Of Choristers – ancient and modern



Canterbury, St Edmund’s Junior School

Cantarwarabyrig (the town of the men of Kent)

The tomb of Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales
"The Black Prince", 1330-1376
Photo by "tcissell0"
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Almost a thousand years were to elapse after the foundation  of the Benedictine abbey by St Augustine in 597 and the completed cathedral early in the sixteenth century during which time there had been building and rebuilding until it emerged as we see it today.

1483 – first record of boy singers

It is not until 1438 that we find some boy singers when a group of eight almonry boys was selected to sing in the Lady Chapel under their secular master or cantor, Lionel Power, appointed by John of Salisbury, who died in 1445. In the following year Prior Elham appointed Thomas Ware as cantor, moving the Lady Chapel to the site of the "Martyrdom". These choristers had not a great deal to do at this time as they only had a daily Lady Mass in the morning and in the evening a Marian votive antiphon Perhaps their singing was often interrupted by noisy builders. Polyphony was slowly creeping in but was only used for special occasions.

The sixteenth century

The boys of the New Foundation choir of 1540 were taken from the old Lady Chapel choir and two more boys were added to be in line with the Statutes of Henry the Eighth. They lived with the master and his wife at the song school in the Precincts which was on the site of the old monastic dormitory and later in the Round Room of the west tower. The master was paid £20 per year and the choristers received  £3, six shillings and eight pence per year. Surviving part-books of this time show that there must have been a high standard of singing with works by such composers as Fayrfax and Taverner. However, in Queen Mary’s reign the choristers had to learn plainsong and ceremonial but both they and their master were recompensed with pay rises in 1553.


Also in 1553 a chorister, Richard Selby, was seized and taken to St George’s Chapel, Windsor (a practice known as impressing), and despite the efforts of the master who travelled to London to try to find him, he was never seen again. In 1581 the Dean and Chapter closed the song school and presumably the choristers were sent to live in their own homes.

The seventeenth century

In 1600 a set of recorders was found for them and these they played for the entertainment of Archbishop Abbott in 1613. The offices of organist and choirmaster were entirely separate, the organist being the more important of the two and earning a larger salary, while the church choirmaster was usually appointed from the ranks of lay clerks. The story goes that a certain Lieutenant Hammond, after attending Evensong, wrote in his diary in 1635 that he "saw and heard a fayre organ sweet and tuneable, and a deep and ravishing consort of quirsters".

The onset of the Civil War

However, six years later there was a very different scene when a low church congregation created havoc during a service by shouting, "Down with the altar! Down with the altar!", whereat the dean thought it wise to abandon the service instructing the choir and clergy to file out. On 26 August 1642 the final blow fell when soldiers invaded the cathedral doing great damage to the organ and destroying choir fittings and part-books. This was the beginning of the Civil War as far as Canterbury was concerned.

The Restoration

At the Restoration great difficulty was experienced in getting new choristers, not helped by the fact that government officials were "impressing" any suitable boys for the Chapel Royal and other royal choirs. In time a group of suitable boys was found after stricter voice trials had been instituted and regular practices took place. In all this the minor canons played an active part in raising the standard of the music, including the Gosling family, particularly one William Gosling. All this enthusiasm and hard work resulted in the master being able to teach his boys TallisGreat Service in 1698 for which he was paid a good fee. Minor Canon William Gosling was still occupied with his untiring work of organising the music, obtaining new part–books and cataloguing them during the early years of the eighteenth century. In time the music became so splendid that people such as John Evelyn, Celia Fiennes and George Berkley, who attended Archbishop Cornwallis’s Visitation in 1770, commented very favourably on the singing.

The nineteenth century

Early in the nineteenth century the standard of behaviour, not only among the choristers but also among the minor canons and the congregation had gravely deteriorated, and there were serious disruptions during services. In 1818 the Dean and Chapter asked the Ecclesiastical Commissioners for money to increase choir stipends and for improvements to the choir school. This was refused. They also decided, somewhat unaccountably, that in future the appointment of choristers was to be in their hands, and that the organist, Mr Jones, should have nothing to do with it.

