Of Choristers – ancient and modern

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Rochester, King’s School

Probable origins in the seventh century

Rochester Castle and Cathedral in the evening light
Photo by Gauis Caecilius
Some rights reserved

Very early possibilities of a song school at Rochester are many. Some say that Archbishop Theodore of Tarsus left evidence of singing boys at Rochester in 604 AD; another school of thought attributes it to Justus in the same year. Yet again that Putta who was bishop of Rochester in 669 AD was said to be well skilled in the Roman style of church music.

A little later when Bishop Gundulph founded the Benedictine monastery and to be in line with other monasteries, a few singing boys would have been kept and given some education and singing instruction, as well as their board and lodging. However, in 675 AD Rochester was sacked by the king of Mercia.

The sixteenth century and the Dissolution

Not for about another 900 years is there any valid information when in 1540 the Priory of St Andrew was dissolved and two years later the new cathedral was given a fresh foundation by Henry the Eighth who provided for eight choristers. A document dated 27 November 1560 refers to their "feeding, lodging and clothing" also to "a teacher for the singing children" and "a master of the choristers".

Seventeenth century survey

In 1635 there was a general survey which included Rochester and which reported that the organs were small but "rich and neat" and the choristers were "few but orderly and decent".  Throughout the rest of the seventeenth century and the whole of the eighteenth century no information concerning the choristers exists save for exhaustive lists of their names, some of them serving for eight years in the choir.

In 1790 Ralph Banks came from Durham Cathedral to Rochester as organist and found choral conditions pretty deplorable. A manuscript notebook in his writing was found in the organ loft stating that the weekday services were chanted and that only two settings of the Canticles for Evensong, Aldridge in G and Rogers in D and seven anthems had been sung in rotation for the past 12 years.

The nineteenth century

Maria Hackett

Early in the nineteenth century Maria Hackett on her travels submitted the following report:

"In our cathedral (Rochester) there are six lay clerks and eight singing boys, all appointed and paid a salary by the Dean and Chapter, senior choristers £14 per year, junior choristers £10 per year. Some of the lay clerks and all the latter (choristers) attend in surplices. Daily service is at the hours of ten and three. There is always a full choir on Sundays. The boys are taught music by the organist and receive daily instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic from the master appointed for that purpose and paid by the Dean and Chapter. They receive also instruction in the Bible and church catechism. No particular age is fixed for their admission into the choir and the boys quit it when their voices break or their friends take them away. There is no exhibition or other provision for them afterwards".

In 1843 12 choristers were taught in the tower of the Priory Gate where they had only the small roof of the building for a playground. However, two years later and until 1887 William Makepeace, a lay clerk, was master of the choristers and taught them in the front room of his house in Minor Canon Row where later the choir school was to be. Their day was laid out thus:

School 7.45am; Matins 10am; practice from 11am till noon; School from 1.30pm until Evensong at 3pm; practice from 4pm-5pm. Before the 10am Matins the boys went to 7 Minor Canon Row, which is still the organist’s house, for refreshment. They sang on six days a week and had but two weeks’ holiday in the year to include one Sunday. This routine continued until the first world war.

The new choir school in Minor Canon Row was opened on 21 March 1887 under the headmastership of Percy William Talbot, and was still a day school. In 1890 a Sunday uniform was chosen for the first time consisting of an Eton suit and mortar-board with a red tassel, the latter worn to hang over the left eye.

Personal histories from the early twentieth century

Arthur Brown

Rochester Cathedral
Source: Wikipedia

We have the reminiscences of a chorister, Arthur Brown, who was in the choir early in the twentieth century. He said:

"I was in the choir from 1911 to 1916, the choir in those days took the place, I suppose, of today’s junior school, although it had at the time of writing perhaps four or five non-singing boys. We stayed in the school until our voices broke and that happened usually later than it does today. Then we went to the senior school (King’s School) or to some other place of more advanced learning. But how very different it was. The first thing that comes to my mind as I daily see parents bringing boys to school in the morning in cars and collecting them again later, is that though there were a few cars in Rochester, no choristers’ parents had one and as far as I can remember no one living in The Precincts had. Horse drawn vehicles were the thing, thus when the cathedral choir went to sing in Cobham church, at the wedding of the Earl of Darnley’s daughter, Lady Dorothy Bligh, we were taken in a wagonette drawn by two horses. Similarly when we had a choir outing to Wateringbury, where we played a cricket match, we again went by wagonette. It may have been a slow way to travel but it was great fun. There was very little time for cricket or football and certainly no coaching.

