Ahead of centenary concerts to celebrate the life of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, his biographer, JEFFREY GREEN, details the composer’s life in Croydon
Theobalds Road was widened by demolishing the houses and shops on the southern side in the mid-1870s, and amongst those forced to relocate was the family of Benjamin Holmans.
Born in coastal Kent, the Holmans family had moved to Holborn’s Theobalds Road in the late 1850s. Holmans was a farrier or blacksmith, a useful occupation in a horse economy (steam trains and ships took goods and people great distances, but local transport was all horse-drawn).
With the demolition of Theobolds Road, the Holmans relocated to Croydon – Benjamin and his wife Sarah, the farrier’s daughter Alice, and Alice’s baby Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. The boy’s father, a London-qualified doctor from Sierra Leone, had returned to Africa probably unaware Alice was pregnant, and he had no part in the child’s life.
Born in August 1875, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor spent most of his life in Croydon. He lived at 67 Waddon New Road, the centre of a block of three houses (all since demolished) by Pitlake bridge, which crossed the railway tracks near West Croydon station. There were slaughterhouses across the tracks, and the winds brought those smells and noises which added to the puff and rattle of trains, making the boy’s home an unlikely one for an artist.
He went to the nearby school, sang in church choirs, had violin lessons from his grandfather then professional tuition, and shortly after his 15th birthday in 1890 he started at the Royal College of Music in Kensington.
In 1893 Coleridge-Taylor was awarded a composition scholarship, studying with Charles Villiers Stanford into 1897. His student creations attracted praise in the London and musical press; his Four Characteristic Waltzes were available for a variety of forces – solo piano, piano with violin, small orchestra and large orchestra. In the winter of 1897-1898 he worked on Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, a cantata (orchestra with choir and solo vocalists) and then was commissioned by Gloucester’s music festival to create an instrumental work (he supplied the Ballade in A minor).
By 1894 the family had left Waddon New Road and rented a house at 86 Holmesdale Road near Selhurst station. The composer’s mother was known as Mrs Alice Evans, her partner being George William Evans, a Sussex-born railwayman who worked at New Cross.
Holmans, widowed in 1887, may have moved to live with his daughter Sarah Toye or his eldest (namesake) son, a professional musician who lived near Folkestone. There were three children to the Evans family, the youngest born in 1896 at 8 Fernham Road, Thornton Heath. Benjamin Holmans died there in 1896, following a fall. This house (and the house in Holmesdale Road) still stand.
Coleridge-Taylor was named the householder at 21 Saxon Road, close to Selhurst station, in the Kelly’s Croydon Dictionary for 1898, although Evans was the senior male in the household. It was here that the composer started work on Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, the work that was to be associated with him for decades. By October 1898 the family moved round the corner to 30 Dagnall Park, which was where the composer lived into 1901. In 1975 a blue plaque was mounted on its front wall to assert the link to the composer.
Coleridge-Taylor was active in musical events in Croydon. Associates from the Royal College of Music were involved, including Croydon resident William Hurlstone, a doctor’s son. Coleridge-Taylor taught the violin at Croydon’s Conservatoire of Music from 1895, worked with the all-female local Brahms Choir, conducted at Conservatoire concerts and continued to have his creations issued by London publishers and performed in concerts. By October 1901 Coleridge-Taylor moved from Dagnall Park to 11 Dagmar Road, near Holmesdale Road. At this moment there was no doubt that he had triumphed.
He married Jessie Walmisley in late December 1899 at his parish church of Holy Trinity (demolished) in Selhurst Road, a sign all was not well for the custom was for marriages to take place in the parish church of the bride. Jessie’s parents and sisters strongly objected to her plan to marry a black man, and she had moved away to Gunnersbury to stay with Henry Downing, an African American journalist who, with his wife, had been friends with the composer since 1897.
The minister for the wedding was from St Mary Magdalene church in Addiscombe, which Coleridge-Taylor attended. The Walmisleys did attend, and Walter Walmisley signed the marriage registration.
In October 1900 Coleridge-Taylor’s son Hiawatha was born at Dagnall Park. His father’s now four-part The Song of Hiawatha had received tremendous praise and an audience of thousands at the Albert Hall in London that March. Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (1898) had been followed by Hiawatha’s Departure (1899), an overture, and now The Death of Minnehaha. Most of the 5,000 amateur choirs of Britain performed one or more of the three works – the overture became an occasional concert piece, and adapted for solo piano.
The 5,500-line poem by Henry Longfellow was well-known in Victorian Britain, and several composers had been stimulated to put parts to music. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor had complete success with his creation.
In March 1903 their daughter Gwendolen was born at 10 Upper Grove, closer to Norwood Junction station, the family home until late 1907 when they relocated to London Road, Norbury (demolished: it was near Ederline Avenue). In 1910 they moved to the quiet St Leonard’s Road, to a house named Aldwick. The children disturbed their father so he had a music shed erected in the garden. It was in this house, which stands still, where on September 1, 1912, that pneumonia struck him down, aged 37.
Croydon remained home for Coleridge-Taylor’s mother Alice and her three Evans children, and Marjorie, the youngest (born 1896) would recall Alice’s mother, “Aunt Emma”, visiting and giving gold coins. Emily Martin (who gave no father’s name when registering the birth of Alice, in Dover in 1856) is listed as a resident servant in Croydon in the census of 1881 and in 1901. It was an unorthodox family but – the absent African father apart – it was strong, supportive and warm.
In an era when children often worked at the age of 12, Coleridge (as the family called him) remained at school until 13 and spent seven years at the Royal College of Music. Forgoing any income he might have brought home, the family also found money for fares, music, strings, and other costs. That musical uncle near Folkestone had two children who also became professional musicians. The Holmans-Martin-Taylor-Evans family was aware of benefits resulting from professional standards in music.
Coleridge-Taylor conducted local musicians in the String Players’ Club, mounting three concerts every year, generally at the Public Halls in George Street (since demolished). He conducted at the Guildhall in London, for the upper crust Handel Society, the Rochester (Kent) choral society, at festivals from Brighton to Birmingham, Norwich to – in 1904 – Washington DC. He wrote the incidental music to several plays for theatre maestro Beerbohm Tree at His Majesty’s Theatre, to the blank verse words of Stephen Phillips (his star faded soon after his death in 1915). He judged at music competitions, receiving praise for the usefulness of his opinions.
He conducted at London’s fading entertainment complex, the Crystal Palace, and at the new Queen’s Hall in central London. Music for domestic performances – for the piano, for the piano with voice or violin – were published. There were more cantatas including A Tale of Old Japan which was very popular in the 1910s. An opera, Thelma, was rejected, only receiving its premiere in Croydon in March this year, a fitting tribute to the Croydon composer a century after his death.
- Published this month by Norbury’s History and Social Action Publications is Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: A Centenary Celebration by Jeffrey Green. The book is available from H&SAP, 6 Oakhill Rd, London, SW16 5RG (cheques for £4.50, to include postage and packing, payable to Sean Creighton)
- The next event in the year-long Croydon Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Festival is on Saturday June 23, with a programme performed by the Croydon Bach Choir. They will sing Vivaldi’s Gloria and A Tale of Old Japan by Coleridge-Taylor. The concert begins at 7.30pm at St Matthew’s Church, Chichester Road, East Croydon, CR0 5NQ. Tickets (including programme) £10. Family tickets (2 adults and up to 3 children) £25. Available in advance from 020 8405 2172 or at the door.
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