Of Choristers – ancient and modern

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Bristol, The Cathedral School

Choristers in the fourteenth century or earlier

The Choir, Bristol Cathedral (founded AD 1140)
Photo by "grimmo"
Some rights reserved

It is probable that Bristol Cathedral, or St Augustine’s Abbey as it was when founded in AD 1140, had a few boy singers in the fourteenth century or earlier who were linked with the development of the Lady Chapel and singing music in honour of the Virgin Mary. A little later the surviving Compotus Rolls state that the almoner paid for the choristers'  food, clothing, bedding, candles and fuel, also for the barber and washerwoman. Also these rolls mention a master of the boys, a succentor and an almoner’s servant. There were between three and six boys who were joined by a few adult lay clerks in order to sing the new polyphonic music.

In 1491 John Griffith was appointed grammar master. He was paid for his keep only at 13 shillings and four pence for a half year, there being no mention of any salary for his teaching. But by 1511 his salary reads as nullum. Further investigation shows that the master of the boys, the succentor and a cantor were sharing Griffith’s salary between them.

The Grammar School

About this date and for the first time the place where the boys were being taught is referred to as The Grammar School, so in fact there would have been a senior canon teaching the novices, a master of the boys, probably a layman, and a grammar master teaching the young canons, choristers and a handful of other boys. We know very little about these masters of the boys but one name, Richard Bramston, has survived in the records. He was born in Wells in the latter part of the fifteenth century and became a vicar choral there in 1507. Soon after he was deputising for Richard Higons, the organist and master of the choristers, receiving a salary of 2 a year. 1508 was a stormy year for Bramston for by May he was on bad terms with the Chapter and another vicar choral was appointed in his place. By 1509 he had left Wells and gone to Bristol as master of the boys. In 1510 he was found "impressing" a boy from Wells with the intention of taking him to Bristol. After two years he was back in Wells and was once more organist and master of the choristers until 1531 when he resigned, renouncing music forever and going into commerce where he became very prosperous. He died in 1554.

1542 – a new cathedral established

In December 1539, St Augustine’s Abbey was dissolved and in 1542 the new cathedral was established.  Statutes were drawn up in 1544 with the school being part of the scheme. There was to be one master of the choristers, six choristers and two grammar masters, one being the headmaster and the other an usher or under master. The Statutes go on to stipulate various payments; six shillings per month was to be allowed for the board of the headmaster and the master of the choristers and four shillings and eight pence per month for the under master. For clothing the headmaster was allowed four yards of cloth for his gown and the under master three yards and to each chorister two yards. Stipends were allotted thus: The headmaster was to receive 8, eight shillings and eight pence per year, the under master 59 shillings and two pence and each of the choristers 15 shillings. However, these figures do not quite tally with the accounts of 1550 when the headmaster received 13, six shillings and eight pence. Henry the Eighth was critical of the bad state of repair of the school and gave 20 towards the refurbishing of the building.

The Civil War

During the years of the Civil War,  Bristol did not suffer as much as some cathedrals and the school house was left intact, but of course the choral services closed down.

The eighteenth century

There is very little information to be had concerning the under masters or choristers during the eighteenth century but we do know that the school was badly let down by the headmaster, a certain minor canon Haynes and his assistant, Edward Bowles, during the latter part of that century. It is likely that the choristers simply were not at the grammar school during the latter half of the eighteenth century which would explain the absence of any information concerning them, but they do reappear in 1802 when a new curriculum was introduced giving second place to classics and more emphasis on the basic subjects.

The nineteenth century

There were now about 50 pupils including six choristers whose numbers were not increased until midway through the century. In 1805 entrance money for choristers was stopped and that for probationers fees was halved to two guineas.

A new awareness of and interest in education

During the 1830s there was a new awareness of and interest in education by church and state and the need for qualified teachers was recognised. Thus in Bristol the first of two abortive attempts to combine the cathedral school with a teachers’ training college came into being in 1843. The students were to be trained in teaching also to do teaching practice on the boys of the school. A house in the Cloister was taken by the Dean and Chapter to accommodate the students. The boys’ curriculum was expanded to include history, geography, geometry, algebra and mechanics, linear drawing and mapping and bookkeeping. A new system of fees was drawn up; boarders paid twenty guineas per year, day boys and the under tens four guineas per year and the over tens, six guineas. The headmaster was the Reverend Robert Hancock.

A chronic shortage of candidates for voice trials

Throughout the century there was a chronic shortage of candidates for voice trials so that in 1840 prospective choristers had to be picked from those boys already in the school. By 1857 the Dean and Chapter paid the headmaster six guineas for every chorister over the number of ten, but towards the end of the century the shortage was so great that the governors discussed testing every new boy for singing ability. School hours were fixed at 9am to 10.45am and 2pm to 2.45pm between which the choristers fitted in Matins and Evensong and practice time.

