Music was very important to William Thomas Freemantle while he was growing up. Originally born in Chichester, he moved with his family to Sheffield in 1855 where his father, Henry J. Freemantle, opened a music shop at 21 High Street in the heart of the city centre. A musician himself, Henry became a significant force in Sheffield’s music scene. He organised regular concerts at Surry Street Music Hall, which included performances by Charles Hallé and his orchestra.
Encouraged by his father, W. T. Freemantle began an organist apprenticeship at Lincoln Cathedral at the age of 16. It is here that he was first introduced to the music of Felix Mendelssohn.
“It was in the Cathedral my love for music began and of all the music I heard … no composer’s music touched my more than that of Mendelssohn’s … I have still a vivid recollection of his music in that fine Cathedral.” – W. T. Freemantle.
His passion for Mendelssohn’s music was so intense that, in his own words, he would “endure martyrdom in Siberia” to acquire unique treasures for his collection. Freemantle would also make copies of Mendelssohn manuscripts and write down revisions or notes made by the composer in red ink so that he could compare each edition, possibly to better understand Mendelssohn’s compositional process.
At its height, Freemantle’s Mendelssohn collection encompassed 40 autograph manuscript scores, including the “Sonata” in B flat minor written in 1823 when Mendelssohn was only fourteen years old. He collected 300 letters and hundreds of books, musical prints, concert programmes and other ephemera touching upon all aspects of the composer’s life and that of his family and colleagues. Freemantle’s collection grew to the point where had he amassed more Mendelssohn material than the composer’s own family.
As well as Mendelssohn, Freemantle collected works of other noted composers and musicians, such as British composer, musician, dramatist, novelist and actor, Charles Dibdin. Freemantle was also an avid antiquarian, taking a strong interest in Sheffield history. He amassed a collection of books, pottery, painting, prints and tokens from the local area. Freemantle was passionate about promoting and supporting the cultural history of his local area, saying: ‘Believing, as I strongly do, that sufficient pride has not been taken in relics of the Past, to preserve and “gather them in”, I shall assert (and not timidly) that attention is even at the present time more than ever demanded’.
Freemantle carried on collecting throughout his career as church organist and choirmaster, retiring in 1895 after the death of his father. Although in retirement, Freemantle still gave lectures and wrote articles for local newspapers.
Freemantle sold his entire library to Lord Brotherton of Wakefield in 1927-28. The purchase was probably brokered by Brotherton’s personal librarian, J. Alexander Symington. Symington saw the whole Freemantle Collection before it entered the University Library, and took the opportunity to sell significant parts of the Mendelssohn and Dibdin material to libraries and collectors in the United States. These actions played a significant role in suppressing the extent of W. T. Freemantle’s collection.
Had the complete music collection entered the Brotherton Library, Freemantle would be recognised as a pioneering figure in Mendelssohn studies, and more widely as a significant British collector of his era.
Explore this fascinating material in “Gather them in”: the Musical Treasures of W. T. Freemantle, on display in the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery. The exhibition is free and open to all, Mondays 1pm – 5pm and Tuesday – Saturday 10am – 5pm, until 31 July 2019.