Continuing problems in the mid-nineteenth century

Mr Kimpton, the master, retired in 1855 and his place was taken by the Reverend Edward Fellowes who lived with the boys in New House, Greencourt. However, this arrangement was not a success and the Dean and Chapter received complaints about the lack of discipline. Mr Fellowes was asked to leave, and the Dean and Chapter met to discuss the future of the school. Several possibilities were put forward. Firstly, that the choristers should be sent to the King's School; secondly, that they should join the Grey School in Canterbury; thirdly that half should go to the King's School and half to the Grey School. Finally it was agreed that they should stay where they were and a new master be appointed. The question of discipline should be gone into very carefully. A successor to Mr Fellowes was found in Mr Plant, a lay clerk. The numbers were increased to 20 boys so that half could sing at a time with the full complement on Sundays and Holy Days.

In 1865 a surveyor was called in with a view to converting the Old Brewhouse into a school room for the boys and his findings were agreed. Mr Plant does not seem to have been wholly successful in his disciplinary reforms, for in 1870 the boys were brought before the Dean and Chapter for throwing stones in and around the cathedral and for irreverence at services. They were given a severe reprimand. In 1890 Mr Plant's salary was reduced by a quarter to help pay for an assistant master, Mr JJ Reid. Accordingly the number of boys was increased to 24 and the timetable was revised so that theory of music, history and geography could be included. There was to be a minimum of four choir practices a week. The archbishop made a visitation on 25 October 1893 at which the choir sang the Hallelujah Chorus followed by a sung Communion Service. Afterwards all who took part were asked, beginning with the youngest probationer, if they had any complaints to make.

Mr Perrin becomes organist

Towards the turn of the century the organist Dr Longhurst retired after a 71 year association with the cathedral and a Mr Perrin was appointed on a year’s probation. He was found to be very satisfactory and was made official organist in March 1899. Shortly after he approached the Dean and Chapter to ask if oratorios could be performed in the nave from time to time. His request was granted and the Chapter met to decide which works were to be given. The following were chosen: Stabat Mater (composer not given), Haydn’s Creation and Gounod’s Redemption.

The twentieth century

Mural depicting Roman General Placidus
(Eustace) on his knees before a stag. He
experiences a vision of the crucified
Christ between its antlers.
Photo by Steven Martin
Some rights reserved

In 1910 the Chapter put forward several proposals concerning the choristers. They asked Canon Danks to notify the headmaster that the boys should be allowed more time for games. It was also felt that the boys’ stipends should be raised by four per cent owing to inflation; and it was agreed that an annual prize giving should be fixed around Christmas time. In 1919 it was put forward that the school, known at that time as The Choristers’ School, should have a holiday from 16 to 28 June and afterwards the boys should no longer sing daily Matins to give them more time for their school work. In 1924, curiously, there were only 14 choristers and probationers but in 1926 10 new boys were taken. Another innovation at this time was that all boys were now to have a regular medical examination.

1931 was a year of firsts – in May the choir made its first recording, and later in the year for the first time parents paid fees to the school replacing the age old custom of the boys being paid. By the end of the year the names of 10 choristers and 22 probationers are recorded – some of these 22 may have been "singing–boys" as they were later to be called. Two years later choristers' fees went up from nine guineas a year to 12 guineas because applications had far exceeded vacancies.

In the summer of 1931 a cricket match was organised between the choristers and the boys of the Temple Church in London, meanwhile the choir of Dover Parish Church sang Evensong in the cathedral on that day. 1933 saw a large choirs' festival held in the Crystal Palace, London and three Canterbury choristers were chosen to take part. Their expenses were defrayed by Hymns Ancient & Modern. At this time Mr George Hardman was appointed as headmaster at a salary of £300 per year, together with a new assistant mistress, Miss Skinner.

By January 1933 there were 28 boys in the school, all singers, with two forms, the seniors being taken by Mr Hardman and the juniors by Miss Skinner. On Fridays there was no singing in the cathedral and lessons would start at 11am. Once a month a "merit" or whole holiday was given.

Dr Clement Charlton Palmer had been the very popular organist since 1908 (he was to continue until 1936) and the boys helped him with his garden and with his collection of birds. The reorganisation of voice trials was undertaken with a definite date which would be advertised in the local papers. A set examination for both choir and school was to be drawn up for candidates, the precentor making the final decision although he and the headmaster and organist would work together.

Changes in the pre–war period

In 1935  shortly after Mr Hardman's request for new wash basins and lavatories had been granted, the dean came over to school to say that Dr Shirley, the headmaster of the King's School, wanted the buildings of the Old Brewhouse, and that the choir school must move in to number 11,  The Precincts. This was accomplished in a fortnight.

