The Craxton Family

Harold Craxton

My First Piano

Before my first birthday, my parents decided to leave London and start life again in Devizes, a quaint little town on the slopes of the Wiltshire Downs, where they became host and hostess of a small hotel named the 'Elm Tree'. It was a nice old building - half-timbered and possibly of the Elizabethan age with cosy rooms for the drinkers and a large adjoining yard with huge sheds for storing wood and heaps of room for stabling horses and carriages. Quite near the 'Elm Tree' was the largest hotel in the town, the 'Bear', where at one time the proprietor was a Mr Lawrence, whose son became famous as Sir Thomas Lawrence the painter. Some of his boyhood sketches were still on the walls of the hotel lounge. In the centre of the wide market place, just opposite the 'Bear', stands a monument, a sort of memorial, to commemorate the name of a woman who told a lie! Maybe this could be less crudely stated: it is really a warning to both sexes to tell the truth or the consequences may be dire. The story on the memorial is that a certain woman and the three partners had agreed to purchase a sack of corn by contributing five shillings each to the cost. The unfortunate woman in question appeared to the others to be a defaulter and when questioned she swore that she had paid her share and called upon the Almighty to strike her dead if she hadn't. The Almighty did and the 5/- was found in her clenched hand. A terrible warning to be truthful!

When I was about three years old, my parents thought that a piano should be in the home. They read an advertisement in the local paper that a Broadwood upright was for sale for £10 at a village near Bishop's Canning. A visit was arranged and my parents found that the instrument was owned by some old country folk who lived in a thatched cottage. A knock on the door was answered by a true country character - an old man with white hair and beard: 'Ah, you be come about the piano - I'll call my missus - she do know about this surer than I do'. My parents noticed that the cottage was a two-roomed one. The front door opened into the living room and there was no sign of the piano. 'Come along, missus, and give me a hand,' he called to his wife. 'You see, we did 'aven in the sitting room but we found 'ee got in the way so we shoved 'im under the bed, where from my missus and I, we'll pull 'im out and ee'll play pretty, ee will, when ee's right way up'. And this was achieved by the old couple. My mother found that the piano did play 'pretty' and so it was bought, and the nice silk-fronted woodenframed straight-strung Broadwood was to be my companion for several years. It must have been my mother's idea that I should learn to play the piano, for she had been a member of the William Carter choir - a forerunner of the Royal Choral Society - and the choir made regular appearances at the Royal Albert Hall and assisted at the various concerts when many of the leading operatic stars appeared. My mother also kept and bound up all the programmes which included the names of Albani, Nilsson, Foley, Maas, Sims-Reeves and Edward Lloyd and other singers of the 1880 period as often choral support was needed for their operatic items. At this time my mother was one of Canon Francis Holland's headmistresses of one of his London schools and these choral concerts must have been a great joy to her.

At the age of 3 and a half I was taught by a parent for the first time, by ear of course, 'Home, home, shall I forget thee, home, home, dearly loved home'. This tune, one of several that I cherished, came from Smallwood's Tutor, one of the popular books for beginners.

When I was 5, I made my first public appearance, playing the left-hand part of a duet with the barmaid of the 'Elm Tree'. Her name was Fluffy, and the occasion a smoking concert at the 'Bear'. She kissed me in public! The next time I was kissed after this was when I was 15 and gave a concert at the Hammersmith Town Hall; a charming old contralto, Madame Belle Cole, assisted at the concert and she kissed me, but by then I would have preferred the barmaid's kiss. . . .

To return to the Devizes days, I was sent to Parnella House School for Young Ladies and Young Gentlemen in the Market Place. I remember so well being taught to knit, make button-holes and sew on a button and other necessary things for a Young Gentleman. One of my triumphs was knitting a pair of red mittens and when finished they were handed on to the mistress, Miss Sara Davies. Then at the end of the year came the concert and sale of work. The Mayor of the town, the leading grocer, a Mr Mead, honoured our concert and was kind to me after I'd played.

'Well sonny, what would you like me to buy you?' he asked.

'A football please sir,' I quickly answered.

