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Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: For His Times and Ours

In the article below Hilary Burrage, Executive Chair of the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation, a United Kingdom (UK)-based non-profit organisation, describes the composer and how she came to regard and preserve his work and legacy.

It has taken three times the duration of his own lifetime for the reputation of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Britain’s greatest black classical composer, to begin to make an impact on our contemporary world.  At the time of his tragically early death in 1912, aged 37 from a chest infection, Coleridge-Taylor was a nationally feted musical figure.  His Hiawatha Trilogy of staged opera-cantatas based on the poem by Longfellow were massive commercial successes even though he gained almost nothing from them financially.  

After Coleridge-Taylor’s death, the works fell slowly from collective consciousness and favour.  Until the mid-1930s annual fortnight performances of Hiawatha at the Royal Albert Hall were a highlight of London’s cultural scene.  By the 1960s however, when as a (white) schoolgirl in Birmingham, UK, I was involved in a concert production of the cantata, my friends and I were totally unaware that the composer was a person of mixed race.

Nor did we know of the personal challenges Coleridge-Taylor had faced.  He was born illegitimate in 1875, in Holborn, a (then) harshly impoverished area of central London, to Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor (c1848-1904), a London-trained surgeon who returned home to Sierra Leone and probably never knew of Samuel’s existence, and eighteen-years-old Alice Hare Martin (1856-1953), daughter of Emily Ann Martin.

A year or two after Samuel’s birth, demolition of their squalid Holborn home saw Alice removed to Croydon just south of London. There, she continued to live with Benjamin Holmans (a farrier), his wife Sarah and their children, a ‘housekeeper,’ perhaps Emily Martin, and, later, with her (railway worker) husband George Evans and subsequent offspring. Conjecture suggests Benjamin may have been Samuel’s maternal grandfather since various members of