A Blind Musician Looks Back
Biography of Alfred Hollins
Hollins, Alfred. Hon.Mus.D. (Edinburgh, 1922); Hon.F.R.C.O. Blind organist. Studied at the Wilberforce Institution, York, under William Barnby, 1874-77; the Royal Normal College for the Blind, Upper Norwood, London, under F. J. Campbell, Fritz Hartvigson (piano), and Dr Edward J. Hopkins (organ), 1878; in Berlin under Hans von Bülow who described him as one “of those rare and true musicians among pianoforte virtuosi”, 1885. Organist of St. John’s, Redhill, London, 1884-88; the People’s Palace, London, 1888-; St. Andrew’s (Presbyterian), Upper Norwood, London, 1888-97; St. George’s (United Free), Edinburgh, Scotland, 1897-1942. Professor of piano and organ at the Royal Normal College for the Blind, Upper Norwood, London, 1888. Was responsible for the specifications of the organ in Johannesburg Town Hall, built by Norman & Beard (giving opening recital, 1916), and Caird Hall, Dundee, built by Harrison & Harrison; also organs in Belfast and Edinburgh. Played the Beethoven Pianoforte Concerto in E-flat under Manns at the Crystal Palace; before Queen Victoria at Windsor, 1882; toured the United States, 1885, 1888; played a series of recitals at Sydney Town Hall in 1904; toured New Zealand, 1904; South Africa, 1907, 1909; U.S.A., 1926. Composed organ music, songs, anthems, piano music, &c. b. Hull, England, Sep. 11th, 1865; d. Edinburgh, Scotland, May 17th, 1942.
Biographical information courtesy of www.organ-biography.info © 2017
WHAT IS SNUFF ?
The 11th September 1865 came on a Monday, and it was on that day at 123 Coltman Street, Hull, that I first saw the light. This is a strange expression to be used by one who is supposed to have been blind from birth. For many years I believed that I was born blind, and for all practical purposes that was so. But an eminent oculist who examined my eyes when I was a student at Norwood told me that I must actually have had the power to see. He asked when I lost my sight. I said I had never had it. “You mustn’t say that any more,” he said, “for you were certainly born seeing. Whether you saw only for a minute, or an hour, or a day, I can’t tell you.”
If that is true my sight must have gone almost immediately, for it was not long after birth that I was discovered to be blind. What actually caused my blindness is not known.
My paternal grandfather was a native of York, where he lived until his death in 1872. He had four children: George, John (my father), Mary, and Joseph. My father was born in 1834. He was apprenticed to a stationer in Harrogate at the age of thirteen, and used to travel from York to Harrogate by coach. Afterwards he went to De la Rue’s in London for a time, and eventually settled in Hull as assistant in the Stamp Office under Mr Croskill, whom I remember perfectly. My mother was Miss Mary Evans. She came from the south of England, and was married to my father at Brighton in 1856 or 1857, but I do not know anything about her parents or other relations except my uncle, William Evans, who lived at Norwood.
My father and mother had three sons-James, 1858, who is still living; John, who died in infancy; and myself. I recall very many circumstances connected with my early childhood, and if I mention any that have been told me in later life I shall make it clear that they are not from my own memory. My mother does not take a prominent place in these early recollections. She was musical and had a good voice. Hearing her sing and play was most likely my first acquaintance with music. My father had no singing voice, but he could sing a tune correctly. There were three songs I used to ask him to sing and play for me; “So Early in the Morning” (which he always played in D, but when I first learned it was D, I cannot say), “Wait for the Waggon,” and “Uncle Ned.” The first two were my favourites. How vividly I recalled those days when, a few years ago, my friend the late E. G. Meers played his clever variations on “Uncle Ned” on the charming organ in his house at Guildford!
I distinctly remember my mother singing “Juanita.” It must have been very popular then, for Arnold Bennett, depicting the same period in “Milestones,” makes Rose sing it. Hearing this old-fashioned melody in the play had a marked effect on me, for to the best of my belief I had not heard it since my mother sang it.
