Windsor, St George’s School
Origins of the school in the fourteenth century
Edward the Third founded the school in the fourteenth century so that in 1352 there was a warden, 12 secular canons, 13 presbyters or vicars, four clerks and six choristers who were taught chanting, ceremonial and the text of the Liturgy; also they learned grammar from a vicar. The juniors were sometimes granted leave of absence from services in order to attend to their lessons but on Sundays and Holy Days there was a full complement for singing. The four clerks were older boys, possibly former choristers who were preparing to take Holy Orders. Thus the song school consisted of six choristers, four clerks and a master.
In these early times a vicar was appointed as master of the boys and in addition to his teaching duties he was in charge of the fees paid to the choristers. However, on one occasion the master was dishonest and appropriated the money. One Adam Hull was master in 1362, and from 1370 to 1372 Roger Bramcote held the office. In 1387 there is a record of money paid for a new censer to replace one which the choristers had broken.
The fifteenth century
First mention of an organ
First mention of an organ comes early in the fifteenth century when Walter Whity was playing on it at Christmas time and by 1416 Laurence Drewery was the first man to hold the joint office of organist and choirmaster.
Edward the Fourth rebuilt the chapel towards the end of the fifteenth century and the choristers numbers were increased to 11 and shortly after to 13, all with a pay rise. In 1479 the plague spread to Windsor and several choristers died, reducing their numbers again to six and of these only two had much experience. However, by September 1480 there were again 11 choristers and two years later 13. With the increase in numbers, looking after them all at home, and the increased work of teaching elaborate polyphony, it was found to be more than one man could do, so a supervisor was appointed who took over the boys’ domestic care and managed their finances.
Chorister press gangs!
The press ganging of trained choristers from other choirs was rife at this time and bringing them along to the royal establishments when, more often than not, they never saw their families again.
During the fifteenth century the choristers shared a house, with the clerks and vicars within the walls of the castle, which was probably destroyed in about 1475 to make way for the new chapel. During the twentieth century when certain building works were in progress the remains of fifteenth century musical notation and text were found on a wall of a room northeast of "The Woodhouse". Also the records show some money paid out for repairing a window there.
With church music now reaching a peak of complexity well qualified musicians were needed as instructors and more practice time allotted to the choir so that the teaching of Latin fell into decline as a result. One such instructor was Richard Hamshyre appointed in 1493 with John Friendship as supervisor.
The sixteenth century
A series of benefactors
At the turn of the century the boys were blessed with some benefactors. Dean Unswick took a great interest in them, repairing their house and later leaving them money in his will. Also in 1484 Richard the Third ordered 13 cartloads of firewood from Windsor Forest to be delivered to the master and choristers. Finally, Dr James Denton, a canon, was shocked at the living conditions of both choristers and Chantry priests. He found that they were having to go out into the town for their meals, so at his own expense he built a house where they could both live and eat. This house was known as Denton’s Commons on the north side of chapel. The inventory states that outside there was a large, lead washing bowl where the choristers washed in cold water. Discipline seems to have been quite strict as no ball games were allowed owing to glass having been broken in the past; all probationers or "half–commoners" were made to wait at table and serve food.
Early in the sixteenth century the names of two of the masters were Robert Wenham in 1530 and John Hake in 1541. Once again the plague was to strike Windsor and the choir was sent away to Bray church to sing.
Royal injunctions for the choristers
Between 1547 and 1550 Edward the Sixth made various injunctions for the choristers stipulating that annually a priest or clerk was to be chosen to superintend the boys, of which there were now 10, teaching them in grammar and writing and instrumental music as well as singing. Furthermore, five marks a year for four years was to be paid to any boy of good conduct who when his voice broke, might want to go on to grammar school.
After 30 years in Denton’s Commons the choristers were now moved to a house opposite the north west corner of the chapel. By 1558 there were again 13 choristers and 10 years later John Merbecke is recorded as playing the organ and being master to six boys. He was followed by Richard Farrant who was appointed for life which is curious as Edward the Sixth had decreed that the masters were to be appointed annually.
