Of Choristers – ancient and modern



Winchester, The Pilgrim’s School (Quiristers)

Late fourteenth century origins

The Quiristers in
Winchester College Chapel
Copyright: Dennis Page

On 28 March 1394 William of Wykeham formally opened his college at Winchester with 70 poor scholars, a warden, headmaster and second master, ten priest-fellows, three chaplains, three lay clerks, 10 commoners (that is, those who paid for their commons) and 16 quiristers. The latter lived in a very small house in Chamber Court. The statutes were issued in their final form in 1400. Concerning the quiristers they must be paupers and they should be under 12 years old, well mannered and with an ability to sing. They were to be eligible for Winchester college scholarships and would have a free education under a chaplain or other teacher in return for their singing.

For many years they served in the college, helping the servants to make the fellows’ beds and waiting at table. Each quirister was given cloth for a gown and they must not wear hats. For about 150 years Wykeham’s plans worked smoothly and each year four or five quiristers were admitted to the college as scholars.

The effects of the Reformation

At the Reformation many of the foundation clergy got married and went to live outside the college with their wives and families. This tended to break up the community life and discipline suffered being transferred to scholar prefects who bullied the juniors and forced them to fag for them. At the same time the chapel services were reduced in number so that the quiristers were often underemployed; they now lived in two rooms in the college, a dormitory and a schoolroom. Their master was Robert Barber, soon to be replaced by Robert Moss, who later became organist. One of the fellows, Robert Godwin, took over their teaching between 1547 and 1548 but it seems likely that after this the quiristers had no one to teach them for several years, as the statutes of 1560 declare that a master for reading, writing and music must be found for them.

The Civil War

At the time of the Civil War the choir, like all others, was dissolved, but the college escaped damage.  At the time of the Restoration there followed a period of disorder and unrest.

The problems of the late seventeenth century

A new team of quiristers had been formed but there were complaints about their lack of discipline and reports of them running wild; they failed to wear surplices in chapel and the singing was poor.

Soon the quiristers and scholars were sharing an overcrowded room, the seventh chamber, for their lessons. But in 1687 warden Nicholas built a new house, thereby making room for scholars, commoners and quiristers, all to be educated together, the curriculum consisting of only writing and Latin. Thus few quiristers were able to obtain scholarships to the college.

"Bursar’s Quiristers"

From 1736 and for about 150 years they were required to assist the bursar with his audits and the two senior boys were known as "Bursar’s Quiristers" a title which continued well into the twentieth century.

...and hard times in the late eighteenth century

With the advent of a new warden, Harvey Lee, in 1763 there followed a disastrous period for the quiristers. Their original gowns were taken from them and they were made to wear the customary clothing of a servant, still living the life of a servant and still waiting at table. Disorder and bullying reigned. Gaming and rioting were rife in the college. Not surprisingly few, if any, were elected to scholarships.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century they were sent to live in their own homes or in lodgings and they attended the Free School in St John’s Chapel. Numbers dropped to a mere five boys and it looked as if the quiristers were finished. However, a former quirister, Dr William Stanley Goddard, was appointed headmaster of the college in 1793 and a brief respite followed for the boys. He rescued them from lodging and brought them back from their homes and set them up together at number 5 College Street under the supervision of a college member. They still attended the Free School and the arrangement lasted for 30 years.

The nineteenth century

Winchester College Chapel
Photo by Ben Mathews
Some rights reserved

Then everything changed. Dr Gabell took over the headmastership from Dr Goddard and the latter’s reforms were completely undone.  The college became entirely undisciplined, riot broke out in 1818 and some boys were expelled. The juniors and quiristers suffered from severe bullying. This state of affairs continued for some years when a good warden, Mr Baxter, with the second master, Charles Wordsworth set about reforming the college. Fagging was almost abolished but the quiristers still had to wait at table. Their education at the Free School came to an end in 1839 and they attended, along with the cathedral choristers and four "Bluecoat School" boys, the Diocesan Training School in St Swithun’s Street. They still lived at 5 College Street and were well cared for by the young William Whiting, author of the well known hymn Eternal Father, Strong to Save. Very soon the college acquired Cheyney Court in the Close and this was used for boarding the quiristers in addition to 5 College Street where William Whiting was now teaching them.