Coltman Street is one of the longest side-streets I know. Like many others it began by being on the edge of the country, only to find itself ultimately part of the town. The houses are mostly semidetached, with a side-passage separating each pair from the next. Up to 1928-the last time I was there-the numbers, unlike those in most streets, ran consecutively and not odd on one side and even on the other. Our house was a small two-storey one with back and front rooms, kitchen, scullery, &c on the ground floor, and three or four bedrooms upstairs with an attic above. Over the kitchen and entered from the half-landing was a fairly large room which my brother and I called the nursery. To a child everything appears larger than it really is, and when I revisited No. 123 after an absence of nearly sixty years, I was surprised to see how small the rooms were and how narrow the hall. It was, however, very gratifying to find that I had carried many of the details in my mind all that time-e.g., the corner in the hall between the two sitting-rooms, the French windows opening into the garden from the back room, the step down into the kitchen, and so on.
I don’t think the garden was very large, but it seemed so to me when I was a child. It had a path all round it bordered by flower-beds, and a lawn in the middle on which my father and mother and their friends played croquet. One of the croquet hoops had a bell hanging from the middle, and I liked to get hold of a ball and the small mallet used for knocking the hoops into the ground, kneel on the grass about a yard from the hoop (first measuring my distance) and then knock the ball and try to get it through the bell-hoop. Sometimes, of course-probably most times-I missed the hoop, and an abject grovel on hands and knees followed till the ball was found. And I used to delight in running round the garden pulling a tin railway engine which I later pretended was a steam-roller. But more often my plaything was a fine substantial wheel-barrow specially made for me to my father’s order. Strange to say, I very seldom pushed this barrow-in fact, I do not think I realised then that wheel-barrows were pushed-but preferred to get between the handles and pull it. My brother Jim, seven years older than I, was always very good to me and played with me whenever he could. He often gave me a ride in the barrow, which was a great treat.
To this day I am at a loss to understand how a blind person, especially a child, gets the sense of direction and learns to find his way about, for he has nothing to go by but touch and sound. But we do get it, thank God, from a very early age; at least, most of us do.
Few sighted people realise that the blind have no idea of proportion or of the size of a thing unless they can feel it. Even long-experienced teachers of the blind do not take this sufficiently into account. Schools for the blind should have models-not raised diagrams-of as many objects as possible, especially of those things such as bridges, roofs of churches, aeroplanes, &c., which are out of reach.
From the first I was interested in any new thing that was being made. My father had a summer-house built at the top of the garden. It was not a rustic arbour, but a little room with windows all round, made to open. I remember how excited Jim and I were about it. A large slate cistern for holding rain-water was also a source of interest. I suspect that my father had a passion for collecting rainwater, because in addition to this large upper cistern he sunk an underground one from which the rainwater was drawn by a pump in the scullery. Young Master Inquisitive wanted to know all about the working of a pump, but was too young to take it all in. No doubt it was sufficient satisfaction to be allowed to pump, or rather to imagine that he was pumping when another really did the work.
The toys I remember best were musical. There was a musical cart with pins stuck into the back axle and arranged to pluck two or three wires when the cart was pulled along, but I did not care much for it. I liked tops best, especially little metal ones that were wound up with a kind of spring key. And I have been told that one of my amusements was to run round the dining-room table with my left hand touching the edge and my right pulling a toy railway carriage to which I had taken a special fancy. So devoted was I to this pastime that I wore a complete circle in the carpet. My brother was at school most of the day and I had therefore to amuse myself as best I could.
Although I began to take notice of musical sounds-especially those of the piano-almost as soon as I could toddle, these did not absorb all my attention or keep me from my playthings. I have never been one of the sloggers who practise for three or four hours on end, especially at technique.
But before getting on to my musical life I want to say a little more about my childhood. It may hardly be credited, but I distinctly remember being in frocks, especially one, a poplin with big velvet buttons. I do not know the colour, but I must have been told I looked nice in it for I know it was a favourite.
