A Pen sketch of Life in the Choir, Chester Cathedral 1935 to 1939
There seems to be little written about the life of a choirboy in the cathedral in those momentous interwar years when the old disciplines founded in the Edwardian, and before, years were facing challenges. The boys of those years became the families of the post war rethink on beliefs and practices. Was the intense discipline of that era manifest in the ‘stiff upper lip’ that emerged in the horrific war ahead? Either way it produced sound character -in retrospect those of us who experienced it may be well satisfied with.
The schools location -the rooms above St. Anselm’s chapel and the font, were very handy. A spiral staircase directly from the font area led up to these rooms with a handy opening at the chapel on the way up. The flat roof of the Undercroft provided a safe playground with yet another spiral staircase linking it to the cloisters. The rooms upstairs comprised a main room and a second one above the font. This was originally for the new starters-the probationers. The main room was for the sixteen senior boys -though after starting to take paying pupils it was divided up by a sliding partition to make two class rooms. Classes were, of course, small and tended to be one year’s entire intake. This ensured that any interruption for singing would involve the whole class.
The staff was made up of just two men, Canon Jessop Price, headmaster, and F.N.S.Lampard. Occasionally Mrs Lampard helped out and when the paying pupils started a third classroom was started in the ‘milk room’ a building in the playground adjoining the toilets. A third master was then taken on -Sam Baker. Entrance to the school was by a written ‘exam: and singing test. Each applicant during the ‘exam: was taken to see Malcolm Boyle, Master of the Choristers and organist, in the Practice Room. Here Boyle put him through a singing test to see if he had any hope of becoming a useful member of the choir. This room, now, I believe, called the educational centre, was at the end of what we called ‘the Abbots Passage’ -off the west cloister. It was an ill lit dismal area littered with old furniture, woodwork and artefacts of religion variously discarded by generations of past clerical authority. As I will describe later, this murky corner of the cathedral had good reason to strike terror into some of the very young members of the choir. The Practice Room at the end of the passage was below floor level and was the centre of the cathedral music. The south wall under the windows was lined on its entire length with two rows of shelves holding several hundred box files each containing the choir’s copies of a particular piece of choral music. This had to cater for sixteen boys, six lay clerks and an organist. Another wall had open fronted wardrobes with curtains and held the chorister’s cassocks and surplices. A third west wall had a huge book case -the contents I never did discover, -and a long seat built in. In the centre of the room between two central pillars was a very small piano surrounded by four very well worn ‘stand-up desks to hold the music being sung. Here, on each side of the piano, eight aside, the choir stood and sang whilst Boyle played the piano. Whilst virtually all the singing was by these boys the probationers also were involved-though more on a learning basis. It seems possible that the phrase ‘coming onto the desk’ may well have originated here when a probationer was promoted from his black cassock into the coveted red cassock and the real choir. In the meantime they were there to simply learn and listen with the chance that they may even sometimes be able to join in! Given a passable grip of music -and exam marks, the incoming youngsters were introduced to the discipline gently only attending a selection of services. Some of them quickly picked up the choral skills and, with perhaps a little exhibitionism, took to singing in public readily. Others never made it whether through shyness or a complete failure to be musical. These would make up the body of the choir and hopefully give it some added volume. As far as I can recollect Boyle never actually sacked a boy once taken on and did his best to get something out of the most hopeless ones. These he somewhat sarcastically referred to as his ‘case pipes’ -a name given to the dummy pipes on the front of the organ casing.
Eventually through trial and error a useful voice would appear in the probationers and he would be quickly groomed to take his place ‘at the desk’. Here he would become one of the eight boys making up either the decani or cantoris side of the choir. Each winter Boyle started testing to find a new soloist and we were each tested in turn. It was a little frightening for the timid who invariably failed anyhow, but sure enough one with both the voice and cheek would emerge. Whilst not necessarily an expert musician he would be coaxed to develop his voice -and most importantly -be able to read music. Surprisingly this was not an essential for joining the choir. On the other side of the question there were those of great musical ability from the start & subsequently became famous in their calling. George Guest was one such boy. With anything but an academic character his perfect pitch and music understanding amazed us all. His voice was hardly ideal. Being coarse but strong, but what a winner when he could be relied on to haul us all out of any debacle we got into. The chosen lucky soloist could look forward to care and attention we all envied as he became to darling of the choir. When he eventually tackled the marathon solo job in Parry’s ‘Hear my Prayer’ he could look forward to five shillings from the lay clerks! So emerged and evolved a new choir each autumn term. A new head boy and 80% new choir derived from the probationers and possibly a new soloist. This was Boyle’s raw material.
