Of Choristers – ancient and modern

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Salisbury, The Cathedral School

Foundations in the eleventh century

Salisbury Cathedral
Photo courtesy of
Tourism South East

Overlooking the city, on a hill, there stood the cathedral of Old Sarum, finished in 1092. The Bishop was Osmund, who was canonised in 1456, and it was he who simultaneously founded a song school and a grammar school before his death in around 1100. In 1220 the building of the new cathedral in Salisbury was begun and in the almost unbelievably short time of about 40 years was completed and consecrated. It seems likely that any choristers at Old Sarum would have been brought down to the new cathedral to continue their duties there, being lodged with various canons in the Close. The bishop now was Richard Poore and the cathedral architect Elias de Dereham.

First documentation, 1314

The first document that we have concerning the choristers is dated 1314 which tantalisingly only states that no provision had been made for them. Still more confusing is a statement that the master of the song school must be well versed in grammar, thus failing to distinguish correctly between the song school with its "three Rs" and the grammar school teaching Latin. Very soon vacancies among the canons were being filled by men, chiefly Italians, who never set foot in this country and who were chosen by the Pope, thus depriving the choristers of their homes. They had nowhere to go and were in fact begging their bread.

Proper provision made for the choristers from the fourteenth century

However, early in the fourteenth century Bishop Simon of Ghent made it his urgent business to put right this scandal by donating the rents of various shops in the Fish Shambles and elsewhere for the care of 14 choristers. Sadly he died in 1315 but his successor, Bishop Roger de Mortival was able to carry on the good work. In his Cathedral Statutes of 1319, Statute 14 declared that the choristers were to be looked after by a warden who was to be a resident canon and also that the church of Preshute near Marlborough should be appropriated and the tithes paid for the support of the choristers. So they were very soon moved into the Hungerford Chantry There was another move between 1344 and 1347, this time to Bishop's Walk which was called "The Choristers' House", and where they remained for 300 years. The senior boys were taught in the Chancellor's Grammar School and the juniors by the sub-magister in the song room. Two years later plague struck and many tenants who owed rent to the school died, so that the custos of the boys, James de Havant, was forced to pay many school expenses himself.

The fifteenth century

At the beginning of the fifteenth century George Louthrop, who was treasurer and custos of the school, decreed that the boys should have a barber (their hair was tonsured), a laundress, and oil for the lamp that burnt in the dormitory as well as a new livery once a year. The laundress, Joan Flate, was paid 10 shillings a year and on one occasion was fined for losing some of the boys' clothes. From time to time there were records of poor discipline, but there was one sub-magister, Richard Southsex who looked after the boys well and restored order. The school was now very short of money and the first economy made was that of food. Simultaneously plague broke out at Choristers' House and one chorister, named Mote, died and the others were sent home to their families. Immediately after this the food allowance was increased. In 1463 we have the first mention of an organist in John Kegewyn who also was to: "teach the choristers in chant" and "keep the Mass of the Blessed Mary with organs to the same and other antiphon at all seasons".

The sixteenth century

Chancellor's Grammar School is refounded

The Chancellor's Grammar School having been closed in 1475 was refounded in 1540 in the cathedral Close primarily for the education of the choristers, chiefly owing to the work of Dr Thomas Benett, precentor and one time custodian of the choristers. In his will he left them "a good milch cow". Thomas Benett's cousin, Christopher Benett was appointed the first master but proved inadequate for the job so that he was succeeded by John Bold.

Thomas Smythe was master of the choristers at this time and was forever causing trouble both in the cathedral and roundabout, being given to drink and swearing. In 1568 Bishop Jewel ordered that he should be removed from the position of master of the choristers but retained as organist; he died in office in 1587. Worse was to come. His successor was John Farrant the elder, whose marriage to the dean's daughter was a disaster, Farrant ill treating his wife so badly that she went to Chapter and complained. On 5 February 1592 in the middle of Evensong, Farrant, accompanied by a chorister, left the cathedral and went to the Deanery, forced his way in and entered the dean's bedroom telling the boy to go to the dean's study and tell him that Farrant wanted to see him. The dean replied that he was busy and would see Farrant tomorrow. Farrant then forced his way into the dean's study brandishing a knife and threatening to cut his throat, but only managing to cut the dean's gown. Recollecting that Evensong was still in progress Farrant and the boy returned to the cathedral and sang in the anthem. Rather than face the Chapter he then fled to Hereford where he was made master of the choristers in 1593. However, a further outburst of temper led to his resignation in the December of that year.

