It was the spring of 1932. Wilf Franks and David Ayerst had just returned from the first Boosbeck Work Camp in East Cleveland. The two men had become friends during the camp and had travelled on to stay with Ayrest’s mother in Manchester. David took Wilf with him to meet Michael Tippett at Manchester station. The moment is described in separate sources by the three men but, David Ayerst’s description is the most enlightening:
I had gone to meet Michael who was coming to stay with me. With me on the platform was a slightly younger man, Wilfred Franks. He would have been a curiosity in any company and any century. ‘Der grune Wilf’ with his green shirt and green shorts, was short, black haired, with large piercing brown eyes, a Londoner born and bred with what I might call a taxi driver’s fund of knowledge, irreverence and humour…In 1932 he was fresh from extensive travels on his own through Germany and Italy. He had been for a time a student at the the famous Bauhaus under Gropius….He was a painter and craftsman. His artistic sensibilities were compatible but not competitive with Michael’s. The sun now shone on them, but they had both already seen the world’s dark side. Neither had yet come to terms with life or himself. What was immediately obvious that April evening was that something totally unexpected by Michael had happened. He was stirred and disturbed. Without saying a word Wilf had moved to the vacant centre of Michael’s life and filled it. There are many relationships whose importance one can assess with reasonable accuracy….Michael’s relation to Wilf was not of that measurable nature. Alchemy is not a science and alchemy was at work.1
David had invited Tippett up to Manchester in the hope of recruiting him to be the music director at the next Boosbeck Work Camp. These work camps had been set up to help the ironstone miners in East Cleveland, not far from Middlesbrough. The local community had been devastated by closures of the mines, and unemployment had risen to around 90%. Schemes like these were not uncommon at the time, but the East Cleveland project was a little different in that there was an emphasis on music, dance and drama as well as the mundane efforts to reclaim land for the miners to grow crops. This artistic focus to the camps was largely driven by the influence of two individuals, Rolf Gardiner and Ruth Pennyman. Rolf was quite heavily involved in the initial plans for the first camp which would include, folk dancing, land restoration and the integration of youth groups from northern Europe.
Gardiner’s ideas were starting to show some parallels with the National Socialist Movement in Germany at this time, but another voice was having an increasing influence on the direction of the camps: Ruth Pennyman. She was the wife of a local aristocratic landowner, Jim Pennyman, who had purchased the land for the work camps. Ruth was described in the book Bright Particular Stars:
A producer of plays and stager of pageants, she was also a writer, one of whose own plays was dashing enough for the typing agency to which she sent it to have complained about having its girls exposed to this kind of language. She was…..a self-proclaimed communist….During the Spanish Civil War Ruth was instrumental in bringing Basque children to Britain and was eager to go out to assist the Quaker welfare operations in Spain.2
Rolf Gardiner‘s influence in the project began to wane after the first camp in April 1932, partly due to his marriage in September of that year, but also due to commitments at his Dorset estate. Rolf had brought the composer Georg Gotsch to the first camp to act as musical director, but he too was unable to attend the second camp. Ruth Pennyman was determined that the cultural element must continue and began to look for a new musical director for the project. David Ayerst had been involved in planning the project from an early stage, and it was David who suggested that his friend, Michael Tippett, be recruited to the role. Ruth agreed to the plan and enthusiastically assembled an orchestra to assist Tippett in his new role.
After meeting Wilf on the platform at Manchester station, Michael Tippett needed little persuading to become involved with the Boosbeck Work Camps. He would later write:
Meeting with Wilf was the deepest, most shattering experience of falling in love: and I am quite convinced that it was a major factor underlying the discovery of my own individual musical voice – something that couldn’t be analysed purely in technical terms: all that love flowed out in the slow movement of my First String Quartet, an unbroken span of lyrical music in which all four instruments sing ardently from start to finish.3
Tippett brought with him to Boosbeck his great friend, Francesca (Fresca) Allinson, a musical scholar, expert trainer of left wing choirs and daughter of the creator of Allinson’s wholemeal bread. David Ayerst wrote in his autobiography:
She was racy in speech, never pompous, warm in affection, no beauty, but a lovely person. It was clear from the start that with Michael, Fresca, and Wilf in Boosbeck, the second Cleveland Work Camp would be more light-hearted than the first, less folksey, still serious but less deadly serious, more English less Germanic. 4
Most of us were well to the left in politics and so of course were the miners. Here was a bond of union..5
It was a fascinating cultural mix involved with the work camps, well-meaning aristocrats, trade unions, desperate unemployed miners, European students and now a group of upper middle class, left wing, London musicians thrown into the mix. But where did Wilf, the musician’s son from North London, fit into all of this?