Farrant was to supervise 10 boys in their boarding clothing and lodging, their diet and bedding. It would appear that since leaving Denton’s Commons their living conditions left much to be desired. Farrant was responsible for the production of many plays with the boys often before Queen Elizabeth the First. He was so preoccupied with producing plays in London with the "Children of the Chapel Royal" during the latter part of his life, that a deputy had to be found for him at Windsor. So his death in 1585 produced no immediate crisis and it was not for some years that Nathaniel Giles was appointed, coming from Worcester. In 1597 Giles held the joint offices of master both at the Chapel Royal and at Windsor. The standard of music at Windsor seems to have been high for the Duke of Wurttemberg attended a service and commented very favourably on the singing and the instrumental accompaniments.
The seventeenth century
Following Giles's dual appointments and his preoccupation with the staging of plays in London, he was forced to ask the dean and canons for a deputy at Windsor. So in 1605 Leonard Woodson was appointed, who, some years later added the organistship of Eton College to his duties. However, after a year he and his choristers were called before the authorities and he was admonished to look after his boys properly. Thus a document at this time shows a list of the boys’ names and certain payments to them, receipted by each boy not with a signature, but beside each name a sign, indicating their illiteracy. So much for Woodson’s teaching. As a result William Wenceslowe was made responsible for the choristers, teaching singing and other music, reading, writing and good manners.
A period of declining educational standards
From the time of James the First there was a gradual growth of private education in the country so that the choir schools were no longer foremost in their appeal to parents. The educational standards being thought too narrow; so that no longer was there a wide choice of the best candidates and the choir schools had to take an inferior grade of boy singer with the result that standards gradually fell. This happened at St George’s and in 1636 it was decided that the choristers must learn Latin, so that master Shepheard taught them daily from 6am to 8am. John Upton succeeded William Wenceslowe as master in 1637 but does not seem to have been a great success. The following year the boys were examined in singing and writing but there is no mention of Latin. Efforts to attract more boys to St George’s met with little success and their numbers were reduced from 10 to eight; their pay was increased as an incentive to recruitment. Instrumental music was being taught at this period, most likely for accompaniments in chapel.
The Civil War
Soon after this the Civil War broke out and, like everywhere else, the choir was disbanded. It was reformed in 1660 and new music obtained as the old music library had been destroyed by the Roundheads. Matthew Greene began a 43 year long tenure of the post of master of the choristers and William Child, assisted by Benjamin Rogers, was organist; there being probably eight choristers.
Samuel Pepys much impressed with the choir
Samuel Pepys visited St George’s early in 1666 and wrote that he was much impressed with the choir but that the choir of St Paul’s had met with his severe criticism. There had been many attempts to establish an apprenticeship scheme for school leavers, payments varying from 5 shillings to £5 per boy, but in 1685 it was fixed at £5 rising to £10 in 1825 and £20 in 1869.
In 1685 John Gulding, a former chorister, was appointed as assistant organist and in 1689 there was a payment to him of 40 shillings for journeys to seek new candidates for the choir. His term of office so far had met with such success that first he was awarded an extra £5 and later, after the deaths of William Child and Matthew Greene, in 1697 and 1703 respectively, he was appointed both organist and choirmaster, the first to hold the dual post for over 100 years. However, later his pay was stopped for going to London without leave and nothing more is heard of him until his death in 1719. He was succeeded by John Piggott who was later assisted by Edward Webb, who became organist in 1756 on Piggott’s resignation.
... but standards generally declining in the eighteenth century
At this time it was quite usual for one organist to have the joint positions of St George’s and Eton College chapel. Edward Webb died in 1788 and the dean and canons appointed Theodore Aylward as "probationer organist" and master of the boys. At St George’s, as just about everywhere else at this time, the rot was beginning to set in. The boys led a disorganised life. There was disorder and much running about during the services with music to be performed only being chosen during or just before the service. In December 1795 the choristers were reprimanded for touring the town asking for Christmas boxes as, owing to inflation, they were now poor. Their salaries and payments not having risen over many years; it appears that they were day boys at this time.
