melbourne, there was a lot of open space around us in those days. Holiday time was mostly spent at Beleura.

Beleura was a real family home, generally quite crowded, comprising bedrooms, mostly, and a living and dining room. Large kitchen and laundry facilities were needed, and extra staff had to be brought from Grosvenor, creating further problems for Mother. Electricity was never reliable, as it was generated on the premises, and I remember that hot water was always at a premium. However, they were happy times. With the beach close by and lots of land around the house to go rabbiting and mushrooming in, there always seemed to be plenty to do.
Soon after going to Geelong Grammar in 1922, I broke my leg by falling from a horse during a holiday in Gippsland, and I was away from school for a term. I think the highlight of that period was the visit to Grosvenor of Anna Pavlova, the great ballerina, who was making a tour of Australia. She expressed a wish to make a film in our garden of some of her shorter dances. I thought at the time that we were being singularly honoured, but I learned later that Pavlova made films in most of the countries that she toured, seeking perfection, but evidently in her view never quite attaining it.

Carpenters from His Majesty’s Theatre built a low platform on the lawn at the side of the house, and a tent was made from sheet strung between shrubs for her to change in, although a bedroom had been placed at her disposal. She danced without music, which I remember had rather an eerie effect. No doubt she heard the music in her mind. In any case, from the point of view of an audience, it was not necessary as we were still in the days of silent movies. The day’s filming, though, was not altogether a success. She slipped a little on the platform, and resin for her shoes had to be sent form the theatre, causing a long interruption. She appeared disdainful, also, towards a small group of people in Glenferrie Road, who were watching her through a gap in the hedge. After Pavlova died in England in the early ‘30s, some of the film made at Grosvenor was used in a picture, which was put together, and called “The Dying Swan”, in order to raise money for a memorial to her. I saw it in London, and recognized excerpts from Grosvenor.

For I had left school and home to go to Europe early in 1929. I was fated never to see Grosvenor again, nor some belongings, such as a collection of gramophone records, etc., which were stored in the cellar. Although I am a poor sailor, it was a happy trip over the old Otranto with Mother, Biddy and her friend, Edna Dikkenman. Father was already in London, where he was heavily involved in the production of three West End shows for J.C. Williamson Ltd. This period marked the apogee of “The Firm”. Terrible storm clouds loomed ahead, and although many saw them, they were generally disregarded; for this was the jazz era and the good times were supposed to last indefinitely.

After a short stay in London, we moved to Paris where we took a flat in Etoile district. Father, of course, was still busy in London. I began to study composition with the great organist, Marcel Dupré, and piano with Henri Etlin, who was reputed to be a pupil of a pupil of Chopin. There was a lot of leeway to make up, for life at Geelong Grammar in those days was hardly conducive to the study of music. I had barely settled down when the financial crash came. Expatriates in Europe from overseas countries scurried home and life in France for the foreigner became most difficult. I carried on for a while, but he final blow came in 1931 when England abandoned the gold standard, which lowered the exchange rate of sterling and automatically dragged the Australian pound (£), already 25% lower than sterling, down further. Living in France, at least for Australians, became almost impossible. Mother, Biddy and Edna, who had been in London for some time, returned home. Father was already back in Australia. I went over to London and studied at The Royal College of Music, but it was not like being in Paris.
Father retired in 1931 from active participation in J.C.W. Ltd. Until the war years, he made frequent trips to Europe. He loved his bridge games on board ship, and his golf on shore with his London friends. Also, he enjoyed motoring. We were in Scotland in 1933, at Gleneagles, when he received a cable from home saying that Mother had died at Beleura. We could do nothing, as there was no fast travel in those days.

Another sad occasion was when we visited Father’s aged sisters in Dublin, Long years of separation made rapport difficult when he saw them again. This depressed him, as well as the anti-British slogans we saw on walls everywhere in Dublin, so we returned to London. Thus a planned three-week motoring holiday in Ireland was reduced to three unhappy days in Dublin! Unfortunately, this sort of thing happened frequently on our motoring tours, for Father was very impulsive and impatient.
He never saw his sisters again. They had refused his offer to buy them a house in England, and I was never able to get back to Ireland.