Franks was exeptional, though, in several ways. Mostly the workcampers lived in their own temporary accommodation: the pavillion at Marske Cricket Club during the first camp, and subsequently in tents pitched at Margrove Park pit head.Their visits, even if recurrent, were punctuated by long absences. Franks, on the other hand, lodged in Boosbeck for two years. He was not a student, but an idealistic artist who had studied at the famous Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany. He brought with him a different perspective on Germany from the Deutsche Freischar, and as one of the earliest British Trotskyists a different political outlook too. Wilf Franks was an important figure, though, in the continuing cultural development of the project in which Gardiner was now less involved. 6
It was Michael Tippett’s first visit to the north of England and at twenty seven years of age the challenge of organising and training a diverse group of foreign students, unemployed miners and Ruth’s Orchestra was daunting, both musically and culturally. The camp only ran for three weeks so there was very little time. Tippett decided to produce an abridged version of the famous 18th century ballad-opera by John Gay The Beggars Opera. Participants included The Boosbeck and District Miners Male Voice Choir, local church and school choirs, the orchestra that Ruth Pennyman had assembled, while the leading roles were performed by Madge Tansley (a coal leaders daughter), John McCormack (local insurance agent), Fresca and Wilf.
The social aspect was critical, for Tippett believed strongly that the integration of students and miners, southerners and northerners, intellectuals and workers, was an important objective.7
Wilf played an important part in pulling together the different cultural elements. He had fully integrated into the mining community by starting a furniture-making project with some of the young unemployed miners and was frequenting such places as the Boosbeck Tavern Pub. This meant that Michael & Fresca by association were also warmly welcomed in this tough working class town. David Ayerst wrote:
But in Boosbeck in Cleveland in 1933 he (Tippett) might possibly have remained an attractive visitor from outer space but for the earthy flesh and blood reality of Wilfred Franks. 8
Tippett worked tirelessly to create and produce his version of The Beggar’s Opera and his efforts were rewarded. The production captured the imagination of the town and demand for tickets was so great that fights broke out as locals had to be turned away at the door. The performance was a roaring success and Tippett himself said of the occasion:
It was a wonderful thing, taught me a hell of a lot, it was most extraordinary – electric.9
Some of the first public performances of Sir Michael Tippett’s work, one of the great British composers of the twentieth century, had taken place in the most unlikely setting of Boosbeck Church Hall. The whole experience was so successful that Tippett soon began plans for the third Boosbeck Work Camp. But now it was time for some relaxation. Wilf and Tippett set off on a camping expedition across the Pennines, they travelled light just carrying a small tent and minimum luggage. They battled against the weather at times and Wilf needed all the skills he had learned with the Kibbo Kift and on Rolf Gardiner‘s hikes as they encountered fog, heavy rain and flooding. The trip only served to strengthen their friendship and further broaden Michael’s experience of the poverty that seemed never to be far away in northern England at the time:
Sitting on the kerbside we lunched on bread, cheese and apples. The apple cores we threw away were immediately seized by some small children nearby: these poor mites had sores on their faces and were obviously half-starved; coming from the well-fed South I found it mortifying. The sight of these underprivileged, malnourished northern children haunted me for years to come.10
This first hand experience of poverty clearly shocked Michael and was a major factor in him adopting socialism in the 1930’s. Wilf was also an influence on Tippett’s politics during this time. Cathy Brett of the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette interviewed Wilf in 1998:
Wilf begins telling me about his Marxist beliefs – saying this is what he had told a young Michael Tippett all those years ago – and this is what so fascinated the composer about him. As he talks his face comes alive, his cloudy blue – not brown as Michael described them – eyes are piercing and intense, and although he is tiny, he seems to fill the whole room. He speaks with the passion he must have had as a young man and it is easy to see how he could have inspired just about anyone. 11
At the next Cleveland Work Camp, in 1934, Tippett produced his own ballad Opera Robin Hood. The libretto was written by Ruth Pennyman and David Ayerst while Wilf played Fryer Tuck in the performances. David Ayerst described the piece as ‘an old story cooked up with a class war source’12 The left wing political leanings of the contributors is evident in the script:
So God made us outlaws to beat the devil’s man, To rob the rich to feed the poor; By Robin’s ten year plan.
