Coleridge Taylor

67 Waddon New Road, Croydon, Surrey

Name

Relation to Head of Family

Condition as to Marriage

Age last birthday

Rank, profession or occupation

Where born

Benjamin Holmans

Head

M

67

Farrier

Sandwich, Kent

Sarah Holmans

Wife

M

65

Hope, Kent

Alice Taylor

Daur

M

24

Dover, Kent

Coleridge Taylor

Grandson

U

5

London, Middlesex

Mary A. Hulsebury

Lodger

U

44

Borough, Surrey

William Trigg

Lodger

U

48

Cordwainer

Brighton, Sussex

There's a boy - rather shy, slightly forlorn - playing the child's violin, which his grandfather has bought for him. His mother looks on admiringly: he is quite unlike the other children in Croydon. Certainly he is the only one who has the name of major English poet. His hair is light brown frizz; his skin is golden-dark. The local children have already picked up on his pigment, and matched it to his name - they call him ‘Coalie'. He is quick and bright; his mother has taught him to read and to write. Sometimes she plays the dilapidated piano in one of the three rooms into which the family and lodgers are squashed. Sometimes she helps him to write letters to his father, who is a long way away over the sea. But the boy has forgotten his father now, knows only the warm Kentish arms of his grandmother, the workshop where his grandfather shoes the horses, and his mother, with her elegant clothes and her very long hair, and her tiny feet. Now, singing, always singing, he will go out into the street and play at his marbles, or hide behind the fence if he sees someone coming. He is especially frightened of girls. His appearance is striking enough to attract the local portrait painters, who will dress him up as an African child.

To give him his full name, this is Samuel Coleridge Taylor. His name was hyphenated by a music publisher at the turn of the century, and he adopted the hyphen for professional purposes, as the consummate composer he became. But he was always known as Coleridge Taylor to his mother, his wife, his friends; the Samuel was otherwise redundant. Coleridge Taylor's origins are obscure; no two biographers, his wife and daughter included, tell the same tale. However, they seem to have been these. His mother, Alice Hare Martin, who was from Dover, was the illegitimate daughter of an Emily Ann Martin. Alice was brought up by friends of her mother, Benjamin and Sarah Holmans. It is remotely possible that Benjamin, who was a farrier, was the father: Benjamin and Sarah Holmans had a son called John, whose place of birth, 43 Castle Place, is the same as Alice Hare Martin's. They also had three older children, Benjamin, Sarah, and Daniel. The Holmans family moved from Dover to 15 Theobalds Road, in Holborn in the late 1850s. However, at that time, Alice was still living with her mother (working as a cook in Canterbury); the adoption by the Holmans family, and her adoption of that surname, did not come about until the 1860s.

When Alice was seventeen, in 1873, she met Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, a medical student from Freetown in Sierra Leone - a bright, dandyish man who attended Benjamin Holmans when he was ill. When Daniel first saw Alice, she was a child. She was skipping. Within a year, Alice Holmans was a pregnant, unmarried woman, and her husband-to-be had returned to Sierra Leone, frustrated by the racism which prevented his advancement. The relationship was a bold step for the 1870s. Even Coleridge Taylor's sympathetic first biographer, Sayers, who invented at least some of what he wrote, writes that the usual female “physical repulsion for swarthy skin” was fortuitously absent. Alice's adoptive parents were more generous. Alice also described herself as married on Coleridge's birth certificate, and gave her name as “Taylor formerly Holmans”.

Daniel Taylor never returned; the Holmans family moved to Croydon. Within six years of the census, Alice was passing herself off as a widow, and marrying a Croydon railway worker, a storeman called George Evans, whose work involved measuring out oil. Alice was already pregnant, and had a daughter, another Alice, not long after the marriage. By the time he was fifteen, Coleridge also had a half-brother, Victor Evans, and, shortly after that, another half-sister, Marjorie. Evans himself was a widower, and had a married daughter, Eliza. But these four - Eliza, Alice, Victor and Marjorie - were never mentioned, not by Coleridge's wife, not by his daughter “Avril”, both of whom later wrote about a man who was considered the equal of Elgar in his day. There is one, brief, unnamed mention of Victor in Sayers' account written in 1915. Not until the late 1980s did Marjorie get an opportunity, in her eighties, to set matters straight. In doing so, she caused further confusion, since she claimed to remember Emily Martin, Coleridge's grandmother. She identified her as a housekeeper in Croydon called Emma Martin, whom she knew as “Aunt Emma”. There was indeed a housekeeper called Emma Martin in Croydon during her childhood, who had worked for a family called Fairclough for over twenty years, and whose age is about right. Whether Alice Martin/Taylor/Evans was in touch with her birth-mother after the Holmans died must remain a matter of conjecture. We do not know, either, whether she kept in contact with her elder siblings, adoptive or otherwise. However, the younger Sarah Holmans - who married a George Toye, and had eleven children - found space for Benjamin Holmans when he was widowed in 1887. Holmans himself died in 1897, in Croydon.