The nineteenth century
1818 – Maria Hackett visits St George’s
Maria Hackett visited St George’s in 1818 and did what she could to help. She seems to have partially succeeded for in 1908, one Thomas Wilks wrote of his life as a chorister, beginning in 1826 when he was seven years old. As well as the services in St George’s chapel they had to sing at Eton College chapel on Holy Days. As a junior he received six shillings a month; there were regular lessons in school and parents were given liberal rations of bread, meat and ale, which they collected in town. The boys left home at 7.30am and from 9am to10am there was practice followed by Matins at 11am. Then two hours of school and after lunch more practice. Evensong was at 4pm after which there was play time before they went home. They were taught in a school room over a gateway on the north cloister. The room was spacious and had but one window. Desks were arranged on four sides of a square and Mr Josiah French taught them reading, writing and arithmetic from a high desk wherein he kept his much used cane. Their homework generally consisted of a large portion of scripture to be committed to memory by the next day.
Rising standards under George Elvey
Early in the nineteenth century the standard of singing in the chapel was low and there were only seven boys. The organist, Highmore Skeats, died early in 1835 and with the appointment of George Elvey in his stead there came a general and musical turning point. Elvey was only 19 and had won the appointment against much competition. When he started on 1 May 1835 he commented that he found the choir "very disordered". There were just seven boys and two basses. There were no weekly service sheets and the senior boy would come up to the organ loft just before service to ask what music was to be sung.
Elvey was much annoyed to find the choristers after service on Christmas Day standing at the chapel doors collecting money for themselves. Another long standing custom was that during the introduction to the anthem, senior boys were to deliver copies of the music to members of the congregation. These and other instances of ill discipline were firmly put down by Elvey, while at the same time he was working very hard to raise the standard of the singing and expand the repertoire. By 1850, when many other choirs were still in the doldrums, St George’s could boast having one of the best choirs in the land. The seven choristers had been increased to 12 and Elvey organised concerts and produced plays with them.
For some time there had been discussions concerning the choristers’ education, which it was felt was too limited to attract good candidates to the choir. It was proposed that Mr French be pensioned off and a minor canon appointed in his place. Also the boys’ parents should pay a fee of £10 a year for each boy. The Reverend George Pearson became schoolmaster in 1850 and classics was added to the curriculum, thereby some boys gaining entrance to university. Pearson commented that he was much hampered by hours spent in practices and services, also that the boys had no library and neither was any time allotted for games.
Between the mid-seventeenth century for about 100 years it is not certain where the choristers’ school was located, and it was not until Evey came that there was a separate schoolroom and song school, and by 1855 a new choristers’ boarding house was opened, presided over by a resident matron. George Pearson left shortly after this and was succeeded as schoolmaster by Richard Bransom, who altered the curriculum, giving the boys a commercial education only.
Maria Hackett visits again
Maria Hackett paid another of her visits to St George’s and commented that although the boys were being well looked after in the new choir house, their education left much to be desired. The schoolroom was next to Richard Bransom’s rooms and the singing school behind Dr Elvey’s house. Richard Bransom was liberal with his cane, the "Tickle Toby" as he called it, but in 1875 Dean Wellesley ordered that there was to be no more caning except with his permission.
The custom of royal serenades
A feature of these times was the performance by the choristers of early morning serenades beneath the windows of members of royalty who had a birthday on that day. Also solo boys were bidden to the Deanery to sing to guests who were frequently royalty. There were also concerts with the Windsor and Eton Choral Society and the Glee and Madrigal Society.
Between 1870 and 1872 the Horseshoe Cloister, containing the choristers’ house, was thoroughly restored and the boys and their matron, Mrs Wickenden, moved temporarily to 3 Osborne Terrace, about a mile away in the town. The choir was so good now that it was customary to send solo boys to sing in major works in cathedrals up and down the country. Timetables remained the same except that Evensong was now at 3pm with school before and after. Outings were quite a feature of the boys lives and many kind people were responsible for organising these. Mrs Wickenden retired in 1878 owing to old age and ill health and was succeeded by Mrs Wright, whose daughter taught French to two of the boys.
1882 – Sir George Elvey retires and Walter Parratt appointed
Sir George Elvey retired in 1882 and was knighted by Queen Victoria and was succeeded by Walter Parratt. He and Dr Davidson, the new dean, were concerned about the boys’ education, so in 1886 they decided to ask for HM Inspector to come and make a report on the school. The latter found that the boys still wrote on slates instead of paper, also that arithmetic needed attention and that there should be more reading books available; but on the whole he found the school satisfactory. In a year’s time he made a further inspection and found a great improvement all round and was pleased to note that two senior boys were studying algebra, bookkeeping, Euclid, Latin and geometrical drawing.
