Of Choristers – ancient and modern



Hereford, The Cathedral School

Probably founded in the fourteenth century

Altar panels in Hereford Cathedral
Photo by Phillip C
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It is known that in the thirteenth century boys attached to the canon’s houses sang in the cathedral but a school was probably not founded until the fourteenth century. The Dean and Chapter nominated certain boys for a free education to include seven choristers appointed by the Chapter and two by the vicars choral. Their education was entirely separate from that of the grammar school. The choristers, known as "clerks of the third form", indicating the bench they sat on in the cathedral, were in the charge of the succentor and received a good classical education. They sang the antiphon before and after the psalms and canticles also performing duties as taperers and cross-bearers.

Early Customs

An early Customs of the Cathedral states that the succentor must

"take from his school five boys for training in reverence, obedience and good behaviour, and see that they enter not the church without shoes, robes and with a broad and decent tonsure".

They must keep still at service unless they must move to sing or fetch books. This was to be done with all solemnity and reverence. The succentor must lead them in their singing, "not trailing behind them", and he must see that they all start and finish together. Special candles were to be found for them for The Feast of the Holy Innocents with one large candle for the boy bishop. The boys’ house was near to the canon’s bakehouse on the west side of the cathedral, with a garden.

Early records in the Calendar of Cathedral Muniments

From the early fourteenth century we have a few miscellaneous records in the Calendar of Cathedral Muniments, in Hereford cathedral library. On 20 August 1340 the chancellor was ordered to repair the choir books before 1 November, and on 28 January it was stipulated that when a canon left the town he must board his chorister with another canon paying the latter ten pence per week. On 17 September of the same year it was decreed that the choristers were to be in the charge of one William Burley, Chaplain of the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and he was to be paid twenty shillings per year. There were various rules and regulations laid down concerning their support and discipline. On 31 May 1342 it was stated that William Burley was to be paid 18 per year to provide the choristers with food, drink and clothing. And finally on 19 November there was a discussion concerning contributions due from St Bartholomew’s Hospice, Gloucester, for the support of the boys.

The sixteenth century

In the Dean and Chapter's Act Book, between 1512 and 1526 Roger Brague was elected to be in charge of the Lady Chapel services until the following Michaelmas, and be master of the choristers, and the choir was to sing various antiphon there daily after Compline. After this, for a while, records disappear and the school may have closed down – perhaps something to do with the Reformation? References to a "grammar school", a "free school", a "college school" and a "cathedral school" are puzzling. However, a cathedral school was one where choristers were definitely educated free.

The school was probably re-founded about 1583. Owing to the poor state of education at this time it was thought fit to found a school governed by a headmaster and an usher within the precincts of the cathedral, maintained by the Dean and Chapter. The headmaster’s salary was 20 per year and the usher’s 10. More money was provided for the Feast of St Bartholomew. The boys learnt the virginals and harp, Latin, writing and arithmetic. For the last two a small fee was charged.

The seventeenth century

Statue of Sir Edward Elgar,
resident in Hereford 1904-1911
Photo by Alex Foster
Some rights reserved

A note from 1607 shows the choristers as being busy people.

"We also charge the Dean and Chapter as they shall answer unto God to take special care that at leisure hours the quiresters, as often as they can be spared from the church and singing school, be taught Latin, or if they be not capable thereof, to write very well and cast accounts, or to play upon the virginals or harp."

Some personal histories

Although there is no official record of choristers’ names until 1839 the choristers themselves have left us a few, with commentaries, in Barnard’s Cathedral Music Books in the song school library, dating from after the Restoration:

