Of Choristers – ancient and modern



Cambridge, King’s College School

Origins of the choir in the fifteenth century

Interior of King's College chapel
Photo by Andrew Stawarz
Some rights reserved

The deeply religious King Henry the Sixth signed the charter for what is now King’s College in AD 1441, known then as The Royal College of St Nicholas. Two years later, further plans were drawn up and the college was renamed Our College Royal of St Mary and St Nicholas and made a sister college to Eton.

Statutes enlarged in the mid-fifteenth century

Between 1446 and 1453 the statutes were enlarged and owed a great deal to William of Wykham and his two foundations of New College, Oxford and Winchester College. Henry, in his statutes for King’s College, Cambridge, stipulated that there should be 16 choristers who were to be poor boys, of a strong constitution and of "honest conversation". They must be under the age of 12 and able to read and sing. In addition to the choral duties of singing daily Matins, The Mass and Vespers, they were to wait at table in hall. The choristers’ meals and their clothing were to be provided by the college with eight pence a week for their board. They were not to be allowed to wander about outside the college grounds without permission from their master or the provost but their time must be occupied with their singing duties and their education. The ceremonies of the Boy Bishop took place on St Nicholas Day (6 December).

Henry was concerned for the good behaviour of the choristers at all times and especially at Divine Service. There is also no record of a permanent schoolmaster until 1456 when Robert Brantham, a former Eton and King’s Scholar, held the post and was also a choral scholar.

The Wars of the Roses

All this had barely been established when the Wars of the Roses broke out which affected the college and its choristers to some extent. Henry was defeated at St Albans in 1455 and was taken prisoner until he was deposed in 1461 and Edward the Fourth proclaimed King. He reduced the revenues to the college which in turn made a reduction in the number of choristers necessary and the building of the new chapel which we know today ground to a halt.

By 1467 the number of choristers had been restored to sixteen and by about ten years later Edward had agreed to restore some of the revenues to the college and gave his permission for the building of the chapel to continue, as did Richard the Third in his short reign. However, when Henry the Seventh succeeded to the throne in 1485, feeling the need for economy, he reduced the revenues once more and ordered the building of the chapel to be halted. But in 1506 when passing through Cambridge he attended a mass and an Evensong in the temporary chapel at King’s he was struck by the half finished chapel and resolved to allow sufficient money for it to be completed as we know it today.

The sixteenth century

In the early years of the sixteenth century the well known composer, Christopher Tye, was a chorister and later a member of the college who composed music for his choir and taught the boys.

The Reformation

By now the Reformation was affecting the religious establishments of the country but the colleges were not greatly influenced. However, Henry the Eighth sent commissioners from London to examine King’s and others, and if necessary to suppress their revenues. There was even a bill to dissolve the colleges in 1540 but it never became law, so the life of the choristers went on as usual.

King’s College Grammar School

The school was known in the sixteenth century as the King’s College Grammar School, so it is likely that Latin and scripture and possibly some mathematics were taught. There is no indication of the whereabouts of this school, but later in the sixteenth century, when Queen Elizabeth the First visited the college she stayed in the provost’s house, which was to the east of the college and the choristers’ schoolroom was used as a buttery.

In the middle of the century, during Edward the Sixth’s short reign, there was a visitation of the university sent to divert money spent on choristers, chantries and grammar schools. However, the choristers of King’s and Trinity Colleges escaped any changes save for the abolition of the Boy Bishop ceremonies. In 1569 the school, along with the Trinity College choir school, avoided the ban on the teaching of Latin, which came into effect for other colleges. Another embargo of a different nature was imposed on the members of King’s College, including the choristers by command of the provost was that of swimming. The penalty for a first offence was flogging and for a second offence, expulsion!

It seems likely that most of the choristers at this time were recruited from all over the south of England. However, there is no record of a boarding school, so they probably lived with friends or relations in the town. When Queen Elizabeth visited the college in 1564, three of the choristers who sang at her service bore the same names as three of the lay clerks; also Provost Philip Baker hailed from Devon, which might account for the presence of three Devon-born choristers, who were likely to have been boarded by the provost.

