THE musician Francis Cunningham Woods was the son of a court dressmaker. F. Cunningham Woods was born in London but his father had originally come from Lowestoft. There is not much demand for court tailors in Suffolk so London was the place for him to remove himself to; he was obviously a good man with a needle. He was able to give his sons good educations; Francis in music and his elder brother Alfred in medicine; a third son went to Oxford and became a clergyman in Australia. Francis was an accomplished musician and he was employed as organist first at Brasenose and then at Exeter College Oxford, where he was awarded an MA degree in 1891. He had been a pupil of Sir Arthur Sullivan. In 1894 he became Head of Music at Highgate School in North London, a position he held for almost the rest of his life. He was an enthusiastic writer of songs, and the Highgate school song (which can be heard on Youtube) was penned by him. He was well regarded as the life and soul of the party, and was an excellent raconteur.
Although he spent most of his life in London his East Anglian connections did not end with his paternal association with the East Coast. By the age of 55 his father had sold his successful dressmaking business and had retired to Beccles, where his family would visit him. Moreover Francis’s wife was an East Anglian lady from Norwich and some time during the school holidays was spent in Norfolk. It as while staying in Norfolk that he wrote the Gressenhall Suite.
This extract from the Folkstone and Hythe Herald of the 22 January 1927 gives some details of how he found himself near East Dereham and how he came to write the suite: ‘THE concluding item …was “The Gressenhall Suite” (F. Cunningham Woods), a composition of singular charm. The following interesting notes by the composer on how the suite came to be composed, appeared on the programme. “Some years ago I was staying at Gressenhall near East Dereham, Norfolk. During my visit I was present at a jolly little dance in the parish room. All accompaniments were played on an accordion by a young fellow who was employed in a flour mill. He played a large number of folk dances – mainly traditional – the names of which he did not know. ‘I learnt them from my father,’ he said. One struck me as being a very jolly one and I named it after the village (Gressenhall). A brother of the Squire told me that the words at the commencement of the song, were – “Throw away sorrow, Cast away care! The parish is bound to maintain us.” ‘
The words quoted by the Squire’s brother refer to a popular tune sung in the alehouses of England in the mid 18th century about the Poor Law. “Hang sorrow, cast away care, The parish is bound to maintain us.” It is therefore very appropriate that it should have been rediscovered in Gressenhall, where the parishes of Mitford and Laundich built the House of Industry in 1776 to maintain the destitute. The Poor Law, as it operated in the 18th century, was much more humane than it became in the 1830s. In the earlier period families which had fallen on hard times were kept together in the workhouse and not kept segregated by sex, as happened in Victorian times. Now the old Workhouse at Gressenhall and its attached farm are home to the Norfolk museum of rural life.
Among the many notable former pupils of Highgate School are the composers John Taverner and John Rutter. I am greatly indebted to Henley Smith, the Head of Music at Highgate School, for allowing me to use the illustration of F. Cunningham Woods which is shown above, and for providing other details of the composer. I am also extremely grateful to Helen Bainbridge, volunteer researcher at Gressenhall Museum, who has discovered much valuable information on Cunnigham Woods. Gressenhall Museum gave a performance of the Gressenhall Suite at 7.30 on JUNE 13th 2015 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its publication. The following is extracted from the publicity for the event:
‘…extraordinary opportunity to hear music inspired by Gressenhall in the atmospheric Old Chapel at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse.
100 years ago Francis Cunningham Wood visited Gressenhall village’s Reading Rooms for a local dance. Inspired by what he heard he composed and published a string orchestral arrangement entitled The Gressenhall Suite. A century later, this music will be performed on Saturday 13 June 2015 starting at 7.30pm. Entry is by ticket only and pre-booking is essential.
This is an extraordinary chance to hear the Suite close to the village which provided the original inspiration. The concert is performed by West Norfolk Jubilee Youth Orchestra and King’s Lynn Minster Choir and will also include late 18th century music and a variety of English part songs. Attendees are advised to bring their own cushion for comfort on the narrow pews of the Old Chapel!
The sheet music for The Gressenhall Suite was re-discovered last year by East Anglian historian Joe Mason. He wrote about his discovery in his blog which was noticed by a volunteer from Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, who drew it to the museum’s attention.
Curator, Megan Dennis said “Researching more about the composer’s life revealed that he was a music teacher and actively supported youth music. Bringing young musicians to Gressenhall to perform his work 100 years after it was written just seemed appropriate. We are really excited to welcome West Norfolk Jubilee Youth Orchestra to the museum and are looking forward to a thrilling evening of music.”’
FRANCIS CUNNINGHAM WOODS (1862 – 1929)