Father was in Europe again in 1935, and I returned home with him on the maiden voyage of the Orion. However, I was back in Europe the following year, and so was Father at a later date. 1936 was the time of the Olympic games in Berlin, and Germany put on a tremendous splash. There were tourists everywhere, as the depression clouds were lifting; although the political situation was rapidly deteriorating. We were on our way to Vienna by car when Father became ill in Wiesbaden. Needless to say, we never reached Vienna but hurried back to London as soon as he was well enough to travel! But it was in Wiesbaden that we engaged a German governess for his grand-children in Australia, and she stayed with the family in Mornington until just before the war broke out. It was thought that she was warned by the German Consul to leave in 1939.

Father made one more trip to England in 1938, and I was in London with him during the frightening Munich crisis towards the end of the year. I remember scenes of panic a shipping office in Soho Square as people tried to obtain accommodation on ships leaving England. Father had to accept a berth to New York in a cabin for four, something I have never known him to do before. But there was, thank goodness, a humorous side to the grim situation. He complained to Grieves, the well-known Bond Street men’s outfitters, when they nearly failed to deliver some white shirts and pants which he had ordered for what he had expected to be a leisurely voyage home!
I stayed on during the uneasy truce which followed in Munich. It ended early in September 1939. I heard the Prime Minister’s broadcast of the declaration of war on Germany whilst pacing up and down in the sitting room of my little flat in Hampstead. This was followed immediately by air-raid sirens which sounded for a long time. I imagined that London was about to be destroyed, for everyone knew how ill-prepared England was for war. But nothing happened! And nothing happened for six months after that. It was most strange. I left for home, via America early in the following year.

It was another traumatic upheaval for me. I joined the army, and then helped out on the family property at Wagga, where some Italian prisoners of war were employed. After 1945, I tried to settle down again to music, and I had some success with ballet composition and broadcasting.
Grosvenor, which had been let for some years, was sold in 1936 and almost immediately demolished. Father was living at Beleura, though he spent a lot of time at Wagga, especially during the war years, when he managed the proper Braehour for my brother, Pat. But he was growing old, and his health failed rapidly. He died in the hospital at Wagga in 1948.

The question of what to do with Beleura soon arose. Built in 1863, it had begun to deteriorate badly. It was difficult to make repairs during the war years, and one end of the front veranda had actually collapsed. Beleura stood in a large area of ground, although, at one time, a lot more land was attached to the property. However, most of this had been given over to farming and a prime bayside section had been leased to the Mornington Golf Club. The garden was unwieldy and was dominated by five huge poplars that played havoc with the plumbing and spouting.
By then, the family had other interests and no-one wished to return to the old place. So a pow-wow was held one sunny morning on the front lawn. The upshot was that I agreed to take it on, rather than see it sold. It was a momentous decision, and not wholly a wise one. For apart from anything else, I already had a beautiful block on the cliff and was about to start building. Unfortunately, I was held up by building regulations which had been imposed at that time because of the shortage of building materials caused by the war. Perhaps, though, it was fate. Anyway, I started with the poplars and have been renovating ever since! There have been many shocks and few surprises, but I suppose when ‘one puts one’s hand to the plough…’

I made a trip to Italy in 1953 where I bought some statuary which now adorn the balustrade of the house and parts of the garden. Since then, I have found it harder and harder to leave the place for extended periods, and more and more difficult to keep it going.

Beleura, of course, is an anachronism in this and age. That also makes it a curiosity. The National Trust, which in Victoria was formed in 1956, classified it; and it was declared an historic house and garden in 1974, No. 613 in the National Register. Unfortunately, the recognition has not helped to solve my problems with Beleura, in fact I think that it has increased them! And that is the position on this year of grace, 1987.

John Tallis is featured on the following titles

John Tallis 1911-1996 - A composer of his time

John Tallis was born in Australia at the end of the golden era before the world was ripped apart by the horrors of the First World War; his music reflects the optimism of the much vaunted, if unfulfilled, Second Elizabethan Age.


Compositions by John Tallis also appear on


Beautiful lullabies and cradle songs by Australian composers from 1890-1999. Featuring soprano Linda Thompson (Australian Opera and VSO Young Artist) and pianist Deviani Segal, this delightful collection features world premiere recordings of Australian lullabies and cradle songs.