The school day was, of course, wholly programmed to suit the cathedral services and in those days Mattins at 10 a.m. and Evensong at 4.15 p.m. were fully sung on all days except Wednesday. Sadly this supposed day off ‘in lieu’ of Saturday was dedicated to sport, football or cricket -so we never had a day really clear. The football enthusiasts loved it, the rest fervently prayed for rain! The school curriculum suffered considerably from this truncated teaching time, a snag that perhaps could have been corrected by less emphasis on sport. Only the basic subjects -plus Latin for choral purposes-could be fitted in. Basic arithmetic, English, Scripture and simple French were the backbone of our schooldays -hardly a vital grounding for those who left at fourteen and went straight into commercial or industrial life. The mornings were broken up at 9.45 for the 10 a.m. Mattins, only to restart at 10.45 -after a cocoa break in the Undercroft at 10.30. Similarly the afternoons finished at about 3 p.m. for the singing practice until 4 p.m. ready for the 4.15 Evensong, but it could also include music that was planned for other days and needed extra practice. It was all a long day for 10-14 year olds -but paled into insignificance compared with Sunday.
The start on this “day of rest” was the 8 a.m. communion in St. Anselm’s chapel. For this the choir had to provide three boys as servers and Boyle to play the harmonium for the hymns. So tight was this morning schedule that ‘on site’ breakfasts were provided by the local cathedral ladies, the Misses Don and Giles. Alternatively it could be the Canons Southern or Simpson and later Edwards. Unfortunately some of the breakfasts bordered on monastic frugality though clearly given in good faith. The Giles rejoiced in one sausage and bread, the Dons usually managed two and more bread but the Southerns, with a galaxy of beautiful daughters, gave sausage, bean and toast at least! Who you went to was very much the luck of the draw. At 9.30 a full choir attendance was needed for the Military service in St. Georges Chapel in the south transept. At 10.30 a full nave Mattins followed but here the choir left before the usually long sermon. Even so the boys could not escape this welter of spiritual enlightenment. A Sunday school followed held by the good Miss Pierce in the Parlour or Refectory between 11 and 11.20. Saturation point was now not far off. At 11.30 a full sung Eucharist was held in the Choir and at 3.30 the Evensong demanded the best of English church music for the Magnificat and anthem Boyle rounded off the service with usually some outstanding organ music. Finally the end of this marathon of worship came after the 6.30 nave evensong. But before we could escape we had to sit right through the sermon. By 7.15 we burst out into the night free for another week! Of course all this had to be backed up by practice -three quarters of an hour before every weekday evensong and an hour with the six lay clerks on Saturday afternoons in preparation for that all important Sunday.
It all became a duty we seemed to happily perform but the relief when the inevitable voice breaking began introduced almost a new life. Suddenly we were free of all services -but many were reluctant to break so completely from the cathedral brotherhood. Joining the servers team was one option and becoming a Sunday afternoon collector was almost a must. Perhaps the end of the school day was the most obvious change. We had ‘prep’ time from 3.15 to 4 p.m. instead of practice and on Saturdays and Sundays it was like having extra days off added to the week! The school atmosphere and practice was heavily biased towards public school ideas -odd for what was essentially a preparatory school for the Kings next door. Its attempt to compromise between the needs of the cathedral and a suitably wide ranging education basis for the Kings in reality failed. We entered that School markedly short on several subjects -a situation not lost on the Kings masters. There was a sort of tolerance of ex-choir school boys -but it did not help at all for those who went directly into work at 14 after leaving the choir. Price was very much in charge. Proud, perhaps a little vain, and coldly efficient, he ran the school with military discipline-very different, so I am told, to his predecessor, Canon Buckley. This military influence equally overflowed into the choir itself as I will eventually relate. Lampard was an ex World War 1 R.S.M. and had the voice to go with it, -but he was a fine gentleman of impeccable manners. Much of his army discipline was put to good effect on the sports field-then the Deans Field down Abbey Street. Faulty play or unsportsmanlike behaviour brought a roar of rebuke from him. Needless to say he also took us in a form of P. T. in the refectory on non-singing days. Lockers appeared there and a communal bath in the Undercroft for ‘after games’ washing -just why for boys who all lived locally was never explained. Inevitably they were only used by the hardy ‘team spirited’ types -the more sensitive carefully shunned such communal fraternising for obvious reasons! Annually the Deans Field was the site for the Sports Day. It was a welcome and unique break for us all from the rigidity of the uniformed life, both practically and spiritually, of the cathedral. It was a positive joy to see Boyle in football shorts trying to keep goal in the Father game.