The seventeenth century

At the turn of the century one John Bartlett was made master of the choristers' school but this was far from successful. He neglected the boys so much that they had to be sent home to their families who scrubbed, reclothed and fed them before sending them back to school. Ultimately there were no boys left at the Choristers' House.

In a battle between the bishop, John Davenant, and the dean, John Bowle, over two candidates, John Holmes and Giles Tomkins, for the post of music instructor of the choristers, the dean's candidate, Tomkins, was finally chosen in 1630 after a two year struggle.  But there were now no choristers left. The dean set about recruiting boys from the city, thus by 1634 at Archbishop Laud's visitation there were six choristers and their master, Arthur Warwick. The archbishop criticised their education and welfare and put forward his ideas for reform.

The Civil War

However, these were not to be for long as in 10 years the Civil War had reached Salisbury and there was much fighting in the streets.  In 1660 the business of clearing up and rebuilding began, and the process of forming an entirely new choir with seven choristers, four vicars-choral and six lay clerks was put in hand in the remarkably short time of a year.

... and other problems in the mid-seventeenth century

In 1668 Michael Wise, famous Restoration composer, became organist and teacher of the choristers but the Chapter was less than satisfied with both his lifestyle and his teaching of the boys. He died as a result of a skirmish with the Close constable.

Charles Luke and Roger Rogerson had followed each other as masters of the school in the middle of the seventeenth century and the results had been disastrous, letting down the school in every way.

Remedial steps taken

So in 1678 the Chapter put out a long series of injunctions to try to put things right. The choristers were taught at the grammar school daily and their schoolmaster was to see that they attended the cathedral services morning and evening. On Saturdays they were to study the catechism, for one or two hours. First and foremost they must learn Latin and Greek; the Dean and Chapter would choose suitable books for their reading from which certain passages must be learnt by heart and some written on their slates. If they were granted a free evening they must be given some task to memorise for the next day's school. There was to be no playtime except on the eves of Sundays and Holy Days and only with the permission of the dean. Absolutely forbidden was the attendance of fairs, circuses, late night shows and so on. Lastly, monitors were to be appointed to maintain discipline and report the more obstinate cases to the schoolmaster. Fortunately he was an excellent man, Edward Hardwicke, who stayed for 33 years and laid the foundations of the school's great reputation in the following century.

The eighteenth century

Tomb in Salisbury Cathedral
Photo by "lapillus"
Some rights reserved

In the eighteenth century a record was broken by Richard Hale who was schoolmaster for 50 years from 1706 until 1756. During his time, in 1714, the school moved to Wren Hall and remained there for many years. Choristers' numbers rose from six to eight. Had the Chapter's injunction of 1678 concerning the choristers' education at the grammar school lapsed? For now that ruling was repeated in that they must attend  the grammar school until 10am when they sang Matins, and in the afternoons they must attend singing practice with their master in the song room until they sang Evensong. Despite the lack of schooling, quite a few of them rose to the top of their professions in later life.

The Corfes

Before leaving the eighteenth century mention must be made of the Corfe family who were intimately connected with the cathedral and the choristers over a span of about 170 years. 

First there had been John Corfe who came from Winchester in 1692 and was a good lay clerk as was his brother, Thomas. Four of John's sons, John, Robert, Charles and James were choristers. Another son, Joseph, had a son who was a chorister and later lay vicar attaining the position of organist between 1792 and 1804. His son succeeded his father as organist which post he held for 59 years until he died in 1863.

Numbers at the grammar school had been falling rapidly. There had been 100 boys in Mr Hale's time dropping to 40 under his successor John Townsend. When the Reverend Edward Butt was made master he launched a spirited advertising campaign to raise the numbers.

Former chorister John Harding reminisces

John Harding who was a chorister at this time left his recollections of life at the school. Here are some of them:

"They learnt nothing but Latin at which none of them excelled, calling forth the threat of a mass flogging by the beadle at the West door. In time it reached the ears of the Dean and Chapter that the boys were doing no arithmetic or writing, so they were packed off to Mr Biddlecombe's school in the Close. Mr Biddlecombe was of an excitable nature and he and the senior boys were often at loggerheads, creating much disturbance and making concentration difficult."