Orlando Gibbons

Towards the end of the century the 12 year old Orlando Gibbons entered the choir as a chorister. His brother, Edward, was a lay clerk at King’s and later undergraduate. Orlando, at the age of 21, was appointed organist of the Chapel Royal. His many fine compositions, both sacred and secular, remain in the repertoire today.

The seventeenth century

King's College Cambridge at night
Photo by "jgraham"
Some rights reserved

John Tomkins was officially appointed organist in 1606, probably the first at King’s, and stayed until 1622. During his time the choir flourished and a high standard of singing was attained. But after his time a general degeneration took place, for when Archbishop Laud sent visitors to King’s in 1639, they found that the lay clerks could not sing, neither the choristers who even failed to wear their surplices.

The Civil War

This situation gradually wound down to the Civil War when King’s Chapel was largely spared the devastation wrought in so many churches and cathedrals. As each chorister left when his voice broke, he was not replaced, so that numbers gradually fell to only one chorister and about five lay clerks. Eventually choral services were completely suppressed but Henry Loosemoore, organist and master, still drew his stipend, probably performing secular music in the town.

The Restoration

In 1660 at the coming of the Restoration a new team of choristers was rapidly elected, 10 in number, and by 1666 the full 16 was established. For the first time non-singing boys were admitted to the school, some possibly coming from the Perse School in Cambridge, which had recently gone through bad times. So in 1693 a new choir school was built to the south of the provost’s lodge, known as the Brick Building and this accommodated the 16 choristers and a number of non-singing boys.

The eighteenth century

Mr Heath, a fellow of the college, was master of the school in about 1730. During the second half of the seventeenth century the school went into decline and the teaching became elementary and of a low standard. However, it never closed down. By the end of the century the school building was made part of the provost’s lodge and at some point, before 1828, the choristers had to move out.

The nineteenth century

Early in the nineteenth century a new building was being erected for them to the rear of the west end of the hall but they did not move into their new school until 1828. Another move took place in 1840 when they were accommodated in a room over the college buttery.

Shortly before they left the Brick Building, there was a chorister named William Sterndale Bennett, who was to become famous in church music circles. Entering the choir at the age of eight, two years later he was transferred to the newly formed Royal Academy of Music in London, where Mendelssohn found him at the age of 17 and took him to Leipzig to study. Later he became principal of The Royal Academy of Music and professor of music at Cambridge. He was a prolific composer of Victorian church music but the only two works which have to some extent survived are the oratorio, The Woman of Samaria and the anthem God is a Spirit.

Harsh conditions in the nineteenth century

King's College stained glass
Photo by "Nick in exsilio"
Some rights reserved

Like the majority of schools at that time "Dickensian" conditions prevailed and there was much bullying. Initiation rites were somewhat barbaric, fights with boys from other schools were common and there were even cases of stealing from shops. The headmaster, William Headdy, was also the butler at Clare College and the choristers were almost all from poor families. Waiting in the hall was still part of the duties of the eight senior choristers who were able to eat any leftovers to supplement their dreadfully inadequate diet. Matters went from bad to worse, creating a vicious circle of unruly behaviour and severe punishment until one day two fellows visited the school and were so distressed by what they saw that they reported it to the authorities and in time a full scale programme of reform was set in motion.

New statutes in the mid-nineteenth century

In 1856 there was an Act of Parliament enabling the colleges to rewrite their statutes, and as regarding King’s College, there were to be two chaplains, 12 lay clerks and the original 16 choristers. Two separate appointments, those of organist and choirmaster were to be made instead of the one appointment. Boys were to be drawn from a better social background and they were to be given instrumental instruction by the organist. Provision was to be made for choristers leaving the choir in the shape of financial assistance and a grant for their further education at University. To those who boarded them in their chorister days sufficient money to cover board and lodging, also clothes, was to be given and an assurance that they would be properly supervised.

Problems in the latter half of the nineteenth century

In 1865 Edward Mahoney was appointed master over the choristers, but by 1870 he had so neglected his duties that he was dismissed. He was followed by a Mr John Fowler, who was instructed to teach them daily, maintain good discipline and accompany them to and from the chapel. He was informed that the building of a boarding school was imminent and when it was ready he would no longer be wanted. The boys took all their meals in college at this time and there was an allowance of £2 and 12 shillings a week for this. When a rise in this amount was requested it was refused, instead they only had their lunch in college and were given bread and cheese to take back to their lodgings for other meals. It was agreed by the precentor and organist that the standard of music in the chapel was far from good. The lay clerks did double duty with the choir of Trinity College and when they did appear at King’s their deportment left much to be desired. Finally Trinity obtained a separate set of lay clerks in 1871.

