Of Choristers – ancient and modern

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Southwell, The Minster School

Origins of a grammar school in the tenth century

Statue of Christ
Above the crossing, Southwell Minster
Photo by Michael Leuty
Some rights reserved

There is abundant evidence of a grammar school at Southwell back in the year 955, with the names of masters, location of schoolrooms, when fee-paying or free, but not until 1777 are choristers mentioned. It would be easy just to assume that they were there all the time, perhaps they were, but it would be wrong to rely on imagination and record it as fact.  In any case those would have been much the same as in other early foundations.

The eighteenth century

In 1777 it was decided that a house be built for the choristers and their master situated in the churchyard near the Palace Wall. This for some reason does not seem to have been a success, so in 1784 Dr Peckhard, prebendary of Rampton, was told to rent a room for the school and to demolish the present school and library; it is thought that it found a temporary home in a building behind the Saracen’s Head Hotel. A year later plans were underway to use the former Chantry priests’ house in Church Street as a school and also for living accommodation for the schoolmaster. In 1791 a spacious room was built on land belonging to the churchyard and erected by the Reverend Magnus Jackson, the schoolmaster.  Perhaps discipline was not too good for, in 1792, a chorister called Thomas Bucklow, attempting to climb into the Minster through a window near the altar, caught hold of a beam, which gave way hurling him to the floor where he was killed instantly. About two years later the boys were forbidden to play in the churchyard or round the Minster but to confine their games to Popley’s Piece.

The nineteenth century

A new school house

There was a large fire in 1817 and two years later plans were  under way to redevelop the whole area round the chantry priests’ house and erect a new school on the site of the house. The work was to be supervised by a well known local architect, Mr Ingleman. The Chapter was responsible for the cost although for some reason the master, the Reverend W Footit, found himself having to contribute £600.

The time was coming when there was much criticism of the way in which  the Church of England managed its considerable wealth. The Whig government created the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in 1836, whose duty it was to superintend church finances and abolish clerical sinecures. In an Act of 1840 the Ecclesiastical Commissioners were empowered to look after the finances of Southwell but seem to have forgotten their responsibility for the school, failing to answer a letter asking for a rise in the salary of the schoolmaster.

This state of affairs may have been anticipated for in 1837 the choristers had been removed from the grammar school and transferred to the East Thorpe Endowed School, the grammar school master was asked merely to examine the choristers four times a year. All he had left was seven day boys and a packet of trouble with the commissioners demanding rent and the previous master asking for payment for various fixtures left behind.

In 1856 the school closed down. It reopened in 1864 with only 11 boys. There were no less than 16 private schools in competition with the grammar school, the most important being Southwell Academy, or, as it came to be known, The Moor Lane School, run by Mr Thornhill. However, soon after Mr Thornhill handed over the school to Mr John Wright, who increased the numbers making it necessary to move to larger premises. The curriculum consisted of a wide range of subjects, both classical and modern. In 1877 the bishop, backed by Canon Smith of the Minster, suggested to Mr Wright that he should move his school and amalgamate it with what was left of the grammar school, also becoming headmaster. This move was achieved and from then on new life was breathed into the school. The choristers were brought back from East Thorpe and a staff of seven appointed.

The twentieth century

Southwell Minster interior
Photo by Jack Smith
Some rights reserved

At the turn of the century games and athletics were introduced and became a serious part of school life. A school uniform made its appearance, also an Old Boys' Society and a "house" system.  An annual prize giving became an important event; there were speeches and entertainment consisting of music and a play, which in 1901 was Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth.

In September 1906 the school began to receive money as a secondary school, provided from the rates and administered by the newly created Local Education Authority and under the Board of Education.

In 1909 a board of governors was elected, chosen by the Master, County, Rural District and parish Councils, Nottingham University and St John’s College, Cambridge.  Fees were fixed at between £6 and £12 a year for day boys and £50 a year for boarders.  Some scholarships provided a free education and an entrance examination was started for all newcomers.  The Reverend JS Wright, the previous headmaster’s son, succeeded his father in 1906.

In 1939 the house called Sacrista Prebend was bought for those of the choristers who boarded.On 24 March 1941, 100 boys and staff of Worthing High School were evacuated to the Southwell School and the retiring headmaster, Mr Matthews, gave them the whole of the ground floor. School life was fairly disrupted and teams of boys spent a good deal of time hoeing sugar beet and lifting potatoes in the fields.  Many staff were called up to the forces and Mr Eccles lost his life as a bomber pilot.

The post-war period

At the end of the war the school’s future seem uncertain. There was little growth in numbers – just 125 in March 1945. The new headmaster, Mr Rushby-Smith had been appointed on a temporary basis only, also there were fears that the County Council would think Southwell too small to support a grammar school of its own. However, these fears turned out to be groundless, West Lodge, close by the Minster Yard, was for a short time taken over as a boarding house. In 1954 Hill House became the main boarding house and both West Lodge and the rooms in Church Street were closed. Three years later there were 235 boys in the school, including 79 boarding. The majority now staying on to do a two year sixth form course. The governors had been seeking to obtain voluntary aided status, and simultaneously they were seriously thinking of a move to more modern buildings. This was achieved in 1964 and in the process an archaeological dig near the site revealed a large Roman villa.

