Of Choristers – ancient and modern

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Chichester, the Prebendal School

Origins of the school unclear

Chichester Cathedral interior
Photo by Beau Wade
Some rights reserved

Either during the Civil War, or more likely during the second world war, all early records of the school have perished; in the Civil War through vandalism, or in the second world war for waste paper! So that one is off to a bad start when trying faithfully to reconstruct a true picture.

We do know that almost all early cathedrals founded a song school, by whatever name. At the time of their foundation, the Synod of London in 1075 decreed that the see of Selsey be moved to Chichester and it is more than likely that any existing school would have also been moved with it. We may be forgiven for trying to build up a picture from information that we do have from many other early song schools. They clothed, housed, fed and educated a number of boys for free, teaching them in song and grammar.

The Grammar School

We do know that at Chichester the song school was extended to include some older boys who were taught Latin, grammar, rhetoric and logic so that the school became known as the Grammar School which existed in one building and was not a separate entity as in so many other cases. There is a possibility that the flint building in West Street was the home of the school since it was erected in the thirteenth century coinciding perhaps with the issue of statutes in 1232. The choristers were taught by the precentor, or by a deputy, a succentor in the absence of the precentor. They were very likely occupied at the end of this large room while the “grammar” boys were taught at the other end.

The fifteenth century

During the fifteenth century various adversities hit the school as when Bishop Robert Reade made a visitation in 1402 he found that there was no grammar master for the choristers. Later in the century the headmaster, Thomas Gyldesburgh, who was also rector of St Olaves, found himself in prison for debt and being over 80 at the time complained that his leg prevented him either walking or moving. Inflation was high at this time and an endowment of only 2, 13 shillings and four pence which had been adequate in the thirteenth century when it was first made was barely enough two centuries later. However, in 1497 Bishop Story was consecrated Bishop of Chichester and was very quick to express his feelings over the ignorance of the clergy and the general lack of education in the city. He was quick to act. The grammar school was reorganised and its statutes renewed. The Prebendal School was founded.

Origins of the school's name

Schools were being founded thick and fast up and down the country in the fifteenth century and Bishop Story was not alone; however, he gave no grant to the school either in land or money. All he did was to attach the mastership of the school to the Prebendary of Highleigh, Nicholas Taverner, hence the title The Prebendal School.

Bishop Story's statutes

Having bought the premises in West Street from the Dean and Chapter he goes on to outline his statutes for the school.

"In summertime weekday work would begin at 5am (in winter at 6am) when the bell tolled all should attend mass or a part of it, afterwards returning to their studies, where the prebendary would lead them in various acts of worship which were to be repeated before the boys returned to their homes in the evening".

 The bishop also directed that at his death a mass should also be said for his soul every Friday, excluding Good Friday and Christmas Day. The prebendary must teach his boys eloquently and thoroughly with chastisement when necessary, also he was forbidden to take money or gifts for his work. He was to be responsible for the fabric of the building which he must not let out to strangers save for the great cellar beneath and only if this were done without causing any disruption to the work of the pupils. He was to live in the adjoining house, now number 53 West Street. The house was rebuilt in the late eighteenth century by the then prebendary and in 1979 when the school was being refurbished, parts of the original Tudor building came to light.

Pluralism, or the holding of more than one benefice at a time, was common practice but the bishop forbade any prebendary to hold another benefice. However, in 1502 he relented stipulating that if the prebendary were to find and pay an usher to assist in the teaching he would have no objection. So The Chapter nominated John Wykley as the first schoolmaster in 1497.

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

From then until the end of the seventeenth century there was a succession of prebendaries, a great many of whom either came from, or went on to important schools or even to teach royalty, which indicates that the school at this time must have been held in great respect. But what of the choristers? As mentioned above information relating to the choristers comes to a halt once again with the advent of the Civil War, but the school itself went on as we have a full list of prebendaries of Highleigh right through these years.

