Of Choristers – ancient and modern



Lichfield, Cathedral School

Evidence of a song school as far back as the sixth century

Lichfield Cathedral at night
Photo by Paul Woolrich
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From the writings of St Augustine and King Ethelbert, it is just possible to credit that there were schools of grammar and song at Lichfield in the sixth century. St Chad died in AD 672 and tradition has it that he kept a song school. But in 1191 more firm evidence is to be had. There was a precentor who had full charge of the choir for admission, education and discipline. Also, there was a choristers’ school but no grammar school as there was as yet no chancellor.

I quote from a sermon preached by the dean, the Very Reverend Dr HE Savage, given on St Chad’s Day 1920.

"The original cathedral statutes of 1191…the choristers… we will to be always eight in our cathedral church so that as some lose their powers others take place sufficiently prepared for this office. To each chorister we decree that he be yearly paid 24 shillings for his gown and surplice, and 4 for a salary, and 10 to the master out of the spiritualition and temporalities (pertaining to the Dean and Chapter) of the residentiaries, for the use of choristers and their accounts, deductions made of these payments and all others that are to be deducted.

Whatever shall remain at the first of the account is to be afterwards contributed at the discretion of the Dean and Chapter of residentiaries to the choristers for a continuance, or be presently dismissed from it. Everything else in any way relating to the choristers we leave as of right to the power and prudence of the precentor".

The sixteenth century

By the sixteenth century  there is evidence of an endowment and house for the choristers. One of these endowments came from the Benedictine convent at Fairwell near Lichfield. But in 1527 the suppression of this convent resulted in the monies going to increase and maintain the choristers by order of Henry the Eighth.

Dean Denton and Bishop Blythe oversaw the building of the house for the choristers and endowed four new choristers' places, totalling 12. It was a boarding house on the north side of the Close that had a gatehouse of freestone with the choristers’ coat of arms carved on it. However, all this was demolished in 1772.

Elias Ashmole

The seventeenth century is chiefly interesting for one Elias Ashmole who was born on 23 May 1617.  He was a chorister at Lichfield and later attended Lichfield grammar school and Brazenose college, Oxford. His great loves were chemistry, astrology and botany. He wrote a book, Institution, Laws and Ceremonies of the Order of the Garter and, most importantly, he founded the Ashmolean museum at Oxford in 1682.

Two names of choristers from the eighteenth century were found on the old choir desks in the cathedral when they were replaced – Francis Bird 1745 and John Taylor 1746.

The nineteenth century

From Bishop Selwyn’s statutes in 1875 there are a few entries concerning the choristers. First, their numbers could be increased or decreased but they must never fall below eight. Also, that provision be made for some probationers. Choristers would be paid according to the will of the Dean and Chapter, likewise the organist and schoolmaster. Finally, the Dean and Chapter might give a leaving boy a sum of money; otherwise everything else must be in the hands of the precentor. There were to be ten choristers and their payments were, the two seniors 20 per year, the next two 12, the fifth and sixth 10, the seventh and eighth 8, and the ninth and tenth 6.

In 1892 Canon Curteis suggested that some boys should board with him with a view to erecting a new boarding house. This idea was accepted and the first boarder was Carl Ashover in 1892 and, until 1941, about six boys always lived with a canon. These boys were especially suitable for solo work for which they were trained.

At Bishop Madegan’s visitation on 9 July 1889, he asked the Dean and Chapter: Are the boys properly habited, and do they sit where they can hear the sermons? How are the boys educated and disciplined? Is there a register of names, ages and parentage or entry? Is there any apprentice scheme for them when they leave? Are they kept in touch with when they leave? Would it be possible to enlarge and improve the choir school? Would it be possible to recruit boys from a wider area?

The twentieth century

A personal history

Lichfield Cathedral interior
Photo by "abrinsky"
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Cecil Cope, later bass lay clerk at Rochester, Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral, was a chorister at Lichfield from 1918 to 1924 had this to say about the old school in Dam Street and the choir generally then:

"The second floor was used as a games room or practice room. The school building contained wash basins and pegs for hats and coats but no lavatory, which was on the opposite side of the yard. The schoolroom contained desks for about 30 boys and the age range was from 8 to 14 or 15years. The cane was used, not perhaps frequently, but there was no hesitation in administering a swish or two.

The master, Charles Bailey, was a just man. Some lessons such as geography or history could be taken with all the boys together, but most subjects had to be divided according to age groups. Mr Bailey taught alone but once a week the precentor, Canon Moncrieff, or the sub chanter, "Daddy" Hardy, would take the boys for scripture. The latter was greatly loved by the boys. A favourite punishment was the writing of lines; these tended to get put on one side and the boys were kept in on Thursday mornings to finish them. Evensong was at 4pm and afterwards they were free to go home.