Coleridge Taylor in 1880

Coleridge Taylor was a child prodigy, as he proved when his grandfather bought him a child's violin in 1881 (Benjamin Holmans' eldest son was also musical, an organist, and Holmans himself was a violinist. Alice had been brought up in a musical household, and remembered taking part in a musical evening the night before Coleridge's birth). At seven, clutching his violin, and playing marbles on his own in Dingwall Road, Croydon, he was spotted by a music teacher, Joseph Beckwith, who had recently married a Croydon girl. Intrigued, Beckwith coaxed the boy indoors. He was astonished by the facility Coleridge already showed (he also had a good singing voice); for the next eight years, he coached him, gratis . Coleridge returned the favour by teaching Beckwith's son.

At school, too, Coleridge was already encouraged to be inventive. His music teacher suggested, when Coleridge was nine, that he try, as an exercise, setting the National Anthem to a new tune. The next day, he stood on the table at the front of the class, and conducted his fellow pupils. It was not his only performance. The combination of his appearance and his musical prowess meant that he was often shown off to visitors: perhaps singing Cherry Ripe , which won the school singing competition. This was perhaps not best calculated to endear him to his classmates (who, amongst other indignities, set fire to his hair). His childhood performances were always with the child's violin - not until he gained a scholarship to the Royal College of Music - for composition - was he to play the genuine article. He spent his early years immersed in music - if he had a penny, he spent it on manuscript paper. His stepfather, George Evans, kept up a comically respectful banter, calling Coleridge “My lord”, after his achievements, and referring to the old piano as “the box of strings”. His mother remained central; he would call her in to hear new ideas and melodies, while she stood by, flour-fingered from preparing lunch.

Coleridge had a patron, a Colonel Herbert Walters, in his twenties, who was well-connected with the musical establishment, and who had possibly known his father. He was also the local choirmaster. Walters provided the money to pay for the RCM, and helped persuade its head, Sir George Grove, to take the boy in. Coleridge's teacher - to whom he was fiercely loyal - was Charles Stanford. At fifteen, he already had local celebrity, but did not live in the same style as his contemporaries, Holst and Elgar. As a young composer, he had to do battle with neighbours who resented the noise of the piano, and he himself had to put up with the noise of building work, and an organ-grinder, with whom he came to an agreement about the times of their respective playing. He did most of his composing on long walks in the countryside beyond Croydon, always fastidiously dressed, and carrying a stick.

It was the decade in which Longfellow's Hiawatha was popular. Coleridge committed it to memory, and out of it came his most enduring work, the choral-orchestral pieces Hiawatha's Wedding Feast , The Death of Minnehaha and Hiawatha's Departure , all composed in the last years of the century. They made his reputation; but they earned him practically nothing. He was dependent on an endless round of conducting, adjudicating music competitions (especially in Wales, and on one occasion in Norfolk, together with Delius), and teaching (“Never teach: it will kill you physically and artistically,” he said, lacking the choice). On the second last day of the century, December 30th, 1899, he married Jessie Walmisley, a fellow-student at the RCM, whom he met at one of her family's musical soirées (her uncle had been a friend of Mendelssohn's). It was in defiance of her parents' wishes, even if they made a brief attempt to be civil on the morning of the wedding. Sniggering remarks about his colour made Coleridge slightly paranoid, although the sheer ignorance of the English can be gauged by the polite enquiry made of Coleridge by a clergyman. They agreed on the beauty and fertility of a hop-field. “Do you grow hops in this fashion in Japan?” enquired the clergyman. In fact, polite clergymen seem to have been his bane. Another one asked him “Do you actually drink tea and eat bread-and-butter like other people?”

