Ernest Reeves (1874-1940) – an account by his daughter Betty Reeves ( Betty Ching 1913-2001)
My grandfather Francis Reeves was educated at the City of London and originally worked in the city as a clerk. When he married Elizabeth Marden they set up house in Hackney where my father Frank Ernest Marden Reeves was born. He was the eldest of eight children. I think the family often visited Pond House in Frensham where the Marden family lived. Ernest first attended the Birkbeck School but at some point when he was about ten or eleven he had eye trouble which caused temporary near blindness and kept him away from school. His family sent him to stay with their relatives at Frensham for some considerable time which interrupted his education, but where he developed his love of the country, of country pursuits and nature-lore, which persisted all his life.
When he was staying in Frensham his father was persuaded to give up his profitable city post in order to manage the family flock mill at Barford near Farnham in Surrey. My father told me that and his younger brothers ran wild in the countryside there and their education was sadly neglected. The girls attended a local school at Frensham and his youngest brother George went to a boarding School run by two relatives somewhere near Kelvedon. My father told me that he had virtually no education after the age of twelve. However, he did learn to play the violin locally and his own father gave him some help on the piano.
Members of the Reeves Family revisit Barford Mill 1932 (R to L, Ernest, Betty, nephew John, brother-in-law Dick)
Sadly, the market for flock was growing smaller and eventually the mill had to close down and my grandfather and his young family found themselves without income. They all had to move back to London to a much smaller house, this time to Fawe Park Road, Putney. My grandfather joined a firm in the city in a subordinate role as a clerk, which he carried on until he was well past retirement age.
My father had always shown considerable musical ability, possibly inherited from his father’s side. He had not had the opportunity to develop this, apart from some violin lessons and access to the family piano. Although he had had no piano lessons, he could play the piano fluently by ear. In view of this natural talent, the family looked for an apprenticeship to a music shop where he could learn the maintenance, tuning and repair side of the trade. They found a position in Wainwright’s Music shop in Fakenham, Norfolk, some distance away from home and family.
He travelled to Fakenham, beginning a career in music which led to his success in the composition of light dance music. He joined the church choir and soon became much in demand at local dances (or hops) because of his skills at improvisation and arranging existing popular dance music on the piano. For larger gatherings at Harvest Suppers and for more formal dances where a small orchestra or group was required, he could play violin, viola or piano. He may even have tried his hand at the cello, for he told me that he had to give lessons on this instrument to a Wainwright customer’s daughter. He began to develop skills in arranging music for different groups of instruments; writing for small orchestras at the time when silent films were popular.
While working in Fakenham he met my mother who was one of the young Post Office employees called Ada Salmon and eventually they become engaged to be married. He realised he would need to find a new job to earn more money. He left Fakenham to join the larger music firm of Hickie Hickie in Reading until their marriage on April 3rd 1899. This took place in Knottingly Church, Yorkshire where Ada’s family lived.
After their wedding, the couple moved to a rented property in Turney Road, Dulwich. My father had already gained some success in publishing his compositions. (You can hear ‘Alice Waltz’, published in 1904 under the name of Fabian Scott, played today on YouTube.) After their move to London he decided to become a freelance piano tuner and repairer to allow time for his composing and to bring in an income for his wife and hoped for family. He also decided to try to study for an external music degree but although he was successful in both parts of the Durham degree course, he could not cope well with the ‘exercise’. He had always had great facility in the production of the lighter type of music but writing serious cantatas caused him great labour pangs. What he wrote seemed stilted, over-mannered and unnatural. He would write, revise and throw away until the piles in the dustbin grew and the cantata seemed to shrink! Then he became ill and went into St. George’s hospital where he stayed week after week, making little progress and having a diet of nothing but milk, which he never liked. Eventually he got better but no-one knew why, and he came home. It killed his enthusiasm for finishing the degree but his list of published works grew. He became a founder member of the Performing Rights Society and his crowning success came when one of his numbers was played at the Chelsea Arts Ball.
In 1913 he was at last delighted to welcome a healthy daughter named Joan Elizabeth, but I was always known as Betty. At the outbreak of war in 1914 my father was over forty and not fit enough to enlist for service. We were then living in 13 Nimrod Road, Streatham but moved out to Surbiton with the onset of the Zepplin raids. After the end of the war in 1918, my father bought a house in Thames Ditton, where he continued to write many of his pieces of popular music, also music for the silent cinema. He used a number of different names including his own and Frank Marden which were two of his birth names.
In the late 1920s the sale of sheet music was at its height and he took the decision to put his savings into a publishing company called Walsh Homes. It looked like a good decision at the time, but with the financial crash in 1929 the music sales business collapsed; he was never able to regain his capital. He was left very dispirited and lost the impetus to compose, especially as he felt that the style of music had changed and he no longer felt part of it. His health declined and he became vulnerable with high blood pressure and an incipient heart problem. When I gave my piano recital at the Wigmore Hall in 1939 he had to leave in the middle for fear of collapsing with a heart attack. This condition eventually killed him in June 1940 when he died suddenly when on holiday in Falmouth.
Taken from a family history written by my mother Betty Reeves before she died in 2001.
Compiled by her daughter Mary Bonnin (Ching) for the website of Ernest Reeves composer.