The rationale for a boarding school

In the meantime, the musical standard was being raised in other choral establishments by men like Stainer, Parratt and CH Lloyd at St Paul’s, Magdalen College, Oxford and Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, respectively, so that King’s did not want to be left behind. Boarding schools for choristers were being built thus enabling a much wider catchment area for boys to be created. Thus it was agreed to press ahead with the building of the boarding school and in the meantime the college should rent number 5, Pemberton Terrace, as a temporary boarding school until the permanent one should be ready.

Pemberton Terrace already housed a mixture of day choristers whose parents lived in Cambridge, also any new ones from anywhere in England as boarders. Thus the phasing out of day boy choristers had begun. Mr Biscoe was in charge of them and he was assisted in the teaching by Mr Fowler. A middle of the road curriculum was decided on to accommodate both the local boys from poorer homes and the boarders recruited from the better-off homes who would eventually be aiming at public schools. However, Latin was taught and geography as well as the basic subjects, but not Greek or French.

1878 – the building of the boarding school is completed

Interior of King's College chapel
Photo by Andrew Stawarz
Some rights reserved

Meanwhile the building of the school in West Road was going ahead on land belonging to the college. The money was to come from various sources and a final estimate stood at £3,997 in May 1877.

By the autumn of 1878 the building was completed and by December of that year it was ready for occupation. The furnishings and amenities were distinctly primitive. There was but one bathroom, shared by the headmaster and his family and the boys. They had no hot water or heating and only four WCs outside. A request by the headmaster for a separate bathroom for the boys was turned down. The one long dormitory was divided into 16 cubicles and by 1880 these were all filled by 16 choristers.

Soon after the completion of the building the architect was asked to lay out the ground in front of the school as a playing field, at a cost of £500, as well as a garden for the headmaster. Two years later, £35 was allowed for the erection of a corrugated iron room for recreational purposes and sometimes for dramatic performances.

The school was less lucky in obtaining a much needed sanatorium, which was not allowed for quite a few years. Now that the playing field in front of the school was completed, sport was begun; soccer and hockey in winter and cricket in summer. Indoor hobbies were a rarity but there was some stamp collecting. Holidays were short, in 1879 they had just a few days after Christmas, two weeks before Holy Week and one month in September, later extended to include the last two weeks in August. A new set of rules was drawn up; out of bounds were the rooms of undergraduates and the receiving of presents from members of the university was forbidden and so was the taking part in concerts or musical performances in the town. There was no school uniform at this time except for the Eton suit, top hat and Eton collar, which was worn, and still is, for going to and from chapel. The school provided the gown and surplice.

1876 – the appointment of Dr Arthur Mann as organist

An important appointment was made in 1876, that of Dr Arthur Mann, as organist and master over the choristers. He was a great personality, and also a great organist and choir trainer and he remained until 1928.

...and in 1878 that of Vincent Charles Reynell as headmaster

In 1878 the Reverend Dr Vincent Charles Reynell was appointed headmaster. He and Arthur Mann worked together as a team so that general standards improved all round and the boys entered a new phase. John Fowler, who taught morning school at this time, suddenly left in 1879, making it necessary to find a new resident assistant master, paid for by Reynell – this was Mr Kelly, a former chorister of Lincoln Cathedral, with a salary of £40 a year, plus board and lodging. In 1881 Reynell was allowed to take non-chorister boarders who, with Kelly were lodged in the headmaster’s house. A year later the college took over the payment of Kelly’s salary, however, he left later in the year for another teaching post. At this, Reynell sent a memorandum to the college asking for a new assistant master and stating how much he, Reynell, had done for the moral standards of the boys and also for their academic achievements to their public schools. He also mentioned that he had paid for a games room for the boys which had cost him £120.

