If it were not for a tragic disaster in Cumbria involving a mine, London’s Denmark Street may not have become a hub for music. On May 11, 1910, at approximately 7:30pm, a buildup of methane in the Wellington Pit in Whitehaven was ignited by a stray spark, potentially caused by a faulty safety lamp. This caused an explosion and underground fire that destroyed tunnels and blocked potential escape routes. At the time, there were 140 men and boys working deep in the mine. Four were able to escape, but the fate of the rest remained unknown. Despite one survivor returning to aid in the rescue efforts, the conditions proved too difficult. The King even sent a telegram to the mine owners to express his concern while families anxiously waited for news of their loved ones. The Times & Express reported that it was a night of widespread human suffering.
The mine remained closed until late September when 136 bodies were painstakingly retrieved from the ground. Among them were a father and his two sons, who were discovered huddled together in a makeshift bed. A message inscribed on a nearby wooden beam read, “God is our safe haven and our source of strength.”
The public was captivated by the tragedy and a popular song resonated with their emotions. “Don’t Go Down in the Mine, Dad” was reportedly inspired by a mining accident in Wales in 1907 and credited to Will Geddes and Robert Donnelly. The song depicts a child having a dream about a mine fire and warning their miner father about it. Despite the warning, the father goes to work but has a change of heart at the last minute and returns home. This decision saves him from the pit fire that kills many of his coworkers. The song gained popularity again after a similar disaster in Whitehaven and was released as a hit. The rights to the song were owned by Lawrence Wright, a sheet-music publisher based in the Midlands. Wright sold over a million copies of the score and donated half a penny from each copy to the disaster fund while using the rest to relocate to London.
On a rainy Wednesday morning in 1911, Wright made his way to Denmark Street. Legend has it that upon reaching St Pancras station, he rented a wheelbarrow and filled it with sheet music, his violin, and a mandolin. He then pushed the loaded wheelbarrow down Tottenham Court Road to Charing Cross Road, where he turned left onto Denmark Street. There, he secured a basement at No 8 for a weekly fee of £1, laying the foundation for what would become the most significant street in the British music business.
The office on Denmark Street was not very luxurious. The St Giles neighborhood was known for its past as a place filled with crime and disease, and the scent of stewed fruit from a nearby Crosse & Blackwell factory. This factory produced a variety of pickles, sauces, mustards, and jams. Wright’s music publishing company was not the first to establish itself on this street – that honor belonged to Francis, Day & Hunter, who relocated to Charing Cross Road in 1897 to be closer to the hub of London’s book trade and the bustling West End theatre district.
Sheet-music publishing could be an extremely lucrative business. In the absence of gramophones or radio, most homes and just about every pub had a piano around which people would gather; new songs were usually debuted at music halls and those that turned out to be popular with the public were rushed into print in the form of sheet music. A hit – which usually meant one with a memorable chorus and a melody that was easy to master by an amateur pianist – could shift hundreds of thousands of copies.
The publisher held a prestigious position in the emerging music industry. They were responsible for discovering talented songwriters and compensating them for their work, as well as producing and selling sheet music. The publisher needed to have a good ear for music in order to identify potential hit songs and purchase them at a low cost before a competitor could. This system served as the foundation of London’s music industry for the next five decades. According to Beatles producer George Martin, having a publisher backing a songwriter was crucial for achieving success, as they were responsible for promoting the songs to record companies and radio stations. Without a publisher’s support, songwriters may have struggled to gain recognition.
Lawrence Wright transformed Denmark Street into a British adaptation of Tin Pan Alley, the renowned avenue for songwriters in New York. Born in 1888 in Leicester, Wright’s father was a violinist who specialized in selling sheet music and instruments. Following in his father’s footsteps, Wright entertained passersby on the street with his piano playing and singing, while also selling sheet music to his audience. His talent and entrepreneurial spirit led him to open his first store in 1906 in Leicester, as well as operate four market stalls throughout the Midlands.
