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William Baines (1899-1922): a forgotten Yorkshire composer
By Andrew KG Jones
The pianist and composer William Baines is not well known. He died young aged just 23 in 1922. The best source of information on him is the 1999 monograph by Roger Carpenter published by the British Music Society (BMS).
John France wrote
an article on Baines for this site in 2002. There are a few recordings of his piano music notably Alan Cuckston’s
(review) and Eric Parkin’s CDs which you might find in music libraries. Some sheet music, published by Novello’s, is available via Banks in Hovingham otherwise you might be lucky with eBay. Nothing is available in shops.
What follows is a very potted biography.
William Baines was born on 26 March 1899 in Horbury, 3 miles west of Wakefield, West Yorkshire, into a musical Methodist family. His father was a cinema pianist, moving first to Cleckheaton. When William was a teenager the family moved to York where his father took up the position of pianist at the Fossgate Cinema.
William displayed prodigious musical skills early on, and soon came to the attention of Dr Arthur Eaglefield Hull (1886-1928), then the prime mover behind the Huddersfield Musical Society and founding member of the BMS, who encouraged Baines to play, compose and publish his music.
During WW1 Baines enrolled in the British military forces but quickly caught ‘Spanish Flu’ from which he never recovered. While convalescing in a military hospital in York he met the artist Karl S. Wood (Windmill Wood) and the two men formed a close friendship. Wood also encouraged Baines to pursue his musical career.
As part of his convalescence Baines spent time visiting his aunt and uncle in Bridlington and often cycled to Flamborough Head with its spectacular cliffs, birdlife and turbulent weather. The dramatic East Yorkshire coastline and the ever-changing North Sea were important sources of inspiration for several of his compositions. Perhaps his most well known piece is ‘Goodnight to Flamboro’.
Regrettably, Baines failed to recover from illness and he died at the tender age of 23 in 1922. We will never know what he might have produced, but there is a sizeable legacy of piano music and a few symphonic works which we hope the music community in Yorkshire and beyond will explore more this year. Banks’, the famous music shop in York have a good stock of his work, including the score for ‘Goodnight to Flamboro’.
In 1972, 50 years after his death, the Harrogate Festival Exhibition featured work by Baines and Richard Bell produced well designed interesting information sheets, photographs and other memorabilia to commemorate William Baines, but there has been very little produced since.
The BBC commissioned a 90 minute radio play written by Simon Kenworthy about William Baines and his music in 1999; it is still available on YouTube and is occasionally rebroadcast.
Baines’ music is not to everyone’s taste, his scores did not sell particularly well because they were difficult to play. Baines had large hands and was influenced by Romantic composers such as Scriabin. Nevertheless, I have close friends who use words ‘bold’ and ‘beautiful’ when talking of it.
His life was cut short because he caught the virus while undergoing basic training in the British Army during WWI so there are additional reasons why his life and music have special resonance for these days.
Why the Friends of the Chalk Tower at Flamborough are promoting William Baines?
In the early hours of yet another sleep deprived night during the darkest days of the Covid-19 lockdown, I was cruising around the internet on my mobile phone looking up references to Flamborough. We love the area and have been visiting the spectacular hard chalk cliffs, with their hundreds of thousands of seabirds in the spring and summer months since we first made Yorkshire our home in 1977. The 75 minute drive from our house in York across the Yorkshire Wolds is scenic, traffic jam free and passes several cafes for refreshing coffee stops, so in 2012 we decided to buy a weekend retreat on the Outer Headland at Flamborough in order to spend more time by the sea as we began to reduce our working hours and looked towards retirement.
At the time of this particular night of fitful sleep, we had been barred from visiting Flamborough because the UK government decided to ban visits to second homes. We were missing our new friends there and the social events organised by the Friends of the Chalk Tower, a small group of enthusiasts determined to make more of the Old Lighthouse, an important navigation aid built in 1673 on a high point a few hundred metres from the cliff edge at Flamborough. The Friends, a recently formed group of residents and holiday makers, aim to improve the understanding of the tower to the public and find new uses for what had become a neglected, Historic England listed building owned by the East Riding of Yorkshire County Council. (See Friends of Chalk Tower on Facebook for further information.)
On this early morning internet session, completely by chance I encountered, for the first time, links to the song ‘Goodnight to Flamboro’ and William Baines. Following this up I found the British Music Society and in a slightly frenzied manner immediately applied to become a member so I could purchase the monograph (No. 4) on the life of Baines by Roger Carpenter published by the BMS.
One of our neighbours at Flamborough, Rachel Gibson, Treasurer to the Friends of the Chalk Tower, a professional musician and composer, was equally excited by this discovery and together we decided 2022 provides a timely opportunity to put together a small festival of events to commemorate William Baines.
But why, I hear you ask, is a small heritage group interested in preserving an old lighthouse building wanting to put on a micro music festival?
In our attempts to interest people in the old neglected and securely locked Chalk Tower, we decided to find out what local people and holiday visitors thought about the Tower. At the Flamborough Gala, RNLI fun days and other events from 2013 to 2016 we gave visitors to our stall a key and label and asked them to write on the label what they would like to find inside the tower if their key could open the door.