The Endowed Schools Act

From about 1869 change was in the air. The Endowed Schools Act came into being and Endowed Schools Commissioners were appointed to examine these schools of which Bristol was one. But most important, a second attempt was made to establish a teachers’ training college very much on the lines of the first. There were now 18 choristers educated free of charge, the others paid either 2 a term or 5 per year. The curriculum still followed those subjects thought to be appropriate for boys going into shop keeping or small trading, and when the headmaster was found to be teaching Greek he was stopped and finally dismissed.

The school flourishes in the late nineteenth century

By 1875 school numbers had sunk to the 18 choristers and a few other boys. However, with the appointment of Mr William Henry Pate as headmaster, the tide began to turn. Numbers rose rapidly and in 1879 two assistant masters were appointed, so that by January (at that time the school year began in January) of that year it was decided to limit the intake to 100 boys who were now taken at eight years old and choristers even earlier. A few boarders were taken who were lodged in the headmaster’s house.

A few additions were made to the curriculum, namely French and elementary physics, also drill was introduced but still there were no outdoor games. The timetable was no longer geared to the needs of the choristers who missed much schooling.

In the meantime numbers at the college were very low and in 1877 the training college closed for the second time. 1892 saw the beginning of physical education with the introduction of gymnastics followed by swimming for which a small fee was charged.

The twentieth century

Christ in Majesty stained glass
from Bristol Cathedral
Photo courtesy of Bristol Cathedral

Early in the twentieth century soccer and hockey were started in the winter terms and cricket in summer; again these were charged for.  Greek and German could be taken for a fee of 3 per year. Although school numbers remained high, finances were very tight.

A hard daily routine

The daily routine for the choristers was, if anything, rather harder than it is today. They worked a seven day week, sang two services a day, except for Friday Evensong which was said. Matins was at 9am followed by an hour’s practice. Evensong followed the end of school at 4pm and on Sundays there were three services. After this they had three hours "home lessons". In all they missed about twelve hours schooling every week. Nevertheless, all seemed to do well in later life. From time to time attempts were made to recruit boarders but all failed. However, sport of all kinds began to thrive, swimming, soccer and rugby, cricket, athletics and inter–school matches.

The Balfour Act

In 1902 the Balfour Act allowed endowed schools to apply for grant aid from local authorities on condition that free education was given to a quarter of the school’s intake. This is where the choristers came into their own. The following year the governors applied for grant aid. An inspection by the Board of Education took place in 1906, the results of which were not wholly good. Again there was criticism at the lack of a science laboratory and there was much correspondence between the board and the governors when fees were raised and staff reduced. It was put forward that Mr Pate should be asked to retire and a new and younger headmaster appointed at a considerably lower stipend. However, miraculously, finances began to improve and by 1910 and again in 1915 and 1917, helped by donations a considerable profit was achieved. The headmaster was forced to turn away candidates for the school as there was no room for them.

Unfortunately Mr Pate had been taken seriously ill in 1912 and died in May 1913, after 37 years in office. His successor was the Reverend JF Spink, who was forced to resign in 1916 owing to charges of indecency against three boys. The Reverend HA Watts was appointed in his stead. The school was now able to expand building-wise with the purchase of Abbey Lodge in 1918.

1920 – the governors apply for grant-aided status

After the first world war, in which 20 Old Cathedralians lost their lives, the school still had no sixth form, nor was it recognised as efficient by the Board of Education, which criticised the lack of science, the poorly paid, unqualified staff and the lack of a French master. Thus in 1920 the governors made an application for grant-aided status.

A public appeal for 5,000 was launched which was wholly successful, the outcome of which produced a science laboratory, a staff room, eight classrooms and an assembly hall (kindly given by Mrs Palliser Martin at a cost of 3,000). The staff were now paid according to the Burnham scale so that over time numbers reached 147 boys and seven staff. Recognition by the Board of Education followed, but there was still criticism at the lack of physical education, art and handwork and also music, except in the case of the choristers, who even now were not learning any instruments.

The second world war

Bristol Cathedral 
Photo by "Hairbear"
Some rights reserved

During the second world war Bristol suffered very badly from air attack but surprisingly school numbers rose. The headmaster, the Reverend HA Watts, was so badly injured in a raid that he had to retire and Canon Millbourn took over for four years and did wonders for the school, including an agreement whereby the Dean and Chapter would give 120 per year for the education of the choristers. When Canon Millbourn’s temporary office came to an end Mr Cecil Rich of Sevenoaks school was appointed headmaster in 1945.

The headmastership of Cecil Rich

Cecil Rich was a remarkable man during those years of change and upheaval and spent nearly a quarter of a century in office. At his first prize giving he referred to the three basics of the school’s education, the great church, the choir, and the grammar school tradition.

In 1946 the Deanery building was taken over for the school on a rented basis. Once again, owing to rising numbers, it had become necessary to plan for greater space in the teaching of science. This problem was mentioned as being unsatisfactory in HM Inspector’s report in 1955 but it was to some extent remedied by building made possible by a generous legacy of 6,000 left to the school in the will of Elizabeth Armstrong. Over the ensuing years the worst faults in the inspector’s report were put right, including the erection of a combined hall and gymnasium in 1964.

