Of Choristers – ancient and modern



Gloucester, The King’s School

Gloucester Cathedral —1828
Engraved by J.LeKeux after a picture by W.H.Bartlett
Source: Wikipedia

Between the middle of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth The King’s School came near to shipwreck many times fluctuating wildly during that time but finally landing safely, first with the arrival of headmaster Canon Gillespy in 1922, and after him Canon Eric Jenner Noott in 1942.

However, to go back a little, in monastic times it seems likely that a grammar school and a song school were combined in one at Gloucester. The choristers used to sing the Lady Chapel Offices after the monks had sung vespers in the choir each day.

The sixteenth century

One John Tucke, born in 1483 and educated at Winchester and New College, Oxford, was appointed master of this school in the early years of the sixteenth century. His duties were clearly stated. He was to teach grammar to all his pupils including the 13 singing boys, five or six of which were to sing plainsong, divided (part) song and descant, that all must sing at the Mass of The Blessed Virgin Mary. On Feast Days Tucke must superintend them at vespers and high mass, also he must accompany them at the organ. For these festivities the whole 13-boy choir would have been used. Thus he combined the offices of teacher of grammar and master of the choristers.

The Dissolution

At the dissolution of the monastery in 1540 John Tucke was still in office, but it was not until five years later that Henry the Eighth signed the statutes of the cathedral and the college school. In the twenty-fourth chapter of the statutes Henry dealt with the appointment of a master of the choristers. But the role of organist was left to the dean who must appoint a man of good reputation who must teach the choristers to play the organ.

The song school was now a completely separate institution from the college school and even the cost of the two schools was carefully laid down. The headmaster and the master of the choristers were allotted six shillings a month, the usher and lay clerks, five shillings and eight pence and the choristers three shillings and four pence. They were allowed so much cloth annually, four yards for senior members, and two and a half yards for the choristers. Similarly with their pay, the headmaster £8, eight shillings and eight pence per year, the master of the choristers £5 and seven shillings, the usher only £2, nineteen shillings and two pence and the choristers fifteen shillings. The ceremonies of the Boy Bishop were duly enacted each December, John Stubbs being the last Boy Bishop before Queen Elizabeth put an end to the custom country-wide.

The seventeenth century

Norman stonework
in Gloucester Cathedral
Photo by Chris Moore
Some rights reserved

There was a bishop’s visitation in 1613 during which the lay clerks reported that the choristers were badly behaved and disorderly.  Elias Smith was their master and it was said that he did not even catechise them. However, the lay clerks themselves were hardly setting a good example to the choristers. In 1618 one was reported for his negligence in singing the services also for his frequent visits to public houses in the city and another for his habit of talking during the services and then slipping out before the service was over. One Roland Smith was severely reproved for two assaults causing actual bodily harm, and in 1620 he was found to be drunk during service time and after stabbing the city mace bearer was dismissed. Elias Smith, lay clerk and son of the organist was dismissed after long periods of absenting himself from the choir. So in 1625 following many deplorable incidents in the city it was ordered that no member of the choir who lived within the precincts of the cathedral was to enter the city after 10pm.

At that time the choristers would seem to have had a pay rise to £3, six shillings and eight pence per year whilst the lay clerks received only £6, 13 shillings and four pence per year (even this being a pittance), which may explain the poor quality of men being attracted to the job. As in so many cathedrals a Chapter order went out in 1620 forbidding running about during services in order to fetch the music to be sung. It was stated that a chorister must find the music well before the service and lay it out carefully on the choir desks. Sermons were preached in the nave after the services which meant that everyone sitting in the choir had to get up and move down to the nave – an ideal opportunity for some choir members and others to slip away outside. So in 1625 it was ordered that that the men and boys were to stay in their places in the choir. About this time Archbishop Laud made a visitation the outcome of which was that two choristers, Thomas and Richard Longe were dismissed from the choir. From then until the outbreak of the Civil War the song school was probably in the organist’s house east of the infirmary.

The Restoration

At the time of the Restoration it took time and patience to rebuild the choir but eventually there were seven lay clerks, eight choristers but no organist, for as yet there was no organ. The boys were taught by Richard Eliot, one of the lay clerks and himself a former chorister. Their daily life was very different from their brothers in the college school. Whereas the choristers’ day would have consisted of singing and instrumental classes, learning a trade and perhaps studying a catechism, the college boys were learning Latin and possibly Greek and in addition perhaps religious knowledge.