On Saturday mornings there was a full practice with the men in the cathedral, and this was a rather unsatisfactory affair as the organ was high up on Cantoris and quite out of touch with the singers below. However, things improved when the Reverend Montague Spinney was made deputy organist. Concerts were regularly given in the Guildhall with part songs and lots of concerted numbers from Gilbert and Sullivan."

Cecil looked back on his time as a chorister with a general feeling of euphoria.

A new school from the mid-1940s

In 1935 the Dean and Chapter realised that the reorganisation of the choristers school was essential. Expenses threatened and the income of the Dean and Chapter at that time had suffered a fall. Notwithstanding, they decided that the old school must go and a new school with a new constitution should open in 1942. It was to be a prep school with about 30 boarders as well as some day boys and was to include both choristers and non-choristers.

1941 – voice trials

So, in 1941, Ambrose Porter, the organist, held voice trials, selecting 16 new choristers and starting their training. They would live in the new buildings, the school house, just renovated and completed. The headmaster was the Reverend Prebendary Egerton EF Walters, elder brother of the Reverend CF Walters, first headmaster of St John’s College School, Cambridge in 1954. Egerton’s son, the Reverend AFW Walters,  was at the time of writing (1999), headmaster at Lichfield.

A service of blessing was held on 27 January 1941. Before half term, four more boys were taken. On 8 March, William Temple, archbishop of York, and later of Canterbury, dedicated the school in the presence of 100 parents and well wishers. By Easter Day 1942 the choristers were considered ready for their first public performance in the cathedral and created a very favourable impression.

Playing fields found and a hobbies room acquired

At first, playing fields were something of a problem. However, both the principal of the theological college and the master of St John’s Hospital, made some grounds available. Finally, the college field, created from a marsh, was put in order for the boys after enormous amounts of work had been done by the groundsmen. In the old stables in the school house yard, adaptations and renovations were made so that a hobbies room was created and there was also space for a stage for drama. The boys did a great deal themselves to help with the work.

The school prospers and in 1942 is recognised by the IAPS

Elementary science was introduced thanks to the untiring efforts of Mr Melville, priest-vicar of the cathedral. The school grew and prospered and in 18 months there were 50 boys, mostly boarders. Among outside activities there were recitals and film shows, also a team of hand bell ringers under Mr Melville. In October 1942 the school was recognised by the IAPS.

1944 was an eventful year. Numbers rose to 62, all but two being boarders. The kitchens were modernised, the new playing fields came into use, the first broadcast was given and the first of many public school scholarships was won. A system of divisions, or houses, was begun which assisted competitive work. None of this could have happened without the co-operation of the excellent staff who had been recruited.

Official recognition in the post war era

In October 1945,  HM Inspectors visited the school and immediately recognised it; about this time the games teams were thought to be ready to compete in matches against other schools and the results were good.

Richard Lloyd, an emerging talent

Lichfield Cathedral stained glass
Photo by Karl Randay
Some rights reserved

In the Lent term of 1946, a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore was given, and a 12 year old chorister, Richard Lloyd, subsequently organist of Hereford and Durham cathedrals, played the piano accompaniment.

Amongst the improvements at this time was the work of Mr Sercombe (Serkie), who was responsible for the considerable work entailed in the grounds. Also the library was flourishing and 100 books were added during the year, four years of savings by the Savings Club having produced two thousand pounds. During the summer term of 1946 the school festival was graced by the presence of HM The Queen, later Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, who spoke to many of the choristers lined up to greet her.

Many weeks of snow and ice in the Lent term of 1947 put paid too much of the outdoor activities. At this time an attempt was made to get a licence from the Ministry of Education for building new changing rooms with classrooms above, but it met with no success. Also the plans for a swimming pool were equally frustrated owing to lack of a suitable site. However, a generous friend offered to meet the cost when a good location could be found. Richard Lloyd, now 13, distinguished himself once more by playing for Evensong at an hour’s notice when Ambrose Porter, the organist, had been held up on his way to Lichfield.

1948 – the original school in Dam Street re-occupied

Early in 1948, the governors were persuaded to recover the original school in Dam Street, to be used for first year boys, under Miss Ethel Fletcher, who turned it into a real home from home for them. Following the snowy winter of 1947, the lower field was made into a good playing field by Serkie and his son, and later properly drained. Mr Usher-Smith, a parent, donated some galvanised seats as he said he was tired of sitting on a roller at matches. Progress in school work continued to flourish and more scholarships and exhibitions to public schools followed.

