4. Back to London

From the outset the friendship between Wilf and Michael Tippett was close and affectionate, and it is clear that Michael had romantic feelings for Wilf. How the friendship actually developed is disputed, as an old man Wilf always denied any sexual relationship but Michael certainly remembers that a physical relationship, however tentative on Wilf’s part, did develop. He spent some time persuading Wilf to come and visit him at his home in Oxted:

Eventually he did appear….at bedtime, I showed him the spare bedroom, but he wanted to share mine with me. Pyjamas he would not tolerate, and we slept naked together many nights – chastely, to the amazement of David – until the inevitable happened. Later Wilf said, “I only do this for your sake.”1

Wilf’s recollection of the relationship was rather different according to Cathie Brett’s 1998 interview:

Wilf himself says he enjoyed a deep friendship with the budding composer – who dedicated his first piano work to him. And although he insists they never had any kind of sexual relationship, he accepts he probably was ‘the great love’ of Michael’s life….Unfortunately for Michael Tippett, Wilf’s passion was – and still is – reserved for his Marxism and the composers love was unrequited.2

Despite Wilf’s denials it is quite clear from contemporary letters in the Tippett collections that the two men were lovers and the friendship continued to blossom. In early 1933 a trip to Spain was planned. Wilf, Michael, David and Fresca were to travel together in David’s Morris Minor; however, Fresca had to travel instead to New York for medical reasons, leaving the three young men to travel without her. Michael fondly rememberd the trip in his autobiography, and David told several stories from the trip in his 1985 speech:

Just before we reached the Spanish frontier we stopped by the sea-side for a picnic.  The road, a very minor one, was deserted. It was hot so we decided to swim. There wasn’t a soul in sight.  No need for swimming trunks. But far across the bay someone had a good pair of binoculars. He alerted the police. Soon a dusty, testy Gendarme appeared on bicycle and threatened us with all kinds of penalties for our immodesty.  In the end he gave up and waved us on after giving us a good dressing down for not dressing up.
A mile or so farther on, the narrow winding road dropped steeply down. Round a blind corner was the unheralded frontier. In the middle of the road the Spanish frontier guards were sitting in deck chairs enjoying a siesta. Fortunately, the brakes held and there was no collision, but the guards were not amused. They were delighted to be difficult. They discovered that our papers were issued by the Royal Spanish Automobile Club and they refused to let us through because Spain was now a republic. Then they relented. If we were to go back five miles to the railway station…and pay 400 francs, he would give us a document which they would accept. Michael and I came back with a piece of paper torn from an exercise book, but endorsed with a rubber stamp and an indecipherable flourish. We found Wilf happily drinking with the frontier guards. And so we entered Spain.3

Wilf was a bohemian character at this stage of his life. He was trying to establish himself as an artist and had a wandering spirit, staying for spells at Michael’s cottage in Oxted, where they would discuss politics, poetry, music and their relationship. As the 1930’s progressed, he also developed a group of friends in London: artists, musicians and actors. Several of Wilf’s friends are mentioned in the book Selected letters of Michael Tippett (Faber & Faber): Artist Sari Dienes and theatre owner Judy Wogan as well as his girlfriend Meg Masters ‘with her peculiar make-up’. In the same book Tippett also mentions Wilf being ‘off on the razzle for another period’ and in a 1934 letter to David Ayerst, he says ‘Wilf went up to town yesterday on a sudden decision to apply for entry to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art for a year’s course’.4

Wilf’s political activities at this time included participation in the “Battle of Cable Street” on Sunday 4 October 1936. A provocative march through a Jewish neighbourhood in  East London was planned by Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. Thousands of socialists, communists and Irish dock workers came to help Jewish residents block the parade. The protesters formed huge crowds and erected barricades to stop the marchers passing. Mounted police attempted to clear a route for the Fascists and repeatedly baton charged the crowd. The protesters stood their ground and eventually won the day, forcing Mosley to call off the march. Wilf was arrested at Gardiners Corner. A newspaper article dated 9th October 1936, titled London Fascist March Disturbances, states the following: “When Wilfred Franks of Holmesdale Road, Highgate was charged with insulting behaviour and assaulting P.C Medley by kicking him on the shin and stomach it was stated that the policeman was still on the sick-list. For the assault he was sentenced to 28 days hard labour.”5  Court records show that Wilf appealed the sentence but the appeal was rejected and he was ordered to pay an additional 10 guineas in costs. Wilf furiously recalled the incident in my 1996 interview, claiming they were trumped up charges, fabricated by the policeman:

I know now what bastards even our police can be. I’ve been involved in riots & been arrested and watched the policeman stand in the dock and tell bloody lies about me!
cable Street .png
Nottingham Evening Post 9th October 1936.