At the end of the eighteenth century school numbers were low, some 40 boys, but by the third decade of the nineteenth century there were between 70 and 80 making it essential to carry out some building work. However, it is curious that in 1854 numbers had plummeted to only 18 boys. New statutes were drawn up in 1880 making payment of fees by all pupils, except the choristers, compulsory. The curriculum now consisted of divinity, grammar, mathematics, history, poetry, Latin, French and geography. Cricket and football were played.

The twentieth century

Sculpture outside the cathedral
Photo by Mark Bridge
Some rights reserved

Prebendary Bennet had been a good and popular headmaster  but by the end of his time after about 30 years in office the school had once again declined in numbers, and by 1902 only the choristers were left. They were moved to a house in Northgate in 1904 which meant a long walk to and from the cathedral four times a day. This building had a been a Dame School in its time and was furnished with long rows of wooden steps upon which the small children had sat. Now the boys had large double desks to work at; also there was a good playground outside. Their headmaster was a Mr HE Ball (RN retired) who taught the boys all together until 1926 when a Mr, later Reverend, Malcolm Methuen was called in to assist him. The latter was a suitable choice as he had been a chorister between 1918 and 1924, going on to teach at Northgate and at West Street and going up to King’s College Cambridge after seven years.

There were of course the usual timetabling difficulties as Matins as well as Evensong was sung each day, except on Thursdays; also the daily practices, squeezing the time for lessons into 11am to 1pm and 2pm to 3.45pm so that in winter there was no daylight left for games. The walk to and from the cathedral four times a day also impinged on their time. The journey, in crocodile, along North Street, with the boys wearing Eton suits and mortarboards with red tassels must have been quite a sight.

By 1914 there were about 40 commoners in the old buildings in West Street and 10 years later there were 62. This was for not long, however, for by 1929 the buildings in West Street stood empty. But in the same year The Very Reverend AS Duncan-Jones was appointed dean and he was to have a lasting influence on the future of the Prebendal School.

Much needed restoration of the West Street buildings

Almost immediately the badly needed restoration of the buildings in West Street was begun and took until 1931 to complete. The choristers returned from Northgate and commoners were also taken, all under the headmastership of dean Duncan-Jones who had three staff to help him. A loan had been secured from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners as well as various gifts and contributions from Old Boys and others to pay for the considerable cost of renovating the school. So, in 1931 the Prebendal School and the choir school were once more living and learning under one roof. At first only four boys were boarders but quite soon all 20 choristers and probationers were boarding. These and a few non-singing dayboys now made up the school.

Staffing and financial arrangements were as follows; dean Duncan-Jones was headmaster and Prebendary of Highleigh, and his assistants were the Reverend Donald Manners, previously a chorister and now chaplain, Mr HE Ball and Mr Methuen Clarke whose parents and sister moved into 53 West Street with him, his mother acting as unpaid matron, cook and caterer. Various concessions in terms of board and lodging were granted. The financial situation was in desperate need of organisation. Only 130 per year was received from the school’s endowment and as the cost of renovating and furnishing the buildings had amounted to more than 1,400 the dean arranged for a sizeable loan from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and also launched an appeal to Old Prebendaliens, former choristers and the general public. This was successful and included a generous donation from the widow of Frederick John Read who had been organist from 1921 to 1925, to be used for a playing field situated in Westgate Fields, with the addition of a cricket pavilion funded by another appeal launched by Methuen Clarke.

1931 – the first prospectus

In 1931 the first prospectus appeared and very simply stated that the school was a preparatory boarding school for boys from eight to 15 years; that boarding fees were 75 per year with reductions for sons of clergy; that yearly fees for probationers were 45 and for choristers 35 and for dayboys, 5 guineas a term. New statutes were to follow in four years’ time.