My father was devoted to me, and I returned his devotion. I do not remember his scolding me, but to the best of my belief he did not spoil me. I think he took the right way of training me. He would always try to answer my many puzzling questions. For instance, I had a little wooden snuff-box, made like a book. It was a puzzle to open, but I soon learned how to do it. Father said it was for snuff. I asked: “What is snuff ?” Instead of putting me off by saying I was too young to understand, he brought some snuff for me to examine. The result of the examination was probably amusing.
A round clock in the hall had a deep “strike.” This clock, afterwards known as St Paul’s, was much too high for me to reach, but one night my father lifted me up as it was striking seven and let me examine it thoroughly. Until the house was given up, this operation was repeated every night at the same hour. It became the first movement of the Bedtime Symphony. For the second movement my father took me on his knee and gave me what I called “five biscuits” and a drink of warm milk and water. I don’t believe it was five whole biscuits, but one or two at the most, broken up into five pieces. But I was most particular to have no more than five. The “five biscuits” were placed in the lid of the biscuit tin, perhaps to avoid the risk of my breaking a plate and to give more room for crumbs. Then father would take me upstairs, undress me, and tuck me up in a little cot close beside my mother’s bed and his. The last thing he always said to me was:
Good night, God bless you;
Get up in the morning
And I’ll dress you.
Every morning I went with father to the front door to see him off to the office. It was my ambition to open the door for him, but I could not reach the latch. Father got over the difficulty by fastening a cord to it so that I could pull it back. After I had shut the door-and it had to be shut first-he would call, “Good morning, Alfy.” If by some mischance he happened to forget or I not to hear this parting salutation he left a weeping little figure behind.
I have mentioned that I had to amuse myself a good deal, but this must only have been during my first two or three years. Our next-door neighbours were Mr and Mrs Marker, and I suppose I was still in frocks when I began to know their children, and particularly their younger son, Herbert (now British Consul at Valencia), who is just my own age. The Harkers had been living at 124 for some years before my father and mother came to 123, and it was occupied by two of the daughters up to the end of 1928, so that the Harker family lived there for the unusually long period of more than seventy years. How or when our acquaintance began I cannot recollect, but I remember crawling through the railings which separated the two back-gardens and spending the greater part of the day next door. For some reason or other I never went out and in by the front door, and it was soon noticed that I was trampling down the flowers in both the gardens. To prevent further damage my brother laid down a narrow strip of board on each side of the fence, just wide enough for me to walk on, and I took full advantage of what was my own private path. When, a few years later, my father gave up the house in Hull, and I went to live in York, I lost touch with the Harker family for a time, but to this day the tie has not been broken. After I went to Norwood I spent part of the first two or three summer holidays in Hull and never failed to visit my old friends at 124. It was on one of these visits that Mrs Harker showed me a box of table ninepins with which, she said, I used to be very fond of playing. I played with them again on that occasion, not to renew old associations, but simply because I was enough of a boy to be still fond of playthings.
I cannot recall when I first knew that I was different from other children-I mean, that I was blind-but certainly I realised that there was something the matter with my eyes when I was about three years old. My father and mother took me to London to see Dr Murie, who, if not an oculist in the present-day meaning of the word, was a noted physician and highly skilled in treatment of the eye. It must have been my first railway journey, and I remember it distinctly. The sound of the train, the feel of the carpet-covered cushions of the seats, the wooden floor of the compartment, the wooden doors-doors were not padded then-have all left an unforgettable impression. I remember sitting on Dr Murie’s knee and crying when he put drops into my eye. And I remember a spring bell on the table and that I was told that if I would be a good boy and keep still, I might ring it. I suppose I kept still, for after the examination was over I rang the bell. It brought an attendant, and very proud I was to find that I could call anyone by ringing a bell. Afterwards we went somewhere in a bus called The Bank Favourite. The experience was lived over again when some years later I travelled by a London bus and knew once more the characteristic jolt and smell and the typical voice of the conductor.
On the occasion of the visit to the oculist I think we must have had something to do in or near Hornsey, for I remember sitting on the counter of a shop to try on a pair of gloves which, when I asked for them afterwards, I always called my Hornsey Road gloves. We also went to see my uncle and aunt Evans who lived at Sunnyside, Gipsy Hill, Upper Norwood. My uncle had a harmonium which I played, but I suspect that someone worked the bellows for me.
