Kay, Mattie


Collection date:

Area: Lancashire

Mattie Kay of Preston (1882-1944): Mattie Kay was Sharp’s principal demonstration singer. She was born Martha Kay on 24 November 1882 at 13 St Thomas St, Preston, Lancashire, 3rd daughter of Alexander Kay, a ‘self-acting minder* in a cotton mill, and his wife Margaret Jane (née Atherton). Her younger brother Alexander was baptised in Dec 1885 (still at St Thomas St). But the family broke up for some reason and cannot be traced at all in the 1891 census. By the 1901 census her father Alexander Snr was boarding at a house in Brook St, Preston but his wife Margaret and 4 children were definitely living elsewhere. Alexander Snr died of pneumonia on 23 February 1902 aged 49 (8e 420). His occupation was still a ‘Self-acting minder’*. His address was listed as Brook Street, while his wife Margaret’s address was 101 Victoria St – confirmation that they were living separately. In 1911 Margaret Jane Kay, widow 55, was still at 101 Victoria St, Preston with 2 children Lily and Alexander Jr. 

* The self-acting mule or cotton spinner was patented by Richard Roberts in 1825 and in 1830. It allowed for the continuous spinning of many threads simultaneously and required constant attention or minding.

In 1899 Sharp, on a visit to relatives** in Lancashire, happened to hear Mattie Kay (aged 17) singing at a local concert in Walton-le-Dale, 2 miles SE of Preston. He was so impressed with the clarity of her untrained voice that he made arrangements for her to leave her family and go to London for training with him at The Hampstead Conservatoire. He had been its Director since 1896 and Mattie was given a scholarship to train under the American singer Medora Henson.This was, of course, prior to Sharp's folksong work but it so happened that Mattie was ideally suited to folksong demonstrations. 

**Sharp’s brother-in-law Walter Birch (1863-1924), younger brother of his wife Constance, was then living at Knott House, Church Brow, Walton-le-Dale; he was a land agent and surveyor. Much later (in 1932) Maud Karpeles wrote to Walter Birch’s other sister Mary Caroline Birch requesting information about Sharp’s first encounter with Mattie Kay. She consulted with Walter’s widow and replied (CJS1/12/11/1/2): ‘Cecil first heard (Mattie) singing at a village concert in Walton-le-Dale, she was a Preston mill girl and her health had suffered from every privation, poor thing – Cecil first took her into the Nursery to help with the children, and train her. Then the expenses became too much for them and Mrs Lawrence Rawstorne and I gave a large garden party together at her house…and I asked (for) subscriptions and donations for about £100… M. Kay’s voice was just suited to the Folk Songs’.

So it was that in the 1901 census (RG13/124 f11 p13) Mattie Kay was living as a boarder, aged 18, a ‘student of Music’ along with 2 other female students at the Hampstead Conservatoire building in Eton Avenue (now the Central School of Speech and Drama). Cecil and Constance Sharp were living there too with their 3 young children Dorothea 6, Charles 4 and Joan 2. Mattie was involved in the care of Sharp’s children at this time. Later (in 1931) she wrote that Mrs Sharp was ‘splendid, treated me exactly like one of her own children’ (CJS1/12/11/1/1). In the same letter Mattie confirmed that she ‘stayed with Cecil about 1900-06’ and sang for him at lectures long before the Somerset folksong project – e.g. lectures on English music, church modes etc.

On 2/4/1906 Mattie, aged 23, married Algernon Henry Lindo, aged 43 at the Register Office, Hampstead (ref 1a 1409). He was a musician and piano accompanist, eldest son of David Lindo, West India merchant. Perhaps to save face, Mattie registered her father as ‘Alexander Kay (deceased), manager of a cotton mill’.  Kelly’s Directory 1895 shows no-one of that name in such a position.

The couple had no children and had separate professional careers. Algernon was an examiner with the Associated Board and the Royal Academy of Music and his duties took him to North America and to Australia & New Zealand. Mattie herself performed in Jamaica with Algernon in 1913*. In 1923 the couple emigrated to Sydney, Australia, where Algernon died on 1/9/1926 aged 61. His book The Art of Accompanying (Schirmer 1916) was groundbreaking in its time.

In 1931 Mattie also wrote that ‘Sharp was a beautiful accompanist. Perhaps he led me at first, setting the pace, time and style; afterwards when I knew them, he seemed to fit himself exactly to me. With my husband it was the same…(but) Cecil couldn’t transpose, that was all. My husband could, easily.’

As regards Mattie’s singing style, Neville Lytton wrote: ‘Miss Mattie Kay is a wonderful singer. I don’t think I have ever heard a more perfect pronunciation…Miss Kay’s English is very personal and very beautiful.’ (Fox Strangways biography p26). Mattie Kay confirmed that she ‘always sang by heart: I knew 500 songs’. She must certainly have been a very confident person to leave her family at age 17 and be performing on London concert platforms at such a young age. Indeed in January 1915 she sailed for America to accompany Sharp for 3 months on his first lecture tour.

Mattie’s father died in 1902 and it’s not known how closely her family followed her successful singing career. One older sister Lily was a cloth weaver till her marriage in 1919. Her brother Alexander Jr became a boiler-maker in Preston.

Mattie Lindo died in January qr 1944 at Paddington in London.

Thanks to Mike Heaney for information on Algernon Lindo.

*For Algernon Lindo's career, see Documenting a Derided Profession by Perry Gerald Mears (University of Memphis 2016)

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