Mr HE Ball, who had returned to see the new school launched, went back into retirement and was replaced by the young Mr PC Manwaring. Also in 1931 Dr Harvey Grace was appointed organist and choirmaster and he and the dean replaced the boys scarlet cassocks with grey ones with wide white puritan collars over them. Eton suits and mortar boards were given up and replaced with grey suits and shirts, stockings and pullovers with scarlet caps bearing a badge derived from Bishop Story’s Arms.

Money was short at this time and many economies were made. In 1933 Mr Manwaring went up to Cambridge and was replaced by Mr David Duncan-Jones when his parents and sister moved out to a new house. This of course meant that a new matron would have to be found. This was accomplished in the person of Mrs Helen Garrett. Two years later the dean took the title of Warden and gave Mr Manwaring the headship with a Mr Byard as assistant master.

A chorister, RB Elliot, reminisces

We have some reminiscences of RB Elliot who became a chorister in 1933. Sleeping accommodation consisted of one big dormitory, the Long Dormitory, and a smaller one for a few older boys in the annexe, now Tarring Dormitory. He recalls that:

"Beneath the dormitory was the library and music room. The walls were all books and the floor was almost covered by a very long table, but there was sufficient room for a black upright piano at the north end. Also at that end was a door to the landing, The Remove was just across the landing, which would mean it was under the annexe. Both the library and The Remove were used as classrooms. A window in the west wall, but at the north end of the library, ie, what is now St Richard’s Dormitory, overlooked a small garden in which there were a few ancient fruit trees. I vaguely remember the hand operated petrol pump and its gantry which was pulled out to bridge the pavement and fed fuel at  one shilling and three pence a gallon to the likes of the headmaster who had a scarlet and cream sports car, or Canon Russell’s big black saloon."

He went on to describe other rooms which, he said, hadn’t changed much since his time there, but in his time there had been a small cinder covered playground to the south of the buildings which was now covered by recent extensions. The installation of a fire escape from the main dormitory consisting of an adjustable belt attached to a friction drum had caused the boys some thrills during the initial testing.

Dr Harvey-Grace was often away from the cathedral leaving a Mr O’Connor to look after the music. He was a fiery tempered man who was not averse to using his baton as a cane.

The Second World War

Chichester Cathedral
Photo by David Le Masurier
Somerights reserved

With the onset of war in 1939 new problems arose,  Mr Manwaring was called up for military service and the dean took over as acting headmaster, but in fact, it was Mrs Eve Salwey and Mr Peter Head who really shared the bulk of the administrative work. Air raids were quite frequent as both RAF Tangmere and Portsmouth Dockyard were close at hand to Chichester. The cellar was used as an air raid shelter for all. Mrs Powell and Mrs Salwey miraculously divided all their time between doing all the cooking and teaching.

The post-war period

At the end of hostilities things began to get back to normal. A Mr PC Ellard-Handley took over the headship for one term after which the dean’s son, the Reverend AR Duncan-Jones returned as headmaster until 1951. Number 54 West Street was acquired providing dormitories staff accommodation and bathrooms. The proprietors of Hymns Ancient and Modern bought the small garden by the west door of the cathedral which was converted into a memorial garden with a stone bearing the names of old pupils who gave their lives in both world wars. This, and the extensions mentioned above were opened by HRH The Duchess of Kent when the four hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the re-foundation of the school was celebrated.

Even as late as the post-war years choir holidays were shamefully short. The choristers were still on duty after Christmas until Epiphany (6 January) followed by the inside of a fortnight’s holiday with one Sunday off. This was repeated at Easter through to Low Sunday. In the summer they had four Sundays off. This reflected perhaps most harshly on the headmaster and matron-housekeeper.

In the following year cricket took an upward turn when George Fuller, a retired cricket professional came to coach the boys, with the result that the school’s cricket flourished. Another figure joined the staff about this time who was, indirectly to lead to a romance; a Mr CE France had recently retired from a London primary school and was an excellent teacher of junior boys. His wife took on the jobs of matron and housekeeper but soon found it too much single handed, so the school employed a series of assistant matrons one of which, a Miss Jean Mackenzie, became engaged to and married Mr Duncan-Jones in 1951. Very soon after they left for Bombay (now Mumbai) where he became chaplain of St Thomas’s Cathedral and All Saints’ church. The new headmaster was the Reverend Charles H Sinclair.