As to be expected the school uniform was tightly enforced and not a little expensive. Weekdays it was grey flannels, blue blazer, white shirt and stiff white (rubber) collar, cleaned every day. For Sunday it was a full Eton suit, mortar board and white linen collar. The trials and tribulations of the boys walking or cycling in the town with a mortar board are legendary. Not only did the choir change with time but also on occasions, the cathedral staff -though to us they seemed to be a permanent part of the cathedral fabric! They were a motely assorted complement of widely different characters all .Undoubtedly dedicated to their calling yet seemingly unapproachable. This was not a good image in those days and undoubtedly contributed to the slow and insidious erosion of respect for authoritive religion in later years. They meant well but were isolated and out of touch. Their existence became a means in itself. For all this they were interesting people and some outstanding in their work.
The Dean, F.S M. Bennett was surely a near saint. His regular visits to the coke heating stoves after a winter evensong to talk to the vagrants warming themselves there were legendary and his work, especially on the cloisters, a masterpiece. So too was Baxter -a man of great humility who refused the title of Canon wishing to remain at the bottom of the ladder as Minor Canon’. Few can forget his work visiting the sick in the Infirmary throughout his life. Perhaps there were others who had other hidden qualities that we just did not know of. To us choristers they just were t h e unapproachable. Southern Very quiet, silent and unperturbed. Newbolt Icily devote, utterly unapproachable, always seemed to be looking at the floor! Price Haughty, proud, exhibitionist, over the top in pushing military type discipline. Wore a very distinctive long black cloak down to his feet. Wilson The artist, temperamental but pleasantly easy-going. He used to ‘stand in’ for teaching at times, but threw the bible at one boy caught talking once utter silence followed! Simpson The diminutive ‘Roberson Hare’ of the cathedral. Pleasant but little personality.
Alan Edwards Wilson’s successor with much of Bennett’s character. A gentle devote man. Boyle Temperamental brilliant organist and choirmaster, but no theoretician and never made it to doctorate. Went down in cathedral history when as wartime firewatcher team leader saved the cathedral roof from incendiary bombs by shovelling them off the roof into the cloister pool on 28th November Tubbs Dean after Bennett but utter1y different. Used to ordering natives in his Rangoon diocese he tried the same thing here. No great favourite with the staff, especially Boyle who he persisted in addressing by his surname only. Hearsay has it that it was all about which public school you went to! Middleton Assistant organist to Boyle. A calm, gentle friendly but no disciplinarian for the choir boys. Later became organist at Boyle’s dismissal by Tubbs on his divorce. He, at first, refused but Boyle urged him to accept it. An ex World War 1 bandsman and learnt his trade being a pianist for the silent cinema. Hardy Successor to Price who went to Beneden Girls School. Completely different personality. Friendly, humorous and gentle person who believed in persuasion and logic rather than force. Was a direct descendant of Captain Hardy on Nelsons Flagship, the ‘Victory: Became an expert in manning the cathedrals fire pump in the 1940 air raids on Chester. Sinclair. Tall, friendly and ebullient -typical of the newer generation of clergy beginning to infiltrate the church in the late 1930’s a great cricket follower. Matthews the verger. Ran the job with dictatorial authority, including instructing where people should sit in the Sunday evensong and not take the ‘regulars’ places! A brilliant handyman and electrician. Serviced, repaired and made much of the cathedrals first microphone amplifying system in a workshop in the Undercroft. Williams, E. Matthews’s deputy. Small, quiet, happy, perhaps under Matthews thumb most of the time. Jenkins, The cathedrals ‘dogsbody’. Cared for all the coke heating stoves and their fuel -a huge job in winter. Lively pleasant personality and great favourite amongst the boys .with whom he shared jokes about the cathedrals staff. No job too hard for him -but did anyone really notice? Ashbrook Jenkins assistant, equally pleasant and straightforward. Post First World War England, for all its industrial unrest still blazoned out ‘Land of hope and Glory’ at the drop of a hat.