Blind people are very quick to notice the slightest detail of anything they can feel with either hands or feet, and rises or depressions in the ground are a great help in going about, especially when one is alone. On that first visit to London I was taken to the Crystal Palace and I noticed the wide openings between the floor-boards. The floor of the Pavilion at Buxton is similar, as I found when I was there for the first time three or four years later. And when I went back to the Palace after I was at the Royal Normal College in Norwood, the first sensation of those open boards came back in a flash.
My parents bought me a humming-top at the Palace which I long treasured and called my Crystal Palace top. I know the feel of it now. And I must have heard the Palace organ, for I remember getting muddled between “organist” and “orchestra.”
I cannot say when I first began to notice musical sounds; I do not remember a time when the names of the notes of the piano were unknown to me; I do not recall the days-for there must have been such days-when I could not pick out a tune with one finger. The curious thing is that until I had my first lessons at the age of six or seven I played only single notes with my right hand-and that with the second finger (English fingering)-but I used the thumb and fingers of my left hand correctly. I made up my own basses. The tunes I played were those heard on the barrel-organs that used to come regularly and from my earliest days were a source of delight and interest.
There were three organ men who came to us: the Monday man; the Thursday man; and one whom I liked best, the Friday man. Those old barrel-organs are fast dying out. Even when I was still a little boy they were being replaced by the street piano, which, since the Great War, has almost disappeared too. Nearly every barrel-organ played in E flat, but my firm belief is that my Friday man’s organ played in C and G. To me it sounded richer than the others. And I think my Friday man must have been old and that he had a son who was also an organ man, for one Friday when I had a bad cold and could not go out to give the customary penny and have a turn at the handle my father asked the man to come into the kitchen, and the organ in the kitchen played in E flat. The loud noise it made frightened me, and the E flat disappointed me. This was not my Friday man, the old man, whose organ played in C and G and pleased my ear. It must have been Friday mans son who played in the kitchen, and I had no day of the week by which to name him. Probably the old man, like myself, had a cold and was obliged to stay indoors.
Among the tunes I picked up from the barrel-organs were “The Lancashire Lass,” “Up in a Balloon, Boys,” “Ever of Thee I Fondly am Dreaming,” “Champagne Charlie is my Name,” &c. I have heard that a child picks up much more readily what it should not, than what it should. Although I went to church regularly with my father, I do not remember picking up any of the hymn tunes, but one Sunday morning I had to be taken out for crying because my father could not tell me the name of the tune that was being sung. Shortly before this happened I had been given a toy trumpet with a slide which produced four notes-G, C, E, G. On reaching home I thought to console myself with this new treasure, but as a punishment the consolation was at once denied me.
We had a very good Collard piano. I have the feel of that piano in my mind now, the moulding of the key cheeks, and above all the rounded black keys. Until I was about seven years old I did not sit at the piano, but stood and played my barrel-organ tunes, making a click with my nails after each in imitation of the organ man changing the tune.
My first acquaintance with a real organ must have been at about this time. I was brought into the world by Dr Healey, who used to make me angry by saying in a loud voice, “Now, Bobby!”; to which I would reply, “You know my name is not Bobby, and I don’t like it.” Dr Healey had a small organ in his house, and one Sunday afternoon I was taken to see it. I was lifted on to the seat and began at once to play “The Lancashire Lass” or some other profane ditty. Certain good people present were shocked and my secular propensities were apologised for. I knew nothing about pedal notes, and when someone sounded one I exclaimed in rapture, “Oh, how delicious!”
It is strange that I had not previously heard pedal notes, for we attended Wycliffe Congregational Church regularly, where there is a large three-manual Forster & Andrews. It may be that at the time of which I write the organ had not been built, for I remember being told one night that my father and mother had gone out to the organ opening at Wycliffe and I wondered what an organ opening was. If the Wycliffe organ was not built till after the episode in Dr Healeys house, it is probable that a harmonium was in use, and this would account for my not having heard pedal notes. But why I did not pick up hymn tunes is a question for the psychologist. Perhaps it was a case of original sin.