The standard of singing remained low

Owing to the fact that they were still chosen for their financial need rather than for their voices, the standard of singing remained low. Their voice training was given by Dr Chard, the ageing joint organist of the cathedral and the college, but no doubt he took little interest in this unrewarding work. He died in May 1849. Soon after his death the assistant organist, Mr Long, was appointed organist and worked hard to raise the standard of singing, but unfortunately and unexpectedly he died in 1850 at the age of 48. Samuel Sebastian Wesley had been appointed cathedral organist a year previously so was asked to take over the college organistship as well. He did not find the quiristers’ musical abilities to his liking. This was the last time that the two posts were held jointly.

William Whiting had now been in charge of the school for 17 years and when his third child was born the Whitings moved out of Cheyney Court and into 5 College Street. For the first time a matron was appointed at Cheyney Court. Wesley left for Gloucester cathedral in 1865 and separate appointments were made for cathedral and college organistships. William Hutt became organist at the college, whereupon the standard of singing and department fell even further; in fact two years later when a service of dedication was held in the college chapel, without the quiristers, the singing was so good that many people asked if the quiristers were really needed. William Whiting rapidly answered these rumours stating that there were no plans to disband the quiristers and, in fact, this could only be done by an Act of Parliament.  It was suggested by some that the cause of the poor singing was in part due to the bad state of the college organ, which was low pitched and wheezy – also they only had one practice a week with the incompetent William Hutt.

A harsh regime

Winchester College Chapel
Artist's impression
Original photo by Ben Mathews
Some rights reserved

The quiristers’ daily routine consisted of rising at 6.30am summer and winter and going down to the outside washhouse for a wash in cold water. They cleaned their shoes and made their beds followed by a lesson from 7 to 7.30am. Next they went over to the college to wait at table and sweep floors and finally they had their breakfast. One morning a week there was singing practice and every day there were lessons until it was time to go over to the college again to serve dinners, after which they were able to eat their own dinners. On Wednesdays they had a half holiday when they did different things according to the time of year and the weather. They played cricket, football or rounders or went for long walks in the countryside. On Saturday nights they were scrubbed with hot water and a Sunday morning routine was the oiling of their hair, a task performed by the matron or housekeeper, the boys kneeling in a line. A charge of two pence a term was made for this. They would then proceed to chapel wearing top hats. On weekdays following afternoon school and prayers the quiristers had free time until they ate a supper of bread and cheese and beer at 7pm with bedtime following at 8pm.

However, they did receive certain perks dating from ancient times. Christmas boxes were given to them by the masters of the college when they returned in the new year; there was also a shilling a day "holiday money" paid to them a custom surviving from the time when they were turned out of college and the sum of two guineas was paid to the senior quirister, a survival of the "Bursar’s Quirister".

The end of the Whiting era

During the 1870s with Whiting’s health failing, indiscipline once more developed among the boys. In 1875 we have details of the half yearly examinations of the quiristers printed in the Hampshire Chronicle. Papers were set in Latin, French, arithmetic, algebra, history, geography and English grammar. There followed an examination by the warden who heard them recite French poetry and questioned them on the church catechism, parts of the Old Testament and the Acts of the Apostles. In the same year a new organ was installed in the chapel and the standard of singing was said to have improved.

About this time the boys began giving some winter entertainments in the schoolroom. They acted humorous plays and gave musical performances accompanied by the piano and a few strings. During one summer they were taken for a boat trip to Cowes and Ryde accompanied by Mr Whiting. It was to be his last outing with them because by now he was a very sick man. He died on 3 May 1878 aged 52.