He continues:

Then, and for many years afterwards I believe, services were sung twice a day, except on Wednesdays, and that meant twice as much rehearsing. 'Though we had holidays similar to those of the senior school, we continued to sing throughout the year except in the month of August. On Sundays and special days we always wore Eton suits and mortar-boards. The Eton suits were often referred to as "bum starvers" because the jackets were very short.

We were, of course, subject to a certain amount of ridicule from other boys, sometime near Christmas in 1913, we choristers received invitations to a party at the Deanery, now referred to as the Old Deanery or The College, when Dr John Storres was the dean. That evening we duly arrived at the front door dressed in our best Eton suits with white stiff collars and accompanied by Mr Bertram Luard-Selby, the organist and choirmaster. We were relieved of our overcoats by a maid and shown upstairs to the large drawing room, where we were met by the dean, his wife and two daughters, Monica and Petronella, two very sporty girls. No doubt we were very shy and subdued but a glass of ginger wine soon put that right. After a short while we went down to dinner, served by a butler and maids, I well remember that both the upstairs and the downstairs rooms had huge fires burning in them and both were heavily decorated for Christmas.

After dinner we again went to the large drawing room to play some of the party games common at that time, such as Charades, Dumb Crambo and Tail-less Donkey, but not Postman’s Knock since there were only two girls present. There was a huge Christmas tree loaded with presents but these were not distributed till just before we left, after we had finished off the evening by singing carols. I still have one of the presents given to me – an identical copy is to be found in the school library, probably passed on by a former chorister, a contemporary of mine. No doubt the evening ended far too soon as far as we were concerned but perhaps to the relief of the dean and his wife."

Another old chorister wrote in The Roffensian in 1981:

"When I joined the choir in 1911 the dean was the Very Reverend E Lane DD. He was the successor to the dean famous for his rose growing and had a rose named after him - Dean Hole. It was reported that his sons used to bow to him as he passed by. I was told that a friend of his once played a trick on him by sending him a packet containing dried herring roe, looking like seeds and suggesting that he planted them. The dean twigged and retaliated a few months later by inviting the friend to come and see the result. The story goes that he had planted the tails of kippers so that they stuck up like young plants; so he got his revenge.

The organist then was Bertram Luard-Sellby and the headmaster, the Reverend Oscar Hardman, who left that year to go to Dulwich college.

The choir school was the building in Minor Canon Row, now used as a cathedral office. It is built over the foundations of the ruins of the Priory Refectory on the south side of the cloister and just outside the first city wall built in Roman days. A door to the refectory was cut through the wall which you can see to this day. I mention the foundations because when a boy joined the school it was the custom for him to be "initiated" in what was supposed to be a secret ceremony – secret, I suppose, from the headmaster. It was rather frightening to a nine year old. Down below the school just above the foundations referred to are large cellars. In 1911 they were unused, unlit and smelling damp and I was told that a large dragon lived down there. The door was opened at the top of the stairs and sure enough sounds of roaring and growling could be heard from below. Reluctantly, I suppose, I went down into the pitch darkness, where I was immediately seized and roughly handled by what became obvious to me but none the less terrifying, a group of older boys who gave me a very rough time for a few minutes before setting me free to scurry upstairs to welcome daylight.