Permission was at last forthcoming for the building of new changing rooms and classrooms. One of these was later converted into a science laboratory, making it possible for boys to offer science in their Common Entrance examination.

Besides school and cathedral activities, the choristers managed to give recitals at various places in the diocese, including Shelton Parish Church, St Mary’s, Wolverhampton and St Chad’s, Shrewsbury.

1953 – the school moves to the bishop's palace

In October 1953, the Right Reverend AS Reeve was enthroned as the new bishop of Lichfield,  and was to continue the great interest of his predecessor in the fortunes of the school. He decided that he did not want to live in the palace and offered it to the school. This was a truly magnificent gesture. A large library was established, also a good sized dining hall, some dormitory accommodation and cellars for hobbies and crafts, also there was the chapel for daily prayers. The grounds provided excellent playing space and at last plans for the swimming pool could be put into operation.

The juniors also relocate to the bishop's palace

Lichfield Cathedral interior
Photo by Paul Woolrich
Some rights reserved

The junior house in Dam Street was given up and the younger boys were accommodated with the others in the palace; there were now 100 boarders and a few day boys. The palace having been thoroughly redecorated and renovated, it was now time to tackle the gardens, which had become rather overgrown.  So, Serkie and his son John got to work, assisted by some of the senior boys. Early in 1954 there was another full school inspection by the Ministry of Education and a very encouraging report was received.

During 1954, a school orchestra was formed with a good selection of strings, woodwind, brass and percussion, who played in the great hall on Saturdays. The chapel benefited greatly from many generous gifts from parents, including the restoration of the organ. In the winter term, ballroom dancing classes were started by Mrs Macpherson, which proved very popular.

Eventually in 1956, the swimming pool was finished and the hardier boys were swimming well into October. Quite a few film shows were given during the winter months, including The Dambusters and Cockleshell Heroes.

The school becomes co-educational

In September 1973 Denys Roberts took over as headmaster from Richard Hales. Two years later the school went co-educational. The first girls admitted included Nicola Roberts (Denys Robets' daughter) and Louise Humphries. Very soon a full complement was achieved.

1982 – tour to Holland

In August 1982, the choir set off on a week’s tour of Holland at the invitation of the Royal Dutch Choral Society.  They made a recording for Netherlands Radio, gave concerts at Blaukapel, Utrecht and Aalsmeer churches, and sang two services at Leiden. At home during the year there were no fewer than 12 recitals in the diocese as well as two broadcasts of choral Evensong on Radio 3.

During 1983, the choir, under the direction of Jonathan Rees-Williams, gave concerts at St Paul’s, Wakefield, and St Paul’s, Chelmsford they also performed with Paul Tortelier in Lichfield Cathedral and made several recordings.

Since the school had became independent in the early 1980s it had found itself catering for a wide selection of children – boys, girls, full boarders, weekly boarders, day pupils and choristers.

In 1984 the academic year began with one of those situations that organists know so well, the sudden loss of perhaps half a dozen experienced choristers. However, by Christmas new talent had begun to emerge and, in particular, Richard Towers developed into an outstanding leader and soloist, and some younger choristers were chosen as finalists in the National Young Cathedral Singer of the Year contest, also another chorister, Richard Baker, came second in the Choristers’ Composition competition in 1984 and 1985.

1985 – tour to the USA

Lichfield Cathedral interior
Photo by Karl Randay
Some rights reserved

During 1985 there was a successful tour of the USA, where, among the recreational activities, was a visit to the Everglades wild life park and a viewing of the space shuttle taking off on one of its missions. Places visited included Florida, Caroline, Washington DC and Philadelphia.

In 1985 a great deal of improvement to the buildings was achieved. The headmaster, Mr J Wren, said the demand for places in the school far exceeded the ability to fill them. He said he would very much like to see such expansion so that there would be two of each form in every year, bringing more specialised teaching, financial security and wider opportunities for sport and musical activities. However, this would bring problems of space, maintenance and extra staff. The year also saw a recital of Christmas music at Burton-on-Trent, also a performance of Walton’s The Twelve. It had been a year of difficulties and upheavals, but determination and perseverance had prevailed.

The following year Mr Wren had more to say on the subject of building and accommodation. He explained how the situation regarding space and eventual extra building stood. He said that owing to considerable reorganisation of the present accommodation, the school would be able to carry on for another two years, when it was planned to erect a purpose built block behind the school house with changing rooms for the girls, but planning permission took a very long time to obtain. He paid tribute to the work of the parents’ association that did so much for the school. It's fund raising efforts in particular had produced 1,000 for the French department, 900 for table tennis tables and 200 for the model railway club.

