The website for Dr Martin Shaw OBE FRCM (1875 –1958)

"To the Southwold fishermen I knew when a boy."

Shaw's dedication for The Dip


Fishermen in thick jerseys by their fishing boats on a shore crowded with small boats in front of a shallow hill


Martin Shaw and Southwold


Professor George Odam wrote about Martin Shaw’s connection with Southwold in 2011 for the Newsletter of the Southwold Museum and Historical Society:


Southwold has attracted many practising artists over the last two centuries although not many of them were anything more than visitors who enjoyed the atmosphere and amenities. A few more set up home in Southwold for some time and some retired here – as do so many people. Although Martin Shaw seems to fall into the latter category, in fact, he had an almost lifetime’s connection with the town and it played a significant part in his artistic development.
Like many Londoners his family had first come to Southwold on holiday and their first visit was in 1877 when he was two. In 1888 thirteen year-old Martin, and his six siblings were brought to Southwold. In his autobiography, Up To Now (OUP 1929) he describes his first times in Southwold:


When I was about thirteen we all had whooping-cough, and were packed off to Southwold in charge of an old nurse. There we stayed for more than a year. I was already familiar with the little sea-side village—for it was hardly more, though it possessed a mayor, aldermen, and a town-crier—as we had often stayed there. Our first visit was in the year before the railway was built (1877 1 think it must have been), when my father and mother and baby (myself) came in a carrier's cart from Darsham.


Shades of Carter Hobson’s carrier cart in Britten’s Peter Grimes spring to mind, although the circumstances and weather were both happier. The prolonged visit obviously cured the whooping-cough, although Martin’s health throughout his life was never strong. The Suffolk climate suited them, since they stayed long enough for Mrs Shaw to join them for the birth of her seventh child Agnes Berry, in Southwold that September. At that time the family’s address was given as North Cliff. Adding to his poor health, Martin also suffered a facial disfigurement since the whole of the right side of his face was covered with a naevus or port-wine stain. Inevitably this created an inner battle for him in a society less understanding of any disfigurement or disability, and still innocent of the tragic and multiple disfigurements of many soldiers who would return from the Great War. But he was fortunate enough to have parents who helped him to disregard it, and, indeed, he rarely makes any mention of it in any correspondence I have read or in anything he wrote. He did, in later life, however, write a very strong setting of the famous poem by W.E.Henley Invictus (1920) with its resonant final line, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul! and the tempo marking is with surging vehemence. Although there is no documented connection, it is my belief that this strong song setting connects deeply and personally with Shaw.

He returned regularly to Southwold and wrote:

When I was a boy there was no pontoon or ferry company at Southwold. Travellers were rowed across the River Blyth by an old ferryman whom every one knew as 'Old Todd'. His boat still lies by the landing stage.

He goes on to tell of getting water from the pump in the square and of his friendship with the fishermen of Southwold, specially the Hurrs. His comic song The Dip (1924) with words by Judge Parry, is dedicated To the Southwold fishermen I knew when a boy, and Shaw’s book gives interesting and amusing detail of this relationship. (See main illustration above.)


As a young man, having abandoned his music studies at the Royal College of Music, Martin Shaw was with his family in Southwold when he met Edward Gordon Craig as pianist to a Pierrot company who were mounting a performance of Villon . This was a romantic swashbuckling drama, later to form the basis of the 1925 musical The Vagabond King. Craig had come to Southwold almost directly from his triumph as Henry Irving’s successor in the role of Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the Olympic Theatre in London. He had even played the part wearing Irving’s costume.

Craig’s mother, the actress Ellen Terry, and Henry Irving were lifelong and intimate friends and Craig looked on Irving as a father-figure. Craig’s coming to Southwold in 1897 signified a complete change of the direction of his life when he ceased acting in favour of directing. He was later to become world famous for his revolutionary ideas on theatre. James Pryde was a young Scottish artist who had made his name through his association with his brother-in-law William Nicholson as the Beggarstaff Brothers. Their designs became iconic, and can be seen at the V&A. With Shaw at the piano - what a performance of Villon that must have been! I am told that it may have taken place either in what is now the Conservative Club or where the cinema formerly stood next to the current doctor’s surgery in York Road.


Shaw was staying at South Green Cottage in Lorne Road, in 1887 when he first met Craig; Shaw was twenty-five and Craig twenty-eight. They were an unlikely pair; Craig urbane, with his upbringing in theatrical society, dashing good looks and fashionable clothes, Shaw from a large Hampstead family of modest means bearing his disfigurement bravely and hungry for the artistic life. Craig was very impressed by Shaw’s performing skill and ability to improvise at the piano and the two formed a partnership that led to great things in the following years. In 1901, together they mounted the first professional performance of Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, for which Shaw was the musical director and Craig the designer and director. The performance took the critic’s eye and it later moved into the West End under the banner of Ellen Terry’s company. The Southwold Villon performance and his newly found friend had given Craig experience and the courage to bring about the first piece of English Symbolist theatre in the Dido performance just four years later. Soon after this London success, in that same year we find Shaw again staying in Southwold in Stradbroke Road before he returns to London to continue to scrape a living where he can. He appears to have returned to the town when he could and he makes an observation in Up To Now that strikes a resonant chord with lovers of Southwold today. He wrote:


During the summer holidays Southwold is filled with motor- owning visitors. By five o'clock in the afternoon when they have gone home to tea, the beach is littered with paper bags, chocolate cartons, orange and banana skins, and newspapers. The nation's leaders, headed by the King and supported by press and wireless, have combated this evil vigorously, and some sort of public conscience in the matter seems to be slowly awakening, though as yet the results are small.