After much discussion the committee, set up by the college, agreed to the appointment of an assistant master, who was to be an undergraduate who would teach at morning school and supervise some evening prep. In addition Reynell was to take on more day boys, whose fees would go towards the assistant’s salary. At this time there was also additional trouble between Reynell and the college over the question of a yearly external examination. Reynell wished to set the papers himself but the college felt that it should undertake the task. In the end the college won and the custom continued until 1965.

In 1883 Reynell was married at St Mary Abbots, Kensington and his pupils attended the service which was followed by a lavish wedding breakfast. After four years of married life Reynell decided to apply for a living. He had seen the school through many changes and improvements over the nine years he had been headmaster and had laid the foundation for the further transformations which were to develop in the twentieth century.

Changes at the end of the nineteenth century

Reynell was succeeded as headmaster by Benjamin Benham, a man of widely fluctuating moods which tended to give the boys a sense of insecurity but in 1898 he went on a year’s sabbatical leave and was replaced by WJ Bensley, a genial and humorous man who nevertheless kept good discipline. On Benham’s return he was found to be very much calmer and more relaxed. He was given several undergraduate assistants and also the Reverend EG Swain taught the younger boys.

A hard daily routine for the choristers

The daily routine was quite arduous, the choristers rising at 7am and having three quarters of an hour’s reading before breakfast. Practice was from 8.30am to 9.30am, followed by lessons until lunchtime. There was sometimes a short practice after lunch followed by games and lessons. For the choristers there was changing into Eton suits, collars, gowns and top hats before walking to chapel which was followed by chapel practice on four days a week with Evensong at 5pm and after tea there was preparation until bedtime.

Voice trials were now more formal and of a higher standard; there were many applicants each year but only three or four were accepted. As well as sons of the clergy most of the boys now came from the professional classes. Christmas time was much the same as in most boarding choir schools and many parties were given for the choristers by various citizens of Cambridge and senior members of the college.

By 1898 there were altogether 39 boys in the school and a committee was set up to review the school’s affairs which recommended that there should be a maximum of 50 boys. As a result overcrowding was becoming a problem and more staffing and accommodation would be needed. Various plans were put forward and one was accepted. It was for two classrooms, ground floor and first floor, with a dormitory above to be built, better toilet facilities and a changing room with hot and cold water were planned, also a bathroom for the boys. The total cost would be around £1,000, to be lent by the college. With increased numbers sport improved, especially cricket which was popular; drama was reintroduced at the turn of the century.

The twentieth century regime

King's College chapel
Photo by "echo_snare". Some rights reserved

From 1905 we have the memoirs of a small boy, Seriol Evans, later Dean of Gloucester, who was admitted to the choir on 8 July.  He had never been to school before and at first found the pack of aggressive boys very frightening. The exuberance of Dr Mann filled him with fear, especially when he and other juniors had to stand behind the doctor at practice and read from his copy. In addition he was allotted the task of turning over for Dr Mann. If he missed a turn he would receive a smack on the head. Choir training methods were very different in those days but Dr Mann certainly got results.

Recreational activities

The "slack" period in those days – that is, when all the non-singing boys had gone home – consisted of extra practices after which there was just nothing to do and the choristers suffered from acute boredom. However, Dr Mann did his best to help and wearing a college blazer would join them in a game of "stump cricket" on summer evenings. Another cricket occasion was the fellows against the choristers match and at one of these matches the head chorister bowled the provost out first ball! Annually at the Founders Feast the choristers would sing Handel's Zadok The Priest in chapel and then adjourn to the vice-provost’s room where they were given a sumptuous meal. On one occasion, when their hosts had left them to return to the hall, the choristers created havoc in the vice-provost’s rooms; it is not recorded what happened as a result!

1905 to 1912 – a more relaxed regime under the headmastership of TC Weatherhead

Mr Benham, the headmaster, retired in 1905 and was succeeded by Mr TC Weatherhead, an altogether kindlier character with a more modern outlook on school mastering. There was a resident Matron, Miss Player, and Mrs Weatherhead did the catering. Discipline was strict but fair and the boys were happier and more relaxed and bullying was a thing of the past. However, one thing remained in need of improvement – the food. Breakfast and tea consisted of bread and butter and tea, and lunch ended with a stodgy pudding. Mr Weatherhead was keen on sport and soccer, lacrosse and cross-country running were all undertaken with good match results. Drama was given a new lease of life and the iron-room was given a stage. Notwithstanding the cramped conditions many productions were put on including some written by the headmaster. Out of school activities flourished and one of the most popular hobbies was a model railway used for the most part on half holidays when staff and boys would compete against each other and there was much good fun.