  • Thomas Digges (his hand and pen) 1686, Francis Lewis, Richard Lloyd, William Phillips, Thomas Gravel, James Roberts, William Fisher.
  • Thomas Digges (and he is a good boy. Riten 1687).
  • These are the names of all the choristers belonging to the Cathedral Church of Hereford in ye yeare of oure Lord God 1690.
  • James Roberts (1) Thomas Gravell (2) Thomas Digges (3) William Fisher(4) Edwin Amis (5) William Phillips (6) John Chapman(7) – anno domini 1690.
  • Samuel Hayward 1700 Francis Hill, Garrett Sanders, Thomas Bull, Thomas Dance, William Roberts, John Beavan.
  • The names of ye choristers 1720 - Thomas Harris, Richard Lloyd, Mat Fisher, Nat Yarrett, Will Rogers, Jacob Barber, Jac Aldon.
  • James Rogers came in chorister Nov 12th 1723.
  • These are the names of the choristers belonging to Cantoris side, James Fisher, James Rogers, Will Fisher 1724.
  • These are the names of ye choristers in the yeare 1732 Francis Lewis, Richard Lane, John Jason, Richard Smyth, William Lane, James Rawlinson, Charles Skryme. All good, but the last one is so great a rogue as ever gallows did hold.

About 1759 plans were drawn up for the building of a music room to house the triennial Three Choirs' Festival of Worcester, Gloucester and Hereford founded in 1724. This was duly built. There is a small passage of some interest in The Gentlemen’s Magazine of 1819:

"The school… is kept in a spacious room known by the name of The Music Room... In this school the choristers receive a gratuitous education except for writing and arithmetic for which they must pay".

This music room was said by one, Britton, to be "a large pile of brick buildings of a most unsightly and unnecessary character", and "a warehouse-looking pile of brick building".

The nineteenth century

Hereford Cathedral crypt
Photo by Andy Price
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About this time an eighth chorister was added owing to the generosity of a certain Canon George Cope who died in 1821 leaving 200 in his will for this purpose, on condition that the boy attended the grammar school with the others, also that he receive five guineas from the junior canon as was the custom with the other choristers. However, this is confusing. Either the choristers were now attending a separate grammar school, or the "music room", which must have been fairly large to accommodate the Three Choirs' Festival, was being used as a grammar school to include the choristers. A further addition was made to the choir when the Dean and Chapter agreed to pay for the education of four probationers. Also about this time, Maria Hackett visited Hereford. This is her short report:

"The choristers are liberally educated and are taught Latin and Greek and French, in addition to a good English education. School examinations are held once a year and an extra place is given to the choristers".

Some years later the number of the choristers was 16, 12 being educated free and four paid for by the Dean and Chapter.

Monkey business!

One short anecdote has come down to us concerning the choristers at this time. The solo boy whose voice was beginning to break became jealous of the new solo boy and wickedly laid a plot to upset the latter at his singing. He somehow managed to conceal a monkey under his surplice planning to let it go at the time of the solo and upset his rivals singing. Fortunately the plan went awry and the monkey managed to escape early in the service causing considerable consternation among the choir and congregation. Sadly, the story ends there; it would be nice to know more.

Harder times in the mid-nineteenth century

Times seem to have been bad as we have seen in so many other cathedrals and choral establishments at this time. In 1835 the school room of the West Cloister was demolished and numbers were so low that school carried on in a room at the back of the master’s house built in 1779. Suggestions for improvement were made by the bishop of Hereford at a visitation but these did little to improve matters. However, in 1842 Dr Woolley became headmaster and the north east corner was given over to school purposes as a temporary measure at a rental to the Dean and Chapter of 5 a year. These premises were old, built about the time of Edward IV; they comprised two classrooms, a large hall and a chapel.

The master was now the Reverend Charles Taylor, himself teaching the roughly 30 boys who made up the school, which consisted of one boarder, 12 choristers, four dean’s scholars and about 12 private pupils who paid eight guineas a year. In 1853 the choristers were taught separately in the chapel of The College of Vicars. There was no more boarding although some choristers lived well outside the city so that they were picked up by a coach and horses about 7am which took four hours to bring them in. One can imagine the cold of a winter’s morning. The return journey seems to have been much more fun. They ate pork pies, tried to smoke cigars and peppered everyone and everything with dried peas, some of which reached the Deanery windows.

The school's five hundredth anniversary

About 1861 a library was built to commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of the school. Great celebrations were held, cricket matches and an Old Boys' dinner, a special service in the cathedral and an evening concert in which the choristers sang. A little science was introduced into the curriculum but nothing that we should recognise as science now – a better laboratory was to be built in 1912.