1953 – the seventh centenary of St Richard of Chichester

1953 saw the seventh centenary of St Richard of Chichester when four boys took part in a pageant in the forecourt of the Bishop’s Palace and there was a high mass in the cathedral on 13 June when the archbishop of Canterbury was the celebrant. The choristers attended the civic lunch which followed, singing grace before the meal. The new headmaster was Mr Guy F Hepburn who came to find 72 boys in the school 50 of whom were boarders.

In 1954 the dean celebrated his silver jubilee as dean and the choristers sang at two banquets which were held in his honour. Sadly, however, he died in the following January; a friend and worker for the school which he led so tirelessly cared for and saved from possible extinction. As if to crown his work, in November 1955 Her Majesty’s Inspectorate visited the school and recommended it for recognition from the Ministry of Education. There were two staff changes in 1955 and 1956; Mrs Salwey retired after 11 years service and the Reverend AE Fost also left.

Between about 1956 and 1967 many changes in as many fields took place. There was a new headmaster, Mr Bate; new matron’s rooms, the Seldon room gained a television set, an electric kiln for pottery was installed in the kitchen of 1 St Richard’s Walk, a recreation room in the cellar beneath the thirteenth century schoolhouse was made, the old kitchen of the Bishop’s Palace was permitted to be used for events requiring a large number of people, for example, for plays. A free–standing swimming pool at the west end of the cathedral was erected, and in 1967 a science laboratory was opened in the east wing of the Bishop’s Palace, Mr Bate himself teaching the subject. These and more developments, especially in grounds and lands for sport, reflected a healthy growth in all departments.

Overseas tours

Stained glass from Chichester Cathedral
Photo by Graham Hurst
Some rights reserved

The year 1962 saw the choir’s first visit to France to sing in Chartres Cathedral the city of which is twinned with Chichester. Mr and Mrs Bate looked after the boys who were based in the Maitrise, a theological college. At this time the choir was more and more involved in broadcasting both on radio and television, especially in the TV programme Angel Voices which was a documentary showing the day–to–day life of a chorister in 1967.

"Crudge" and "crudgeman"

It was at this juncture that famous Prebendalian terms "crudge" and "crudgeman" came into being. The original crudge consisted of sacks of coal being transported from the cellar, later referring to any menial duty done by the staff. An assistant master’s duty day would become his crudge day – the word gradually spread to one or two privileged characters and was formed into a society of crudgemen.

The opening of the school to girls

Mr Bate left the school at the end of 1968 to become vicar of Lurgashall and Mr NF Ollerenshaw became headmaster in 1969. He it was who first mooted the idea of opening the school to girls, which was begun in1972 with three sisters of boys already in the school, Rebecca Powell, Lucy Phillips and Kate Farquar-Thomson. Shortly after, more sisters joined the school. The governors were helpful and approving but stipulated that the ratio of girls to boys should never exceed one third. The dean expressed the fear that the next step might be girls in the choir to which he could never give his approval.

Further expansion in the 1970s

During the next five years the numbers of girls had risen to 47. At the same time the numbers of boys applying for entrance to the school had risen substantially, therefore, once more extensions to the buildings had to be made, as well as  additions to staff. The governors launched an appeal and there were sponsored walks and other fund raising activities. The formation of the Parent Teachers Association at this juncture was, among other useful assets, a valuable source of help on the financial side.

Music was now flourishing and the orchestra numbered up to 45 players. Although the non-choir pupils were encouraged to develop their music, it was always the choristers and the probationers who were at the heart of the school’s music.

