The choristers' friend
No book about choristers would be complete without a word about Maria Hackett, "The Choristers' Friend".
She was born at the end of the eighteenth century and when she was about 28 years old took into her care a fatherless boy. Wishing to give him a good education she placed him in the choir of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Very low standards of care for the choristers in the early nineteenth century
Contrary to her expectations she found that all was not well at St Paul’s. Education, discipline and general care of the boys was of a very low standard and later on, non-existent. A letter she wrote to the bishop of London in 1811 gives a very clear picture of the situation. She says:
The neglected situation of the children belonging to St Paul's choir has for some time been a subject of general animadversion. In the earlier ages of the church, they with other members of the choir formed a part of the dean’s household; and till within a few years, they were maintained and educated from the funds of this richly-endowed cathedral; but the sum allowed to the almoner for their board became, through the depreciation of money, totally inadequate for their support. The almoner who held the situation of music master, applied to the Chapter for an augmentation; but instead of complying with this request the Chapter declined making any addition to the sum anciently assigned for the maintenance of the choristers, and the almoner was under the necessity of dismissing them from his protection, dividing among them their trifling salary.
In consequence of this arrangement, many of the children reside at a considerable distance from the church and from the singing master and a great proportions of the day is consumed in loitering about the streets, having no one to call them into account for the employment of their time. If they appear in their places at the hour of service, no thought is bestowed upon their conduct for the rest of the day – and, let me add, the night also.
To remunerate their singing master for his trouble, the children are hired out to public concerts, and are exposed, unprotected, to the contagion of any society they meet within those nocturnal assemblies. No one, on these occasions, is appointed to have an eye upon their conduct; no one to return them safely to their friends. After the conclusion of the concert, these youths are committed to their own discretion, are left to walk the streets alone and at midnight, and to find their way home as they can. What effect his vagabond life, at so early an age, is likely to have upon their morals, in most instances, may be easily imagined. Nor is their education less neglected; and except that they attend a singing master for the requisite lessons to enable them to get through the choral service, and that they are called upon a very few times in the year to repeat the catechism, they are literally kept without instruction.
Response? - inaction
The bishop replied curtly that he was sending her letter on to the dean. Nothing was done. In July 1813 Miss Hackett wrote to the chancellor, pointing out to him that he had not taken the slightest notice of a letter she had written to him the previous September reminding him of the documents of the school. She received an evasive reply.
Next she wrote to one of the residentiary canons, Dr Thomas Hughes. He replied that if any parent or guardian was unsatisfied with the situation they would be welcome to come and discuss it with the residentiary of the day, but he didn't think any parent or guardian would have ground for complaint. Miss Hackett then exploded, telling him that there was no residentiary of the day. Furthermore, that the dean himself had not been present at service for more than a few days in ten months, and so it was with Dr Weston and Dr Wellesly. Only a deputy took the services and preached a sermon. So, in fact, there was virtually no one to whom complaints could be made.
... but legal action to prove too costly
There were more letters, more evasive replies, but in August 1814, Miss Hackett, her uncle George Capper and two half-brothers, John and Samuel Capper, began legal action against the Dean and Chapter for the restoration of the school property, and the recovery of an early benefaction for boys whose voices had broken. However, when the high cost of the case was realised it had to be abandoned.
Miss Hackett then set about finding a suitable place for the choristers' education. First she tried St Paul’s school but was not successful. Undaunted, she made enquiries about several houses, including the Chapter House, but to no avail. However, the Dean and Chapter appointed William Hawes as the new almoner at an increased salary. The house where he proposed to take the choristers was at 27 Craven Street, Charing Cross, which was a considerable walk, twice a day to and from St Paul’s. At this Miss Hackett protested.
In 1817 William Hawes received the ten Children of the Chapel and had to move to larger quarters, which was 7 Adelphi Terrace in The Strand, being much more convenient to St Paul’s.
In 1828 when Edward Copleston was appointed dean, he augmented the almoner’s salary by £400 per year. However, as the dean was being paid a little under £8,000 per year, one feels that a little more would have saved the almoner from having to hire the boys out to sing at concerts and banquets.
Early in 1830 Hawes took charge of the so-called "Oratorio" concerts at Covent Garden and Drury Lane twice a week in Lent, incorporating all kinds of sacred and secular music (including a final Hallelujah chorus) in which the St Paul's and Chapel Royal choristers took part. Miss Hackett got to hear of this and wrote to the newly appointed bishop of London, Charles Blomfield, who was also dean of the Chapel Royal. First she expressed her gratitude for the improvements in the life of the St Paul’s choristers, but bringing to his notice the grave state of affairs concerning both St Paul's and the Chapel Royal’s boys in being hired out to these most unsuitable concerts. She considered that the concerts of ancient music and perhaps charity concerts, under proper supervision, might be permissible, but at present they were attending tavern dinners and midnight clubs. Only a little imagination was needed to realise what trouble they might run into.
It had apparently been the custom for all theatres and places of entertainment to close down during Holy Week. But in 1830, owing to the singing engagements of an adult member of the choir of St Paul’s, this rule was relaxed and the boys of the Chapel Royal and St Paul’s were sent to take part. It is not recorded what affect Miss Hackett’s remonstrance’s had.
The almoner, William Hawes, was too free with the use of a lady’s riding whip, and SS Wesley, who was then one of the Children of the Chapel, remembered Maria Hackett giving them all succulent buns to help alleviate the pain.
Visits to all the cathedrals of England and Wales
It was about this time that she began her legendary visits to all the cathedrals of England and Wales, enquiring into the welfare of the choristers and making suggestions for improvements. When at Rochester Cathedral, Frederick Bridge (later organist of Westminster Abbey) was one of the choristers who recorded a small gift of money from her and his name in her record book. She travelled alone and in the first half of the nineteenth century this was no small achievement for a woman. She revisited each cathedral every three years.
1827 – publication of "Brief Account of Cathedral and Collegiate Schools..."
She published her book Brief Account of Cathedral and Collegiate Schools, with an Abstract of their Statutes and Endowments in 1827, which was sent to all Deans and Chapters and which had a revolutionizing effect on the country’s choir schools. Even in her ninety-first year she travelled to St David’s Cathedral in Wales to see that all was well with the choristers.
The new St Paul’s choir school at Carter Lane was opened in 1876 with 40 boys, and Maria Hackett made a point of visiting there. Later in the year she died. The choir of St Paul’s sang at her funeral at Highgate Cemetery and in 1877 a memorial was erected to her in the crypt of the cathedral, paid for by subscriptions from choristers all over the country. Truly she is rightly known as "The Choristers' Friend".