Those of privileged situation could afford to continue to mouth the glories of a military victory from the gore of Europe and spread its flag wagging practices into civilian life whenever possible. The cathedral, with its castellated outline derived from earlier conflicts, was no exception. Almost army discipline was imposed on behaviour whenever possible. Processing in or out of a service had to be done as near as possible in step and eyes to the front! I collected one hundred lines from Price for daring to glance sideways when leaving the choir stalls to look at a particularly beautiful sun effect in the south transept. The choir also collected a ‘rocket’ from Newbolt in a rare outburst in one weekday Mattins. In an almost deserted Choir stalls-though Miss Darby was there -Newbolt was quietly droning on the second lesson. The Cantoris side, in direct line with him, were sharing, very quietly, a joke. Suddenly, in a voice rare for him he threw down the bible and thundered ‘I will not continue with this service until the choir stops talking and acts with reverence’. The silence that followed was immense. Price, behind us, rose up like some avenging angel,-and glared, Boyle appeared on his organ balcony -and glared. The acting Dean, Southern, seemed to hardly notice. Only from Swinnerton, our favourite rotund decani bass, grinned it all away. The repercussions of the incident-unheard of in those days-rocked the school. Price could not pick out any individual to apply his slipper to their behinds but subjected us all to a tirade bordering on expulsion. It was mutiny in the ranks’! It wasn’t the only scandal either. Two of our top choristers were suspended for a month. Only later when they returned did we learn why. They had been discovered in the dormitory of the Queens School one night!
For all this seemingly watertight control on our activities there emerged a quite critical loophole surprisingly missed by Price. The Practice Room discipline was left entirely to the senior choristers -the head boy and his friends. Some delighted in misusing this trust. Once practice was over at 4 p.m. and Boyle had left they had total control. The probationers had to sit, fully robed, in absolute silence on the long bench under the bookcase until the service at 4.15. The penalty for breaking this silence could be 100 lines or a thrashing with the cassock girdle. At 4.10 the choir formed up in the Abbots Passage and marched to the Chapter House to join the lay clerks and clerics for the service. After the service we were smilar1y ‘dismissed’ in the Chapter House and, once again, the head boy took over. There was no further adult supervision. In one school year in the mid 1930’s there emerged two top boys who developed bullying into a fine art under conditions that could hardly have been more in their favour. There was no check even to see if all the boys had even left the building. Once back in the Practice Room and well beyond any adult attention they would pick out a boy and subject him to terrifying and degrading activities to lurid to recount here. It should be remembered that some of these boys were as young as 10or 11 years old and some became so fearful that any excuse, even to sickness, was tried to avoid the terror of the Practice Room. Of course here again the dismal public school code of ‘keeping mum’ reigned supreme with the inevitable” results such nonsense supported. Thankfully for all of us a parent got wind of these ‘goings on’ and turned up one Sunday morning on the steps of Abbey Square entrance. The two bullies were identified and the parent manhandled them, knocking their heads together suggesting they might like a taste of their own medicine. From here the parent went down Abbey Street to Boyle’s house and upbraided him for allowing such a lack of supervision. Boyle was appalled and brought Price in. The upshot of this was that the two boys were paraded in front of the school next morning and after a verbal stripping down by Price given six of the best by Price and a warning that expulsion would be immediate should this ever come to his notice again. The word got right down the line. With immediate effect the practice of allowing the head boy to take control after the Chapter House dismissal ceased. The Precentor, then Alan Edwards, had to accompany them all the way back to the Practice Room and see them off the premises. It was the end of a particularly nasty reign of terror -though I have since heard there had been others before my time.
