Friday, 22 November 2013

Out Of Their Tree - Benjamin Britten

Today marks the centenary of the birth of British composer Benjamin Britten. As with last year’s Alan Turing centenary many events are being held across the country. And, as also with Turing this year, Britten supplies the theme for the UK’s LGBT History Month in February 2014 – music. A special pre-launch event is taking place next Thursday at the University of Birmingham. The event will feature music in all it’s forms, as will my blog which follows the theme throughout 2014 – opera, classical, rock, punk, country, cabaret, film, rap, ethnic, contemporary, dance, pop and more.

For my own little celebration for today of Britten’s centenary I have looked at his ancestry to see what musical influences have been passed down through his family.

Many biographies have been written about Britten with several new ones being published this year. All of them mention the influence of his mother and her family, the Hockeys. Benjamin’s childhood was spent surrounded by music. His mother, Edith Rhoda Hockey, was an amateur singer, being also secretary of the Lowestoft Choral Society. Benjamin showed an early talent for music, often providing piano accompaniment to her mother at little musical soirées attended by family and friends. He was also encouraged by his mother’s brother who was an organist in near-by Ipswich, and who gave young Benjamin musical scores and books.

Benjamin’s father Robert had less musical talents. A dental surgeon by profession Robert was outwardly the typical middle-class Victoria father – distant from his children and allowing his wife and servants to interact with them. But this was only part of the reality. Robert loved his children, but worked hard and let himself slip into alcoholism. He took and interest in his children’s education and realised his wife’s greater musical abilities in this.

The Britten family show no real musical talent at all in the generations prior to Benjamin. They had lived at Laysters in rural Herefordshire for several centuries before Robert’s father moved the family to Bray in Berkshire. From there they moved to Lowestoft in Suffolk where Benjamin was born.

Most of Benjamin’s paternal ancestry worked on the land. The Brittens were farmers, though Benjamin’s grandfather dabbled in drapery and silk on Merseyside for a time. Benjamin’s grandmother’s family, the Ginders, were land agents for Lord Talbot, an influential land-owner in the East Midlands where they lived.

The Ginders were owners of a lime kiln and flint mill in the heart of the Potteries which, as it name suggests, was centre of the pottery industry in England. Flint mills didn’t grind wheat for flour but flint for use in the pottery industry.

The only hint of a musical connection in Benjamin’s paternal ancestry appears in the Myott family. In 1753 Richard Myott, a churchwarden in the village of Horton, Staffordshire, had the distinction of having his name cast onto one of the new bells being installed into the parish church. Richard Myott is Benjamin’s 5-times great-grandfather.

So does all of Benjamin’s musical talent come through his mother’s family? From her immediate family perhaps. Who they inherited it from is not easy to discover. If anything, Benjamin’s mother’s family were more artistic than musical. In her biography of her brother, Beth Britten also wondered where the musical gene came from. She speculated that it might have come from their grandfather William Hockey’s unknown father. He was illegitimate, and Beth speculated on William being the result of an indiscreet fling between William’s mother and the son of an aristocratic family she worked for. It’s possible. If only we knew for sure which family this was. I’m still digging around to find out.

The artistic gene in Benjamin’s maternal ancestry stretches back several generations. Benjamin’s aunt, his mother’s sister, was an accomplished painter and lithographer who exhibited in local galleries in Suffolk. And their mother’s family, the Niblows, were more known as manufacturers, though their skills were artistic in their own way. Benjamin’s great-grandfather was a fancy box maker, and his great-great-grandfather was a blacksmith. Fancy boxes, by the way, were a thriving Victorian industry before the mass production of cardboard boxes. They were all made from scratch from wood, and were used for packing anything from lace to chocolates (I used to work in the boyhood home of William Rose in Gainsborough, who invented a packing and wrapping machine, thus helping to end the fancy box industry – his invention was so good that Cadbury’s named a brand of chocolate after him).

So my quest to find Benjamin Britten’s musical roots comes to a dead end. Apart from a church bell with his ancestor’s name on it there’s little to show beyond his mother’s talents. As Benjamin’s sister suggested, perhaps a clue lies in the untraced ancestry of William Hockey’s father. Who knows, by this time next year on Britten’s 101st anniversary either myself or someone else may have discovered where his musical heritage originated.


  1. Can someone explain, how it was possible, that Alan Turing got condemned to castration in 1952, while Benjamin Britten 'escaped' from this horrible punishment??
    kind regards

  2. Probably because the authorities never had any actual proof that Benjamin Britten performed any sexual act with another man. Alan Turing admitted it, and THAT'S why he was put on trial. The police spent decades entrapping and blackmailing gay men into admitting having gay sex.