Expansion towards the end of the nineteenth century

1898 saw the addition of a new preparatory department which we may assume was used by the choristers and others. Changes and improvements followed fast and once more the school began to expand both educationally and in terms of new buildings. The total numbers were in the region of 100 boys with a staff of four, and many new subjects were introduced, including drawing. By the end of the century the choristers were entirely in the hands of the organist, except for their school work, and they had their own system of monitors. Boys who lived at great distances from Hereford were boarded out in private houses which is puzzling as now, of course, all choristers whether they live in Hereford or not are automatically boarded at the school.

Dr GR Sinclair

In the late years of the nineteenth century the choristers were under the care of Dr GR Sinclair, the organist. He was indeed a real father to them and they held him in great esteem and affection and were a happy and well disciplined team. Dr Sinclair arranged for a common room to be built in his garden which was known as The Ark. A popular annual event was the choristers’ annual carol service, part of the proceeds raised going to the upkeep of The Ark. Dr Sinclair died in 1917.

The twentieth century

Hereford Cathedral interior
Photo by "Dogfael"
Some rights reserved

In 1919 there were 122 boys in the school, 80 boarders, 32 day boys and 10 choristers. By 1920 there were 200 boys in all with four of these being boarder choristers. Up until 1931 there were 14 fully choral services a week and at this time some choristers had such a high standard of musicianship that they were able to play for some services should this be required.

1973 – the cathedral school becomes independent

Up until the 1973 the cathedral school was direct grant school, then becoming independent, with the choristers only starting at 11 years of age and staying in the choir until they were 14 or 15 years old. Most of them took O Levels at this age, but as voices generally were beginning to break at about 13 years, this left the ridiculous situation of a choir consisting of boys of 11 to 13 years only. So in 1976 the prep school was incorporated into the cathedral school and took two eight year old choristers, Paul Hartley and John Padley. Over the years the junior school has increased its number of eight, nine and 10 year old choristers until in 1997 eight out of 18 choristers were at the junior school.

1974 – the school becomes co-educational

Meanwhile the senior school began to be co-educational in 1974 with a few girls in the sixth form. Now girls are taken throughout the school. There were then two games afternoons a week. Wednesday was a day off from singing but the time was replaced by lessons until 4pm. On Sundays there was a lie-in until 8.15am followed by breakfast at 8.30am. The choristers’ practice followed at 9am after which there was choral Eucharist at 10am and Matins at 11.15am.

Dr Roy Massey, the organist, took me to see the interesting practice room. Besides the Bechstein grand piano and the boys’ stalls branching out into a V shape from it and equipped with pencils tied on with string, there were numerous pictures of past organists and personalities like Stanford and Elgar as well as a well-stocked music library.

Sir John Betjeman and the organ loft

Things go wrong in all cathedrals sometimes. This is Dr Massey’s story of how, one Sunday morning Matins very nearly failed to begin.  The late Sir John Betjeman arrived between the services and asked if he could see the Father Willis organ. Dr Massey took him up numerous and difficult stairs and showed him the organ. Matins was due to begin and Sir John took his leave. He was a very broad man and got stuck on the stairs. Dr Massey went to his assistance but could move him neither up nor down. In the meantime the choir and clergy were processing in, in silence. However, Sir John was finally freed by Dr Massey and Matins started. After the service he quickly went round to the Deanery to apologise to the dean and explain that he had had the Poet Laureate stuck on the organ loft stairs.

On another occasion the choir was singing some music by John Bull which was printed in such a way that the beginning of two pages was identical but what followed was different. Dr Massey inadvertently turned over two pages at once; all was well for a few bars but suddenly he found he was playing quite different music from that which the choir was singing. For one ghastly moment he thought he had gone mad, but then realised what he had done.

1986 was a year of excitements and experience of a kind mainly outside cathedral music. Firstly the choristers took part in a BBC TV serial of John Masefield’s A Box of Delights, and secondly in the Derek Nimmo comedy Hell’s Bells, and most importantly in Alick Rowe’s serial, A Sort of Innocence. These involved time off from school, long sessions of very hard work, and super food.

