Frank Kidson (1855-1926)
Folk-song collector and antiquarian, artist and writer

Frank KidsonFrank Kidson was a musical Sherlock Holmes, tracking down the traditional songs and music of the past, recording, collecting and preserving the words and tunes that had once been a familiar part of people’s every-day lives but were rapidly being forgotten and lost. He pioneered the revival of interest in folk music in those late Victorian years when the old popular tunes were being replaced by the songs of the city music-halls and concert rooms. But folk music was not his only passion. He painted, collected, researched and wrote, not only about music but also about the history of his beloved home-town of Leeds. 

He was born in 1855 at 7 Centenary Street (long gone), close to the site of the great Town Hall which was rising stone by stone during his infancy – he was three when Queen Victoria opened it among massive celebrations. He was the youngest of the nine children of Francis Prince Kidson, a butcher turned rate-collector who had literary interests and wrote religious verse – books were in Frank’s genes. As a child he learnt traditional songs from his mother Mary and began to research and collect these old airs, an interest which developed into an obsession.

He never married, but after his father’s death lived on with his mother at 128 Burley Road. When she died, his sixteen-year-old niece Ethel came to keep house for him, a wonderfully happy arrangement for them both: he took the part of the father she had lost, and she remained his life-long companion and enthusiastic collaborator. In 1905 they moved to their final home in Hamilton Avenue, Chapeltown (now marked with a blue plaque).

While he loved music he was not a professional musician – he reckoned he was ham-fisted! He became a landscape painter, and also an arts journalist, writing articles for magazines and papers. His travels around the country, sketching and painting, lodging in country cottages, helped him in his hunt for the old songs and tunes. He sought out older country folk and wrote down the songs they remembered, entering them in his manuscript index, compiling what was to become a vast, unique record of traditional music, running to more than 100,000 entries. No chance was missed: if he heard a street-singer out in the town, he would bring him home to run through his repertoire! Love songs, lullabys, work-songs, country dances, sea-shanties, tragic ballads – he became an acknowledged authority in the whole field of folk music.

A bequest from his wealthy grandfather helped provide him with the leisure to pursue his researches, travel, haunt the salerooms, poke about in dusty second-hand book shops, always on the lookout for a ‘find’. Thus he amassed a unique and valuable collection of books and historic manuscripts which he enjoyed showing his many visitors. He had a network of friends and contacts, and in 1898 was invited to be a founder member of the newly-formed Folk Song Society.

Above all he wanted to share his enthusiasms – writing was in his blood. In the 1880/90s he wrote regular articles on folk songs for the Leeds Mercury newspaper and other periodicals, and in 1889 published his first book: ‘Old English Country Dances’, followed in 1890 by ‘Traditional Tunes’, with notes on where he had found each piece. Further books followed of folk songs and country dances, some with piano accompaniments, invaluable source material for composers like Vaughan Williams and Percy Grainger. He helped edit the Folk Song Society’s early journals, and produced an important catalogue of British music publishers and engravers. He contributed some 365 entries to the massive Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, some with scholarly bibliographies – an extraordinary achievement.

He shared antiquarian interests with his brother Joseph, an antique dealer, and together in 1892 they published a definitive history of the ‘Leeds Old Pottery’. He loved his native city and its history, writing articles for local newspapers which give a taste of the Leeds of the past and are still a fascinating source. Ethel was a writer too: she published a novel in 1912 and she and Frank wrote short plays together, with music, for performance in the villages around Leeds. In 1923 Leeds University recognised his work with an honorary MA.

Frank died in 1926 and is buried at Lawnswood. Ethel oversaw the publication of two further books and tried to find a home for his collections. Sadly no offer came from Leeds, and the bulk of his vast manuscript work went to the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, where it awaits further exploration. Long forgotten, his work is now being revived and celebrated by folk-singers like Pete Coe and Alice Jones, among others.

Eveleigh Bradford
October 2014