Right through the 1930’s an ongoing theme in Tippett’s letters is his relationship with Wilf. Sadly we only see one side of the story but It seems to be an ongoing struggle. Michael remembers it being far more than just a close friendship, while Wilf was obviously not entirely comfortable settling into a gay relationship. In Tippett’s autobiography Those Twentieth Century Blues he says of Wilf:

Throughout this period, my relationship with Wilf was a tempestuous one. He was so sure that there was no such thing as being queer, though he certainly acted differently. We never talked about it fully. I simply kidded myself, as people often do, that if you desire someone strongly enough they will reciprocate……I clung to this feeling that Wilf would accept – but it would not work. He eventually found himself a girlfriend, Meg Masters…6

What is absolutely clear is that Michael was deeply in love with Wilf and he dedicated his first mature composition to him.  Tippett’s beautiful String Quartet No.1 is an outpouring of love for Wilf:

Michael’s genuine affection for Wilf was also demonstrated on a more practical level in a project that he named ‘Wilfare’. Tippett wrote to friends asking them to contribute to a fund to keep Wilf from a life of poverty and charity while he tried to establish himself as an artist. He wrote to Rolf Gardiner, Judy Wogan, David Ayerst, Alan Bush and Colonel Jim & Ruth Pennyman of Ormesby Hall, requesting that they contribute £10 a year to the fund. In a letter to Alan Bush dated 23 May 1934 Tippett wrote:

My dear Alan,
I am going to appeal to you on a delicate matter and I can’t help it because it seems to me necessary. As you know I’ve been very much bound up with Wilf Franks for the last year or two. You have been very near to him at one time and that is the present bond of union, even if there were no other – and there is. But leaving that aside, my trouble is a growing dissatisfaction with the manner of Wilf’s living – feeding and clothing himself on charity – he hates it even if he is good about it, and I hate it’s method also, and so much so that I want to make an appeal for him to end it. There is so much a nicer way of doing it. Therefore David Ayerst…Manchester Guardian friend of myself and Wilf, and you may have met him at my Morley concert – have agreed to put up yearly £10 for him, to be paid by me half yearly to him. And we want to raise £50 in this way, to assure Wilf a safe pound a week. There is to be absolutly no moral obligation behind it. It is to be given out of straightforward love for him, for his own unwarranted self, and to work out his own destiny as best it seems to him….7

Ultimately, Tippett, Alan Bush and David Ayerst did contribute to the ‘Wilfare’ fund.  My grandfather’s friends, who were clearly in a better financial position, must have felt tremendous affection towards him when they decided to donate money to help him in this way.

Wilf’s father, Daniel Franks, assisted Tippett in his early career, introducing him to the influential feminist and suffragette Eva Hubback, who was principal at Morley College.It was through this meeting that Michael Tippett eventually gained employment supervising the music department at Morley. Later Daniel would play violin on the Tippett’s now famous work A Child of Our Time. The composer recalled an incident during rehearsals:

Stylistically there were upheavals. I remember Wilf’s father, Dan Franks, who played the violin in the first performance, getting up at one point and banging his chair on the floor in fury: ‘This is impossible!’ he exclaimed.9
Advert in The Era newspaper, 19th June 1935. Tippett’s South London Orchestra and Dan Franks’ Morley Military Band were both based at Morley College.