The school goes comprehensive

Shortly after the move had taken place there were whisperings that the school would go comprehensive and after many meetings and much discussion the latter course was decided on provided that music should be strongly catered for and the choristers still educated within its walls.   A junior department, with boys from eight to ten years, had been formed in 1946 and this would provide probationer material. The actual transformation to comprehensive took place in September 1976.

Kenneth Beard was Rector Chori, or master of the choristers, at this time, and one suspects that there may have been difficulties with the boys, who had undergone so many changes – from grammar school to new premises to comprehensive. He wisely concentrated on the daily services in the Minister, without branching out too much on outside events. After 23 years in the double role of head of music in the school and Rector Chori, he retired from the school appointment in 1982 but continued in the latter role.

The Three Choirs' Festival is established

Southwell Minster
Photo by James Newman
Some rights reserved

During these years the establishment of a Three Choirs' Festival comprising the choirs of Peterborough, Lincoln and Southwell was taking place, which was to become an annual event in the autumn, the meetings being held in rotation at the three venues. 

1984 saw great celebrations to mark the centenary of the founding of the Diocese of Southwell and on Maundy Thursday HM the Queen came to distribute the Royal Maundy. Among the centenary celebrations were two orchestral masses, one on Whit Sunday and the other on Remembrance Sunday, also a specially commissioned work by Richard Shephard was given its first performance.

The enthronement Bishop Michael Whinney

The enthronement of the new Bishop, Michael Whinney, took place in June 1985 which proved to be the musical highlight of the choir’s year; Central Television came to Southwell to record the service for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in September and earlier in the year Schubert’s Mass in G was performed liturgically with orchestral accompaniment on Ascension Day.

1988 saw the retirement of Kenneth Beard after nearly 30 years in office.  His place as Rector Chori, was taken by Paul Hale who came from the assistantship at Rochester. Southwell’s assistant organist, Peter Wood, took charge of the cathedral music during the interregnum when there were some radical changes until Paul Hale arrived in April.

In 1989 the choir made some recordings of hymns for a Channel 4 documentary on Rabbi Lionel Blue. Among a number of new institutions was a choir association formed as a support for the choir and to raise funds; its first major event was a St Cecilia concert, given by the choir followed by a supper — successful both musically and financially.

1990 found the choir singing for the Queen on her visit to Portland Training College and towards the end of the summer term a cassette was made entitled Sing Joyfully. The annual Three Choirs' Festival was held at Peterborough and Paul Hale was successful in persuading the cathedral authorities that a new organ was needed.

1991 was a busier than usual year.  In the month of June the choir took part in the Cathedral Classics series with the London Festival Orchestra. In July the new provost, David Leaning, was installed in a packed out Minster.  On 14 September they travelled to Rochester to take part in a special Evensong to celebrate Dr Ashfield’s birthday.  Later that autumn a few carols were recorded, to be broadcast just before Christmas. The usual St Cecilia concert followed in November with "verse" anthems by Purcell accompanied by orchestra, and in the new year there was a broadcast of Evensong by the BBC.

The choir's first overseas tours

Southwell Minster
Photo by James Newman
Some rights reserved

The main news for 1992 was the choir’s tour to Southwell’s twin town in Normandy, Sées, its first overseas tour. It was just a five day trip with singing in Sées and Caen, which included an Anglican Evensong and a concert in a little church in Bagnoles de l’Orne. It had the added attraction of being the tenth anniversary of the twinning and was much appreciated by the French. 1993 saw the second broadcast of choral Evensong  by the BBC after a period of silence. Also the Minster school’s headmaster, Russell Perry, retired and was replaced by Philip Brinston, who had been deputy head.

Another overseas tour was made in May, 1994, this time to Holland where they gave some concerts and recitals in three locations, and at home there were filming sessions and recording of a CD of music from Advent to Epiphany. 1995 saw the completion of the target for the Southwell 2000 appeal, also a handsome bequest made possible the construction of the new Quire organ. The choir undertook a successful tour to Prague during the summer and back home the St Cecilia concert was given in November, successful despite an outbreak of ‘flu at the time. There was also a visit from Michael Smedley and his Oxford Camerata choir.

In 1996 the junior department of the Minster school became firmly established educating the most junior choristers. There was a special evensong in September at which the Southwell Canticles by John Rushby-Smith, son of the headmaster and former chorister, had its first performance.  Various upheavals for the choristers were in store; first the choristers’ boarding house was closed and the choristers moved to Hill House with all the other boarders; then in 1997 that too was closed so that in future all choristers would be day boys.  The new Quire organ was completed and dedicated in April.

In 1999 the enthronement service of Bishop George Cassidy on 11 September provided a challenge to the musicians, not so much that it was very early in the term after the summer break, nearly all the traditional music had been rehearsed in July. However, a new work Thou hast searched me out and known me by Andrew Carter had been commissioned by the Friends of Southwell Cathedral.  Two weeks to go, with Andrew Carter abroad, bits and pieces of the work began to arrive by fax.  Three days to go and the composer, still abroad, the anthem appeared to end rather abruptly after seven minutes.  At the eleventh hour a coda lasting one minute was added and it was ready to be sung by an augmented choir and accompanied by a professional brass group and illustrious organists – just in time. It has since been added to the choir’s regular repertoire.

Southwell is one of only two state schools to be choir schools, the other being at Peterborough.

From a comparatively small catchment area Paul Hale has created an outstanding treble team, splendid in tone quality, diction, range and intonation – evidence of what can be achieved.