The most significant encounters in his life were with the Jubilee Fisk Singers, an American gospel choir which toured England in the 1890s; and with the black American poet, Paul Dunbar, who visited him while in London, and whose poetry Coleridge set to music. Dunbar was one of the proselytes who ensured that Coleridge had a rapturous reception on his three trips to America. He fulminated about “the abominable rubbish called ‘coon songs' and ragtime,” adding “There has been no greater detriment to the race in this country.” He was, however, inspired by the spirituals he heard, and set about incorporating black folk tunes into orchestral and choral works - to be a kind of Dvorak to the black community. “What Brahms has done for the Hungarian folk-music, Dvorak for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian, I have tried to do for these Negro melodies,” he wrote. He also continued to set poetry to music, and a meeting with the great-nephew of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, after whom he had been named, inspired him to complete a setting of Kubla Khan . “At times,” he said, “I could set a butcher's bill to music.”

In the first decade of the twentieth century, he became increasingly aware of his African roots, and joined the Pan-African Congress. He also became more assertive about the casual racism he encountered, and wrote sternly to the local press to complain about the way black people were treated. The American experience had given him more confidence.

Coleridge Taylor was a fastidious man. Like his mother, he dressed with care, wearing such clothes as he could afford with style, and affecting a black, broad-rimmed felt hat. He was a tea addict; and he was also fond of smoking. He could be fussy, a perfectionist, intensely self-critical, capable of destroying compositions with which he was not wholly satisfied. His writing was minuscule. Before he went to bed, he ate an apple, drank some water, and polished his German. But if he was a creature of habit, he was also the kind of person who never complains. Orchestras appreciated his sweet-tempered nature. He had a high speaking voice; he usually kept out of the limelight, but he enjoyed his skill in mimicry if with his family. There are many stories of the pleasure he took in the company of children, but found the company of his own children, particularly his boisterous son, taxing. His son, born in 1900, was called Hiawatha (not a happy choice, one feels), and known as 'Watha. When 'Watha was about six, Coleridge suggested to his mother that they give the boy the violin Benjamin Holmans had bought him, and which his mother had carefully preserved. She had her doubts, rightly. In no time, it was in smithereens beneath a table. His daughter, Gwennie, born in 1903, remembered 'Watha suggesting they made a rumpus when their father was working (which he did in a garden shed). There must also have been some financial crisis, because Coleridge and Jessie arranged at one point for Gwennie to be adopted - to the extent of taking Gwennie to a new home, and only changing their minds at the last minute. It may be that it was Jessie who suggested the idea.

It was overwork that contributed most to his death. He had gone to buy a ticket for a performance when he collapsed at West Croydon station. It was in the late summer of 1912. Somehow, he got himself home, quietly avoiding visitors, taking himself to bed. He said to have dreamed that he would die, and spent his last days full of regrets. One refrain ran through his conversation: “When I die, the papers will call me a Creole.” He insisted on correcting manuscripts, would not rest. On September 1st, 1912, he began to conduct, from his bed, an imaginary orchestra. Jessie's instinct was to stop him, but the nurse in attendance had the imagination to let him act out his final fantasy. He sank back; and died. The crowds lining the route to his funeral were four deep.

Notes:

Daniel Taylor is thought to have died in 1904; Alice Evans, as she was then, may never have known this. Alice herself lived until the age of 96, and died in 1953. Gwennie changed her name to Avril after her first divorce, as a symbol of a new beginning. As Avril Coleridge-Taylor, she had considerable success as a conductor and composer (the Ghanaian national anthem is by her); but, having moved to South Africa in the 1950s, and the colour of her father's skin being discovered, she was subjected to all the intolerance apartheid could muster, and unable to work. Her brother 'Watha also found some success as a conductor; so did Coleridge's half-siblings. One of the portraits painted by the Croydon painters is in the National Portrait Gallery.

Sources:

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Musician: His Life And Letters, by W.C. Berwick Sayers, Cassell and Co, 1915

Genius And Musician, personal reminiscences of my husband, S. Coleridge-Taylor, by Jessie Fleetwood Coleridge-Taylor, John Crowther, 1943

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Anglo-Black Composer, 1875-1912, by William Tortolano, The Scarecrow Press, 1977

The Heritage of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, by Avril Coleridge-Taylor, Dennis Dobson, 1979

I Remember Coleridge: recollections of Samuel Coleridge Taylor, by Marjorie Evans, in Under The Imperial Carpet, Rabbit Press, 1986

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: the development of his compositional style, by Jewel Taylor Thompson, The Scarecrow Press, 1994

The Hiawatha Man: The Life And Work Of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, by Geoffrey Self, Scolar Press, 1995

private contact with Phil Hughes (Benjamin Holmans' great-great-grandson), and with Les Holmans

In 2008, Charles Elford published the first substantial book on Taylor for some time: Black Mahler: The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Story (Grosvenour House Publishing). Click here for a link to Charles Elford’s excellent site www.blackmahler.com.

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