Summer Sunday evenings were given over to long walks with butterfly catching and bird nesting and in the winter months Mr Weatherhead would read to the boys. Every Whit Monday they were taken on a conducted tour of the chapel including an ascent of the roof. The first school magazine came out in December 1907 and appeared each term. On the academic side many scholarships were being won to well known public schools and afterwards boys were proceeding to varied careers such as the church, teaching, business, medicine and the armed forces.

1912 – return to a harsh disciplinary regime

King's College chapel at night
Photo by "jgraham"
Some rights reserved

In 1912 Charles R Jelf succeeded Mr Weatherhead as headmaster. He was a complete contrast to his predecessor, Victorian in outlook and in dress and in the severe discipline he enforced. Bullying, sadly, returned. High academic standards were his prime object. In 1922 two probationers were elected for the first time and these boys attended practices and some services.

There were now 65 boys in the school so that once again there was some overcrowding. Food was still poor and stodgy and the heating was far from adequate. Sport and drama deteriorated as Mr Jelf took little interest in either. However, the arrival of Dean Milner-White brought some light in the darkness. He loved children and they him and soon a happy liaison had sprung up between him and the boys. As well as teaching the senior boys scripture, he took all the boys for walks, read stories or just simply talked to them.  His confirmation classes, held in his rooms, were natural and easy going, with tea and buns thrown in. He was not always so popular with the authorities; the introduction of a Sung Eucharist on some occasions is a case in point. In contrast his famous service of Nine Lessons and Carols needs no introduction, it has spread world-wide.

1929 – Boris Ord becomes organist and choir master

After 53 years in office, Dr Mann died in November 1929. He had built up a very fine choir and his successor was Boris Ord, who stayed until 1957. Mr Jelf in the meantime had handed in his resignation in 1927 and he was succeeded by Mr CM Fiddian, boyish absent-minded and untidy but having an excellent relationship with his boys. Discipline was still quite severe and corporal punishment was maintained. His teaching methods were original and he used some of his own textbooks. The overcrowding which began in Mr Jelf’s time was put right by further building and expansion which made room for about 80 boys, the majority being day boys; also the headmaster’s accommodation was thought to be inadequate. Recommendations for change in all these respects were accepted and carried out, and by 1935 the expansion was complete.

Early overseas tours

Chris Zealley, a former Kings' tenor reports that the choir:

"...in 1936 toured Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Stockholm under the auspices of the British Council. Their performances under Boris Ord were particularly well received by one Swedish musician who years later, running his own choir, said that he had learned for the first time what could be achieved from the concert by Kings' choir he had heard many years before in Stockholm."

The second world war

With the onset of the second world war there was a dramatic reduction in the number of pupils, although there were still 16 choristers. Numbers gradually picked up and by 1944 they stood at 85. As in all schools at this time there were difficulties with both teaching and domestic staffing so that everyone, from the headmaster down to the most junior boy, lent a hand with such things as washing up and cleaning.

Widening of extra-curricular activities

The chapel was founded in AD 1446
Photo by Alister Coyne
Some rights reserved

Mr Fiddian was enthusiastic about sport and as well as the normal winter games he introduced water sports, canoeing (with home made canoes) and water polo. He made sure that every boy could swim. In the winter there was skating on Grantchester meadows and an artificial toboggan slope was made. There was metal work and woodwork and gardening was undertaken by the boys and with the arrival of Spring, many classes were held out of doors.

Mr Fiddian was an actor at heart so that drama was once again encouraged. Sometimes he and the fellows would act comedies for the boys who themselves gave an annual production such as Toad of Toad Hall or the "Alices" and sometimes a play written by the headmaster. For the first time music was developed in the school with piano and violin becoming popular with both choristers and non-choristers, class singing for the latter was introduced, also music appreciation and a gramophone and miniature scores were bought. Some public schools were beginning to offer music scholarships and in quite a short time King’s boys were gaining some of them.