...and the arrival of EE Williams

The quiristers suddenly found themselves without a master. As an interim arrangement Whiting’s daughter, Mary, carried on with the teaching. For short periods various temporary masters took charge but in 1879 the quiristers were sent to join the cathedral choristers for lessons under Mr Southcott at 4, the Close but this arrangement lasted barely a year. It was at this point that the decision was made to close Cheney Court and build a new quiristers school in Kingsgate Street. Here they settled down well and there followed a long a stable period between 1891 and 1934 under a Mr EE Williams, longer even than that of William Whiting.

Into the twentieth century

Stained glass window at
Winchester College Chapel
Photo courtesy of
Professor Ayers Bagley
University of Minnesota

On Whit Monday 1934 the Old Quirister’s Association was formed and on this date the master, Mr Williams, retired after 43 years at the college.  Nearly 100 Old Boys met in Winchester that day and there was a service in the chapel, a meeting, a tour of the college and a presentation to Mr Williams.

A major reconstitution of the quiristers’ school

There followed a major reconstitution of the quiristers’ school undertaken by Mr Lawson, the master, and Dr (later Sir) George Dyson, master of music at the College, and the college warden and fellows. It was decided to bring the school up to date on the lines off a modern preparatory school. The number of boys was to be kept at the traditional 16 and the standard of entry was to be raised both musically and academically. Boys were to be taken at 10 years old to stay for three years, after which it was hoped that they would gain entry to the college or go to other public schools or grammar schools. Fees were to be moderate and in case of extreme need wholly or partially remitted. The curriculum was to be revised and the uniform brought up to date. At long last came a reprieve from waiting at table in the college.

...and the singing was now known for its excellence

On Whit Monday 1938 a memorial tablet to William Whiting was unveiled in the cloisters 60 years after his death. The new preparatory school in Kingsgate ran smoothly for 30 years and the singing was now known for its excellence.

From 1965 the quiristers attend the Pilgrims’ School

In 1965 a two year trial period was begun when the quiristers were sent for their lessons to the Pilgrims’ School owing to the difficulty of giving 16 boys of varying ages a proper education. This proved a great success and they have educated them ever since. Joint voice trials for them and for the cathedral choristers took place annually. John Weekes went to teach at the Pilgrims’ School while Mr RD Blake and his wife went to live at Kingsgate, he being the first quirister housemaster; the temporary arrangement worked so well that it became permanent. In 1979 the boys took part in a college production of Purcell's King Arthur. In due course owing to excellent musical and academic tuition the quiristers in increasing numbers began to gain entrance to the college, some with scholarships.

1981 – the fiftieth anniversary of the Pilgrims’ School

Winchester College
Photo by "Homemade"
Some rights reserved

1981 saw the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the Pilgrims’ School beginning on 10 July in which the quiristers along with the cathedral choristers took a prominent part, joining together to sing Evensong in the cathedral, and in the evening giving a concert in the college music school where they were joined by a number of former quiristers.

In the following autumn eight quiristers under 13 years of age were entered for a competition organised by Thames Television. Their choirmaster, Julian Smith, had arranged Schuber’s Nacht und Traane for three voices to be sung in German and with a piano accompaniment. By 25 November they had entered for the finals with four other groups of boys. On 4 December they set off for Teddington in high spirits staying in a hotel for the night (a great thrill) and finally the next day they won the competition.

1982 – the six hundredth anniversary of the founding of the college

1982 saw the six hundredth anniversary of the founding of the college and the quiristers, as members of the original foundation, were lined up with the college men to greet HM The Queen on her arrival. They also participated in a performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio in New Hall. A year later Colin Thompson took over the housemastership of the Q School, when Mr Kitson and his wife retired. About this time the quiristers sang in an opera, Robin Hood.

In June 1985 Humphrey Salwey, first headmaster of the Pilgrims’ School, died and the quiristers joined with the cathedral choristers to sing at his funeral in the cathedral. In September the following year the house mastership of the Q School was taken over by Richard Jackson.

