Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: a British musical prodigy

Revered as one of Britain’s greatest black composers, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is most remembered for his choral masterpiece Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. 

Through the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage audio preservation project, a recording of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast performed at the 28th Aldeburgh Festival in 1975 has recently been digitally preserved at Norfolk Record Office. In this blog we will explore the life of this prominent composer, and the trilogy of Hiawatha cantatas that brought him international critical acclaim. 

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA)

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in Holborn, London, an area just around the corner from Fetter Lane which was described by the writer Charles Dickens as being “the dingiest collection of shabby buildings ever squeezed together in a rank corner”. It is thought that Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was named after the famous poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and from the age of five Coleridge-Taylor showed his own artistic talents when starting to learn the violin. His musical gift quickly became apparent, and when he turned fifteen, he was accepted into the Royal College of Music initially as a violinist. After two years, he changed his direction of study to composition, and under the guidance of Charles Stanford (one of the founding professors of the Royal College of Music), began to develop as a skilful composer.       

Surrounded by blooming musical talent, many of Coleridge-Taylor’s early concerts took place at the Royal College of Music and featured instrumental performances from his fellows, including the composers Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Coleridge-Taylor’s talents were clear and well nurtured, and in the face of racial prejudice he was defended by those around him: when overhearing a racial insult towards Coleridge-Taylor from a fellow student, tutor Charles Stanford declared that Coleridge-Taylor had “more music in his little finger” than the other student had in “his whole body”.

   Word began to spread of the talented young composer. August Jaeger, an editor at the London based publishing company Novello & Co was tipped off about Coleridge-Taylor’s work even before it was publicly performed, and Novello’s published the first of a series of Coleridge-Taylor’s anthems. Coleridge-Taylor won the Lesley Alexander composition prize two years running (1895 and 1896). His first major commission came upon the recommendation of the composer Edward Elgar, who proposed Coleridge-Taylor for a commission by the Three Choirs Festival, describing Coleridge-Taylor as “still wanting recognition”, and “far away the cleverest fellow going amongst the young men”. Coleridge-Taylor premiered his melodic piece Ballade in A Minor at the 1898 Three Choirs Festival, gaining immediate success. 

   In 1898 Coleridge-Taylor composed what would become his most renowned work, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. The piece was inspired by a poem The Song of Hiawatha written by Henry Longfellow, which relates the fictional tale of an Ojibwe warrior named Hiawatha and the tragedy of his love for Minnehaha, a Dakota woman. Coleridge-Taylor was the first composer to use the already popular poem as inspiration for a musical work, and the piece became an immediate success, first premiering at the Royal College of Music. The composer Arthur Sullivan, although terminally ill, insisted upon attending: “I’m always an ill man now, my boy, but I’m coming to hear your music tonight even if I have to be carried”.

   Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast was a step away from heavily serious or religious choral works, instead combining light tuneful melodies with adventurous narrative, and exotic costumes of feathers and animal skins which captured the public imagination.  

The work was internationally acclaimed, touring three times in the United States despite the black community’s ongoing battle against racism. In an age where amateur choirs and sheet music were a key part of popular culture, hundreds of thousands of copies of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast were sold worldwide. However, despite being a pivotal work in Coleridge-Taylor’s career, the piece did not lead him to financial prosperity. Having had no conception of just how successful the piece would be, Coleridge-Taylor sold the work outright for a sum of £25 15s, meaning that he did not financially benefit from its later success. 

   Coleridge-Taylor wrote two sequels to Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, The Death of Minnehaha (October 1899) and Hiawatha’s Departure (March 1900). These two subsequent works however, did not receive the same acclaim and were criticised by former champions of his work including August Jaeger and Edward Elgar. 

    Coleridge-Taylor was a family man, married to fellow Royal College of Music graduate Jessie Sarah Fleetwood Walmisley, and father to a son (Hiawatha) and daughter (Gwendolen, later Avril), both of whom went on to have their own musical careers. Coleridge-Taylor continued to work prolifically to support his family, composing and conducting, and teaching at institutions including the Trinity College of Music (1903), and Crystal Palace School of Art and Music (1905). He was received at the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt during his first tour of America in 1904, which was a rare event at the time for a man of African descent. However, despite his success and fame, his private life was not exempt from racial harassment, both himself and his family being targets of racial abuse.