In the meantime Boris Ord undertook war service and was temporarily replaced by Dr Harold Darke, between 1941 and 1945. Donald George Butters, who had come up to Cambridge in 1935 to read for his degree, had then become an undergraduate master at the school. After the war he returned as a housemaster and in 1950 was appointed headmaster in succession to Mr Fiddian. He, of course, knew the school well, its achievements and shortcomings and was determined to maintain good discipline with a happy, relaxed atmosphere. He personally supervised the academic work of each boy and raised the standard of tidiness and cleanliness, good manners and good conduct. He gave up his sitting room for the use of the boarders in an effort to help make the school feel more homely.

A new summer uniform was introduced, consisting of blue Aertex shirts, khaki shorts, white socks and sandals. The staff now consisted of a team of well qualified Oxbridge graduates and the two lower forms were taught by women, non-graduates, creating a rather more warm and sunny atmosphere for the smaller boys. A Miss Proudlove-Dunbar was made responsible for the teaching of music, not only for instrumental lessons but for general music throughout the school. Science, without as yet a laboratory, was introduced and taught by the headmaster and in 1956, HM Inspector paid a visit and gave a favourable report.

1952 – the acquisition of St Martin’s House

In 1952 the school had acquired St Martin’s House, number 5 Grange Road. Three new classrooms were adapted and next door a junior changing room. Later on a recreation room for boarders was made as well as a pottery room and three junior dormitories. The staff and boys threw themselves into the vast amount of painting and decorating needed, also the taming of the neglected garden out of which they made a good grass tennis court. Plants and vegetables were also grown. Central heating by gas was installed in the house, later converted to oil. At the same time many structural improvements were made. In 1956 new toilets were installed in the changing rooms and a fire escape was built. In 1958 work began on an outdoor swimming pool, which was ready in May 1960.

Fees had risen in line with inflation, £200 a year for non-singing boys and about £65 a year for a chorister. The governors’ report commented on the great improvement in the catering but they found the text books and blackboards to be in a bad state of repair. Sport and recreation continued to flourish now in the charge of the senior master. Extra playing fields were obtained although one, at Grange Farm, was some distance from the school. Drama by the boys had declined but the annual staff pantomime at Christmas was thoroughly enjoyed. Music for non-choristers was far from satisfactory, although they still had music periods which tended to be too theoretical with little or no use of the record player. Few boys now took up an instrument and there was no school choir let alone an orchestra. In 1957 Miss E Spurrell joined the staff and immediately set about breathing new life and enthusiasm into the non-choristers’ music. In the same year, Boris Ord was forced to retire owing to ill health, and David, later Sir David, Willcocks took his place. He raised the standard of singing in the chapel and generally took an interest in all the school activities.

A different kind of regime under Adam S Arnold-Brown

Mr Butters resigned in 1958 at rather short notice and the college appointed Mr Adam S Arnold-Brown for one year. He was an former chorister and choral scholar which gave him a deep understanding of life in the choir. He was a dedicated Christian and one of his first acts was to abolish corporal punishment. In the years that followed many of the staff left and there was a falling off in academic standards. However, this was only temporary and after a few years stability returned and in the fullness of time a record number of scholarships was obtained. There were some changes in the curriculum, science was now demanded in the Common Entrance exam, so that tuition was extended to every boy in the school; but it was not until 1965 that a proper science laboratory was built. Mathematics received six or seven periods a week and some senior boys were offering German and Greek.

Expansion in the 1960s

The roof of King's College Cambridge
Photo by Kenrick Turner
Some rights reserved

Numbers were increasing again and in 1963 there were some 150 boys rising to 189 in 1970. Occasionally boys had to be boarded out and it was not unknown for successful candidates to be turned away. Thus, throughout the 1960s a large building programme was undertaken. Close by a new staff room was erected and in 1970 a new "choristers’ block" was built, equipped with grand pianos and incorporating a probationers’ room, where they could have theory lessons whilst the choristers were practising next door. There had been endless problems with obtaining domestic staff, so in 1973 the school engaged Midland Catering Ltd, to undertake all catering.

1976 – the school becomes co-educational

In 1976 the historic decision was taken to admit girls to the school, 16 in number and accordingly a girls’ changing room was built.  With the advent of the new assembly hall, the orchestra, founded by Miss Spurrell in 1958, was able to give first class concerts occasionally joined by the orchestra of St John’s College School. In 1964 a junior orchestra had been founded and Miss Spurrell also introduced a fair amount of chamber music. Many successes were gained in the Associated Board exams leading to about four annual public school scholarships.