Initially, a large portion of the songs Wright sold were from the United States. However, he soon began composing his own music. He found early success with songs that were relevant to current events, such as his Long May He Reign/Coronation March for George V’s coronation in 1910. But his breakthrough moment came when he invested £5 to acquire the publishing rights for Don’t Go Down in the Mine, Dad. Wright worked tirelessly on Denmark Street, described by Ian Whitcomb in his 1972 book After the Ball as “building shelves, making furniture, and sleeping on a fold-out couch in the basement while writing most of the songs he published.”
Wright grew his business from the basement of No 8 to eventually taking over the entire building. However, as his business continued to expand, even the entire building was not enough to accommodate it. As a result, he moved to a larger location at No 19, which he named Wright House. Additionally, Wright achieved great success as a songwriter under the name Horatio Nicholls. He had a talent for creating “simple songs for unsophisticated people”, as described by a contemporary. His first hit as a songwriter was Blue Eyes, written in 1915. Four years later, he co-wrote That Old Fashioned Mother of Mine, said to be inspired by a conversation overheard on Tottenham Court Road, and sold approximately 3 million copies.
The most notable achievement for the author was “Among My Souvenirs,” which was written by Edgar Leslie and created in the back of Wright’s Rolls-Royce while they were on their way to Llandudno. “Among My Souvenirs” is one of the few songs from Tin Pan Alley before the war that is still widely known today. It was first a hit for American bandleader Paul Whiteman in 1928, followed by Connie Francis in 1959 and Marty Robbins in 1976. Other notable artists such as Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, and Frank Sinatra have also recorded the song. As the author often said, “You can’t go wrong with the songs of Wright.”
Wright strongly believed that his song Among My Souvenirs would be a success. He was so confident that he even purchased the front page of the Daily Mail to advertise it. As time went on, he became dissatisfied with relying on the press for publicity and decided to create his own newspaper, the Melody Maker, in January 1926. The main purpose of the publication was to promote Wright’s own music catalog. It was published monthly from the basement of No 19 and edited by drummer and dance-band leader Edgar Jackson. The first issue featured Horatio Nicholls, also known as Lawrence Wright himself, who was modestly introduced as “one of the most talented and popular composers of light music, not just in England but around the world”.
Wright retained an interest in Melody Maker right up until his death in May 1964. When writer Chris Welch began working at the paper in the early 1960s, Wright was still alive: “My editor, Jack Hutton, would say he was off to lunch with the ‘GOM of TPA’ – the Grand Old Man of Tin Pan Alley,” says Welch. “He was this father figure and whatever he said or did we had to write about it. Even if we’d rather be writing about the Beatles, we had to cover Lawrence Wright stuff.”
During interviews, Wright, who does not smoke or drink, may come across as dull, often expressing his beliefs that alcohol, tobacco, and sex are all negative influences. However, he believes that music is a universal language that can bridge cultural barriers. He once used unconventional marketing tactics, such as hiring a plane to fly over Blackpool with a band playing a song and dropping sheet music to promote his records. He also had staff members ride on a camel around London to advertise a song.
Additional tricks involved handing out bananas to crowds during performances of Frank Silver and Irving Cohn’s “Yes! We Have No Bananas.” Once this became popular, Wright acquired a song called “I’ve Never Seen a Straight Banana” and promised to give £1,000 to anyone who could present one. The office was soon inundated with boxes of bananas, and Wright ultimately awarded the prize to the person who brought in the least bent banana.
In 1933, Wright purchased his own theater, the Princes Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. There, he presented adaptations of Blackpool revues for audiences in London. Under the pseudonym Horatio Nicholls, he composed hundreds of songs, and under his real name, Lawrence Wright, he published thousands more. Some of his most popular hits include “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Burlington Bertie from Bow,” and “Old Father Thames.” Wright was making a significant amount of money, and when his Maida Vale residence was bombed in 1940, he relocated to the Park Lane hotel, where he remained until his death in 1964. He left behind a legacy as a prolific music creator, and his success sparked the beginning of an entire industry.