The minister of Wycliffe was the Rev. W. M. Statham who afterwards joined the Church of England. I cannot remember anything of his voice or sermons: I was very young and our pew was at the back of the church. But I remember very clearly that I liked to sit at the top end of the pew next the division because a young lady or little girl-I do not know which-who sat on the other side of the division would then hold my hand during the service. And I remember a clock on the front of the gallery which struck once at the hour and half-hour on a very deep gong. At first it frightened me, but when its strangeness had worn off I looked forward to it, because I enjoyed its deep note just as I did our St Paul’s at home. Some years later, when I went to play the organ and heard the clock again, its booming sound brought those days back to my mind most vividly.
On our way to chapel we used to pass a grocer’s shop, then owned by a firm called Topham & Spink. The pavement in front of the shop was of asphalt, and I liked walking on it in summer when the heat made it soft. But I was not allowed to walk on it very often in case I got tar on my boots.
Moon had recently invented his system of raised letters for the blind, and it gradually superseded the old raised Roman characters, just as Braille has superseded-or practically superseded-Moon. In the Moon type there are roughly speaking only some half-dozen principal characters to memorise, as each character by being turned round one point makes four different letters. My father got hold of a Moon alphabet, and under his directions Mr Lamb-the joiner who built my wheel-barrow-made a board about a foot long and little blocks with a Moon letter in wire on each. A notch in each block gave me the correct position for the first of the four letters represented by the single character on the block, and I soon knew the shapes of the letters and began to spell little words, fitting the blocks into grooves in the board and using blank blocks for spaces. Thus I learned to read.
One curious feature of Moon’s system was that the first line read as usual from left to right and the next from right to left, a bracket guiding the finger from one line to the next. Doubtless Moon’s idea was that if the finger had to go back to the left in the ordinary way it might be difficult to find the next line. Moon is certainly very easy to read and is especially useful to those who have lost their sight late in life and whose finger-tips are hardened by work, but the letters are enormous as compared with Braille and the books far too bulky for practical use. I have heard that if the volumes of a Moon Bible were placed one on top of the other the pile would be twenty-seven feet high. Moon was a religious man and his books were nearly all of a religious nature, among them being a large number of tracts. The first thing I read was a single Moon sheet which began, “A blind man sat by the wayside begging, and as Jesus passed by . . .” &c. This was followed by two little stories, “A Seaman’s Leap for Life” and “A Remarkable Tiger Hunt.” Except that I wanted to learn the art I was not much interested in reading for myself. Indeed, I still prefer being read to by a really good reader, although since I joined the National Library for the Blind more than twenty-five years ago I have read, and still read, a great deal. And my wife has always read much to me-everything in fact that I cannot read in Braille.
Thus the days passed until I had turned six and changes came which set my life in a new direction.
My mother’s health had been failing for some time and she died on 3rd December 1871. It was a Sunday morning, and my brother and I were in the nursery together. He was crying and saying, “Mama is dead.” Someone placed my hand on my mother’s forehead and I wondered why it was so cold. I think I remember feeling the coffin, for I have a recollection of its being covered with smooth cloth (which no doubt was black) and studded with large, rounded nails.
During my mother’s illness I was told not to play the piano, the sound of which would have been disturbing to an invalid. But Aunt Mary, who no doubt heard of this prohibition and realised what it would mean to me, had an old square piano of hers sent to us from York. I remember feeling the big packing-case and its being unpacked. This piano must have been very old, and the thin tone could scarcely have penetrated from the nursery, where it was placed, to my mother’s bedroom. Even to my childish ears it sounded tinny and it felt worn out. Certainly the making of square pianos had long been discontinued in this country, although Steinway, Chickering, and others in America still made them up to the beginning of the present century.
