John Francis Holcome Read’s story is one of obscurity to riches rather than rags to riches. Born in Jamaica in 1821, Read was the son of a minor official and his wife, and was sent to London as a small child to be brought up by his grandparents in Woolwich.
The young John started his career in the Ordnance Department like his grandfather, but at some stage he moved to the stock exchange, where he made his fortune as a broker.
By 1871 Read, by now married with eight children, had bought The Chestnuts in Hoe Street and was living there in some style, with a household including a governess and nurse as well as five other servants including a cook, parlour maid, two house maids and a coachman. By this time, as well as being wealthy and well connected in the City, he was also established in Walthamstow life, serving as a JP and as a trustee of numerous charities and on many local committees. He had also helped set up the Walthamstow Musical Society, and was devoting much of his time to music, as a conductor and a viola player and, increasingly, as a prolific composer.
In the 1880s Read joined forces with a local builder to create the Victoria Hall in Hoe Street, on the site now occupied by the Granada Cinema. The elaborate opening event featured Read himself as conductor, a long programme with performers including both local amateurs and professional singers brought in for the occasion as well as prayers led by the Rector.
Over the next two decades Read wrote many pieces, often conducting his own work. His output included everything from cantatas to organ music to at least one school hymn. Music and charitable work were clearly his greatest loves, with the first often financing the second. We know that on two occasions, having cut down the amount of time he spent making money in the City, Read, found he needed to go back to work to generate more income to pay for all his commitments and to fund everything he wanted to do, including substantial donations to charity each year.
By the late 1880s many of Walthamstow’s grandees were leaving town, selling up their land for the housing development that was taking place with the coming of the railway. And at this time Read sold The Chestnuts and its extensive grounds to a railway company in the expectation the house would be demolished. In the event, the agreed route of the new railway line skirted the house, which was then sold on to the local authority, which in turn leased it out as a mental hospital – in the language of the time, a “female lunatic asylum”.
Unlike many of his prosperous neighbours, Read did not leave Walthamstow, moving instead to a smaller house. On his death in 1901, his obituary noted he had died a comparatively poor man – his last home had only eight bedrooms. Some of his children became stockbrokers in their turn – but his daughter Mary had become a professional singer and was to make her living as a performer until the 1930s.
Read’s is a name that deserves to be remembered: he believed passionately that music should be for everyone. And it was he who gave Walthamstow its grandest performance space, the Victoria Hall. Its successor, the Granada, is now to be restored and opened once again as a music, theatre and cinema venue.