The Hall inspired much drama and two productions a year were the norm. Miss Spurrell also founded a non-choristers’ choir, which started with 15 voices and rapidly expanded so much that it was divided into two or three separate choirs. Miss C Farmer took over from Miss Spurrell and continued her good work. However, sports results had tended to fall back compared with previous years; hockey was reintroduced in 1960 but only played in the second half of the Lent term. 1971 saw the start of an annual three choir school event at Ely, with teams from Ely, St John’s and King’s, Cambridge.

Swimming and swimming sports flourished in the new pool, also indoor hobbies, chess, pottery, photography, art and brass-rubbing. A cub pack was started and in 1976 a scout troop followed. Choristers too were thriving under David Willcocks; a number of long playing records were made and radio and television appearances were quite frequent, including, of course, the Christmas Eve service of Nine Lessons and Carols.

Further overseas tours

King's College Chapel interior
Photo by "Nick in exsilio"
Some rights reserved

Overseas tours resumed after the war with a trip in 1950 for about a week to Switzerland, singing in Zurich, Geneva and Bern. There was also a visit by the Vienna Boys Choir on its first post-war tour. In the following years there were further tours to Holland, Germany, Belgium, West Africa, Sweden, the USA, Japan and Australia.

However, the most important duty of the choir was still the daily singing of Evensong in the chapel. During 1974 Philip Ledger succeeded David Willcocks as director of music and Gerald Peacocke took over the headmastership from JD Briggs. In 1977 a Parent Teacher Association was formed which became successfully involved in many fund raising activities amongst its other functions.

After eight years in office as director of music, Philip Ledger left and Stephen Cleobury took his place, but not before the former had directed the choir in a three week tour of Japan and Hong Kong in August and September.

1983 tour to Australia and New Zealand

1983 saw a grand tour of Australia and New Zealand. The eighteen hour flight with British Airways followed by three hours in the customs at Perth, in the small hours of the morning, was not perhaps the best preparation for a concert the following evening.  However, after some sleep and a fairly gentle rehearsal, the choir was ready for the evening concert, so well received that the audience complained that one concert was not enough. The next day the choir moved on to Adelaide and had a free day visiting the Cleland Reserve.

After two concerts in Adelaide, equally successful, they travelled to the capital, Canberra, to sing two concerts. The next stop was Brisbane via Sydney airport, where there was a four hour delay and nothing daunted, the choristers made for Bondi Beach as well as having a whistle-stop tour of Sydney. On arrival in Brisbane they gave a concert to another full house that evening. Next day a jumbo jet flew them over to Wellington, New Zealand, where the terrain reminded them of England. The Minister of Education took them on a tour of the Beehive, or Parliament House, before they moved on to Christchurch, where once again, they had a magnificent reception with pleas to return in the future. Their last stop was Sydney which they found "stunning" especially the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. The choir gave two of its best concerts in the Opera House Concert Hall with a standing ovation after the last concert, after seven encores.

December 1983 – a busy month for concerts and recordings

December of that year proved more demanding than usual. First there was the recording of Mozart’s Coronation Mass and Missa Solemnis; then a broadcast of anthems by Gibbons on the sixth of the month followed by a television appearance in the BBC’s Sixty Minutes programme on 23 December. In between these, on Christmas Eve a documentary Chapel of the World went out on the BBC World Service, also during the month the annual Founder’s Day Service, plus two concerts, one at Warwick University and the other at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London. Last but not least the live broadcast of the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, also its television recording a week before.

1986 tour of Central and Eastern Europe

In 1986 they sang in Germany and Finland. In Germany they visited East Berlin, Bremen and Hanover and in Finland concerts were given in Tampere, Tarko and Helsinki. In August and September of the following year, the choir paid its first visit to Japan giving five concerts in Tokyo and one each in Kofu, Norgano, Kyoto and Osaka. The Japanese schoolgirls developed "Beatlemania" for the choristers hardly allowing them to board their coach after concerts. At home there were recordings of the music of Gabrieli and The Great Service of Byrd.