An inspection 1888 gave an even more favourable report. Standards had improved again. The curriculum had been extended and the inspector commented on the good manners of the boys. As a result a system of small prizes for good work was inaugurated. In 1891 Richard Bransom resigned but did not actually leave until March 1892 in which year Dr Elvey was knighted. Two priests succeeded Bransom in the school, the Reverend William Edwards and the Reverend Edward Lewis.
Discussions concerning a much needed new school house
At this time lengthy discussions began between the dean and senior members of the Chapter concerning the creation of a new and up to date choristers’ school. Meanwhile conditions there were not good. Neither Mr Edwards nor Mr Lewis were in residence, leaving only Mrs Wright to deal with the boys after school hours. Even Sir Walter Parratt wrote to the chapter advocating change, so that a Mr George Stubbs was appointed as housemaster and slept at the school.
Travers College, owned by the Admiralty, was a late eighteenth century house, north of the chapel, would soon become vacant but at the time was occupied by a few Naval Knights. The Dean and Chapter felt that this house would make an ideal choir school but on approaching the Admiralty found that only one, the governor of the Naval Knights, absolutely refused to move out. However, by a mixture of cajoling and some force, he was finally evicted. Much work had to be done on the structure and fittings but by March 1893 the Dean and Chapter felt able to advertise the post of headmaster.
1893 – Ashley Bickersteth appointed headmaster
Out of a great many candidates, Mr Ashley Bickersteth, son of the bishop of Exeter, was chosen. He engaged Gerald Harries as assistant master and also Miss Wills as matron. Edward Lewis was dismissed with no pension and Mrs Wright with a pension of £25 a year. There were to be about 30 boarders and up to 10 day boys, 24 of the boarders being choristers. The curriculum was to be geared towards entrance to the public schools and musical instruction was to be given by Sir Walter Parratt. Choristers’ holidays were to be a fortnight in the new year and some time after Easter and in September. The Dean and Chapter were to be the governors of the school. Thus a modern preparatory school would be established. The new school, now known as St George’s School, Windsor Castle, opened for lessons at the end of September 1893 but the boarders were still temporarily sleeping in the house in the cloisters.
One of Mr Bickersteth’s priorities was to discuss with Dean and Chapter how best to extend the boys’ holidays and after much consultation this was accomplished early in 1894. Both advances and reverses followed; on the plus side the boys were now able to play cricket and football for the first time, which were held in the Home Park. On the minus side more alterations and repairs were needed in the house but money was running short, so that this had to be postponed. In the chapel Sir Walter Parratt was facing the problem of his best boys being taken away at about 13 years in order to go to their public schools, just at a time when they became most useful in the choir; as we have already seen, voices were breaking much later than they do today so that Sir Walter was successful in having the leaving age established at 16 years.
After a while it was found that the new and advanced curriculum was taking its toll on the boys’ energy to the detriment of their work. The daily time table running from 7.15am to 8.15pm. But as one who knew two of the choristers during the 1930s, by all accounts, the food was very sparse and there was nothing to eat or drink between an inadequate lunch and the end of Evensong at 6pm, so that the steep climb up to the chapel from the school was all that they could manage, and this was reflected in their singing.
1894 – the appointment of HFW Deane as headmaster
Mr Bickersteth was married to the dean’s youngest daughter in 1894 and he very soon handed in his resignation as headmaster. Gerald Harries also resigned with a third member of staff, Mr Green. The Chapter had to act quickly. They appointed Mr HFW Deane as headmaster and two Cambridge graduates, Mr GS Fowler and Mr WJ Conybeare as assistant masters. Mr Deane made it his business to see that parents of senior boys knew when their sons would be promoted from chorister to choral scholar, as this meant some remission of fees. He also felt that more day boys were needed and with the consent of the Chapter, he embarked on a successful recruitment campaign. In 1897 he set about reorganising the somewhat inconvenient layout of the buildings. He proposed a new large classroom with a dormitory above to be built on part of the playground but the expense put paid to this plan. However, Bishop Barry said that money should be taken from the College Fabric Fund as an interest free loan so that the classroom, without the dormitory, could be built. This was completed in 1898.
Improving standards at the turn of the century
Mr Deane continued to breathe new life into the school organising the production of an annual play, the formation of a stamp club and the establishing of Wednesday as a half holiday. If a saint’s day fell on a Wednesday, the Wednesday and Friday timetables were reversed.