For those interested in the old choir school, I will add that when Dr Hardman left for Dulwich, his place was taken by the Reverend WE Morgan who almost immediately joined the army as a chaplain and while he was away the Reverend G Barrington-Baker stood in for him. I knew him best probably because he beat me often enough. I was in touch with him until his death a few years ago. Luard-Selby retired in 1916 and was succeeded by Charles Hylton Stewart. "Bertram" gave us a magnificent tea party at the Tea Table Café in the High Street when he was leaving. That café changed its name to Patricia’s Pantry and (at the time of writing was) a derelict building almost opposite the War Memorial. Finally let me tell you that our two favourite canons were the rather fat and jovial Canon Denham and Canon Wood, who had been headmaster of Harrow school. Now it all seems a long time ago and a very different world and 70 years on I am again living in the old choir school, now Garth House and still enjoying the singing in the cathedral and involvement in the school".

Six former choristers appointed to organistships

Rochester King's School
Satis Front — photo courtesy of the school

Early in the twentieth century six former choristers were appointed to cathedral organistships; Sir Fredrick Bridge to Westminster Abbey, P Armes to Durham Cathedral, JC Bridge to Chester Cathedral, HE Ford to Carlisle Cathedral and DJ Wood to Exeter Cathedral.

In 1919 there were eight choristers, four practising boys, who attended services with the choir, and four probationers. There were also a few non-singing boys whose parents paid £3 and three shillings a term, later raised to £4. Fees for choristers, practising boys and probationers were £1 and one shilling a term. This included books, stationery and games and in the summer term, swimming. Non-singing boys, whose upper age limit was 14 years, were given a chance to enter the choir if they possessed the necessary qualifications, attending three practices a week. There were five scholarships to King’s School, one at the value of full fees and four at half fees. Swimming was at first taken at the Corporation baths and later at King’s School.

The inter-war years

After the first world war the teaching staff consisted of the Reverend F Harrison, who helped with maths, assisted by Mr Firman, and Miss Thornhill was responsible for teaching the smaller boys. She stayed until the school closed down in 1937.

When the Reverend Rupert Johnstone was appointed headmaster in 1919 (he was also the precentor) he reintroduced Latin which he himself taught and which was now essential for scholarship work. It had been dropped for several years probably owing to staffing difficulties during the war. Mr Johnstone increased his teaching staff substantially, Mr PF Adams taught arithmetic and Mr P Harrop, algebra and geometry. Mr Lee taught geography and an art master came from the art school. The girls’ grammar school provided Miss DP Dear for French and a science master came from King’s School.

In 1916 when Charles Hylton Stewart was appointed organist and choirmaster, he produced a very fine choir and introduced his Oxford Psalter probably the first "speech-rhythm" Psalter to be published.  The repertoire was ambitious and varied and some gramophone records were made. School numbers increased to 40 and there were four forms. The top form being a small one allowing for concentrated work for scholarships.

Roy Trett – reminiscences, 1928 to 1932

Rochester Cathedral interior
Photo by "olly_cope"
Some rights reserved

Roy Trett has written of some of his reminiscences as a chorister from 1928 to 1932. He stated that his mother brought him to the choir school on a summer’s day in 1928 for a voice trial.  He began by sight reading a hymn which he accomplished perfectly and for which he was commended. He was too nervous and shy to tell Hylton Stewart that he already knew that hymn well and perhaps they had better choose another one. There followed a short school examination after which he found himself accepted. He went on to say how happy he was in the work although it was hard with only very short holidays after Christmas, Easter and in the summer, for there were no visiting choirs in those days. He lived in Gillingham and had to travel daily by tram. On Christmas Day after the morning services he went home to lunch by tram and as public transport closed down for the day after that, he had to turn round immediately and walk the five miles to the cathedral and back for Evensong. Only then did he have time to look at his Christmas presents. He remembered the Christmas parties given for the choristers by the bishop, the canons and by Hylton Stewart, as well as the trips to the pantomime in Chatham, led by the headmaster.

Discipline was strict. Trett only just escaped a beating after the installation of Dean Talbot when he yawned during the service and failed to put his hand over his mouth. On another occasion he really was in hot water. He had put out copies of the evening service in the boys’ stalls and something entirely different in the mens’ stalls. Unfortunately the fault was not found out in time and cacophony resulted. Hylton Stewart’s terrifying wrath can be imagined as can the subsequent chastisement of poor Trett.