The addition of an organ

In 1622 an organ was bought and refurbished and a sackbut and cornet were brought in to boost the treble line. A brand new organ was installed a few years later, and also there was a pay rise for lay clerks to £10 per year and choristers to £5 per year. Bishop Nicholson instructed David Henstridge, their master, to hold a small voice trial for the younger boys so that a smooth transition would be made when the older boys left. He also commanded that Henstridge lay aside one day a week to teach his boys the Christian religion and to prepare them for confirmation.

An expanding repertoire

A great deal of new music was being written by composers such as Henry Purcell, Michael Wise, Pelham Humphrey and John Blow. Quite often a work would begin with a long section for men’s voices with a short section at the end when the boys joined in indicating how long it took to build up the efficiency of the Restoration boys.

1684 – the appointment of Maurice Wheeler

In 1684 one of the great headmasters of the college school, which he was first to rename The King’s School, Maurice Wheeler, was appointed. On his arrival there were 57 boys in the school and at his departure in 1712 there were 647. It was at this juncture that some choristers were taken into the school again. The first chorister to enter the school was William Jeffries the organist’s son, others were his brother, Stephen, John Tyler and Abraham Rudall. It became customary for boys to enter the school about a year after becoming a chorister but it was not for nearly two centuries that the Dean and Chapter made it compulsory for the choristers to attend The King’s School.

The eighteenth century

Gloucester Cathedral interior
Photo by "clare_and_ben"
Some rights reserved

Benjamin Newton followed Wheeler in 1712 and William Alexander followed him in 1718 until he died in office in 1742. At this time not all choristers were educated at The King’s School as some parents preferred their boys to attend schools in the city where there was not so much emphasis on Latin and Greek and more on the basic subjects and on accountancy with a view to their future employment on leaving school. This was allowed, provided the boys were always present at service and practice times.

Certain rules were formulated for choristers and probationers. There were ten probationers, unpaid, who must pass an examination in reading, writing and arithmetic and give proof that they were baptised. At the top there were ten foundation choristers who were admitted into the cathedral.

The Dean and Chapter would have had the power to decide the hours of study and if any boy played truant frequently they had the power to dismiss him. Half holidays were on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and holidays were six weeks in the summer, a month after Christmas and a week after Easter.

The late nineteenth century regime

Towards the end of the nineteenth century a daily routine had been established. Prayers were at 8.45am with lessons following until 10.15am when the choristers sang Matins and the rest had a break. Lessons followed from 11.15am to 12 noon when the choristers had a practice until 12.45pm. They then went home for lunch and were back at lessons by 2.30pm. At 3.45pm the choristers went to Evensong after which they all went home for tea and returned for prep at 6.30pm until 8.30pm, or 8pm for juniors. Eton suits and mortar boards were now the regulation uniform for choristers on Sundays. On weekdays an old mortar board was worn for their journeys to and from the cathedral.

Chorister pranks

In 1880 the Reverend Philip Sparling, the headmaster, lamented the great rift that existed between the King’s School scholars and the choristers adding that the latter group were far more responsible for committing serious faults than the former. Midnight feasts were an essential part of life at King’s and on one occasion at Fowlers House there were problems as to how to hoist a loaf of bread from the garden to the dormitory, the boys being locked in after "lights out". Eventually a rope was made out of sheets and pillowcases and let down to where a kindly collaborator tied the loaf to it. A small chorister was chosen to haul the loaf up. He began pulling but suddenly to his dismay he accidentally let go of the rope. He turned white in the face and found himself the recipient of a sound beating. However, eventually another rope was made of bedclothes and night shirts and the loaf was safely hauled up.

Herbert Brewer

Herbert Brewer, later Sir Herbert, D mus, FRCO, became a pupil in 1877. He went on to become organist in 1897 and conducted no fewer than seven Three Choirs' Festivals. He was made City High Sheriff in 1922 and was the composer of much cathedral music. One of his  choristers, AJ Pritchard, D mus, remembered his first impressions of a very strict disciplinarian, but soon found that underneath lay a friendly character, loving his work and his boys not only in the school but also on the games field.

A period of fluctuating fortunes

From then until well into the twentieth century the fortunes of the school fluctuated quite dramatically and in the 1870s began to decline dramatically so that the Dean and Chapter were still in favour of turning it into a music school, that is, for choristers only. It was noticed that at this time the 10 choristers were placed very low in the school probably owing to the fact that they missed so much schooling because of their choir duties.

