Samuel Coleridge Taylor was born in Holban, London, on 15th August, 1875. His father, Daniel Taylor, came to England from Sierra Leone to study medicine. After graduating he found his race was a barrier to maintaining a medical practice in England. He therefore decided to return to Sierra Leone, soon after Samuel was born.
Samuel was raised by his mother, Alice Taylor. Named after the poet Samuel Coleridge, he took a keen interest in music and at the age of 15 applied to enter the Royal College of Music (RCM). Sir George Grove, the principal of the RCM, originally said no as he feared other students might complain about having to study with a black man.
In 1896 he met Paul Laurence Dunbar. The son of a former slave, Dunbar had written a great deal of poetry about Africa. He decided to set some of Dunbar's poems to music and African Romances was published in 1897.
Edward Elgar, Britain's leading composer, was very impressed with Samuel Coleridge Taylor's work. He wrote that he was "far and away the cleverest fellow amongst the young men" in the country. This was reinforced by the first performance of Hiawatha's Wedding Feast (1899). It was an immediate success and for the next ten years was the country's most popular English choral-orchestral work. This was followed by Ethiopia Saluting the Colours (1902), Four African Dances (1902) and Twenty-Four Negro Melodies (1904).
Samuel Coleridge Taylor was a leading exponent of Pan-Africanism, which emphasized the importance of a shared African heritage. Along with his friend Duse Mohammed, he founded The African and Orient Review, a Pan-Africanist newspaper in London. In 1904 he wrote about his work Twenty-Four Negro Melodies: "What Brahms has done for the Hungarian folk music, Dvorak for the Bohemian, and Grieg for the Norwegian, I have tried to do for these Negro Melodies."
While living in Croydon he experienced a great deal of racial prejudice. Samuel Coleridge Taylor's white wife (Jessie Walmisley) was also a target of abuse when she was out walking with her husband. His daughter later reported that gangs of local youths would often make comments about the colour of his skin: "When he saw them approaching along the street he held my hand more tightly, gripping it until it almost hurt."
Samuel Coleridge Taylor was unable to survive on his royalties and in 1903 he became professor of composition at Trinity College of Music in London. He also worked as a conductor and several times toured the United States. After reading The Souls of Black Folk by William Du Bois he took a keen interest in politics. While in America he met and had discussions with Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt. In 1906 he gave concerts in several cities including New York, Boston, St Louis, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Washington and Chicago.
Samuel Coleridge Taylor died of pneumonia on 1st September, 1912. His two children, Hiawatha and Avril, both had distinguished careers as composers and conductors.