The autumn term started well for the choir as only one boy had left in the previous July. The end of the month saw a concert with the London Festival Orchestra with music by Mozart and Purcell, and there was also a broadcast Evensong. At the end of the term, Bishop Vesey’s school was the venue for a programme of Christmas music with the Orchestra da Camera, and Britten’s Ceremony of Carols was given with piano accompaniment in West Bromwich. As mentioned above, plans for a new teaching block behind the school house were afoot but in 1987 the governors made an important decision. The new building was to house the pre-preparatory department then occupying a house a little distance from the main school.

In the spring term of that year a short but exciting tour of Rome was undertaken by the choir. Activities began with singing to His Holiness the Pope in St Peter’s Square. In all there were seven services and concerts. The Anglican Church of All Saints was celebrating its centenary and the present incumbent, the Reverend Bevan Wardrobe, had been sub chanter at Lichfield and more recently headmaster of the Minster School, York. A service of dedication was held in the church, also a concert was given. Other places where the choir sang included Santa Maria Maggiore, the American Episcopal Church, and the residence of the Ambassador of the Holy See. After all this, there was time for a sight seeing tour of the city.

Safely home and back to cathedral routine, two choristers were asked what they did to pass the time during the many sermons they must hear. One replied that after he had read the cathedral newsletter he played the "alphabet game" which consisted of spotting the first word in the sermon beginning with A then B and so on. It wasn’t usual to reach Z however long they thought the sermon. The second boy, a keen cricketer, had devised a game whereby he picked two teams, making sure he had a small score pad and pencil in his cassock pocket. One run was scored for the word "and" in the sermon, two for "when", three for "God" and six runs for any mention of the choir. If the preacher touched his face or hair or adjusted his glasses, a batsman was out.

1988 – further tours at home and abroad

The year of 1988 saw a great deal of travelling by the choir both at home and abroad. On 31 March it was the turn of Lichfield to host the distribution of the Maundy money by HM The Queen, when the choir, joined as usual by the choir of HM Chapel Royal, sang traditional anthems including Zadok the Priest and SS Wesley’s Wash Me Throughly, with Lichfield’s solo boy, Ben Blunt, more than rising to the occasion in the opening solo.

...to the USA

Less than a week later, on Easter Monday, the choir were off to the USA for a second visit. They travelled to Bangor in Maine where they were joined by St John’s Choir, and to Tampa in Florida, and everywhere were received with great enthusiasm.

Once home and back to the routine of the daily services, time was made for singing visits to Ellesmere, Penrith and Tring in the summer term.

Some former choristers' careers in music

"Waiting at the Gate"
Statues outside Lichfield Cathedral
Photo by Paul Englefield
Some rights reserved

A number of former choristers of Lichfield have gone on to careers in cathedral music. Richard Simpkin and Thomas Barnard returned to Lichfield as organ and choral scholars respectively, Mark Hindley and Patrick Craig were organ scholars at Cambridge, and David Craig was a choral scholar. Alastair Hodgson read music at Reading University and Christopher Betts gained his ARCO. Daniel Norman became a choral scholar at Wells while waiting to take up his choral scholarship at New College, Oxford, and is now a successful professional tenor soloist. William Towers won a choral scholarship to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, then won a place at the Royal Academy of Music and is now a very successful countertenor on the international circuit. Richard Baker studied music at Exeter College, Oxford, then went on to study composition at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. He completed a PhD in composition at Royal Holloway, University of London and is now Fellow-Commoner in Music at Trinity Hall, Cambridge and also a professor of composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

1989 – trip to Germany

1989 saw the choir in Germany visiting Limberg where they sang two services in the cathedral there, then on to Cologne and St Partalecon. To round off the trip the boys were invited to the RAF station at Munchengladbach where they were allowed to sit at the controls of a Tornado.

Christmas 1990

After the rest of the school had gone home for the Christmas holidays at the turn of in 1990 and 1991 one of the choristers, Francis Burch, described some of the days leading up to Christmas. On one day the boys went to sing to the postal staff at Wolverhampton. After an hour’s bus ride they arrived at their destination only to find that the bus was too big to get into the car park. However, this problem was quickly solved and the boys were taken up to the seventh floor to change into cassocks then going down to the sorting office where their stage consisted of some trolleys pushed together. The singing of carols followed and the Post Office workers all stopped to listen. After changing back into uniforms they were served with a turkey lunch, toured the building and were allowed to help sort letters. On leaving, they were given a book of mint stamps, a statue of Roland Hill, a bookmark and "millions of elastic bands".