Numbers fell and the Dean and Chapter were doing their utmost to get financial help from The Board of Education to bring them in line with most cathedral schools. The board passed the problem on to the local education authority (LEA), who insisted that the City and Council must be represented on the governing body. The Dean and Chapter found themselves unable to accept as they feared the LEA would control the school and finally, perhaps, close it down on the grounds that there were already too many grammar schools in the city. They feared also for the future of the choristers.

In 1874 there were 30 day boys and 18 boarders plus the choristers. Numbers continued to fall until the school was virtually a choir school with 26 boys, seven boarders and the choristers, in 1877.

The Reverend Philip Sparling was appointed headmaster and immediately ruled that all choristers must attend the school, also expelling two badly behaved choristers in two years.

The Dean and Chapter once again made efforts to re-establish the school as a choir school only. Also there were plans to make all choristers boarders in order to cure the indiscipline in the choir. However, with the appointment of Bernard Foster as headmaster in 1888 there was temporary comeback only to sink down again with the appointment of headmaster Arthur Fleming in 1898. Parents were loath to send their boys for voice trials as the school was getting a bad name for itself.

The twentieth century

Gloucester Cathedral cloisters
Photo by "clare_and_ben"
Some rights reserved

Between 1906 and 1920 there were prolonged negotiations, meetings and correspondence between The Board of Education, the LEA, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and the Dean and Chapter. A circular was sent to all cathedral Chapters asking if they received assistance from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners or were under The Board of Education. The replies were interesting. A dozen schools answered in the negative. Worcester received £400 a year and had three LEA governors. Rochester had been given £4,000 to pay off debts. Durham Chapter gave £3,000 a year to its school and Rochester Chapter £4,000. Bristol had a grant of £12,000, Canterbury £3,000, Peterborough £8,500, Worcester a further £15,000, Hereford £7,000 and Lincoln £10,000.

In 1922 a piece of good fortune came the way of the school. Bishop Headham was appointed to Gloucester. He had been a member of the commission with responsibility for the allocation of grants. After much negotiation a grant of £7,000 was offered.

In July 1928 there was an order in council approving a scheme, and the long-standing financial crisis seemed temporarily over. The board at last recognised the school but the governors were still to be the Dean and Chapter alone. Two problems remained unsolved until 1953, in that the scheme made no mention of the regularity of the grant, and nothing was said about the much needed raising of academic standards.

Dr Herbert Sumsion

Dr Herbert Sumsion, a chorister early in the century, returned as organist in the late 1920s. He organised summer camps for the boys who were too poor to have a holiday, the first being in 1929. In 1922 the appointment of headmaster Canon Francis Gillespy saw the beginning of the turning of the tide in the affairs of the school. He found 40 boys only including the choristers, no recognition by The Board of Education and no grant. Morale among the staff and boys was low. He raised the fees, bringing in 26 new boys and was therefore able to increase the staff and pay them better salaries. Three “houses” were created and hockey and fives were added to the existing sports. A debating society was formed as well as meccano and engine clubs. The school magazine was revived, but above all it was the magnetic personality of the man who literally swept all before him. A small and lively touch was the performance of a St Nicholas play with Boy Bishop and choristers at a school supper given by the dean in Big School.

In 1923 the library was given a facelift with the throwing out of obsolete books and the obtaining of new ones, but a reference library was still badly needed for the seniors. A school orchestra was formed in 1926 and when Dr Brewer was knighted they played Handel’s Water Music at speech day.

As numbers were steadily growing the need for classroom space became urgent. Between 1928 and 1929 three classrooms, a science laboratory and a lecture room were built, and the school was recognised by The Board of Education.

A further setback

However, a setback was on the way. Canon Gillespy retired in 1930 and the Reverend Ernest Muncey took his place. Subjects were cut down and three members of staff were made redundant. In 1933 there were 84 boys in the school and the school had a deficit of £600. Fees were reduced from £8 and eight shillings a term to £5 and five shillings. 1938 saw the Tithe Act which reduced the cathedral’s income by £10,000 per year and there was an announcement that the senior school was to close. But once again it was saved. The Crypt School rented two classrooms and the paddock, and the LEA paid £26 to house evacuees. Westminster Cathedral Choir School took over The Deanery at £150 per year, plus £40 for part of the school. In 1941 troops were billeted in Paddock House and the new classrooms.