He continues:

"A procession in and out of service was unheard of, the choir and clergy wandering in in twos and threes. Worse was to come; after psalms had been sung the head chorister would walk up to the dean and ask him what service and anthem he would like. He then informed the choristers as to what the dean's choice had been after which he made his way to the organ loft to tell the organist what to play. As often as not somewhere along the line a mistake occurred and chaos followed."

Incidentally, this also happened at Salisbury in the 1960s when the Bishop's Chorister put the correct music on the organ, but the "turners" below put something different in the choir stalls – this was not discovered in time. John Harding also tells of the perilous escapades that some of the boys were up to often climbing high to the triforium and clerestory also clambering about amongst the vaulting of the Choir.

The nineteenth century

Maria Hackett — "The Choristers' Friend"

Salisbury Cathedral
From the bishop's grounds, c. 1825
By John Constable

Maria Hackett visited the school early in the nineteenth century, probably in the time of the younger Corfe organist.  She gave a favourable report saying that "the choristers of Salisbury still enjoy advantages superior to the generality of their brethren" and that they are "characterised as being remarkable for their musical proficiency and correct deportment". In 1818 Dean Talbot being pleased with her report wrote to her stating that there were eight choristers between the ages of eight or nine and 15 years who were taught music by the organist, and in school one of the priest-vicars taught them reading, writing, arithmetic, Latin and Greek. They were paid £8 to £12 per year and were given an apprentice fee when they left.

Fluctuating fortunes

However, this idyllic state of affairs did not last long.  A certain Mr John Greenly was appointed master but seems to have neglected his work. So in 1836 the choristers accompanied by Mr Greenly were brought before the Chapter and the former were examined by them and found to be very lacking in learning. Mr Greenly was reprimanded and instructed to pay more attention to his teaching.

In 1837 Bishop Denison was appointed and canon Walter Kerr Hamilton became precentor. Together they discussed the deplorable state of the school. They decided that nothing could be done until Mr Greenly was quietly removed. So the Reverend Francis Thurland became assistant master, Mr Greenly was asked to leave and Mr Thurland was promoted to master.

By 1854 the Reverend John Richards had taken over as master and was asked by the Cathedral Commission to give a report on the state of the school. He replied that the boarding accommodation was very confined allowing for a mere 10 or 12 boys; the schoolroom was in itself excellent but in need of renovation. However, the real problem was money. So the Chapter organised a system of loans which unfortunately failed, so the assistant master was dismissed leaving Mr Richards to carry on alone. The Chapter instructed him to take no more boarders which simply made things worse.

Next came two very different masters, the Reverend Edmund Dowland who was a strict disciplinarian, and the Reverend John Robinson who was the reverse. These two came and went without distinction. They were followed by the Reverend George Bennett who really made his mark on the school. One of his first actions was the installation of a bath and hot and cold water basins. In the schoolroom he found abysmal ignorance and quickly set about remedying it. Writing to the bishop some months after his arrival he was able to tell him of the rapid rise in educational standards, and how he had to teach many of the junior boys to read and write. By now the number of choristers had risen to 18 and the reputation of the school had risen also. For the first time games were introduced although not for long as during an away match a boy cut his shin and as a result Mr Bennett put a stop to all games. The boys had to be content with long country walks and boating on the Avon in Mr Bennett's boat.

1890 – the first Old Choristers' Festival

In 1890 the first Old Choristers' Festival was held, and in the same year Mr Bennett retired and the Reverend Edward Darling took his place. He was a keen and accomplished gardener and did wonders for the garden of Wren Hall. Games were restored, especially cricket and soccer. On one occasion a cricket ball flew through one of the windows of Mompeson House landing in the room where the Assize Judge was having his lunch. The culprit in fear and trembling was brought before the judge who talked to him kindly and offered to buy the boys a cricket net.

Into the twentieth century

Salisbury Cathedral nave and choir
Photo by Chris Ibbotson
Some rights reserved

Transition into a modern preparatory school

At the turn of the century the Reverend Arthur Robertson was appointed headmaster. He it was who saw the transition of the school into a modern preparatory school. He quickly geared the school to the Common Entrance Exam so that many boys were gaining places at public schools.