No sooner had they settled into number 11 than poor Mr Hardman was told that plans for a boarding school were afoot at 1, The Precincts and that he was to be demoted to assistant master under a Mr Charles, with Mr Poole, the precentor, and Gerald Knight, the new organist, helping out. Plans were made to get rid of Miss Skinner, although she actually stayed for many years.

Initially there were to be between nine and 12 boarders but in time it was hoped to accommodate 24 boarders and 24 day boys. After a certain amount of difficulty as to which building would be used, it was finally decided that 18, The Precincts would be the most suitable. Mr Clive Pare came as assistant master in 1937. Much building and furnishing work was done on 18, The Precincts to make it suitable for a day and boarding school. It was completed with remarkable speed, and the school opened in September 1937. The average age of the choristers up until then had been 12 years, but now the very senior boys were phased out and more juniors taken so that now the average was 10½ years.

Mr Pare became headmaster in 1938. He was concerned about the choristers who had left at 15 and 16 years and sought to make arrangements with Kent College, The Simon Langton School and The King's School as he felt the boys would be ready to take their School Certificate shortly.

At this time, under Gerald Knight, there were a number of changes and innovations concerning the choir. Not only did he have a much younger treble line but the old red cassocks were replaced by purple ones, ruffs were worn and new long surplices with an extra broad yoke, to a design by Mr Pare, completed the transformation. The Old Cathedral Psalter was scrapped and Sir Sydney Nicholson's Parish Psalter took its place. The choir was given a short period of time off services in order to get used to the new pointing. The old question of choir holidays was once more reviewed and it was decided that if the numbers were fixed at 12 day boys and 24 boarders it would be possible to sing all the year round with day boys and boarders taking turns holiday–wise. The time of Evensong was changed from 5pm to 5.15pm to allow an extra quarter of an hour for games.

The Second World War

Canterbury Cathedral, 15 July 1949
Photo by Mr Jefferies
Some rights reserved

At the Munich Crisis in 1938 the boys were sent to Clayesmore School in Dorset but came back after about a week. A year later at the start of the second world war there were 26 boarders and 21 day boys. In case of air raids dormitories were moved to the ground floor.

Evacuation to St Blazey

But by May 1940 it became necessary to evacuate the boarders and some day boys. Mr Pare took them down to a rented house at St Blazey in Cornwall. Seven or eight boys were left in Canterbury being given lessons at the Deanery and singing Evensong in the cathedral crypt. A few more boys joined in 1940 until there were 28 boys in 1944. They were well looked after and given picnics, parties and outings and the Old Boys organised an orchestra. At a Chapter meeting on 12 November 1940 the dean stated that the school must continue, both for boarders and day boys, and that the fees for boarders should be 60 guineas a term. Mr Knight was called up to the RAF.

The music in Cornwall was in the hands of minor canon George Sage and in 1942 the boarder choir came up from Cornwall to sing at the Enthronement of Archbishop Temple one day before the big blitz on Canterbury, 1 June 1942.

Down at St Blazey there was a performance of Brahms' Requiem. The boys also produced a pantomime and there was an orchestra of sorts. Among their visitors were Mr Poole, the Bishop of Truro, the dean, the archdeacon of Maidstone and Sir Sydney Nicholson. Travel was difficult owing to petrol rationing but the boys went on various expeditions by train, one being to Plymouth parish church. In 1944 ten of them went up to Canterbury to be confirmed in the crypt of the cathedral.

Preparation for the return from St Blazey

By September of that year air raids had lessened considerably and plans were made to bring the boys back from St Blazey. Despite adverse conditions there were good results from the Associated Board exams. Seven boys had passed in piano, there was a distinction in flute, a credit in oboe and a pass in clarinet. Back in Canterbury Evensong was sung on four weekdays and there were two services on Sundays. Choristers and singing boys were divided into two choirs, Tallis and Gibbons and the probationers, Merbecke. The orchestra was flourishing and concerts were given on some Sunday afternoons in the Chapter House attended by parents and friends. A fine silver cup was given by the Lloyds of Boscastle Manor to stimulate orchestral playing and as a reminder of the stay in Cornwall. It was discovered that it was possible to combine the life of a chorister with Scouting and a troop was started in 1945.

The post-war period

In the same year the BBC asked the dean if the choir could make a weekly broadcast of Evensong. Things were rapidly getting back to normal and 10 fully choral services were now held weekly in addition to Fridays which were "boys only". At the end of 1945 the choir received an invitation to give a concert at the National Gallery, London, and a programme of music from the fifteenth to the twentieth century was sung. It was decided that Mr Pare should take an extended holiday and Mr Charles Fisher was appointed to take over temporarily as headmaster.