By 1900 his hard work was bearing fruit and scholarships, both musical and for other work, were being won to public schools and so in 1904 he decided to retire and enjoy a well earned retreat until his death in 1921.
1904 – Mr George Starr-Fowler appointed headmaster
1904 saw the first cassocks to be worn by the choir and a choir vestry was set up in the chapel. Mr George Starr-Fowler, who was already on the staff, succeeded Mr Deane, and carried on the good work starting a school magazine which, with its list of Old Boys, was the first step towards the foundation of an Old Boys’ Association. The annual play was still popular, and the audience often including members of the royal family. Also the choristers now enjoyed trips and outings to various places. Drill and gymnastics were now added to the curriculum and taken by Sergeant H Shardlow. Also drawing was taught by Mr CT Hollis.
It appears that there was no regular practice room at this time, practices taking place either in the "New Room" of the school or in the chapel. Among treats for the boys Sir Walter Parratt instituted an annual "sausage feast" when sausage and mash were served and the ambition was to see who could eat the most. Choral singing with the Windsor Madrigal Society continued and outstanding works were Bach’s St Matthew Passion and B minor Mass, and Handel’s Messiah.
1924 – the death of Sir Walter Parratt and the appointment of Sir Walford Davies
In October 1923 Sir Walter Parratt was taken ill with heart trouble and died the following March, aged 83 years. The Chapter asked Sir Walford Davies, a former chorister of St George’s, to take over the post, but he was unable to come immediately so the Reverend Dr EH Fellows, a minor canon and scholar of much Tudor music, was asked to take over the choir temporarily, with GS Kitchingman, and later Malcom Boyle, as organist. At this time, and after the arrival of Sir Walford Davies, the choir began making recordings and the first broadcast took place in 1931.
1933 to 1961 – the era of Dr William Harris
Sir Walford Davies left in 1932 and was succeeded by Charles Hylton Stewart, previously of Rochester and Chester cathedrals. Sadly he died after only two months in office, when Dr William Harris took his place and stayed until 1961. To the boys the three organists were "Polly, Wally and Doodle" – ie, Sir Walter Parratt, Sir Walford Davies and Sir William Harris – Dr Harris being of a somewhat absent minded temperament – no one could have nicknamed Hylton Stewart "Doodle".
Further upheavals were besetting the school. The lease was running out and much correspondence between the Chapter and the Admiralty and Greenwich Hospital took place. After months of negotiations it was agreed that the school should buy the Travers College buildings for £5,200 and by a series of miracles and generous gifts the money was raised with enough to spare for much needed repairs and extensions.
1934 – renovation of Travers College
After 40 years in office, in January 1934, George Fowler handed in his resignation to the Chapter and James Webb-Jones was appointed in his stead. The school moved temporarily to an empty girls’ boarding school at Clewer, whilst reconstruction work at Travers College took place.
In 1935 negotiations were in progress for the purchase of the nearby site from the Courage brewery and in January 1936 the deeds were handed to the dean; owing to more generous gifts a fives court, playground and gymnasium were built on this site. In addition there were staff bedrooms, a staff common room, a music room and music practice rooms, a kitchen and an art room. The school had received many generous gifts to finance all these building works but by 1937 running costs had become difficult; so JF Burnet, a member of staff was appointed bursar. Also advice was sought from the Pilgrims’ School, Winchester, as to how they ran their finances.
The Second World War
By September 1939 war had broken out and air raid shelters were constructed in the cellars. By 1940 there was much disruption of services and classes and an alarm bell was set up at the castle to give warning of imminent danger. Influenza added to the troubles during the Christmas term and for the first time since the Commonwealth, no services could be sung at Christmas. Many staff were called up and replacements brought in. Financial problems were still paramount and Sir Sydney Nicholson, director of the School of English Church Music, later the RSCM, was brought in to give his advice.
Both James Webb-Jones and Jock Burnet joined the RAF in 1942. Later in that year it was decided to raise the fees for day boys and in 1943 the number choristers was reduced from 24 to 18. Mr Cavanagh took over the headmastership for the duration. Yet, in spite of the difficulties, the school was inspected by the Board of Education and found to be efficient and placed on the preparatory schools list.