    Coleridge-Taylor’s life was tragically short. On 1st September 1912 he died of pneumonia at the age of 37. It is thought that overwork was a contributing factor, and his death provoked warm tributes in the press, and a funeral procession through Croydon that was lined for three and a half miles by crowds with their heads bared. A memorial concert produced £1440 for the family, a substantial sum when Coleridge-Taylor’s annual income in the year of his death was estimated at less than £200. His death revealed to the music world the fact that Coleridge-Taylor and his family did not receive any royalties from the hugely commercial Hiawatha’s Wedding, a scandal which assisted with the development of The Performing Rights Society who worked to put in place a legislation on rights and royalties. 

    The first version of Coleridge-Taylor’s final commission, Violin Concerto, is believed to have been lost in the same year as his death, when it went down with the RMS Titanic on its way to the US premiere.

     Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast continued to be hugely popular after Coleridge-Taylor’s death, with ten seasons of a large costumed ballet version running at the Royal Albert Hall between 1928 and 1939. Audiences flocked to see the spectacular large-scale performances, attending in fancy dress of feathers and bows and arrows, and joining in with the better-known numbers. 

     Following the end of the Second World War Coleridge-Taylor’s music largely disappeared from the public sphere, a shift in popular music and the decline of amateur choral-tradition changing the atmosphere and public appetite. In 1975 Coleridge-Taylor became the first black recipient of a blue heritage plaque, which was erected on his former home at 30 Dagnall Park, South Norwood. 

  Today Samuel Coleridge-Taylor continues to be highly regarded within musical circles, his talents reflected by the huge successes and quantities of compositions achieved during his short life. 

   These extract of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast are from the Norfolk Record Office sound archives and have been digitally preserved through the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage audio preservation project. They are excerpts from a recording of a broadcast of a 1975 performance at the 28th Aldeburgh Festival, performed by the Aldeburgh Festival Singers and English Chamber Orchestra at the Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Suffolk. 

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Allan Glaisyer Minns: The First Black Mayor of a British Town

October is Black History month: how many people know that the first ever black mayor of any British town was in Norfolk?

Allan Glaisyer Minns was one of ten children of John and Ophelia Minns (nee Bunch) of Inagua in the Bahamas.  Theirs is an extraordinary story: Allan, his brother and sister, all came to England and lived in Thetford for many years, playing an important part in community life.  In 1904, Allan became Mayor of Thetford – the first black mayor of any town in Britain.

Their paternal grandfather, John Minns, had emigrated from England to the Bahamas.  His partner Rosette was a freed slave from Africa – the story is that she saved John from drowning after a ship they were both travelling in sank – One of their children, also John, married a lady named Ophelia Bunch – nothing is known of her ethnic background.  John and Ophelia had ten children, three of whom were to come to Thetford.

The eldest, Pembroke Minns, was born in Inagua in 1840.  At the age of eighteen he moved to England to study at Guy’s Hospital, qualifying as a doctor in 1862.  In that year he came to Thetford as a physician, working in the town for half a century.  He became physician to Thetford Cottage Hospital, and served on the Borough Council for three years.  Pembroke never married.  At some time in the 1880s, his sister Ophelia, seventeen years his junior, came to Thetford, living with her brother in his house in King Street for the remainder of his life: he died in 1912.

Allan Glaisyer Minns. Norfolk Record Office, BOL 6/36

Allan Glaisyer Minns was born in Inagua in 1858.  Just like Pembroke, he trained at Guy’s, and, on qualifying as a doctor, he too came to Thetford, purchasing a practice in the town in 1888.  He played an important part in town life, being Medical Officer at Thetford Workhouse and Honorary Medical Officer of Thetford Cottage Hospital.  He published several article in the Thetford and Watton Times in the early 1900s; they were on themes like ‘Fresh Air and Common Sense’.  He was also a keen gardener and a founder of Thetford Horticultural Society.  He had his own house in White Hart Street.

In 1903, he was elected to Thetford Borough Council.  Just one year later, he was chosen by his fellow councillors to be Mayor, a position he held for two years (1904-5 and 1905-6).  He was the deputy mayor for the next two years and continued to serve on the Council afterwards.