1958 – the appointment of John Birch

John Birch became organist in 1958 and stayed for 22 years. Under his splendid direction the choir thrived and in 1976 they again visited France singing as before, in Chartres Cathedral as well as in Paris, Versailles, and Fontevraud. 1978 saw a week’s tour to Kristiansand in Norway, taking part in an international festival of church music The following year they returned to France when the "Year of the Normandy Abbeys" was taking place; they sang mass at Bec and Mont St Michel and gave recitals at Bayeux,  La Lucerne and St Pierre-sur-Dives.

At the end of each term when the boarders had gone home, the 12 choristers would all move into two dormitories and begin practising for either Christmas, Easter or The Southern Cathedrals’ Festival in the summer; and for relaxation there were parties and shopping expeditions in the city. During the pre-Christmas period there was the Christmas tree to decorate and a crib to set up with a little ceremony of singing Silent Night with the chaplain saying a prayer and giving a blessing. Christmas Eve saw them all in bed very early as they had to be up again to sing the Midnight Mass. Much later in the night Father Christmas would go round the dormitories and in the morning distribute presents from the tree. After their duties in the cathedral there were boisterous games such as Murder in the Dark.

1980 – Alan Thurlow succeeds John Birch

Chichester Cathedral interior
Photo by Gideon Davidson
Some rights reserved

Alan Thurlow became organist in 1980 on John Birch’s retirement, with Jeremy Suter as his assistant. Over the years that he has been organist, Alan Thurlow has evolved a unique scheme for controlling the number of choristers and probationers at any one time. He found 18 boys, 12 choristers and eight probationers when he took office. There are still 12 choristers in the somewhat cramped stalls and eight junior boys who sit at the back with the men some moving forward to sing with the choristers according to their progress and ability. This avoids having eight probationers who must wait for vacancies among the choristers no matter how ready they may be for promotion. In September 2000 five choristers will have left which will only leave 10 choristers until such of the probationers have gained enough experience to swell the ranks of choristers.

Plans for the restoration of the organ were afoot in 1982 and Alan Thurlow outlined his plans for its layout. Mr Ollerenshaw retired in the same year and the Reverend Godfrey Hall was appointed in his place. Meanwhile the choir were busy with two TV appearances, three radio broadcasts. Also, a new Christmas record was released.

A busy times for recordings and concerts

1985 saw the usual Radio 3 broadcast Evensong. Also, in the Christmas term, The Festival Theatre was the venue for Christmas concerts by the choristers, Brian Kay, Cantabile and the Band of the Royal Marines. During the course of the year it was announced that the choirs’ Hyperion recording of Cathedral Music by Geoffrey Burgon was one of the twelve records awarded Critic’s Choice of the Year by Gramophone magazine. The following year was Chichester’s turn to host the Royal Maundy Service in March and shortly after there was a 10 day tour to Germany. The summer term was crowned by the opening of a reconstructed organ with a recital by John Birch at the Southern Cathedrals’ Festival.

Two TV channels, BBC South and TVS filmed the choir in 1987; they were once again joined by the Band of The Royal Marines in making a record entitled A Celebration of Christmas. On 4 June they gave a performance of Haydn’s St Nicholas Mass in the cathedral with the London Festival Orchestra followed nine days later by a flight to Montpellier to give a concert in the cathedral of Maguelone. Back home the Chichester festivities included a concert by the choir with Gillian Weir. Landon Park was the venue for a concert in aid of The National Trust in October, and shortly before Christmas once again the choir joined forces with the Band of the Royal Marines in making a record, featuring Richard Stilgoe and Cantabile for concerts on four consecutive nights in the Festival Theatre.

In 1988 the choir appeared with Harry Secombe on ITV’s Highway programme as well as the usual round of concerts, Radio 3 broadcasts and The Southern Cathedrals’ Festival in July.

At this juncture it might be advisable to remind readers that all these activities and the work that they entail were in addition to the all important daily Evensongs.