Despite war time conditions the choristers continued to receive invitations to outings and theatres, also a welcome gift was received from Princess Elizabeth, a case of honey. Some musical evenings were held at the castle and occasionally the choristers were invited to the royal family pantomime at Christmas. However, 1944 saw the start of the flying bombs and once again routine was badly upset.
The post-war era
In 1946 Mr WPO Cleave, from Blundell’s School was appointed headmaster and one of his first actions was to persuade the Chapter that instead of the latter being responsible for the school’s financial affairs, the duty should rest with him. As games were still being played in the Home Park, which entailed crossing a busy road, the King’s private secretary approached His Majesty who willingly consented to let the boys play on seven acres of the private park.
Meanwhile, Mr Cleave concentrated on building up the academic side of the school, which very soon bore fruit in scholarships and exhibitions at public schools. He also saw that it was imperative to increase school numbers. In 1948 there were 64 boys and in the following year the number of choristers was increased to 20. A memorial window to Old Boys killed in the war had been set up in the chapel and in addition a practical war memorial was constructed in the form of a swimming pool near the old brewery buildings.
Further expansion of the school in the 1960s
With increased numbers yet more building expansion was needed and Mr MJ Tapper, a former chorister, was put in charge of the plans, so that by 1970 there were six new music practice rooms, a refurbished gymnasium, a science laboratory and a workshop. From time to time coaches would take the choristers to various cathedrals and churches with their organist, Dr (later Sir William) Harris, to give concerts and recitals. Many hobbies were now flourishing, stamps and carpentry, boxing, printing, cookery, orchestra and strings groups included.
The staff consisted of the headmaster, seven full time teachers, a bursar, two matrons, some resident domestic staff, with part time staff both teaching and domestic.
1971 saw Mr Cleave take a well earned retirement; he was replaced by Mr RHE Russell. Choristers had always taken two musical instruments, but now "supers", or non-choristers, were increasingly learning instruments. St George’s was perhaps the last choir in Britain to give up singing daily Matins, finishing in 1975. This move greatly increased their lesson time as now they leave for morning practice at 8.20am which lasts till 9.30am when it is school work as usual with Evensong at 5.15pm, except on Wednesdays.
Various tours at home and overseas
Tradition had it that the choristers were forbidden to sing anywhere outside St George’s, it being stated in the statutes of the College of St George. Careful investigation revealed this to be false. As a result their organist, Christopher Robinson, took the whole choir to sing at various concerts in the UK and in recent years has taken them to sing in France (more than once) Belgium, Germany and Poland. There was also a tour of the USA where they gave eight concerts.
1981 saw the arrival of Mr George Hill as headmaster, who wholeheartedly encouraged the school’s music. He raised the number of the boys in the school to 105, 24 of these being choristers. Thus there followed an appeal for more building and renovation which was successfully achieved before his retirement in 1991.
Francis Grier was a chorister at St George’s in the early 1960s and won Eton’s first music scholarship in 1968. Some 30 years on he had completed his first opera, St Francis which was staged in Eton College Chapel in 1993. Another Old Boy, David Fanshaw, composed his African Sanctus which was recorded by the choristers at the Poole Arts Centre in 1994. The following year was a rewarding one in that five choristers won music scholarships to their public schools. They were Elliot Sherwood-Roberts (Eton), Nicholas Hodsman and Oliver Bayston (Charterhouse), Christopher Lipscomb (Radley), and James Birchall (Winchester).
The school becomes co-educational
Girls were now admitted to the school, making necessary certain building and expansion projects. During Mr Christopher Robinson’s time as organist and until he left for St John’s College, Cambridge in 1991, there were a number of singing tours abroad but since that time there have been none. He was succeeded by Mr Jonathan Rees-Williams, who had the honour and the responsibility of directing the music at the wedding of Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones on 19 June 1999.
The supernumeraries' choir
A word must be said about the supernumeraries' ("supers") choir, started by Mr John Young, sometime director of the school's music. They sing regularly at Eton College Chapel as well as in St George’s Chapel on the choristers’ day off and for school services. Recently they have been involved in the making of a film "Shakespeare in Love". Mr JR Jones became headmaster in January 2000. He was previously on the staff of St George’s school during the 1980s so is well acquainted with the school and its special role as a choir school.