'I'm sorry my little chap but they don't make or sell footballs at your school, but let me see what useful articles they have. . . ah ! The very thing. Some lovely red mittens to keep your chubby little hands warm in winter!' And he bought them for 4d and presented them to me with the kindest of manners! If he could have only known the distress of heart that was the result of this kind and thoughtful action. Very soon I was sent in for my first piano examination. My teacher, Miss Davies, entered me when I was seven for the first grade of the Trinity College of Music examinations. They were held in Bath, at the Assembly Rooms. So my mother and I set off by train. My father having given me 2/- pocket money, I bought a spotted blue and white blouse in Bath for 1/11 1/2d for my mother and borrowed another 1/2d from her to buy my father a 1 d postcard frame.

The entrance to the Assembly Rooms was somewhat forbidding for at the foot of the stairs which led up to the place of examination stood two dummies in coats of shining armour and holding battle-axes.

My mother had difficulty getting me past these fearful looking sentries for I thought they were the examiners. However, I passed the examination with one mark to spare: which either meant a certain appreciation of my talent or the kindness of the examiners. My father was delighted and added the words 'seven years of age' after my name on the certificate which he duly framed and hung in a prominent place.

Not long after this, my teacher felt it was time to give me some Bach and she chose the first Prelude and Fugue from the '48'. She caused a certain amount of consternation and confusion in the home! My mother asked me what I was trying to play and I answered : 'It's my new piece that Miss Davies gave me to learn'. My mother said it was not a piece but the accompaniment to Gounod's 'Ave Maria' which she had often heard at the Royal Albert Hall, and that I must tell my teacher of her mistake. My father was called in for his opinion and as he only played the banjo I felt he was not an authority. But he said at once: 'Yes, it's an accompaniment, for that sort of thing is what I play when I sing "Oh my darling Clementine".' So I told my teacher that my parents thought she had mistaken an accompaniment for a piece. Alas, Miss Davies had never heard the 'Ave Maria' version and so was quite mystified at the complaint. But she said: 'If you don't like the Prelude learn the Fugue,' adding a word of explanation that a fugue was a piece that starts with a tune which then comes over and over again! She played me the 'tune' but I reckoned if that was called a 'tune', why had Bach bothered to write it once, let alone repeat it endlessly? For me a good tune was 'The Holy City' or 'The Star of Bethlehem' which I loved singing. After some tears from her little pupil at his failure to appreciate Bach she wisely put in front of me a Gavotte entitled 'Windsor Castle' by Stephen Gautier with a lovely picture of the Castle in yellow and green on the front page. And so I was saved for music - and incidentally put off Bach - till l was 22 and began again with the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue. The right Bach at the right time for the pupil or trouble always happens.

About this time my father's financial affairs at the 'Elm Tree' got into a bad way and we ultimately found ourselves removed to the other and poorer end of the town, below the canal bridge. My father tried to make a living from first a butcher's shop, then a shoe repair business and even a hairdressing saloon, but to no avail until by my mother's efforts and some family connections he was offered a job as manager of three London public houses - 'The Greyhound', Fulham Palace Road, 'The Dartmouth Castle', and 'The Rutland Hotel' on the Mall by the river at Hammersmith Bridge. He was able to send 30/- to my mother to care for herself and five boys, and times were hard. Our little house was on a wharf by the canal and so I was able to fish and bring home some small roach and perch for my mother to cook for breakfast.

By good fortune the Catholic church of St Joseph's School was just on the hillside on the other side of the canal and the two priests, Father Bernard and his assistant, Father Louis, who were the kindest of men, became our dearest friends. We five boys were received at the church and our days were filled with joy. They taught me the words of the Mass at the age of 9. I was able to assist and serve the priest at Mass on Sunday and at the Mass for the nuns who taught at the school each morning at 7 am. On many occasioins Father Bernard came to give my mother a hand, particularly on washing days, helping and hanging things on the line. Then helping me to dust and clean the house. On festive occasions, many a sixpence I earned by helping to make Holy crosses and decorations for Christmas and the necessary palms for Easter time. The nuns at the school were also the kindest of women and that early age I was troubled and surprised that such nice priests and nuns had to live celibate lives, for to me the nuns were almost as kind as my mother and the priests often kinder than my father. I shall never forget those boyhood connections with the Catholic church and its happiness.

Harold Craxton