For all this there were the odd light hearted moments -some worth recounting here. The day trip to Beeston with the saintly Alan Edwards for the ‘top eight’ that nearly turned into a disaster when George Guest, for his picnic, sat on a wasp nest! -or the exploiting of the devout Miss Darby. A daughter of a late Dean, she was often the only member of the congregation for the weekday Mattins and Evensong services. She had ‘her place’ in the stalls -close to our rotund decani bass and clearly knew the service ‘off by heart’. However she did have one rather awkward habit of reciting the responses etc. about a second behind the rest of the choir. We had a boy of lively personality and humour who decided once to join Miss Darby instead of the choir. The result was very evident and not unnoticeable. Finy, looks from Miss Darby and yet more glares from Price -but no more. The offence, if it was one, was in doubt. Eventually Miss Darby took the hint and subdued here sonorous responses. There were also those unexpected and utterly beyond our control that produced giggles and a bit of fun relief. In those early days of grid supplied electricity power failures were not infrequent and they could occur sometimes at the most inopportune moments. Whilst the loss of the lights was inconvenient the loss of power to the organ a disaster. Its thunderous tones suddenly faded into a growling whimper as the blower died. The main organ had mechanical action that was unaffected but the loss of wind, of course, quite critical. However the action of the choir. organ remote in St. Erasmus chapel) had to be electric and its 12 volt valves supplied from six lead acid accumulators in the organ loft. These were kept under constant trickle charge and could still operate the valves but the problem of a wind supply remained. True to type the stalwart Matthews came to the rescue. Sprinting around to the chapel he promptly heaved on the great manual pump handle with an action that would evoke praise even from today keep fit fanatics! The diapasons and reeds revived and, with luck, a muddled choir hopefully revived behind our rotund bass’s full blown clarion call to unity. The stiff upper lip regained control!’
Not surprisingly all choristers had to learn some sort of musical instrument -if only to help learn to read music. This led to some bizarre ideas as tin whistles, pipes, and assorted instruments appeared. Middleton was responsible for this side of our music and he bore the confusion well. Some of us were lucky enough to learn the organ after the piano. The sheer feeling of power when practicing in an empty cathedral after evensong was immense and sometimes it got the better of you. On one occasion a fun burst of tuba and trombone chords brought Boyle from his tea in Abbey Street in a welter of admonition. The build-up of Christmas music through Advent reached a happy climax on Christmas Eve. At a pleasantly simple and short blessing of the Crib right after Evensong we were all given a sugar mouse and allowed to run off to join our families for, perhaps, some last minute shopping. Perhaps by today’s overindulged attitudes it isn’t much -but to us it then it was a present given by a benefactor and thus valued. On some years there was the Christmas Miracle ·Play -a production never since repeated and indeed would be hard to surpass today. It was quite exotic, impressive, and stunning in its colour and presentation. It was put together by that superb artist, W.W.Wilson, the Precentor and played by the ‘cathedral people’. The action took place on the west door steps with the cathedral in total darkness except for a faint blue ‘moonlight’ glimmer that lit up the sleeping shepherds. Then, at first very faintly and hardly audible, came the strains of ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’ from somewhere in the south transept. Almost imperceptivity the great west doors began to open and in a slowly brightening yellow light it revealed three figures. Central was the angel Gabriel with huge golden wings and either side two angels in white. Matthews was at his best as he manipulated the lighting control to gently flood the scene in dazzling light and colour. Meanwhile the choir had moved up to the stalls to continue their singing and Wilson, remote in the nave pulpit, read out the Christmas story -piece by piece as it was enacted on the steps. The finale saw the three wise men, one in the north aisle, one in the middle aisle, and one in the south aisle process up from the darkness singing their parts. They were recruited from the choir lay clerks. The end saw the angels return to the west door and the crib with Mary and Joseph, no centre scene, bathed in a carefully placed glow of light and surrounded by the shepherds and wise men. The whole performance was outstanding and very impressive. I seem to remember it was performed before Christmas-an idea that made it all the more exciting to us.
One of my final jobs as server was to lead the final procession back down the nave at the end. A memorable event -what a pity it has never been revived. And that really is the end of the story perhaps in more ways than one. The closure of the school in 1975 came as a shock. No doubt there were well argued economic reasons but much more was lost. For all its shortcomings as a school it was unique and what we derived from it was character training second to none. We were an integral part of the cathedral ‘staff’ albeit at the bottom of the ladder. Most of our waking hours throughout the year were spent there and revolved around its life. We were within the ‘precinct’ and lived a large part of its life. The choir now is effectively ‘hired’ from other sources notably our old Abbey Square neighbours, The Kings School -but now some two miles away!
Three score years and more have rolled by since Lampard rich voice echoed across the Square. Price’s cloak flying in the wind in Abbey Street, mere shadow in failing memories of a long gone age. So, too are those of my school friends. All except a couple have, in the fullness of time, hopefully joined the heavenly choirs! Today the clutters of cars, visitors, and commerce have taken over its contemplative solitude. Perhaps our age was too isolated and introvert and maybe out of touch with the real world but its influence, nevertheless, was well recognised and respected. Perhaps today’s jamboree atmosphere of popular religion is what it should be all about – or have we lost something on the way?