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A Meeting with Gentleman Jack

Posted by on May 16, 2019

It seems unlikely that the forthcoming adaption of Anne Lister’s diaries by the BBC will focus on either of the elements that I found most interesting.  In The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister as edited by Helena Whitbread ‘Gentleman Jack’ devotes an impressive amount of time to mending her own clothing, particularly her underwear and stockings.

The Secret Diaries of Anne Lister

Anne Lister was a relatively wealthy woman, born into Yorkshire’s elite land owning class, yet took care of her own patching and darning.  It is tempting to refer here to Yorkshire parsimony, I hope I’m excused due to my own Yorkshire heritage cut with an elements of Scots, but perhaps this was simple prudence, something every well-brought up woman practised.

Certainly the diaries, both in the main sections and in the coded parts that Helena Whitbread has painstakingly translated, reveal not only the everyday routine of a woman of her class but also her passion both for learning and other women.  But for me the most exciting part is her acquaintance with my four times great uncle; the older brother of my three times great grandfather.  Dan Holdgate Sugden, who Anne Lister refers to as either Sugden or Mr Sugden, was a leading figure in Halifax’s musical life.  On 22nd April 1817, Mr Whitley, the stationer and bookseller from whom she bought sheet music, recommended him to her as ‘a very good player’ of the flute and arranged for her to hear him.  In her entry for 6th May she noted ‘his tone and taste both good’ and that he was quite self-taught’.  Although various websites suggest she then engaged him as a teacher this is not clear from the diary extract where she writes only that she ‘asked his terms for teaching’; ‘a guinea & a half for 1 lesson a week[1] & a guinea & a half per quarter for 2 lessons a week’.  In her secret code though she added ‘This adventure has passed off more satisfactorily than I expected’ so that is perhaps a reasonable inference to draw.  In her diaries Anne makes a number of references to practicing her flute but Dan does not appear again in person.

Dan was born in 1794, the eldest son of Joseph Sugden and Cathey or Katey Holdgate of Folly Hall.  Joseph was a clothier, a description that incorporated both cloth merchant and manufacturer.   Five boys and three girls followed Dan, four dying in childhood.  In a three part history of music in Halifax published in the Halifax Courier in May 1869 the writer commented that ‘he was born a musician and displayed his talent early for his father’s house was the resort for practice of some choice musical spirits’.  He recalled hearing about Dan’s performances as a noted child singer and how he travelled the world performing with his sister Mary Ann until his voice broke at 16 years old.  He then took up instruments, the flute, the French Horn and the Contra-basso (double bass) as well as the organ.

Anne Lister suggested that he had been ‘a fustian-cutter by trade’[2], if so he did not pursue that for long as ‘at 18 he decided to relinquish the trade to which he had been educated and become a musician pure and simple’.[3]  By the time Anne met him ‘being a single man [he] supports himself by teaching singing, the flute, French horn, & writing out music for any one’.[4]  Later that year, in September, when he married Frances Fenton, his occupation was described as Musician, Band Leader and Music Teacher.  Although Anne perceived that ‘his living is but spare’ two years later he had taken over the Shoulder of Mutton Inn and by 1834 was running the Talbot Inn.  The Talbot Inn, which had one of the very few ‘public’ assembly rooms in Halifax at the time provided a venue for concerts and practise sessions.

Dan became a mainstay of both Halifax Orchestral and Halifax Choir Societies.[5]  It is possible that for all her inbred snobbishness Anne would have found him a congenial teacher, the anonymous author of the articles in the Halifax Courier described him as ‘a well-read man; in stature, build and speech and carriage, he was ever true to the instincts of a well-breed gentleman; there is no wonder that he was always a favourite, whenever he went into society’.

Dan died suddenly in July 1846 a few days after he had conducted a choir of 20,000 teachers and scholars at the Sunday School Jubilee in the Piece Hall.[6]  His obituary noted that he was ‘liberal of the gifts nature had bestowed on him and in furthering the interests of music, spent much of his time without fee or reward, and at all times was willing to give instruction to rising merit’[7]  A marble tablet to his memory was subscribed to and placed in the Parish Church but sadly at some time in the past it was damaged beyond repair.

His sister Mary Ann, although never reaching the heights of fame as her brother’s prize pupil Mrs Sunderland,[8] also continued her musical career.  Possibly married and widowed three times she supported her four children first by performing and later by giving music lessons.  Moving to Wales she also worked as a church organist and in her 70th year sang solo in the Messiah at a concert in Swindon.[9]

[1] This would be the equivalent of seven days labour for a skilled workman

[2] Fustian is the old name for corduroy and the cutter lifted and cut the threads to create the velvet like texture, Hebden Bridge near Halifax was a centre of the fustian trade, due to its labour intensiveness it was one of the first skills to become mechanised.

[3] Huddersfield Chronicle 29 May 1869

[4] The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister edited by Helena Whitbread; Virago Press 2010, p13

[5] The Halifax Choral Society, established in 1817, is the oldest surviving society of its kind in the country, the Halifax Orchestral Society was formed in 1833 and carried on until 1850.

[6] A prominent event for many years was the ‘Halifax Sing’ which, from 1831 to 1890, was held every five years in the Halifax Piece Hall. This was a gathering of scholars from the Sunday schools throughout Calderdale when they converged on Halifax and took their allotted places in the great courtyard prepared to sing all day with gusto the carefully rehearsed hymns they had been taught.

[7] Leeds Mercury 04 July 1846

[8] Susan Sunderland (baptised Susannah Sykes), the famous Victorian soprano, was born in Brighouse and lived there all her life. She was known as the “Yorkshire Queen of Song” after singing before Queen Victoria in Buckingham Palace.

[9] Todmorden & District News 1 August 1884; she may have married William Marsden, Joseph Ellis and a Mr Tilley, she used the name Mrs Tilley professionally and had children with each surname.

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