During Mr Rich’s headmastership many extra curricular activities were started, clubs and societies were formed and the parents' association was very active. Mr Rich retired in 1970 and sadly, died in 1973. He was succeeded by David Jewell who had been a choral exhibitioner at St John’s College, Oxford, who often sang with the school choir and in the cathedral.

1976 – the school achieves independence and Clifford Harker retires

Under David Jewell's guidance the school achieved Independence on 1 September 1976. However, he left to become headmaster of Haileybury in 1979. Also, after 34 years in office the cathedral organist, Clifford Harker, retired and was given the degree of Honorary Master of Music by Bristol University.

Following the declaration of independence there were some early administrative difficulties including the status of choristers who had for so long been educated free. After much discussion it was decided that they should receive help from the Choral Foundation.

An ambitious appeal was launched in 1977 with a target of 250,000 to provide bursaries also extensive classroom building where the old Bishop’s Palace had stood. One John James contributed a generous 100,000 which he repeated in 1983.

1980 was a notable year in that the first girl, Kate Dexter, was admitted to the sixth form and a little while later some 15 girls followed.

A further appeal for 200,000 was launched in 1985 when John James gave 27,000. In addition former chorister Jack Griffin left 38,000 for bursaries which provided able boys with a free education no matter what their financial circumstances might be.

1985 – trip to Germany

1985 also saw the choir travelling to Germany singing in Munich and Bonn, and also at the Capitula High Mass in Cologne Cathedral. Back home they went to Llandaff to join their cathedral choir in a tercentenary celebration of Bach, Handel and Scarlatti; among the works given were Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater, Handel’s Zadok the Priest and Bach’s Lobel den Herrn.

In the following autumn they made recordings of Christmas carols which proved a sell out success. Soon after, the first choral scholarships were awarded – an encouraging step for the choristers. Saturday morning school was abolished at this time.

The number of choristers was kept at about 18 with a few probationers. Most of them went on to the senior school when their voices broke. About once a term the choir sang a service or gave a recital in a neighbouring parish or further afield; in 1986 at Curry Rivel in Somerset, St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall and in Wells Cathedral as part of a Four Choirs' Festival with Wells, Exeter and Truro; nearer home at St George’s Brandon Hill and at the Bristol Colston Hall, not forgetting the concerts in their own cathedral.

On Christmas Day 1991 the Eucharist was televised and the following year, being the four hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the diocese in 1542, many special services were held to celebrate it.

1993 – the girls' choir is established

Bristol Cathedral 
Photo by Joe Dunckley
Some rights reserved

1993 saw the birth of the girls’ choir consisting of girls aged from ten to 18 years which with hard work and great enthusiasm, rapidly attained the necessary standard to sing in the cathedral. Also in this year the boys and men completed a successful three day tour to Oporto after Easter.

The Three Spires Festival

The Three Spires Festival had by now become a fixture, so in June 1994 they once again joined with Truro, Wells and Exeter. In October paid a visit to Gloucester Cathedral to celebrate Herbert Sumsion’s contribution to the Anglican choral tradition; December of that year saw one of many Radio 3 broadcasts of choral Evensong.

Shortly after Easter 1995, the choir set off to sing in the twin town of Bordeaux and early in July they hosted the Four Choirs' Festival with their west country neighbours Exeter, Truro and Wells cathedral choirs, during which the girls’ choir took a small part. The public was becoming increasingly aware of what the cathedral choir had to offer in the way of education as in 1996 candidates for voice trials began to increase in number. The Four Choirs' Festival also expanded to include the girls’ choir from Salisbury Cathedral. There was also good news on the financial side as since 1975, 80 Bristol choristers had received bursaries of one third of the fees. To end the year the choir made a CD of Christmas carols with organ music by Christopher Brayne, the organist.

Bordeaux was once again in the news in the following year when the choir sang Mass in Bordeaux Cathedral also singing in St Emilion and St Ferme which was followed by a return visit in July by Les Petits Chanteurs of Bordeaux to Bristol. On Remembrance Sunday the BBC’s Songs of Praise was televised in the cathedral and soon after the choir sang in a Service of Light at the Hospice. Among diocesan visits was a recital in St Christopher’s Church, Ditteridge, for that church’s nine hundredth anniversary celebrations.

The new organist, Mark Lee, was appointed in September 1998 having been deputy organist at Gloucester; and yet another tour to Bordeaux centred on Drax, was made in the autumn.

Not so very long ago many choir schools insisted that choristers must be boarders. It was thought that being a day boy or girl would encourage absenteeism, especially over the Christmas and Easter periods and in the summer; also that the catchment area would be too restricted, moreover that homework would be neglected. Now it has become increasingly clear that none of this is true. Parents are increasingly reluctant to send their sons and daughters to board, especially the most junior, although being a day boy or girl may involve parents in transport difficulties and other inconveniences, but generally they have risen to the challenge admirably and Bristol, for one, has proved this without doubt.