The move to St Edmund's Junior School

Life in The Precincts went on smoothly during the decades following the end of the war, but in 1972 great changes were looming.  The independent choir school was to come to an end and the boys were to receive their schooling at St Edmund's junior public school on the hill above Canterbury. At first the idea met with disapproval in some quarters, but in time everyone realised the infinite opportunities for a wider and more complete education within the larger body. The chief difficulty was the fitting in of choir duties within the larger school's timetable, but with co-operation on both sides this was very soon achieved. St Edmund's is a co-educational school, and the choristers still live at 18, The Precincts, now called Choir House.

Here is a typical chorister's working day: 7.05 am — rising bell at Choir House; 7.10 am — first breakfast bell when half of the boys have breakfast while the other half have instrumental practice; 7.30 am — the two halves swap. Followed by teeth cleaning and changing from slippers to outdoor shoes; 8 am — bell to line up for practice. In crocodile (and silence). They file across to the song school for one hour's practice of scales and arpeggios and music for Evensong; 9 am — all pack into the minibus and travel to St Edmund's and a normal school day follows; 4 pm — they have a drink and a slice of cake after which the minibus returns them to Choir House. Here they have shoe cleaning and hand washing supervised by a monitor; 5 pm — the boys are back in the cathedral where cassocks are put on and they practice for half an hour; 6 pm — fully robed and with surplices they process in. After Evensong they return to Choir House for supper.

After this the younger boys can relax, sometimes taking their skateboards or bats and balls into the cathedral grounds. All prep has been done at school, so the older boys have one more instrumental practice before bedtime: This ritual begins at 7.30pm.

Overseas tours, recordings and broadcasts

The crypt at Canterbury Cathedral
Photo by "The Starglider"
Some rights reserved

1981 saw the choir in Reims for a long weekend where they sang High Mass in the cathedral. During that year they made three recordings as well as several broadcast Evensongs and a number of recitals.

In April, 1983 there was a most successful tour of East Germany by the combined choirs of Canterbury and Rochester cathedrals. One year later the choir accompanied the archbishop to Paris, and sang the Eucharist in the American cathedral, and also gave a recital in St Germain and choral Evensong in Nôtre Dame before a congregation of 5,000. A small charity event took place in March 1985, where a few boys appeared on BBC's Breakfast Time and raised £300 for Famine Relief in Ethiopia.

There have been some exciting innovations at Choir House. The front hall was decorated and the model railway brought downstairs and rebuilt. The dormitories received a facelift with box divans replacing the old iron bedsteads. Finally the Friends of the Cathedral gave six new pianos. School sport was well represented and the Oaks much used for roller skating, skate boards, cricket, croquet and radio controlled cars. Neil Jeffrey, who was senior chorister in 1986, starred in the TV series A Sort of Innocence.

1987 tour to the USA

In the summer of 1987 the choir toured North America for three weeks.  It proved a great success if a bit exhausting. Concerts were given in Washington, Denver, Montreal, Springfield (Massachusetts), Boston and New York. Allan Wicks retired from the organ loft after the Lambeth Conference in 1988 and David Flood from Lincoln returned to Canterbury where he had earlier been assistant organist. Later in the year a well attended voice trial produced eight new probationers.

A trip to London took place during the summer of 1989. The choir joined with those of St Paul's, Peterborough and Bristol cathedrals for the annual Festival of the Sons of the Clergy at St Paul's. The Canterbury choir sang Ecce Vicit by Peter Philips. In the same year the choir, with the London Festival Orchestra, took part in the series Cathedral Classics, singing Zadok the Priest and Mozart's Vespers. In March l990 the choir travelled to Le Mans in France for a concert and a Mass in the Maison Dieu which was very well received. The following year they sang Mass in Westminster Cathedral which included music by Richard Rodney Bennett, but the highlight of that year was the service for the enthronement of the new archbishop, Dr George Carey, on 19 April which was most moving and the singing superb.