1988 – to the USA, Spain and Holland

Two years later, in 1988, they were briefly in Houston, Texas for three concerts and two services in June, and in August they sang nine concerts in Spain; the following January saw them in Holland at Bolsward and the Hague.

1990 – to France, Italy, Switzerland and the USA

September 1990 saw tours to France, Italy and Switzerland and at home recordings were made of Berlioz's L’Enfance du Christ, motets by Tallis and Verdi’s Paternoster. In July of the following year they went to Oxford to sing Mozart’s Requiem and his Harmonic Messe, and between the rehearsal and the performance the King’s team took tea with the choristers of New College and there was much lively conversation comparing notes about each other’s food, dormitories, routine, matrons etc. Two months later the King’s choir went on an extensive tour of the USA, singing at Charlotte, North Carolina; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Wooster and Akron, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; St Paul, Minnesota; Denver, Colorado; Orange County, California; Washington DC and New York, with standing ovations everywhere.

1990 – the five hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the college

Courtyard at King's College
Photo by Hashir Milhan
Some rights reserved

It was the five hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the college  and the school and many celebrations took place including a performance of Britten’s Noyes Fludde in the chapel. There was an interesting combined chorus there in May 1992 when the choirs of New College, Oxford, Winchester (choristers) and Eton, joined with King’s to give a performance of Tallis’ Spem in Alium and Gibbons' O Clap Your Hands. The Tallis in particular proved really exciting. The conductor was Stephen Cleobury.

Christmas time was again busy owing to a number of commitments to the BBC. In addition to the yearly festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, there were programmes for Radio Cambridgeshire and the World Service and the televising of a shortened version of the Nine Lessons and Carols in mid-December.

In the following year, 1993, the well loved headmaster, Gerald Peacocke, retired in July after 16 happy years in office. The new appointment was that of Andrew Corbett. The choir took part in the penultimate night of the Proms with a programme of Byrd and Purcell, which was an enormous success with a packed hall. 1994 saw a broadcast of the St Matthew Passion, which was recorded for Dutch TV. Later in the year the choir sang an Action Research concert in the chapel and shortly after there was the annual joint Evensong with St John’s at King’s.

Launch of the King’s College Choir Association (KCCA)

Outside the present choir but everything to do with it, Stephen Cleobury launched a new project, the King’s College Choir Association (KCCA), to bring together former choristers, former choral scholars, organ scholars, deans, chaplains and headmasters on a regular basis; it reportedly went off to a flying start.

1996 tour to South Africa

The summer of 1996 saw the choir make the first ever tour of South Africa. They gave a total of nine concerts in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town, with music by Britten, Vaughan Williams, Fauré, Mozart and Tavener. There was time for recreation and sightseeing to game parks, gold mines and the Table Mountain. Back home they made a recording of Bach’s St John Passion for television and CD, before setting off for Copenhagen as guests of the Copenhagen Boys’ choir. The Michaelmas term began with a concert at Uppingham School, followed in December by two concerts in London, at the Royal College of Music and the Royal Albert Hall respectively. The chapel was the site for a Britten concert when the choristers were joined by the BBC singers.

1997 – first reunion of the KCCA and a trip to Barbados, the USA and Canada

1997 saw the first reunion of the KCCA in July and a month previously there was a gala concert in chapel in the presence of HRH Princess Margaret to launch the King’s College Chapel Foundation whereby members of the public can support the religious and music life of the college and school. Travelling again, the choir were off to Barbados, the USA and Canada, covering 11 venues. The year’s travelling finished with concerts in the Royal Albert Hall and St John’s, Smith Square in London, and the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh and finally in chapel a performance of the St John Passion in aid of the Macmillan Cancer Care Appeal.

In 1998 Andrew Corbett handed over his headmastership to Nicholas Robinson, whose first subject was maths, being also a singer and conductor of two orchestras, one in Sussex and one in London. On 8 December the choir performed requiems by Fauré and Rutter with the English Chamber Orchestra at the Barbican, which was broadcast on Classic FM.

Although to some extent the King’s style of singing has been moulded by the unique acoustics of the chapel, those who have heard the choir away from home have said that it adapts perfectly satisfactorily to the acoustics of any building, often at very short notice.