There were only 28 boys including the choristers. But very soon there were 63 under the care of a new headmaster, the Reverend Eric Jenner Noott appointed in 1942, who persuaded the Dean and Chapter to lower the age of entry to five years. This was an immediate success chiefly owing to the appointment of Miss Mary Foxlowe who was in charge of the little ones. By 1944 there were 40 boys in this infants' department so that when added to the now 90 boys in the rest of the school made a grand total of 130. The senior school was reopened in the Easter term.

The post–war era

An expanding school

Gloucester Cathedral at night
Photo by "clare_and_ben"
Some rights reserved

The school was once more overflowing with 210 boys. More space again was needed, so in 1948 the headmaster and his sister, two masters and four boarders moved into Cathedral Gardens. Also in 1949 a contract was signed for £2,104 for a new classroom. Fees could now be safely be put up and it was decided to apply for direct grant status. Canon Noott resigned in 1951 leaving 240 pupils in the school and a balance of £2,481.

By 1950 numbers had shot up to 250 with six masters on the staff. Discipline was still severe and corporal punishment the norm. For instance, for a poor translation the headmaster would twist a boy’s arm in a Chinese Burn or hold his thumb twisting it round and round.


At this time Gloucester’s initiation ceremony for new choristers consisted of them being enclosed in a large wooden box with a slit on top. The box was rolled over and over and through the slit were pushed frogs and spiders and even ink. After this the victim had to sing the National Anthem. Back in the 1930s new choristers were forced by the older boys to climb up the lion on the north transept, which was stopped when a boy fell but luckily slid down the roof.

The first ever lay headmaster

The first ever lay headmaster, Lieutenant Commander Tom Brown, RNVR (retired) was appointed in 1951.  He arrived in full naval uniform, which the staff thought a bit of a joke, but soon both they and the boys found that he meant business and achieved it in an enthusiastic and typically boyish way.

Further expansion

Following many improvements and modernisations, at last, in 1953 recognition by the ministry was regained. The Bishop’s Palace was bought in 1954 as numbers were now soaring to the 400 mark. The Church of England Central Board of Finance gave £3,500 for chorister maintenance which at that time cost £79 per boy per year. The age old problem of organising the choristers day so that they did not miss too much school was still in evidence, however by moving practice to early morning and dropping Matins considerably eased the situation. 1962 saw the opening of the new music school and the foundation stone of the new hall was laid.

In the mid 1960s changes were afoot. Tom Brown resigned, his successor stayed only a short time, numbers dropped by about 130 boys, but in 1969 a good appointment to the headmastership was made in Patrick David and soon number losses were made good.

1972 – the school becomes co-educational

Girls were admitted into the sixth form in 1972; much building expansion continued, and a computer centre was opened. Patrick David retired in 1983 and the Reverend Alan Charters was appointed in his stead, who had a particular interest in the choristers and their well being. Two important changes followed in 1985, girls were admitted throughout the school and corporal punishment was abolished.

Richard Shephard, at the time of writing headmaster of the Minster School, York, was a chorister in the 1950s and stated that there was very little rehearsal time so that the whole choir became first class sight readers. A film was made by Central Television dealing with the daily life of a chorister which took a considerable time to complete.

1986 saw Gloucester as hosts of The Three Choirs' Festival which included Lloyd Webber’s Requiem and Victorias’ Requiem Officium Defunctorum. The following year was a busy year with many applicants at the voice trial. Two Evensongs were broadcast on Radio 3, also the service on the morning of Good Friday. In June the choir sang Haydn’s St Nicholas Mass with The English String Orchestra; they also made a record of English choral music with works by Sumsion, Sanders, SS Wesley, Shephard, Brewer, Howells and Bax.

Plans for a tour of the USA were well underway in 1988 accompanied by many fund raising activities. Voice trials were still producing a high standard of ability and good numbers. At the same time music was being rehearsed for the nine hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Abbey in 1089.

1990 – tour of the USA

Depiction of the crucifixion in Gloucester Cathedral
Photo by "notiX"
Some rights reserved

In 1990 the choir was asked to record volume five of The Psalms of David for Priory. After the usual busy Holy Week and Easter, on Easter Monday the choir boarded a plane and took off for the USA. The flight attendants persuaded them to gather in the tail of the plane and sing The National Anthem. After a good flight they travelled to St Philip’s Cathedral, Atlanta to meet their first hosts. John Sanders the organist had achieved the arrival right on time and so it was throughout the tour. Lunch was eaten, the first of five, at Morrison’s Café. The meal could only be described as "gargantuan" and those in charge hoped that all would be well for the forthcoming singing later in the day. But all was well and at the concert at St Philips, John Sanders’ Easter Carol brought the audience to its feet in a standing ovation. Afterwards there was a lavish reception for the English party. Next morning the choristers went sightseeing and later in the day the party travelled to Macon, where in Christchurch, a capacity crowd heard an English cathedral choir for the first time. Once more there was a standing ovation.