Early in 1992 there was an extra busy time for the choir; in four consecutive weeks they sang in the celebration for the Clergy Orphan Corporation, there was a broadcast Evensong and the Festival Service, not forgetting the daily Evensongs in the cathedral. A voice trial was held shortly afterwards when there were 25 candidates for seven places. Difficulties of choice were experienced owing to the high standard of the applicants, and finally some of the very youngest boys had to be told to come back next time!  Soon the choir was busy recording again, this time a CD and a cassette The Canterbury Tradition including service music for Matins and Evensong. Beyond the cathedral, two visits were made to Tenterden to sing, also to one or two schools in Ramsgate. On 30 January l993 the choir went to Rochester to sing Evensong in the cathedral with the Rochester choir, and in April they went a little further afield on a tour of the Netherlands, followed by another to France in September.


Stained glass from Canterbury Cathedral
Photo by "MaestroBen"
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The choristers are admitted to the Foundation at chorister-making when the four most senior boys, or Side-Leaders, receive their badges.  Also the senior chorister receives the badge of Spencer Scholar. These boys must be responsible, not only for leading the music, but also in an administrative capacity. Chorister-making at Canterbury is treated as an important celebration and after the service in the cathedral there is a party at Choir House when new choristers receive their own copy of the New English Hymnal, and their blazer and pullover badges. Finally the organist and the senior chorister cut the cake.

1994 – further overseas tours

In April 1994 the choir toured North America and Canada. There were 10 concerts in 11 days with 14 flights. Standing ovations were given them everywhere. On one flight, at 34,000 feet a passenger remarked "This has got to be the highest you boys will ever sing!"  Back home a few boys helped with a documentary in the BBC series D-Day and another group went to France in September to join in the nine-hundredth anniversary celebrating the enthronement of St Anselm as archbishop of Canterbury. During the same month HRH The Duchess of Kent paid a visit to Choir House where she chatted with the choristers, while they showed her their games and toys. Afterwards they gave her a short recital in the cathedral. In 1996 it was announced that Mr Robert Bacon was to become headmaster of St Edmund's Junior School.

1997 – fourteen hundredth anniversary of St Augustine's landing

1997 saw the fourteen hundredth anniversary of St Augustine's landing in England and his founding of Canterbury cathedral. Shortly after Easter the choir travelled to Rome where they sang in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore for a BBC Radio 3 broadcast.  This was followed by Anglican Evensong in the Chapel of San Gregorio al Celio belonging to the monastery from which Augustine had been sent by Pope Gregory. From there they went to the Accademia Santa Cecilia near St Peter's, a vast building where the thirty-odd singers seemed a very small group. The newly commissioned Avieto Augustine by Patrick Gowers was part of the programme sung here. From Rome following the route of St Augustine they travelled to Avignon in Provence, where the choristers gave an impromptu performance of Sur le pont. Paris was their next stop and the British embassy where they were lodged in the gatehouse. A concert in the embassy ballroom was followed by a reception for them which included a special meal. St Augustine had sailed to England from Boulogne so in that cathedral they gave their last concert on French soil which was very well received. Back in Canterbury they gave one more concert when Avieto Augustine was given its English premier. On St Augustine's day a special service was held in the cathedral.

1998 — the thirteenth Lambeth Conference

Canterbury Cathedral interior
Photo by Hideyuki Kamon
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In 1998 the thirteenth Lambeth Conference was held in Canterbury at which the choir was deeply involved. Firstly the choir holiday dates had to be slightly reorganised as the conference began on 19 July. They were given a week's holiday earlier in the month so as to be back in time for the necessary preparation for the conference. This involved a large repertoire of music for the many processions, a Kenyan Gloria to be learnt by heart, a hymn in the South African language and the opening service in the Kenyan rite. The daily Evensong attracted many bishops. Tickets were available for a 15 minute visit to the organ loft which was popular with the delegates. On the last day Evensong was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and so ended the thirteenth Lambeth Conference.

Early in July 1999 Mark Elder, a chorister from 1956 to 1961, conducted at the Cheltenham International Festival of Music. His orchestra was the Covent Garden Orchestra and his programme included works by Britten, Wagner and Elgar. More old choristers of Canterbury appeared at the Proms, including Roger Vignoles – 1953 to 57, Stephen Vercoe – 1958 to 1962, Trevor Pinnock – 1956 to 1961, Harry Christophers – 1953 to 1957 and Robert Tyson – 1979 to 1984.

Also in 1999 the choir made a most successful tour of Canada and USA visiting 10 cities and making 14 flights in 17 days. The weather was extremely hot and a total of 8,000 people made up the audiences.

Not many generations to go and it will be the six hundredth anniversary of those "boys of the Lady Chapel". It must be anybody’s guess what the future choristers will be up to by then.