Michael Tippett’s hopes of a romantic relationship with Wilf were finally concluded when Wilf told Michael that he intended to marry his girlfriend (although they never did marry). Tippett wrote about the incident in his autobiography:

Wilf and I used to meet each week in a cafe, after one of my RACS choir rehearsals in London, before I took the train back to Oxted. One evening I got to the cafe ahead of him….When Wilf arrived he said, ‘I have decided to marry this girl.’ I went completely cold. At the very moment  he said this I cut off relations absolutely. Wilf was deeply hurt. I went back to Oxted and had such violent dreams, it was as if a whole damn had opened.10

Despite going their separate ways both men stuck to their principles when the Second World War broke out and both served prison sentences as conscientious objectors. Tippett was sentenced to three months in Wormwood Scrubs while Wilf served 28 days for refusing to take an army medical.  

Wilf’s Marxist /Trotskyist politics had been a considerable influence on Tippett, according to Bryan Fisher’s memoir, and Michael now felt free to move towards a pacifist stance:

His profound and tempestuous relationship with Wilf came to an end with the announcement to Michael that he was going to get married. The strong pull towards working class violent solutions was removed and Michael was free to pursue a policy more in accordance with his own beliefs, which were essentially pacifist.11

Wilf explained that his views on war had started to develop when he was a boy in London during the First World War:

I was sent to a Catholic school. . .I told the priests, ‘You’re running the war on both sides: You tell us that God’s on our side: the other priests are telling the Germans God is on their side’. . . I told them this is all wrong. . . I went through the war as a little boy and I ended up ten or eleven years of age at the end of the war realising that every adult in the country was potty. They thought war was glorious, they were actually saying so. . . It was horrible! They were all suffering. I had one little friend, Jim O’Shea, who had eight brothers and a father all killed in the war – he was the last one left. We used to go and play in his back yard with him. His old mother used to come out and set a chair in the middle of the yard. She would sit for a long time just looking across the yard, knowing that she was thinking about the people that were dead..12

Wilf’s time as a student in Germany was also a factor in his decision not to participate in what he saw as an imperialist war. His now quite well-developed political opinions made it impossible for him to view the working class people of Germany as the enemy. Wilf had decided a long time ago that it was the ruling classes, bankers and business men of both nations who were the real enemy, and he felt the working people of all nations needed to stand together against these oppressors. Ruth Pennyman wrote to Wilf saying she was shocked that as a Communist, he wasn’t going to fight against Hitler. However, Wilf felt that ‘fascism was just capitalism armed’ and refused to partake in the killing of ordinary German people. He thought it was ‘complete madness’ to go and kill, or be killed in another futile war.

In his 1963 essay Rolf Gardiner says that Wilf taught at a Borstal during the war period.13  Wilf told me a story about his first day teaching at the Borstal. The class was totally unruly and were running amok. So Wilf went to the gym and returned with two pairs of boxing gloves. He asked who was the best fighter in the class. After a short discussion one of the young men came forward. Wilf invited him out into the yard and despite being nearly a foot shorter, slugged it out for three rounds. Needless to say, there were no discipline problems in his future classes.


1. Michael Tippett. Those Twentieth Century Blues. Hutchinson. 1991.p57/58

2. Cathie Brett. Middlesbrough Evening Gazette. How Depression Hit East      Cleveland Inspired a Musical Great. 22/01/1998.

3. David Ayerst. The Young Michael Tippett: a talk given to the Burford society in 1985.

4.Thomas Schuttenhelm. Selected Letters of Michael Tippett. Faber & Faber 2005. p219

5. Nottingham Evening Post. Friday October 9th 1936.

6 Michael Tippett. Those Twentieth Century Blues. Hutchinson. 1991. p61

7. Michael Tippett. Letter to Alan Bush. 1934. Held at the British Library.

8. Michael Tippett. Those Twentieth Century Blues. Hutchinson. 1991. p.114

9. Michael Tippett. Those Twentieth Century Blues. Hutchinson. 1991. p.205

10. Michael Tippett. Those Twentieth Century Blues. Hutchinson. 1991.p62

11. Bryan Fisher. An Adventure in Living.  Self published.  1998.

12.Malcolm Chase. Audio Interview held at the Teesside archives,     Middlesbrough. 1988. catalogue reference US/1516

13. Rolf Gardiner essay ‘Wilf’. Cambridge University Library. 1963. p4

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