1986 – a trip to Vienna

On 1 March 1986 the quiristers with the cathedral choristers, a large contingent of lay clerks and enough staff for supervision, set off for Vienna to perform Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Requiem under Lorim Maazel. 

No less exciting in a smaller way, was the trip to Leeds castle in Kent, when six quiristers joined a choir of 13 singers to perform madrigals and traditional Winchester Graces for Sir Edward Heath’s seventieth birthday.

Many secular activities

In the summer of 1987 Winchester College put on a production of Bizet’s Carmen in New Hall and the quiristers played the part of urchins in the crowd scenes. They were gaining dramatic experience and the following term were back on the stage, this time providing a musical background to Alan Ayckbourn’s Ernie’s Incredible Illucinations. Shortly after a new version of Gogol’s nineteenth century play, The Government Inspector was given in which Tom Seligman, the head quirister, learnt to play the steel drums. The following year another updated play was given –  Macbeth PLC, for which the music was written and conducted by Tom Seligman. Another quirister, Mark Hollings, was asked to sing the part of the angel in Britten’s The Burning Fiery Furnace at the Aldeburgh Festival, and in May 1989 four quiristers found themselves in Madrid making a recording of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy given during the European Parliamentary elections. Finally both cathedral choristers and quiristers joined together in December 1992 in a performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony in the Royal Festival Hall.

Many scholarships and awards to the college and elsewhere continued to be won including a double scholarship to the college by Andrew Griffiths. On average the quiristers perform in about seven concerts, at home and outside, each term. The music being a mixture of sacred, secular and popular music. Nearly all these concerts are in aid of various charities or church building funds.

The quiristers belong to the college Glee Club and on 24 November 1994 they gave Elgar’s The Kingdom in the cathedral, conducted by Neil Chippenham, an old chorister of the cathedral. To name but a few others, in March 1995 they gave Pergolesi's Stabat Mater and in the summer term there was a concert in Sherborne Abbey and Messiah in New Hall, sung by the quiristers and Old Wykehamists. Also in the Autumn term of 1995 there were two informal concerts by the quiristers with works ranging from Schubert to Gershwin and in complete contrast on 2 November the Fauré Requiem in Chapel and at the end of term the quiristers travelled to Lambeth palace for a concert in aid of Mencap. Early in the Lent term 1996, there was a concert in the college chapel with works by Bach, Purcell and Britten with the Winchester Ensemble and a few weeks later a Glee Club concert consisting of Carmina Burana by Carl Orff and other works.

1995 visit to Jersey

Stained glass window at
Winchester College Chapel
Photo courtesy of
Professor Ayers Bagley
University of Minnesota

The highlight of the term was the quiristers visit to Jersey from 21 to 24 March. They sang Evensong at St Helier parish Church on 22 March at 6pm and on the following day a recital of both classical and popular music at 8pm. Sunday 24 March saw them taking part in a Sung Eucharist at Holy Trinity Church. Time was set aside for sightseeing, among other things Jersey Zoo and Les Augres Manor, famous sanctuary and breeding centre.

A small selection from the summer term included a visit to Beaulieu Abbey on 18 May for a recital which embraced a Lennon and McCartney song. The headmaster’s invitation concert held on 23 May was in aid of Medicroft Opportunity Centre and on 12 June they sang at the priory Church, Hamble, where the contemporary item was Bridge Over Troubled Waters by Simon and Garfunkel. The term saw some recording between 24 and 28 June and the filming in chapel by Hourglass Pictures Ltd for Channel 4.

The autumn term of 1996 brought a very great number of concerts and recitals only a few of which can be mentioned here. There were the two informal concerts and on 10 October a combined Evensong with Eton College. One month later there was a concert in college and on 24 November a performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass with the Glee Club; the end of term saw the various carol services.