The acquisition of Marsh Close

His other great love was games but the only available ground was Choristers' Green which was far too small. So the dean managed to acquire Marsh Close at the west end of the cathedral in 1901. Much levelling, draining and re-turfing had to be done before it was ready for use. Soccer and cricket, hockey and "sixes" were all played there. Numbers swelled, so an extension had to be made to Wren Hall consisting of a dormitory and a classroom paid for by Miss Elizabeth Vaux and Miss Helen Kingsbury. These ladies, along with Miss Edith Moberly who died in 1901, cared for the choristers in a number of ways, giving birthday presents, organising trips to the country and giving them Christmas parties. There were now five boats on the river and the boys enjoyed bathing there as there was as yet no swimming pool.

The first world war

Very soon the first world war made its influence felt. Mr Reid, the assistant master was called up in 1915 and Mr Robertson could only replace him with governesses and a boy of 16. The gardens were enlarged and converted for vegetable growing and during the summer months wounded soldiers were invited to tea; they enjoyed games of croquet, bowls, tennis and clock golf.

Differing attitudes to corporal punishment

Under Mr Robertson the cane was reserved for really serious offences such as lying, dishonesty or bullying. Sadly the indiscriminate use of the cane was to return with undue ferocity and needless frequency, often for quite minor misdeeds, more than half a century later. However, after a period of some years and through several changes of headmaster discipline was achieved on more modern lines. In 1917 Mr Robertson had a heart attack due perhaps to much heavy gardening and also the strain of hearing that so many of his former pupils had been killed in battle. Happily he made a good recovery.

The inter-war period

After the war there was a steady increase in numbers both day boys and borders. By 1924 there were 58 boys with three resident masters, a visiting master and a governess. Boating was flourishing and the school held its first regatta on the Avon with seven boats. The first school magazine was produced at this time known as St Osmund's Magazine. Tragically in the same year Mr Robertson's wife died and for a time Mr Robertson was a broken man. After a time of matrons coming and going there came one, Dora Butterworth, who eventually became Mrs Dora Robertson, future author of the book, Sarum Close.

Difficulties in the mid-1920s

Salisbury Cathedral cloisters
Photo by Paul Cummings
Some rights reserved

However, storm clouds were brewing over the school at this time. The Cathedrals' Commission announced that the school should be closed by Act of Parliament on account of financial difficulties, cramped conditions and lack of facilities. The only way out was to build another extension to Wren Hall and this the Chapter would not risk when the cost was initially quoted. A new architect was called in who gave an estimate of £1,200 which received the support of the bishop and the Dean and Chapter, and the extension was finished in 1928. There was extra boarding space as well as staff housing and further classrooms. So the school was saved and was now recognised as the Cathedral Preparatory School.

Boys will be boys!

At this time there was a small chorister, Gerald Horter who, as he walked through the Close on fine days would tackle any old lady he met saying, "Isn't it a lovely day for my birthday?" whereupon the old lady would tip him half a crown. He had collected a number of half crowns when one day he met the same old lady twice in one week!

The first recording of the choir was made by HMV in 1928 featuring the treble soloist Clive Jenkinson. This must have been a great triumph for Dr Walter Alcock who had been organist since 1916, was knighted in 1933 and stayed for 30 years. Two years later Mr Robertson was suffering further heart trouble so he retired and was made Canon of the Cathedral.

1946 – relocation to the Bishop's Palace

Down the ages school space had been a continuous problem, so when in 1946 Bishop Lovett decided to move to a smaller house he offered the palace to the school; what more could it want? Extra playing fields, enormous classrooms and dormitory space and, of course, the magnificent eighteenth century Bishop's Drawing Room.

1955 saw the long awaited swimming pool in the grounds and in 1967 the first tennis court was built, later extended to three all-weather courts. About this time there were two cats living in the Close who spent their days curled up on the roof of a parked car. One was extremely large and fluffy and the other slightly smaller. They were known to the choristers as "Mag-Ni-Fi-Cat" and "Nunc De Mittens".