The next step was the wonderful city of Charleston. First there was a lightning tour, and a later concert at St Philip’s Church which was once more crowded out. Specially popular with the audience was Britten’s Missa Brevis sung by the choristers, and assistant organist Mark Lee’s organ solo, Variations and Fugue on God Save the King by Max Reger.

They moved on to Savannah to sing in St John’s Episcopal Church. Care had to be taken to choose only works from The Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible, one exception being Richard Shephard’s Gloria from Rite A. The choir was treated to the privilege of dining in an historic home, that of General Sharman of the Civil War.

Goodbye to the Deep South and on to Florida and Jacksonville. It being a Sunday morning there was a Eucharist in the chapel of the naval base. The concert followed in the afternoon at St Paul’s-by-the-Sea and this turned out to be the outstanding concert of the tour. One woman was moved to tears and presented Richard Gamble with a cheque for $100 saying it had been the greatest experience of her life.

Next on the route was Orlando, Disney World and the Kennedy Space Center. St Luke’s Cathedral at Orlando was the venue for the last concert. After the second half there was a standing ovation to which the choir responded with Parry’s I Was Glad.

The Three Choirs' Festival in 1992 was held at Gloucester during which the cathedral choristers gave the first performance of Havergal’s Psalm 23. Throughout the year there were visits to several parishes in the diocese, carol singing in Gloucester Royal Hospital and an Epiphany Evensong at Prinknash Abbey. Also the year saw the celebration of Dr John Sanders' 25 years as organist and master of the choristers at Gloucester Cathedral. He retired in 1994, and was followed by David Briggs from Truro Cathedral. Also during that year the senior choristers visited Worcester for the Three Choirs' Festival and all the choristers were kept busy with the television recording of The Choir by Joanna Trollope.

1994 – tour of Canada and the USA

The lower choir stalls and pavement are Victorian,
but the back stalls and canopies date from about 1350.
Photo by "Sacred Destinations"
Some rights reserved

In the winter time of that year the choir went on an extensive tour of Canada and the USA. On the first day a visit was made to Niagara Falls but the weather was bad, rain and snow, and general opinion was that the whole place was rather spoilt by commercialism. They travelled on to Toronto to give a concert, but a blizzard somewhat reduced audience numbers. Montreal was the next stop where they found a shopping centre under the cathedral. They travelled on to Ottawa and by this time they were getting rather tired of lasagne at every meal. At last they came to New York and were much impressed by the place. The final concert was a huge success with a standing ovation, three encores and a TV camera from Channel 10 News. Next day they suffered a stormy journey home.

The Three Choirs' Festival of 1995 was held at Gloucester it being the first one for David Briggs as conductor. In addition to the usual BBC Radio 3 broadcast Evensong there was a Classic FM concert accompanied by London Festival Orchestra.

Many hours of 1996 were taken up by energetic fund raising for a tour of Australia and New Zealand in the following year, including a recipe book named Canon Fodder, and a sponsored walk from Gloucester to Hereford by the assistant organist, Mark Lee.

1997 – tour of Australia and New Zealand

So that in 1997 the choir found themselves in Perth, Australia after a long but enjoyable flight. In front of the 600 strong audience they gave a successful concert which included Lo the Full Final Sacrifice. After a five hour flight to New Zealand they landed at Christchurch where 800 people gathered to hear them sing Evensong in the cathedral. They also sang in Auckland in the modern cathedral.

In 1998 it was once again the turn of Gloucester to host The Three Choirs' Festival, still as popular and well attended as ever, so a great deal of preparation was involved which was repaid by many exciting concerts and Evensongs. The well deserved appointment of Mark Lee as organist of Bristol Cathedral was announced.

At Speech Day 1947 the then headmaster, Canon Noott, had this to say:

"A chorister is trained to be alert and resourceful. He is a member of a team. He gets a sense of style and in fact a classical education in a very real sense. He enjoys many advantages and he is generally a contented sort of boy because he can do at least one thing well. He is usually unselfconscious and self–possessed. Above all he is on his toes, a habit he has learned in the practice room or at service, and as a result cathedral choristers have distinguished themselves in all walks of life".