Barrister and songwriter
Research & Voiceover:
sings Danny Boy (1917)
Frederick Weatherly was one of the best known names in Britain at the time of his death though largely forgotten today. He published over 1500 lyrics and songs, wrote fantasy, science fiction and 50 children’s books, translated opera libretti and was well connected to the musical and theatrical world of the time. Later in life he gave regular broadcasts on the fledgling BBC radio about his life and songs. He was referred to then as the grand old man of song.
Fred was the first son of a Portishead doctor, the oldest boy in a family of 13. Thanks to his mother and a patient of his father’s resident in the family home who was a cultured Irishman, he was encouraged to develop his love of verse writing and piano playing. He went to Hereford Cathedral School and, while still an undergraduate at Oxford, to which he won a scholarship, he began to publish both verses and songs, the first at 17.
He curiously made history at Oxford by deliberately jumping out of the Brasenose College boat at Henley regatta. There were four rowers in the boat plus a cox steering. Fred volunteered to cox and to vacate the boat after the start to allow the boat to go faster. They won and were quickly disqualified, but the name of the event in future was changed to ‘coxless fours’.
He stayed on in Oxford as a tutor, married Anna Maria (Minnie) Hardwick from Worle, Somerset, and soon had three children. His output of songs and books of children’s verses were continuous and sufficiently profitable for him to have built a house for his family and some pupils. One volume of verse, ‘A Happy Pair’, was the first book to be illustrated by Beatrix Potter – a copy signed by her fetched £23,000 in 2001.
At the age of 39 he switched paths and moved to London to train as a barrister, his family now moved into another house he had built near Wimbledon. He was officially a pupil by day at the Inns of Court. But, as his songs were now eagerly awaited and performed by the top singers at the fashionable ballad concerts, he found himself mingling with celebrities of the time – for instance setting up an enduring friendship with Ellen Terry. He collaborated with the Italian composer Paolo Tosti on a series of romantic ballads and the pair serenaded Queen Victoria at her Diamond Jubilee party in 1897.
At the age of 50, in 1898, he moved back to Bath where was appointed to appear at the bar on the Western circuit. He continued legal work until his death, usually acting for the defence. By the time of this move back to the west country, his marriage had broken down, his wife Minnie having become severely depressed. They separated, Minnie being set up in a house in Portishead where she lived on in seclusion, supported by her husband until her death. Fred meanwhile established a household in Bath living with Maud Francfourt, who was always referred to Mrs. Weatherly. Despite this arrangement being highly irregular for man of his class at the time, they lived happily together for nearly twenty years.
The split between their parents and Fred’s subsequent partnership alienated his children, particularly his son who remained close to his mother. But it was during these years with Maud that Fred published his most lasting songs – ‘Danny Boy’, the WW1 ‘Roses of Picardy’ and the hymn ‘Holy City’. The haunting and poignant words of ‘Danny Boy’ were written in 1910, the year of his son’s early death. In 1912 his sister-in-law Margaret in America sent him the Irish tune of ‘Londonderry Air’. Fred slightly rewrote ‘Danny Boy’ to fit the melody and published the revised version in 1913. The song became a classic.
Frederick and Maud were living as man and wife in Grosvenor Lodge, (now called St Christopher) in Belmont Road, Combe Down, when the song for which he was famous was written - just above Smallcombe, in fact. In 1919 they moved to 10 Edwards Street, off Great Pulteney St in Bathwick, where it is said that he had the ground floor windows altered to stop people looking in whilst he was working. But Maud’s health had declined and she was eventually bedbound, so Miriam Bryan, the widow of a well-known tenor, moved into the house as a nurse/companion. After the deaths of Minnie and Maud, Fred, now aged 75, married Miriam. This second official marriage was intensely happy for him and brought him back to the social norm. He became a KC (King’s Counsel) in 1924 at the very late age of 76.
In 1926, he published a book of memoirs – ‘Piano and Gown’. These illustrate the two sides of the man, his love of the law and his delight that his songs had reached and touched so many people all over the world. Perhaps because song writing came easily to him, he was surprisingly modest about this achievement and would like to have done more in the world of opera. He was a happy man who enjoyed life and particularly the company of women. He seemed to be aware that his irregular personal life had probably deprived him of national honours and set back his promotion at the Bar. But, as he wrote, ‘ Amor conquit Opus - Love overcomes Duty’ (or Love conquers Work).
Frederick Edward Weatherly died in 1929, aged 80, a year after he had moved to his last home, Bathwick Lodge on Bathwick Hill,. ‘The Londonderry Air’ was played at his funeral in Bath Abbey. Proceeds from a Weatherly memorial concert endowed a bed in the Bath Royal Mineral Water Hospital. Two years later Dame Clara Butt, a well-known concert singer, unveiled a memorial plaque to him at 10 Edwards Street. The monument on his grave is modest, which seems to have been in his nature and so just as he would have wished.
Bath lawyer who also wrote one of the most touching and enduring songs of all time.