Among "away" concerts there was a recital at St Stephen’s Church, Bournemouth on 23 January and on 9 March a Glee Club concert in New Hall with a BBC choral Evensong on 12 March, all these as usual directed by Dr Christopher Tolley, director of music, and then it was off to Germany for a six day singing tour. Flying to Düsseldorf they went on to Cologne singing in the vast cathedral then to Herten, Detmold, Lemgo and Stuttgart, then flying home from Frankfurt. Almost everywhere they received standing ovations.

Right at the beginning of the summer term, on 26 April, there was a recital at Marston Bigot and on 14 June the Eton Match Service in Chapel.  1988 saw a short trip to Normandy and Brittany, singing in the wonderful abbeys and cathedrals of that region; these were only a handful of the services and concerts given by the quiristers under Dr Tolley.

In September of that year the quiristers joined the cathedral choristers for Matins in the cathedral to celebrate the life of William of Wykeham and shortly afterwards they travelled to Eton to sing a joint Evensong with Eton College choir in their chapel. Once again they gave the Fauré Requiem in chapel for All Saints and Rememberance tide and later in November they gave a recital in St Thomas’ Church, Lymington which was packed out. To round off the term there were the usual carol services.

During the Lent term 1999, four events deserve mentioning. First in January they gave a recital in aid of the Winchester branch of Relate, in the refurbished School of the College, making £1,400 and in New Hall in February, Tippett's cantata A Child of our Time. Finally, before the end of term, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater with the Winchester Ensemble.

1999 – tour to the USA

Winchester College Chapel
Photo: Jerry Bump

However, the climax of the term was the choir trip to the USA, just before Easter.  On the Monday of Passion Week, the boys with about 10 or 12 adults flew from Heathrow to Boston staying the night at the luxury Seaport Hotel. Their base for the moment was a junior private school at Wilton, New Hampshire, where they were hosted by the pupils’ families. They gave Britten’s The Golden Vanity and received a standing ovation. Next they returned to Boston to meet with a group of college men who would sing in the back rows. Travelling on to Harvard they gave a concert in the Memorial Church with Harvard’s Baroque Ensemble. There was then time for sightseeing – very important.

Next day they were in Boston downtown for a lunch time concert of secular music, the audience being most enthusiastic. This was followed by a guided tour of Boston in a trolley bus.

On the Saturday the day started with a much needed lie in, followed by a little shopping, then south to Ashmont where they met two other boys’ choirs all three giving a concert at All Saints Church; the three choirs sang separately until the finale, Bridge Over Troubled Water, when they joined forces. The quiristers seem to have won the day! Next day, Palm Sunday, was spent in Harvard for a morning service and an evening Eucharist at Trinity Church, Copley Square.

On the Monday, Dr Tolley flew to New York while the rest of the party followed by coach or train to Greenwich, Connecticut. Another performance of Stabat Mater. Tuesday saw them at New Haven (Yale University) where they gave a concert of sacred music in the eighteenth century church of Trinity on The Green. Next day it was New York and St Thomas’ Cathedral choir school, the only choir school in the USA.

The party then travelled by subway train to Lower Manhattan for a Eucharist at Christ Church, Broadway, returning to Greenwich for the night. Maundy Thursday saw them in Stamford for a lunch time concert in the Congregational church where they received the second standing ovation of the tour. An evening Eucharist back at Christ Church rounded off the trip. On Good Friday there was time for some sight seeing before catching the evening flight to Heathrow at 9am next day, to home and bed.

A different life from their fellow choristers

The quiristers lead a somewhat different life from their fellow choristers all over the country. There are fewer services and more secular events in their busy lives, an important factor for those parents who sometimes complain of "too much religion" in the daily service routine of cathedral choristers. They are based in the family atmosphere of the Q house in Kingsgate Street, presided over by their housemaster. Also one small but important factor, the quiristers are able to be in their homes for Christmas and Easter.