During this period Wilf had taken lodgings with one of the local miners in Boosbeck, staying on after the students had gone home:
Ruth Pennyman paid him my rent. She got me to take a class for the schoolboys and teenagers. I told her that I could teach the boys to use tools and make things. So we began to meet in the house where we first met the miners. It was on old shop, I think it had been a butcher’s shop. It had tiled floors in the downstairs rooms, which we turned it into workshops. They used to make anything they wanted to make, a rabbit hutch or a stool for somebody’s wedding present. I helped them to design it and make it, as I did at the Bauhaus. I was there for two years. 13
During the period of Robin Hood and the 1934 Camp, Tippett moved into Wilf’s lodgings and their friendship became ever closer.14 Tippett’s biographer and partner Meirion Bowen explained to me in a recent email that Michael was drawn to Wilf in part for what he represented:
Wilf certainly made a deep impact on Michael Tippett. For he seemed to represent a ‘free’ individual, unencumbered by social convention, standard politics and Religion. Michael thought this quite wonderful. It was the exact opposite of what Michael himself had experienced as a child of middle class parents…Tippett met Ayerst and Franks at a time when he was becoming increasingly aware of how music-making and theatre could be of assistance to poor and deprived sections of the community. He initially sang songs of a political nature though they later undertook some light opera…Ultimately, music became the vehicle enabling him (Tippett) to build relationships with a wider world of people.
1. David Ayerst. A talk given to the Burford Society. 1985. Courtesy of Caroline Ayrest.
2. David McKie. Bright Particular Stars a Gallery of Glorious British Eccentrics. Atlantic Books. 2011. p263.
3. Michael Tippett. Those Twentieth Century Blues. Hutchinson. 1991. p58
4. David Ayerst. The Road to Now, The Early Life of David Ayrest. Self published.courtesy of Caroline Ayrest. p190.
5. David Ayerst. A talk given to the Burford Society. 1985. Courtesy of Caroline Ayrest
6. Malcolm Chase & Mark Whyman. Heartbreak Hill a Response to Unemployment in East Cleveland in the 1930′s. Langbaugh on Tees Borough Council & Cleveland County Council. 1991. p19.
7. Malcolm Chase & Mark Whyman. Heartbreak Hill a Response to Unemployment in East Cleveland in the 1930′s. Langbaugh on Tees Borough Council & Cleveland County Council. 1991. p21.
8. David Ayerst. A talk given to the Burford Society. 1985. courtesy of Caroline Ayerst.
9. Malcolm Chase & Mark Whyman. Heartbreak Hill a Response to Unemployment in East Cleveland in the 1930′s. Langbaugh on Tees Borough Council & Cleveland County Council. 1991. p21
10. Michael Tippett. Those Twentieth Century Blues. Hutchinson. 1991. p58
11. Cathie Brett. Middlesbrough Evening Gazette. How Depression Hit East Cleveland Inspired a Musical Great. 22/01/1998.
12. David Ayerst. The Road to Now, The Early Life of David Ayrest. Self published.courtesy of Caroline Ayrest. P192
13. Barbara Slaughter interview for the World Socialist Website. 1999.
14. David Ayerst. A talk given to the Burford Society. 1985. Courtesy of Caroline Ayrest.
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