From this comment we can see how Shaw and Southwold were ideally suited! Shaw seems to have had the gift and luck to be able to inspire deep and lasting friendships and his music student friends Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst and John Ireland were lifelong correspondents and met when they could. That winter of 1901/2 Shaw returned to London to work at the British Library as a researcher for Vaughan Williams in his important and influential work on the publication of the English Hymnal (1905). From 1906 to 1908 Shaw had been out of the country following his theatrical star and was enticed abroad by Craig to join the Isadora Duncan dance troupe as musical director alongside Craig who had become her theatrical director, and as Shaw was to find out later, her lover. When he returned to England in 1908, after having lead a happy, carefree bohemian life of European travel, Shaw found himself once more:

in the same King's Road and in the same circumstances - I had neither money nor prospects.

However, Shaw’s work on the English Hymnal was to give him an insight into such publications and stood him in good stead when Vaughan Williams not only found him a new job but also introduced him to Rev. Percy Dearmer. Dearmer was incumbent at St Mary’s Primrose Hill and needed a new ‘Master of the Music’. He had issued a job description in the style of the old German Kappelmiester, which meant that the appointee should do far more than just play the organ and conduct the choir, but compose, improvise and involve himself in the music of the church’s community rather as J. S. Bach had done centuries before. This suited Shaw well and it was to prove a very fruitful partnership, bringing to life the hymnal Songs of Praise (1925) that many readers may have known at school and the Oxford Book of Carols (1928), both of which were much loved and regularly used by me at the Sir John Leman School in Beccles.


It was meeting Shaw in Beccles when I was a boy of fifteen that gave me a special interest in finding more about him. I was shocked when my initial research four years ago revealed that the only recordings of Shaw’s music ever made commercially were of one anthem With a Voice of Singing (1923) recorded by three different Welsh male-voice choirs and some hymn tunes such as Little Cornard (Hills of the North rejoice) and Marching (Through the Night of Doubt and Sorrow). There was nothing else, whether in shellac 78s, Vinyl LPs or CDs. Shaw wrote some seventy songs, much church music and a fine oratorio The Redeemer (1945) his most performed work.


Shaw married Joan Cobbold, a member of a famous Suffolk family, in 1916 with John Ireland as best man, and the couple lived first in London and then in various places in southern England, spending some of their later years in Essex before moving to Blythburgh in 1946. Their first home was at Church Farm, on the road just by the church, for which they resurrected an old village name of “Puddings”. Shaw knew Blythburgh well having regularly lodged there in earlier years and hired a horse from the blacksmith. Riding was a favourite occupation for Shaw. He loved to gallop cross- country and on one occasion he was invited to join the Henham Hunt. A year later Joan inherited a cottage at the junction of B1125 and the A12 into which they moved and which they renamed ‘Farthings’ to the delight of Vaughan Williams. Shaw had previously spent some years as organist of St Martins–in-the-Fields (I owe you five farthings....). Whilst living in Blythburgh they purchased a cottage in Walberswick, which was rented out. In 1952 the old Centre Cliff Hotel, that once had housed St Felix School, was renovated following occupation by the army during the war. The Shaws, through raising a considerable mortgage and selling both other properties, bought the newly created Long Island House, facing the sea, where they lived until the end of both their lives.


In January 1948 Benjamin Britten wrote to Shaw and invited him to write a work for the opening of the very first Aldeburgh Festival in June 1948. God’s Grandeur, an anthem for choir, tenor solo, organ, strings and percussion was in the first half of the opening concert in Aldeburgh Parish Church, which also featured Britten’s own new piece St Nicolas. So Martin Shaw was the very first composer to be honoured with a special commission for the Aldeburgh Festival. In his Southwold retirement he wrote about 18 works and also several arrangements but nothing of great significance. Ill health dogged him and he was stricken by arthritis, sawing wood in the yard behind Long Island House was his most energetic exercise.

I have recently come across a letter from Charles Kennedy Scott (1876-1965) written to Shaw in 1953 in which he says:

I am reminded of our somewhat younger days when I used to sail my little boat occasionally up the Southwold river, in sight of Walberswick, but not of Southwold, for a high bank barred the view from the water. But what happened was that a rider on a tremendous horse charged up to the top of that bank, and, lo and behold, it was the knight Martin Shaw; silhouetted against the sky it was a tremendous horse and a mighty rider, but a warm greeting brought the apparition to more manageable proportion. And now we neither ride not sail. But, glory be, you can still saw and I have just put up a rose trellis in the backyard.


Martin Shaw died in Southwold Hospital in 1958 and his ashes are buried in the churchyard of St Edmunds Parish Church. Joan remained in Southwold until her death in 1974.


I have been working for three years on restoring Shaw’s songs to the repertoire and in May of 2011 I will be supervising the very first substantial professional recording of his music with Iain Burnside piano, Roderick Williams, baritone, Andrew Kennedy, tenor and Sophie Bevan, soprano who hope to record some thirty of his songs. The CD will be released by Delphian early in 2012.


© Professor George Odam 2011