In 1914, John Archer became mayor of Battersea.  Many people thought he was the first black person to become a British mayor: this is still given as a fact in some books.  Even at the time, however, some authorities recognised that Minns had the prior claim.  The American-published Negro Year Book for 1914 noted Archer’s election adding, ‘This is the second time in the history of that country [Britain] that “a man of color” has been elected mayor of a town.  In 1904, Mr Allen Glaser Minns, a colored man from the West Indies, was elected mayor of the borough of Thetford, Norfolk’.

Over the last twenty years, Minns’ story has become much better known, achieving full recognition in 2016 when he appeared in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for the first time.  The article was written by Richard Maguire, whose conclusion cannot be bettered:

‘Allan Glaisyer Minns was born in the Bahamas a quarter of a century after the Caribbean system of slavery had ended. His grandmother had been enslaved, and his uncles had been born into slavery and manumitted as children. Access to a good education in the Bahamas and then medical training in England, allied with his own hard work, allowed him to build an important role in Victorian and Edwardian society, becoming a respected physician, a leader of his community, and the first black mayor of an English town.’

Black History Month is a good time for Norfolk to celebrate Allan Glaisyer Minns and his extraordinary achievement.

Written by Frank Meeres

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The Unusual Burial Request of Stephen Kendall, singleman of Hempstead cum Eccles, Norfolk


The wills of 16th and 17th century testators can provide researchers with some remarkable insights into the lives of ordinary people by telling us their actual thoughts and beliefs, albeit in a stylised form, as opposed to what written history wanted later generations to believe. The underlying beliefs of the testators can then be matched to their actions to explain why and how they make provisions for preserving their souls, and through their various bequests of money and goods how they provide for family, friends and the wider community.  

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Story of Sound Part 3: Shellac to vinyl, how World War Two changed the record

Previously on the Story of Sound blog series, we travelled back in time to the late 1800s to discover who was the first inventor to create a machine which both recorded and played back sound, and discovered the forgotten format of wax cylinder recordings. Read parts 1 and 2 here:

The Talking Machine

“Canned music” and a war of formats

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Defending the Nation, Looking after the Poor and Preventing Coastal Erosion: the Varied Expenses found within Churchwardens Accounts

The churchwardens accounts give more than just details of how the parish ran its own affairs. They can be invaluable in understanding what was happening in surrounding parishes, other counties and nationwide. Looking into the accounts for Loddon has drawn up some intriguing entries, from paying a subsidy to Suffolk Justices of the Peace to helping with the defence of the nation (PD 595/19). This blog delves into the archives to understand what was happening at the time in order to fully understand each entry.

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The Cinemas of King’s Lynn from the Building Control Plans

The King’s Lynn Borough Archives hold the building control plans for the old Borough Council of King’s Lynn from 1883 up to 1960. The plans from 1960 to 1974 were sadly lost during the flood of the 1978. The plan registers also survive, however the earliest is unfit for production and cannot be consulted and one of the later volumes is in a poor state. With the help of a small team of volunteers we have been slowly working the way through and indexing the plans. The list shows the plans that still survive, which are too fragile to use and where there are gaps. When the work is uploaded onto the catalogue it will allow the public to better interact with the plans.

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Religion in Norfolk at the Time of the Mayflower

This month marks the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower setting sail on a voyage that led to the foundation of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Of the 102 passengers on board we know that at least seven came from Norfolk. So what was the religious climate of Norfolk like at the time which may have contributed to a number of it’s former citizens joining other pilgrims on this journey.

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Moved for Repairs or Used for a Rockery: The real story behind why the font of St. Mary’s Burnham Deepdale spent 40 years in a garden miles away

This is an attempt to tell the true story of the font and its stay in the garden of the Rectory at Fincham from 1807 to 1842. As recently as 2015 a search online brought up the following story:

‘The Norman font once stood in the north aisle but in 1797 it was broken when being moved and was taken to Fincham Rectory to be repaired. However, it stayed in the garden there for 40 years before it was finally restored to its present position’.

So, what is the real story behind how this font ended up 30 miles from home?

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