090: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and the church

Alice Hare Martin, known as Mrs Alice Taylor, took her black baby to be baptised at St George the Martyr, Queen Square in Bloomsbury, central London on 7 November 1875. It was the parish church, but when Coleridge (as the family called him) went to school in Croydon from 1880 he attended the British School in Tamworth Road — it was Nonconformist. The head teacher told choirmaster Herbert Walters that Coleridge-Taylor could sing, and Walters enlisted him into St George’s Presbyterian Church choir (younger brother Stanley Walters was the organist). Around 1889 Walters relocated to St Mary Magdalene, Addiscombe where the choirmaster was J. H. Wallis (probably John Henry Wallis whose works for both piano and organ were published from the 1880s). Coleridge-Taylor sang in Wallis’s choir for over ten years, through his seven years at London’s Royal College of Music (1890-1897). He was exposed to the extensive heritage of Anglican choral music at Addiscombe.

St George’s Presbyterian Church had a talented organist and choirmaster from 1896, one Leonard N. Fowler (1870-1939) who was a Royal College of Music violin scholar from 1887 (after studies in Belgium) and he also qualified at Oxford. Fowler remained at St George’s until 1904. Had Walters not helped Coleridge-Taylor, surely Fowler would have done so? The church closed in 1938 and became a masonic centre.

Towards the end of the century Coleridge-Taylor lived near Selhurst railway station, and he got married in the local (Anglican) parish church Holy Trinity, Selhurst at the end of 1899: the views of his future in-laws had led his bride to flee her home in Wallington and reside with her composer husband’s African American friend Henry Downing in Gunnersbury, west London but saving face her parents attended the wedding in Croydon.

His sudden death (pneumonia) aged 37 in September 1912 led to a packed funeral at the Anglican parish church of St Michael, West Croydon and the mourners followed the coffin to Bandon Hill cemetery through streets lined with people. That church is now dominated by modern office blocks and department stores, by West Croydon station, but the contemporary image (which also shows Canon R. W. Hoare, who conducted the funeral service) shows the building in its grandeur (the interior is much admired and is listed). The apron-clad delivery man in the street would risk life and limb if he posed there today.

The memorial stone at Bandon Hill lacks any Christian symbol, and despite his anthems written as a youth there is no suggestion that a Christian faith was a dominant feature of his life. His failure with The Atonement was musical, not religious. How much his exposure to Anglican and Nonconformist music influenced his creative genius is a matter that needs study. For decades it has been assumed that Herbert Walters, a colonel in the volunteers, was some veteran soldier when he was actually a dozen years older than the composer, and a silk merchant in London. Perhaps the career of J. H. Wallis will throw light on musical aspects of Coleridge-Taylor and the church?

See also pages 014, 019 and 083 on this site.


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