1993 – brand new choir house opened

The Mappa Mundil
Photo by Phillip Capper
Some rights reserved

In 1993 a brand new choir house was opened. The daily routine was as follows: 7 am, rise; 7.50 am, breakfast, make beds and tidy dormitories; 8.25 – 9.15 am, practice and then lessons 'til lunch; 1 pm, lunch followed by more lessons 'til tea; 3.30 – 3.50 pm, choristers’ tea followed by more school; 4.40 pm, practice in cassocks; 5.30 pm, Evensong followed by prep; 7 pm, instrumental practice; 8 pm, supper; 8.15 pm, bed for juniors; 8.45 pm, bed for seniors; 9 – 9.15 pm, reading time; 9.15 pm, lights out. On Maundy Thursday 1994 the boat named The Chorister took the boys down the river to Bristol as a break in their Holy Week duties, and in the same year a new song school was completed situated on the southern side of the cloisters having a covered way to the cathedral.

1996 – the Queen opens the Mappa Mundi exhibition

In May 1996 Hereford had the honour of welcoming HM The Queen and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh when the Queen opened the new Mappa Mundi exhibition housed in the splendid new building south west of the cathedral. There followed the service at which the choir sang. Later, the Hereford Cathedral Perpetual Trust was launched which would raise money for the cathedral building and also, very importantly, be committed to provide two-thirds tuition fees for all current choristers. On the following evening the trust’s inaugural concert was held at which the choir sang and afterwards were fed magnificently at the Bishop’s Palace. In October the trust organised a concert by the choir at Ludlow.

The annual dean’s cricket match took place as usual at Wyeside, the winners being Decani. Of recent years the cathedral organised a twentieth century version of the old boy bishop ceremonies; a former chorister, dressed in cope and mitre, and seated on the Great Throne preached the sermon he had written and performed various Episcopal functions until Christmas Eve. There was a choir visit to Priory Church, Usk, in October where they sang Evensong to celebrate the anniversary of the Priory Church. Great Witley Church saw and heard them in an annual Christmas concert under extreme winter conditions which was nonetheless a sell out.

The 1997 annual choristers’ concert was quite exciting with a striking variety of instruments, with piano playing ranging from the very elementary to a Debussy Reverie. The month of April saw an Evensong sung in beautiful Dore Abbey, recently restored and redecorated for its eight hundred and fiftieth anniversary. Shortly afterwards recording started on a wide ranged programme of Christmas carols on CD for Griffin. This included a remarkable new carol, Long the Night by Alick Rowe and Dr Massey and featuring the solo boy, Matthew Pochin.

1997 – trip to Ireland

Hereford Cathedral
Photo courtesy of

At half-term the choir flew to Ireland where they sang services and concerts in three cathedrals. Sightseeing included kissing the Blarney Stone, and climbing the Rock of Cashel; they met with great hospitality and friendship wherever they went. They were accompanied by two reporters who were researching for a programme for the BBC on life in a cathedral choir, both as adult and child, which was later broadcast on BBC 2.

Back home, the dean’s cricket match at Wyeside was won by Cantoris. It was Hereford’s turn to host the Three Choirs Festival and the Hereford cathedral choir gave a moving performance of the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610.

A month or two later the Hereford Autumn Festival took place at which the cathedral choir contributed a large part performing both sacred music and folk song. Come December, and the boy bishop festivities were led by that year’s boy bishop, Sebastian Field.

1998 saw a number of varied events for the choristers. Early in March and when the Wye flooded they hosted the annual football and netball matches attended by nine teams from south-western cathedrals. The pitch was waterlogged and it was quite an undertaking for the teams to get cleaned up and changed in time for a massed choir Evensong. Under similar conditions in June the dean’s cricket match had to be moved to the school playground; that year’s winners were Cantoris.

Towards the end of the summer term the choristers were taken to explore the caves at Danyr-Ogof in the Brecon Beacons, and later in the summer the choir travelled to Gloucester for the Three Choirs' Festival. Lastly they welcomed a short visit from the Vienna Boys Choir in November.

It is significant that the Hereford choristers find plenty to occupy them outside the singing of daily services and without the sense of adventure provided by a succession of globe trotting activities, admirable as these may be in promoting the cause of English church music abroad. Theirs’ is perhaps a quieter existence with more time to share in family life at home during the holidays.