Jean Baptiste Toner
Musician
JBT British Pathe.jpg

This article was prompted by an e-mail we received from Geraldine Baird who contacted us to see if we know anything about a man called Jean Baptiste Toner, who she was led to believe 'was famous'.

Left, Jean Baptiste Toner shown playing the piano in 1940

Image credit: British Pathé

Geraldine sent us a press cutting  presumably from the Rutherglen Reformer, showing a photograph taken at a wedding in Rutherglen (c. 1960?) at which Mr. Toner was a guest. The caption of the photograph describes Mr. Toner as 'the famous Rutherglen-born pianist'.

We found online a couple of British Pathé film clips from 1939/40 showing Mr. Toner playing the piano, apparently very well, and in one of the clips, with his left hand only. That clip describes him as 'that fine musician and well-known broadcaster'.

 

We unearthed a cutting online from a 1925 edition of the Radio Times in which Mr. Toner is mentioned. So he was clearly quite well known at the time. 

Right, photograph showing Jean Baptiste Toner on the right, at the wedding of his niece, Anne Toner at St. Columbkille's church. Date c. 1960.

J B Toner wedding guest crop.jpeg

We were able find out a bit more about Mr. Toner (JBT) using a genealogy research website.

 

He was born plain John Toner in Calton on the 11th. June 1891 to parents William Toner and Margaret McKillop. The 1901 census shows the Toner family at 199 Meadowpark Street in Dennistoun. The Toners seemed to be have been reasonably well-off as they had a servant girl, Minnie Bell, living in. 

At the time of the 1911 census, he had moved down south to what looks like lodgings in Islington, London. He is described as a 'Musical Student'. Presumably he had moved to London to pursue his musical studies. On the census, his name is John Baptiste Marie Francis Vianney Toner. That name may have been taken from the 19th. century French cleric known as the Curé D'Ars, who it seems, had paranormal powers, and later became the patron saint of parish priests. 

Only two years later, we find him (now known as Jean Baptiste Toner) aged 22 on the passenger list of the RMS Cymric   of the White Star Line arriving in New York from Liverpool on 3rd. November 1913.The passenger list is very detailed, and shows JBT's race as 'Scotch' and that his occupation was 'Pianist'.      

 

It also shows the town of his last permanent residence as Rutherglen, and his father's address as 32 Jedburgh Avenue, Rutherglen. The US immigration authorities obviously liked to know that immigrants had a job lined up and somewhere to stay, and in JBT's case, he was heading for San Francisco where his contact was Angus McKillop who we assume was an uncle on his mother's side. Or perhaps a cousin.

US Arriving Passenger crop.jpg

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Above, extract from the Arriving Passenger & Crew list for RMS Cymric, dated 3rd. November 1913, compiled at Ellis Island, New York. The details for Jean Baptiste Toner are highlighted in yellow.

Image credit: Ancestry.co.uk

The record shows that JBT had $100 in his possession when he got off the boat. We assume that he had the offer of a job, presumably playing the piano, somewhere in San Francisco. Or perhaps he went to complete his musical education at some conservatory there. We don't know who paid for his passage to New York and onward journey to San Francisco. Perhaps it was Uncle/Cousin Angus who it appears had emigrated to California some years before.

Whether JBT took any part in the Great War is not known. In any event, he arrived back in Glasgow aged 30 on the Anchor Line's SS Columbia from New York on 11th. August 1920. We don't know how long he spent in Glasgow (or perhaps Rutherglen) but he headed back down south at some point later.

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Above, extract from the Radio Times, evidently the Welsh edition, from July 1925.  Details of a Bach recital broadcast from London given by Jean Baptiste Toner on 21st. July, are highlighted in yellow.

He got married in July 1934 in London to a woman whose second name is Rees, but we couldn't find her first name. On the marriage record we found, he had reverted to being Jean B M V Toner. By then, as we know, he had a successful career as a pianist. As evidence. we have those British Pathé film clips and know that he gave piano recitals on the radio.

JBT died on the 8th. of September 1964 aged 73, his estate being valued at £4,323. His address at the time of his death was 70 Lyford Road, London SW18. His name on the Civil Register of Death Index for Wandsworth is shown both as Jean B Toner and also as John Toner, bringing him full circle back to his birth name. 

 

There are lots of gaps left to fill in about Mr. Toner's remarkable life. We would like to learn more about his musical studies and career in the US and the UK, and if he had any children. And quite why he was playing the piano in the 1940 film clip with his left hand only is not known. Perhaps that was simply to display his undoubted virtuosity!

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Footnotes

 1. At 4pm on 8th May 1916, while sailing 140 miles West North West of Fastnet, Ireland, Cymric was suddenly, without any warning, torpedoed by the German submarine U20 – the very same submarine that had controversially sank RMS Lusitania almost exactly a year earlier. The torpedo exploded into the port side of her engine room, and then immediately caused the death of 4 members of her crew.

 

2. Rather intriguingly, JBT's occupation initially entered on the passenger list had been scored out, and replaced by the word 'Pianist'. Unfortunately, we can't make out his original occupation. The conversation between JBT and the US immigration authorities presumably included him saying something along the lines of, 'Actually, what's written there's not right, I'm really a pianist!'

We are very grateful to Jan Robertson who, having read JBT's story so far, took the time to do some further research, and was able to add more details about his family:

willie toner margaret mckillop 65 - 1951 crop.jpg

I enlarged the entry for JBT on the passenger list. Underneath ‘Pianist’ the occupation reads ‘Musician'.

JBT’s parents, William toner and Margaret McKillop were married in Glasgow. William died in 1940. Margaret’s family were from Cambusnethan. She died in 1951 aged 86.

JBT’s wife was Patricia Gwendoline Rees who died in 1984. They had a daughter, Marguerite T. M. Toner, born 1936, died 1978, and whose birth is registered in Manchester. The name Marguerite came from the Rees side of the family, and uses the French spelling, like her father who was known as Jean rather than John.

Left, William Toner and Margaret McKillop, posing for a studio photograph.

Image credit: Ancestry.co.uk

The incoming passenger list for the Anchor Line's, SS Columbia sailing from New York, arriving 11th August 1920, Glasgow, shows JBT's occupation as 'Pianist' and home address: 32 Jedburgh Avenue Rutherglen.

Sources/Links:

British Pathé film from 1939: where JBT displays finger exercises for the piano and demonstrates a finger exercise aid which he had invented, before playing an excerpt from The Blue Danube Waltz by Johan Strauss II.

Click here

National Library of Australia: website contains a link to a music file Habanera for piano, composed by JBT.

Click here

© 2021 by Rutherglen Heritage Society.