Some of the days after were boring but the Sunday consisted of the usual services after which they went to the bishop’s house and were given 120 mince pies. On Christmas Eve, Francis Burch’s mother arrived at 5pm and accompanied the boys to a party at the Deanery where they played games and received a present each from the dean and the precentor.

Christmas Day dawned, finding the choristers grouped around the Christmas tree breathless with excitement and waiting for Mr Wren’s "Go!" – sudden commotion, ripping open of parcels, wrapping paper flying and general happy commotion. Outside, the rain poured down incessantly. After Christmas services in the cathedral followed, Christmas lunch followed and what seemed to Francis a very long afternoon ensued. Next day he said there was a carol service which was "brilliant – but home was even more brilliant!"

During the year that followed, there were two important changes in leadership. Mr Wren retired and was succeeded by Mr David Carr as acting headmaster until the Reverend CF Walters took over in 1992. The other change was when the organist, Jonathan Rees-Williams, was appointed to St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and his place was taken at Lichfield by Andrew Lumsden.

1992 – golden anniversary of the school

Lichfield Cathedral spires from
the window of the George Hotel
Photo by Florrie Bassingbourn
Some rights reserved

The highlight of 1992 was undoubtedly the celebration of the golden anniversary of the school. Back in January 1942, St Chad’s School as it was then known, started with 16 boys training to be choristers. On 8 March 1942 there was a service of dedication at the school house led by the archbishop of York, Archbishop Temple, who also preached in the cathedral that day. On 8 March 1992, exactly 50 years later, Archbishop Habgood of York preached in the cathedral. The celebrations had started on the previous day with a football match between the school’s first 11 and an Old Boys 11. The final score was 8 - 8, followed by a magnificent tea. Evensong followed at 5.30pm and was attended by former choristers, Old Boys, Old Girls, staff and headmasters, together with the Dean and Chapter and lay governors. In the evening, there was a concert performed by former and current pupils.

Next day, Sunday, 9 March, brought everyone together again for the regular Sung Eucharist, followed by a luncheon at the George Hotel attended by representatives of the school, including two members of the Walters family. Still to come was a packed out Evensong at 3pm in the cathedral, the preacher being the archbishop of York.

1994 was a busy year for the choir over and above the daily services in the cathedral. Travelling abroad they visited Lichfield’s twin cities of Limberg and Lyon, and at home performed on TV and radio in the Festival Hall, London, also in Cardiff, Birmingham and Nottingham.

The following year, under the direction of Andrew Lumsden, they launched a CD and, at Christmas, Midnight Mass was televised by the BBC.

In 1996 13 applicants at the voice trial were of a sufficiently high standard and only five places were vacant, making a difficult choice for those judging. The choir went on a successful tour of France during the year that included singing at the British embassy in Paris.

Activities in 1998 were many and varied. A further two CDs were produced for the Lammas label, Give Unto the Lord for the full choir, and Begone Dull Care, the latter for choristers only. Then, at the end of April, a highly successful concert in Frankfurt, which won applause after each item, it being usual to applaud only at the end of the concert. In July they took part in the Lichfield festival, and just before Christmas the choristers were invited to sing at the Wedgewood factory at Barlaston, and once again at the GPO Midland sorting office at Wolverhampton. 18 months of hard work by the choir had by now raised 3 million out of the 4 million needed for the Music Campaign Appeal.

1999 saw a wide variety of recitals at various venues, including Shrewsbury School, Great Wyrley and Myddle, with a service at Longton and a comprehensive programme at Hawksyard Priory near Armitage as part of the Lichfield festival, which included the choristers singing Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols with the harpist Robert Johnson. This concert was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday, 9 January 2000. The full choir took part in the 1999 Festival of the Sons of the Clergy in St Paul’s, along with the choirs of St Paul’s and Blackburn cathedrals.

The cathedral’s Music Campaign had almost reached its target of 4 million when, as part of the campaign’s educational project, the choristers worked along with children from a local special needs school, and giving a concert with them in the cathedral.

It is questionable whether the average chorister would be better off mentally and physically with less energy spent on foreign travel and more holiday periods spent at home. The headmaster himself summed up the life of the choristers, saying that he sometimes feared that they were in danger of burning out from overwork. They were on the go from 7am until 8.30 or 9pm; several of them practiced four or five instruments, plus a full day in school and choir duties. He had plans to lengthen the shorter holidays in order that they would be able to recharge themselves.