The choristers hated their Sunday uniform – Eton suits and white boaters – which encouraged derision and sometimes brick bats from town boys when they were on their way to and from the cathedral. They were allowed to use King’s School science lab on one day a week and some games were played on King’s School grounds.

Choral Matins had been given up some years previously and there were five boys’ practices from 9am to 9.45am weekly and two full practices a week with the lay clerks on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 2.45pm to 3.45pm. Evensong was at 4pm. The boys went to evening classes on two nights a week from 5pm to 6.30pm when there was no homework. School dinners were served to the whole school every day, except Wednesdays, for which a small charge of six pence was made. There were also teas on evening class nights.

Scouting, taken by the headmaster, was introduced on Wednesday afternoons as a voluntary extra; there was also a cub-scout pack for the juniors. Summer holiday camps were held at various places in Kent and in 1933 there was a camp at Le Touquet.

The headmaster was very keen on Shakespeare and there were many performances of the plays in the school hall, the staff assisting with the painting of scenery and with makeup, lighting etc. Boys were taken to the Old Vic or Chatham to see the plays they were working on. One musical play was given in 1932, Dr H Walford Davies’s What Luck produced by the headmaster with Mr HA Bennett, the new cathedral organist, in charge of the music.

Mrs Marjorie Kirkham  – reminiscences, 1919 to 1937

Mrs Marjorie Kirkham, daughter of the late Reverend Rupert Johnstone, as a child was living at the choir school and wrote the following in The Roffensian:

"Between 1919 and 1937 the school had a wide reputation for Shakespeare productions about which Mr Johnstone was very enthusiastic. These included The Merchant of Venice; Julius Ceaser (Victor Yates); Macbeth (Roy Trett); As You Like It and The Comedy of Errors".

She continues:

"At this time (about 1927 to 1930) the school routine included choir practice for four afternoons a week in the upper schoolroom. Maths, French, science and art were taught by visiting staff very often in the early evenings. There was an annual reading prize awarded by Miss Dora Sandford, headmistress of the grammar school. School dinners were served on four days a week, Wednesday being a half holiday.  Mr Johnstone sat down with his boys at trestle tables in the lower schoolroom. There was great excitement when the boys, helped by a visiting master, constructed an early "crystal set" as a present for Mr Johnstone."

An annual sports day was held at King’s School one day before the latter’s sports in order to make use of the white ground markings. There was also cross-country running and cricket and rugby matches against King’s School and other schools, including Canterbury cathedral choir school. Christmas parties were held annually at Bishop and Mrs Harmer’s palace at Bishopscourt also at the Prebendal House by Bishop and Mrs Lanchester-King and also sometimes at the Deanery. In addition Canon Simpson had the choristers to tea and games at the King’s Head each year and there was Miss Tait’s annual outing to a London pantomime. Lastly, Lady Darnley gave a summer party every year at Laughing Water. The school colours were red and black, Eton suits on Sundays and for weekday school wear grey flannel suits with the school badge on the jacket with Eton collars, which were also worn in the cathedral, and straw boaters.

1937 – the school closes

Rochester Cathedral
Photo courtesy of "EyeBee"
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The school sadly closed in July 1937 and from then onwards the choristers have attended King’s School where they settled in happily. Like so many choir schools amalgamated with larger schools, they have benefited from the wider opportunities that the larger school has to offer.

1983 - a memorable tour, to the GDR

In 1983 there were three broadcast choral Evensongs, and in April of that year there was a tour with Canterbury cathedral choir to the German Democratic Republic to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s birth. 