Further modernisation

It was time for some modernisation and updating of the school buildings; a science laboratory was built and also a well equipped gymnasium and more classrooms. These were officially opened in 1970. Six years later still more classrooms were added and the mediaeval gatehouse was converted into a history centre. Finally sport was developing, rugby, association football, hockey and cricket were all played.

Chorister initiation – "bumping"

now be said about the rather quaint initiation ceremony  for newly made choristers after Evensong on the day that they receive their surplices.

The new chorister is seated on the stone shelf in the south choir aisle with the Bishop's Chorister and the Vestry Monitor standing each side of him with their hands on his head. They proceed to, fairly gently, bump his head against the stone wall behind him seven times saying:

"We bump you a chorister of Salisbury Cathedral according to ancient custom".

There is quite an indentation in the stone worn away over the ages!

In 1987 the school became co-educational and netball and rounders were added to the games list. 1989 saw the choir off on a singing tour to the United States which proved most successful.

1991 – the first English cathedral girls' choir

Salisbury Cathedral sculpture
Photo by  "lapillus"
Some rights reserved

The year 1991 was a great one for the cathedral's music when Richard Seal, organist of many years' standing embarked upon a completely new venture, recruiting, founding and training a girl's choir, 18 strong aged between eight and 11 years at the time of recruitment. It was the first English cathedral girls' choir and has gone from strength to strength and when in the cathedral is completely independent of the boys' choir. In the same year Christopher Helyer became the headmaster; he inherited a school that was larger, livelier and more forward looking than ever in its long history.

In October 1992 an art and science centre was created from three classrooms which were opened by Mr Robert Key MP and blessed by the dean of Salisbury, the Very Reverend Hugh Dickenson. 1993 saw both the boys' and girls' choirs very busy over and above the daily services in the cathedral. There were two BBC broadcasts, recitals within the diocese and a concert with the choir of New College, Oxford in the Sheldonian Theatre performing Handel's Deborah. The boys took part in a Promenade Concert at the Royal Albert Hall and the girls sang with the King's Singers at the Barbican, London. The boys made a recording of Fauré's Requiem with the Monteverdi Choir under John Eliot Gardener, and in the following year visited Holland singing in Utrecht Cathedral. Also in 1994 both choirs sang in Britten's Spring Symphony at the Royal Festival Hall with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1995 the girls went up to Number 10, Downing Street for a fund raising concert hosted by the prime minister's wife. They raised £84,000 for the girls' choir. There were further highlights for both choirs when they went up to the Royal Albert Hall to sing in Mahler's Third Symphony with the National Youth Orchestra at a promenade concert. Also McDonald's sponsored a recording of both of them singing Christmas music which was played in every McDonald's in the country over the Christmas period.

1997 – Richard Seal retires

It was announced in 1996 that Dr Richard Seal would retire after the Southern Cathedrals' Festival 1997; he had been organist and choirmaster since 1968. His successor was Simon Lole from Sheffield Cathedral.

As well a broadcasts and recordings the boys' choir went on a three week tour of the USA singing services and anthems in Boston, Syracuse, Charlottesville, Richmond, Williamsburg and Washington in which cathedral they sang jointly with the Washington cathedral choir.

At the October half term the girls' choir paid a short visit to the beautiful, white light Abbey of Pontigny in France to commemorate the seven hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the canonisation of St Edmund, Treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral from 1222 to 1233 and later Archbishop of Canterbury.

1998 saw a new headmaster at the Cathedral School, Mr Bob Thackray. It also saw the largest number of boys entering for voice trials for some years and, making history, triplet probationers, Thomas, Ewan and Matthew Stockwell being made full choristers!

1998 – the girls' choir tours the USA

In October the girl choristers, lay vicars with Simon Lole and his assistant, David Halls made the first ever full tour of the USA. They sang in Lancaster (Pennsylvania), Washington DC, Richmond, Winston-Salem, Charlotte, Charleston, Orlando and Sarasota (Florida). In Washington there was a magnificent Eucharist in the cathedral sung by the girls and men of that cathedral with the girls and men of Salisbury Cathedral, directed by Simon Lole with Douglas Major, director of music at Washington Cathedral at the organ.

Many waters of the Avon have flowed towards the sea since Bishop Richard Poore and Elias deDereham stood by its banks and surveyed the land where perhaps the most elegant of all cathedrals was to rise to the glory of God.