The first modem square I tried was in 1883. It belonged to my friend the late Charles Howden of Lame, and a beautiful piano it was. When I went for my first tour to America three years later, I tried many squares by both Steinway and Chickering, and one or two by Knabe. The squares made in this country had only one pedal, but those in America had two. I am not sure if the soft pedal used in America was of the Celeste kind or whether it brought the hammers nearer the strings as in all good modem uprights. And Mr Howden had one of the earliest precursors of the Pianola, a machine called the Pianista. It had fingers, and was played by means of perforated rolls, but the bellows were worked by turning a handle. There were expression, time, and pedal levers as in the Pianola. I believe that the Pianista was brought out at the Inventions Exhibition in London in 1885, where I first heard it. One day, as I was wandering round that happy hunting-ground for all musical enthusiasts, I heard in the distance what I supposed to be a wonderful pianist playing a brilliant octave study with amazing speed. I had never heard such technique, and felt convinced it must be one of our greatest pianists who was playing. What was my astonishment on following the sound to its source to find a man turning a handle!
I am somewhat confused about what happened between my mother’s death and my going to York, but a few incidents stand out clearly. My father went to lodge with Mrs Procter in Peel Street, and I went with him. Whether he took any of the furniture I am not sure, but I know he took the piano, and he must have done this on my account. I cannot remember much about Mrs Procter except that she used to read a chapter of the Bible to me every night before I went to bed. My favourite passage then-and it is one of my favourites still-is that in the twelfth chapter of St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, beginning, “Be kindly affectioned one to another.” For a long time I thought it was “affectionate.”
I conceived the notion of conducting a choir and giving concerts. I remember someone coming to take me for walks, and I have a hazy idea that it was a girl a little older than myself. It may have been Edith Dyson, a niece of my future stepmother’s, but whoever it was I used to tell her about my imaginary choir and the concert we had given that morning. I always made my choir consist of thirteen members only. Why thirteen I do not know, but that is the number I gave my friend, and she really believed that I had such a choir. It was not until two or three years later that I heard anything about soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, so what kind of choir shaped itself in my mind or what its phantom members sang is shrouded in mystery.
I did not find the days long, for besides the piano, my choir, and the walks with my friend, I sometimes went to the office with my father. And I used to enjoy going to the G.P.O., which was then in Whitefriargate, nearly opposite the end of Parliament Street where the Stamp Office was. My father lifted me up and let me drop the letters into the box, and my pleasure was greatest when it was clearing time and I could hear my letters being taken out from behind as fast as I put them in. We often went home by bus. On one of these journeys I persuaded my father to ask the conductor to let me ring the bell and start the bus. I was allowed to do this at the end of our journey. Father got out first, I rang the bell, and the driver started his horses. I had the delicious experience of being snatched up just in time to prevent my being carried on.
One of my father’s intimate friends was Henry Webster, the governor of Hull Prison, and I spent many happy afternoons at Mr and Mrs Webster’s house, which adjoined the prison, playing with their children. Mr Webster took me through the prison and put me on the treadmill. Of course I could not move it by myself, but even so-and young as I was-it seemed a barbarous engine. Those never-ending stairs must have meant cruelly heavy labour. The prisoners had to tread on each step absolutely together, and I remember asking what happened if one of them failed to keep in time. The reply was that the step or tread would catch the prisoner’s shins, and that if he had not a firm grip on the two handles allotted to him he would be thrown off. Mr Webster told me later how I read the maker’s name stamped on the locks in raised capitals: Hobbs, Hart & Co.
On one occasion when I went to see the Websters I noticed at once a peculiarly subdued atmosphere in the house. A prisoner was being flogged, and although the house was too far from the place of punishment for anything to be heard, everyone was affected with a feeling of horror. Webster was an extremely humane and kindly man and could not bear to witness any form of corporal punishment. He might have been governor of York Castle, but would not because criminals were hanged there. Of flogging he said that instead of curing offences it demoralised the criminal and made him worse rather than better. He was extraordinarily clever at remembering a prisoner’s face. A man who murdered his wife in Liverpool and afterwards escaped to Melbourne, was arrested there. Webster, who was in Melbourne at the time, was asked to identify the man, who had been in Hull prison during Webster’s governorship. He was able to do so at once, although he had not seen the man for many years.