The two choirs visited Dresden, Leipzig, Magdeburg, Potsdam, Güstra, Warnemund and Rostock. It had taken a very long time to gain permission for the two choirs to go over the border and sing behind the Iron Curtain, so they were invited as guests of the church and by permission of the state authorities staying in the homes of various church families. Visas were finally granted to the party as a liturgical choir, rather than a recital one. The party was made up of 60 people including three ladies, with two deans, precentors, organists and assistant organists and all the boys. Some of the party had misgivings about going behind the Iron Curtain and a two hour wait at the Berlin checkpoint did nothing to allay their fears. Nor did the mood lighten much at their first sight of a somewhat drab and ill lit Berlin. However, they travelled on to Dresden where they were warmly welcomed by their hosts at the church of the Holy Cross where they gave their first recital to a congregation of 3,000 people. At the packed out Eucharist the following morning the Peace was exchanged, a moving moment for all. The audiences were particularly struck with Purcell’s Jehovah quam mullti and Walton’s Coronation Te Deum, in fact they radiated their enthusiasm through to the choirs who in turn sang superbly in response.

In Leipzig they gave a concert in Bach’s own church of St Thomas, also at St George’s where he was christened. At St Thomas’s the boys exchanged details of their schools, boarding facilities, food etc, with the boys of St Thomas’s Choir School. At St George’s church the audience was packed into the galleries and into every available space. It is not customary to applaud in church in Germany but here and at Potsdam there was tumultuous applause despite the fact that East German state officials and the ambassador were present.

Unforgettable memories included the sight of a steam train in the Harz mountains, the laying of wreaths on Bach’s tomb and on Luther’s writing desk at Magdeburg, whilst the choirs sang Stanford’s Beati quorum via. Then the boys enjoyed a short spell of relaxation on a beach on the Baltic coast where the precentor of Canterbury was seen wearing his red braces.

1985 saw one broadcast choral Evensong and a joint concert with the London Bach Society under Paul Steinitz in October and in March 1986 there was a joint Evensong with Canterbury at Rochester, a live broadcast of choral Evensong and one recorded. Also the choristers took part in the Alexandra Choir’s carol concert at the Royal Albert Hall in December.

Rochester Cathedral
Photo by Ebua Libana
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In May 1987 the choir made a brief appearance in Sir Harry Secombe’s Highway and later in the year recitals were given at Penshurst Place and at the Guildhall, Rochester. St Cecilia’s day was once again celebrated by a concert in the cathedral, accompanied by organ and strings and a broadcast choral Evensong was given in December with a recorded one due to go out in January 1988. Later that year the choir travelled to Carlisle to sing at the installation of the new dean, Canon Henry Stapleton, one time precentor at Rochester, and during the autumn term the enthronement of the Right Reverend Michael Turnbull as one hundred and fifth bishop of Rochester, which gave the choir scope for a truly magnificent service. Also, before Christmas, Canon Richard Lea was installed as precentor. The usual Advent and Christmas carol services were held and to round off the year and BBC television recorded a programme of music for Palm Sunday, which would go out at the appropriate time in 1989 on BBC1. Also in that year, in addition to the St Cecilia concert in November, before Christmas the choristers travelled to London to take part in a Christmas concert at the Royal Albert Hall and back in Rochester the full choir sang at the installation of the new dean, prenbendary Edward Shotter.

In 1990 the organist, Barry Ferguson, directed the choir in a recording of its third disc and the following Easter (1991) there was a singing tour to Germany as well as visits to Zurich and Paris. As Bishop Michael put it:

"There will be much gained not only by sharing of music on these tours but by the personal friendship and understanding which will emerge from the hospitality of our hosts".

An eightieth birthday celebration took place in that year for Dr Robert Ashfield, former organist at Rochester and before that Rector Chori at Southwell Minster, when a special Evensong with the two choirs was held incorporating some of Dr Ashfield’s music.

1992 was a fairly quiet year but the cathedral choir was joined by the Cathedral Auxiliary Choir for the Advent and Christmas carol services and there were some BBC broadcast Evensongs.

In the following year the choir was asked by the BBC to make a third Priory label CD along with some Radio3 broadcast Evensongs and a joint Evensong with Canterbury cathedral choir which it was hoped would become an annual event at alternate venues.

An entirely different venture was afoot when Harry Bramma was asked to chair a music working party to consider the setting up of a girls’ choir at the cathedral which it was agreed should go ahead. Recitals in various places in the diocese were given as well as a concert in Canterbury Cathedral in aid of the Save The Children Fund. Barry Ferguson, the organist, retired at the end of the summer term 1994 and the assistant organist, Roger Sayer was appointed in his place.