We were not surprised to find that many people were interested climbing the tower to take in the spectacular views and learn more about the history and wildlife of the area. Several people suggested it could be used as a venue for artists, photographers and local crafts-folk to display and sell their wares. Many local people had visited the Chalk Tower soon after it was restored in the 1990s and others remembered climbing into it through a broken ground floor window as teenagers when it was even more neglected than it is today.
To our surprise, however, a sizable number of people suggested the Chalk Tower could be used for small artistic events. One lady said she would like to find an opera singer dressed as a mermaid singing sea shanties in the top floor room. Others suggested niche concerts by solo instrumentalists and poetry readings.
So once we discovered William Baines and his connections with Flamborough Head, we decided to organise a pilot project to see if we can host musical events and nurture new audiences in this coastal community where high quality cultural events are few and far between.
Why we should listen to unfamiliar music?
I am an archaeologist who played the trumpet in Chipping Sodbury Grammar School bands and orchestra and know enough not to dare to enter the field of musical criticism. However, in days as third trumpet in the Gloucestershire Youth Orchestral, our enthusiastic conductor, Tony Hewitt-Jones, introduced us to a piece the Welsh composer Alun Hoddinott had written specially for us, Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31.
The first run through was an extraordinary experience. I had no idea what was going on or why anyone would want to make these sounds, in that order. We all thought it was weird. We thought Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys was weird, and the Beatles, we decided, had ‘gone too far’ when we gathered in a chum’s bedroom to hear Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for the first time in 1967. The Hoddinott Scherzo was particularly challenging.
But over the few short weeks of rehearsals, we became more familiar with the Hoddinott piece and after we performed it at the Castle School, Thornbury in 1967, the brass section agreed that we had enjoyed playing it. The conductor smiled when we reached the end of the piece.
We hope the residents of Flamborough, Bridlington and other parts of Yorkshire will become more familiar with the music of William Baines, especially his ‘Goodnight to Flambro’ over the coming months.
It is perhaps interesting to compare William Baines with George Butterworth, another gifted composer with York connections who died during WW1. Butterworth is much better known and there is a plaque on the wall of his family home in Driffield Terrace in York. No such plaque has been erected on the Baines house on Albemarle Road. Was it because Butterworth had parents who could afford to send him to Eton?
To date the Friends of the Chalk Tower are planning two events, timed to coincide with Baines’s birth and death.
On Saturday March Saturday 26th (WB’s birthday) at dawn at The Flamborough Bird Observatory Garner/Richards Seawatch Hide near the Fog Station Flamborough Head we plan to play a short programme of recorded music as a brief introduction to William Baines. Rachel Gibson will premier her latest composition ‘Glory and Hope from Land’, written during the Covid-19 era and also inspired by the cliffs and sea at Flamborough. She will also provide a brief introduction to the music. Finally, local poet, Julian Morgan who now lives in Duggleby on the western fringes of the Yorkshire Wolds, will read his sonnet dedicated to William Baines. This was specially written for the Friends of the Chalk Tower and the World Premier reading of this work was given to an enthralled audience in the Club Room of the Flamborough Head Golf Club room in 2021.
The Seawatch Hide is provided with bench seating for a group of roughly 20 people and has spectacular views over the sea to the East. The venue is a short walk over uneven ground from the Flamborough Head Lighthouse Car Park.
Free tickets are available through the website Eventbrite.
We are fundraising to employ Jethro Bagust, a Music Technichian and PhD student at the Music Department, University of York to record the dawn commemoration and produce a 30 minute edited digital audio recording of the event. So far we have raised £120 towards the cost of £500. Donations are welcome to the Friends of the Chalk Tower. Details of how to donate please email email@example.com and/or firstname.lastname@example.org.
We think the Seawatch Hide at Flamborough is a wonderful place to contemplate the start of a new spring day and listen to some of Baines’s music and other contributions. Stout footware, warm clothing, hats and warm drinks are considered essential by birders who often arrive soon after dawn.
Parking at the Lighthouse Car Park is free until 8 am. The Seawatch Hide is roughly 500 metres from the car park. Public lavatories are available from 7.30 am each day. Tickets are free of charge and available through Eventbrite, but the Friends of the Chalk Tower would appreciate donations towards the expenses of running this event.
The second event is scheduled for Sunday November 6th 2022, the centenary of the day Baines died. We are planning to put on a piano recital in Flamborough or Bridlington and we are delighted that Josephine Peach has agreed to play.
Tickets will go on sale later in the year.
Finally, if you know anyone interested in William Baines who is planning events to commemorate his life and work we would be delighted to hear from you.
Andrew K. G. Jones
Chair of the Friends of the Chalk Tower at Flamborough
Rachel Gibson, Robin Longbottom, Josephine Peach, Carole Smith and Professor
David Young all kindly read and commented on early versions of this article
and made valuable suggestions for which the author is very grateful. We are
extremely grateful to Andrew Carter and other anonymous sponsors who have
agreed to cover the costs of making a recording of the dawn event on March
List of Patrons
Andrew Carter (York)
Dr Peter Halkon (Nunburnholme)
Rachel Gibson (Flamborough)
The Jones Family Trust (York)
Julian Morgan (Duggleby) www.yorkshireauthor.com
Carpenter, Roger, 1999. Goodnight to Flamboro’: the life and music of William Baines. Monograph 4. British Music Society.
Bell, Richard, 1972. The Yorkshire of William Baines. Booklet, leaflets and posters prepared for the Harrogate Festival Exhibition of 1972.