1989 saw a number of these extra mural activities. In addition to the Christmas concerts at the Chichester Festival Theatre, the yearly concert at Hove, the BBC Evensongs, the Chichester Festivities and The Southern Cathedrals’ Festival, they took part in the filming of an episode of Rumpole of the Bailey and joined the choirs of St Albans and Christ Church, Oxford, in a concert which was part of The International Organ Festival at St Albans. 1990 and 1991 gave the choir a slight breathing space in that the main outside activity was the CD recording of the Stanford Bible Songs, in January and February 1990, and in 1991 another CD recording, The Welkin Rings, the music taken from a new anthology of Christmas music Carols Old and New.

In 1993 the new headmaster of the Prebendal School was appointed to the Chapter as Prebendary of Highleigh, Canon Godfrey Hall. The choir had a busy year with a CD recording in January, a Chichester Festivities concert, and The Southern Cathedrals’ Festival at Winchester in July. A broadcast Evensong in October, and The Festival Theatre’s Christmas Concert with the Band of the Royal Marines with Richard Stilgoe in December. In that year it was found necessary to have two cathedral carol services; both were packed out.

A fourth Reynolds brother made head chorister

Chichester Cathedral
"Stone and Light"
Photo by Trevor Hare
Some rights reserved

Around this time, Shaun Reynolds followed in his three elder brothers’ footsteps by being made the fourth boy of the family to be made head chorister. Ben Nicholas, son of Michael Nicholas, former Norwich cathedral organist, was then probationer at Chichester and in 1994, Peter Buisseret, whose home was in Massachusetts was a probationer at Chichester.

In 1994 shortly before Christmas the St Richards Singers, directed by Noel Osborne, and the BBC Concert Orchestra joined the cathedral choir in a Christmas Eve broadcast on Radio 2. Also during the year the choir made a CD of the music of Malcolm Archer. A welcome surprise, due no doubt to the prowess of the choristers having been noised abroad, was when no less than 20 boys turned up for the voice trial in January, when there were only six vacancies to be filled.

In addition to the Chichester Festivities and The Festival Theatre, in 1995 there were four fund raising events for the Cathedral Trust.

1997 – the quincentenary of the re-founding of the school

All of this leading up to the special year of 1997, the quincentenary of the re-founding of the Prebendal School by Bishop Story in 1497. The celebrations started early in the Lent term with a service in the cathedral and afterwards a reception in the school for parents and pupils. At the end of that term the school concert took place in the cathedral, augmented by former music scholars in the orchestra and senior choir. But the highlight of the year was on Friday 13 June when The Duchess of Gloucester visited the school and attended a thanksgiving service in the cathedral during which she read a lesson and went with the head boy and head girl to Bishop Story’s tomb where they laid flowers. A specially composed Benedicite by James Thomas, then assistant organist, now organist at Bury St Edmunds, was performed by the school, the cathedral choir, the organ and a brass quartet. In the afternoon the Quincentenary Stakes were run at Goodwood. The following day was sports day at the school with a picnic for parents and children. September 13 saw the Quincentenary Ball in the grounds of West Dean. And at the end of the year the school play was Siege City in which the story of the Prebendal School during the Civil War was unfolded.

1998 was a rather quieter year during which the bishop and precentor led the diocesan pilgrimage to Chartres supported by the cathedral choir who sang Masses and gave recitals. Unfortunately the trip was somewhat marred by a burglary in the choir accommodation when some possessions were lost by both the adult and chorister members of the choir. It was Chichester’s turn to host The Southern Cathedrals’ Festival in July which opened with an organ recital. After the festival no less than eight of the 12 choristers left, so that in September a very young choir took over the treble line and worked very hard to maintain standards. The new head chorister was Matthew Chinery and the senior chorister was Philip Craven.

In conclusion, I like to think of Bishop Story and his choristers. Could they but see his work come to full fruition in a large co-educational school with all its diverse activities, and at the centre of it all, a superb choir.