The decision to form a girls' choir

The Dean and Chapter announced that they would accept the findings of the music working party and support the formation of a girls’ choir aged eight to 14 years who would possibly sing Evensong twice a week, on Wednesdays on their own and on Saturdays with the lay clerks.

1995 – an eventful overseas' tour

Rochester Cathedral from across the river
Photo by "monaxle"
Some rights reserved

Two days after Easter, 1995, the choir set off at 4.30am for a six day tour of the Baltic towns. They flew to Helsinki by Finnair. The party consisted of 15 choristers, eight lay clerks, three organists, a nurse, a wardrobe mistress, Canon Lea and Colonel Rouse. The boys were hosted by members of the local boys’ choir, Cantores Minores and the gentlemen and ladies were accommodated either at the apartment of the Anglican priest in Helsinki or at the youth hostel attached to the Olympic stadium. The choir gave concerts in the Lutheran cathedral, the old wooden Stave Church, or Vanha Kirrko, at the ancient fresco painted church at Esbo and at the well known "Rock" church hewn out of a single lump of pink granite. Opportunities for recreation were confined to ten pin bowling, swimming and boat trips to a nearby island.

Their duties finished in Helsinki, they boarded a ferry for Tallinn in Estonia on a beautiful spring morning, the journey having been delayed by an accident to a previous Estonia bound ferry, sabotaged in error by a group of Estonian music lovers intent on preventing the party’s arrival. Nevertheless on reaching the beautiful city of Tallinn, they were warmly welcomed and put up at a comfortable hotel. Their performance in the Tallinn Concert Hall was greeted with rapturous applause and a standing ovation. During their limited free time they were invited to a reception at the British embassy after they had taken part in a bilingual Eucharist at the Lutheran cathedral. At the reception the ambassador had thoughtfully provided a table tennis table for the choristers and the adults enjoyed conversing with English speaking Estonians. Next day, the final day of the tour, the party took a three hour coach journey to Tartu where, despite general fatigue they gave perhaps their best concert in the packed out University Hall. Back home the usual round of broadcasts, recitals and a TV Meridian recording of Christmas carols took place.

In the following autumn the choir were abroad once more, this time in America where a highly successful and rewarding tour was achieved.

On Easter Day 1997, a recording of the Easter Vigil was made starting at 6am, followed by a live BBC1 TV broadcast of the Easter Eucharist. By this time the girls’ choir was well established giving a live GMTV broadcast also a live radio broadcast. During the year the Dean and Chapter launched the Cathedral Music Trust Appeal, to provide bursaries and financial support for choristers who would otherwise be prevented from becoming cathedral choristers for financial reasons.

In order to illustrate how the choristers are not a small group isolated from the rest of the school, they took part in the preparatory school’s production of The Ragged Child, the story of a young boy who escaped from being deported to Australia for theft and who found refuge in one of the "ragged schools", founded by the Earl of Shaftesbury. There was a considerable amount of music involved which they tackled with untiring enthusiasm as well as their duties in the cathedral. Rory Brett, James Cook and Freddie Gyenette in particular moved some of the audience to tears with their unaccompanied singing of Home Sweet Home and There’s a Friend for Little Children.

In 1998 a survey was held on the vexed question of Saturday morning school. There were 191 replies from parents, 131 in favour, 57 against, with three "don’t knows". In February of the same year, the organ scholar, Richard Hills, took part in a 12 hour long organ playing marathon in the cathedral to raise money for the girls’ choir’s forthcoming summer tour of England and the Rochester 2000 Music Appeal. The girls sing Evensong most Wednesdays and Fridays during term time, one Saturday a month and full weekend services in July.

The author's own Rochester performance (aged eight)!

Not quite the first girl singing in Rochester Cathedral, the writer was about eight years old. The Magnificat was Stanford in B flat, so enthusiastic was this young person that she burst into song with the choir embarrassing her father and refusing to stop.

That was the beginning of a life-long devotion to cathedral music and even, perhaps, of this work.