A blind 18th century musician based in London, England, Starling Goodwin wrote music both for church use and public concerts. Surviving examples of his work include voluntaries for organ or harpsichord and a number of popular light entertainment songs. One of the greatest pluralists of his profession, he was organist at four London churches simultaneously at the time of his death. He was also a witty and amusing socialiser and an accomplished violinist.
Birth in London
Starling Goodwin was born early 1711 in Bishopsgate in the City of London. He was the second of four sons born to master baker Michael Goodwin and his wife Judith (nee Dowell). Despite the business, the family was struggling to make ends meet. Starling Goodwin was baptised at St Botolph’s Church on 6th March, 1711 (old style dating 1710) where his parents had been married in 1706. The name Starling is probably derived from a maiden name in an earlier generation of his family, or maybe that of a family benefactor. His older brother, Thomas, was born in 1709 and his younger brothers, William and James, much later, in 1720 and 1722 respectively.
Blinded by smallpox
When Starling Goodwin was aged around ten, he succumbed to a life-changing attack of smallpox which caused him to lose his sight. This was probably during the 1721 epidemic in London that helped fuel the inoculation debate at that time. He was consequently, throughout his life, unable to read or write and all surviving documents he signed are marked with his cross, a large, bold “X”. Examples of this appear on his apprenticeship contract, his marriage licence, and his will in 1773. However, he was trained by a man described as a “common fiddler” – probably a street entertainer – to play the violin with a view to him possibly making a living from it, but this did not involve any formal musical training.
Despite being unable to read, or more likely as a result of it and being read to, he appears to have developed a taste for literature, especially plays, and at his death he possessed a complete set of Shakespeare, a four-volume set of Don Quixote, and numerous other stage works.
Trained as a baker
To begin with, though, at the slightly late age of 16, he trained as a baker to follow in the family business. The apprenticeship contract, dated 15th January, 1727, was for the usual seven years. He may well have completed the contract and become a journeyman baker before switching to music, but at some point someone has written on the contract “now Musician”.
Who wrote his music down?
He must also have been unable to read or write music which probably means he played everything by ear and from memory. He composed a number of works for secular and church use and these must have been written down for him by others, such as his daughter, Ann, or son, William.
We do not know exactly when Starling Goodwin abandoned baking as a career and switched instead to music for his income. His abilities on the violin attracted the attention of a London organist who, out of charity, we are told, took him on as an apprentice and taught him the rudiments of music. For several years he was able to earn some money deputising for organists.
His first known appointment was in 1736 when he became organist of St Olave’s Church, Southwark. Two years later he became organist of the Church of St Mary Magdalen, Bermondsey, in Southwark. While this was a paid post it would not have been enough on which to live and he may well have continued baking or more likely he may have been performing at paid public concerts in the pleasure parks during the week.
He is reported to have become an excellent violinist and was a first violinist and often leader of the band in a number of concert performances of works by composers such as Handel, Corelli, and Geminiani. And in 1771 he published a set of six duets for two violins he had composed.
Socially, he was described as a “sensible man and a facetious companion” (facetious meant here in its older use as witty and amusing) and was always welcome at the various parish and club events in the Southwark and Lambeth area where he lived. He also used the violin to accompany himself singing songs, and was much sought after as a music turn at social events.
Marriage and children
On 24th December, 1747, he took out a licence to marry Ann Bodwell. Both were single and Starling described himself as a gentleman, living in the parish of St Saviour, Southwark. The marriage took place two days later, on Boxing Day, in the Church of the Holy Trinity, in the Minories, close to the Tower of London.
There is a question as to the legitimacy of at least one of the two children known to be born to the couple. Their daughter, Ann, gave her age as 22 in March, 1767, when she married William Wade. This would mean she was born in 1745, two years before her parents married. No baptism records have yet been found for Ann or her brother William. And there was a son, Michael, who was baptised at St Mary’s Church, Newington (where Starling Goodwin would later become organist) as early as 29th August, 1735 when he was aged 24. The mother isn’t named. In obtaining his special licence to marry in 1747, Starling Goodwin had sworn an oath to say that he was a bachelor. This would appear to rule out any previous marriage.
Organist of St Saviour, Southwark
In 1750, Starling Goodwin was appointed organist at the more prestigious Church of St Saviour, Southwark (today Southwark Cathedral). He continued to hold the post at Bermondsey. Around the same year he founded a series of monthly Saturday evening public concerts at the Lambeth Well pleasure gardens which were popular and drew large audiences. At some point he took on the additional posts of organist at St Mary’s Church, Newington-Butts and at St George the Martyr, Southwark.
As organist of four south London churches, and organist at the prestigious and fashionable Ranelagh Gardens pleasure park in Chelsea, he was probably assisted by his musician son, William, who in any case succeeded him in all his posts when he died.
Royal Society of Musicians
Apart from his books of literature, we know that Starling also possessed books of music, for example, subscribing to the publication of Twelve Sonatas for Two Violins, with a bass for Violoncello or Harpsichord by William Boyce in 1747. He also became a member of The Royal Society of Musicians in 1752, listing his instrument as the organ.
When he made his will in March, 1773, he bequeathed his mahogany card table and a gilt-framed mirror to his daughter, Ann. He also gave her the Don Quixote volumes and said she could choose six of the books of plays, but expressly forbade the breaking of the Shakespeare set. He ordered that no more than £15 was to be spent on his funeral.
Starling Goodwin died Sunday, 20th November, 1774 at his house in Castle Street in the Park, Southwark.
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