Wednesday, June 13, 2012

‘I should have been a rich man’ Coleridge-Taylor’s finances by Jeffrey Green

[Samuel Coleridge-Taylor]

Jeffrey Green is an English historian and author of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a Musical Life, published by Pickering & Chatto Publishers (2011). Today we present his second contribution as a Guest Blogger for AfriClassical. As a preface, the author provides this explanation of British currency:

"The British currency was (and is) the pound, written as £. It was divided into twenty shillings, and each shilling was worth twelve pence. The penny in turn was divided into four. In Coleridge-Taylor's day most ordinary folk used just shillings and pence."

I should have been a rich man’
Coleridge-Taylor’s finances
by Jeffrey Green
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, composer, died in Croydon on 1 September 1912, aged 37. He was famed for The Song of Hiawatha, a three-part choral work with orchestra which had been popular since its first performances in 1898-1900. The composer’s first biographer, Croydon librarian William Berwick Sayers, states that Coleridge-Taylor had remarked several times ‘If I had retained my rights in the Hiawatha music I should have been a rich man. I only received a small sum for it’ (page 242) which is quoted by Peter Fryer in his Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain of 1984 (and still in print).

The Calendar of the Grants of Probate and Letters of Administration for 1912 lists all estates where dispersal of the assets had been agreed. This printed book, usually four volumes in alphabetical order, is available at County Record Offices and at the Principal Probate Registry (at 42-49 High Holborn, near to where the composer was born). Under ‘Taylor’ page 21 it records that administration was to Jessie Sarah Fleetwood Coleridge-Taylor, the widow, and the estate was valued at £874 5s 7d. In pen this is amended to ‘resworn’ £1,335 1s 5d. Not untold riches but as a suburban London house could be purchased for under £400 and the rent on the eight room house where he died was £45 a year Coleridge-Taylor was far from destitute.

Another document, file IR 59/371 at The National Archives in Kew, relates to Coleridge-Taylor. It notes that the value was resworn to £1,335 1s 5d on 25 August 1913. Royalties due at the time of his death were £100 15s 10d and royalties paid in the first eight months of 1912 had been £139 7s. There is an inventory of furniture and household effects dated 19 September 1912, which notes two pianos, and four sets of china (30 piece dinner service, 20 piece breakfast service, 32 piece tea service and a 12 piece dessert service). The composer’s debts totalled £84, of which £31 was for the doctor and £17 to a music library. The funeral had cost £33 8s 6d. The tax administrators charged £15 3s 7d estate duty.

That is, the composer’s estate was assessed at a value where death duties had to be paid. The vast majority of estates in 1912 were of less value and that tax was not usual.

Jessie Coleridge-Taylor remained at the house in St Leonards Road, Croydon into the late 1930s. She was given a Civil List pension of £100 per year, and that is subject to another file at The National Archives. PREM 5/2 notes that annual £100 was still being paid, and that in 1951 she was paying £70 annual rent and almost £26 annual rates (council or city tax) for her home in Banstead, Surrey. As well as the £100 she had income of £982 and £500 in savings. Her income from her late husband’s compositions had been £638 in 1940, £679 in 1941 and £489 in 1942. The file notes that £1,200 had been raised through memorial concerts and had been put in a trust fund for the children.

It is true that had the composer been able to strike a different contract with publishers Novello and Company, royalties from Hiawatha would have made him a rich man. But royalty contracts were unusual in the 1890s, Coleridge-Taylor lacked any status as a composer of choral music, and Novello and Company were taking quite a risk. They paid him over £700 for Hiawatha.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor left the world a richer place through his musical gifts, but he was not a poor man by the standards of his era.

[Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is profiled at, which features a comprehensive Works List and a Bibliography by Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma, We are collaborating with the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation of the U.K.,]

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