Recollections of an abbey chorister

By Alan Godfrey

My parents moved to St. Albans when I was about 6 months old and, although I suppose that I was aware of the cathedral before becoming a probationer, I’m sure that I had never visited it.

 

I attended Fleetville junior school and I remember that, aged 8, my teacher one day introducing a, (seemingly), tall, thin sombre-looking gentleman dressed in a black overcoat to the class. The year was 1943. The gentleman, it turned out, was the cathedral assistant organist on a chorister recruiting drive. After a brief description of a chorister’s duties, he asked the class if any boy thought that he might have an interest in singing. My parents, (and the family of course), were Free Church members where the congregation was encouraged to join heartily in the hymn singing, and I was no exception. However, to this day, I don’t really know why I put my hand up when Mr --------? asked the question. I’m almost certain that I was the only one. I remember being given a voice test of sorts, whether it was at the school or at the cathedral, I couldn’t say.

 

After a consultation with my parents, it was decided that I should attend Dr. Tysoe’s house in Colney Heath Lane on Wednesday evenings, with a few other boys, for singing tuition. I remember the house as being large, detached and having a chamber organ in one of the rooms. On Sundays we were expected to attend the cathedral and follow the music whilst sitting in the probationers’ stalls. (Perhaps it was only at Matins at that time; - no doubt somebody will correct me if wrong).

 

I was very impressed with the clergy. Cuthbert Thickness was Dean, Canon Feaver sub-Dean and Hugh Blenkin, Precentor. The Bishop seemed to me to be a remote figure, only rarely appearing at services. (Incidentally, when the Very Rev. Feaver died after retiring as Bishop of Peterborough, and I read his obituary in ‘The Times’, I was amazed to see that he was once described as ’the rudest man in the Church of England’. This was completely at odds with my, and I’m sure my contemporaries’, experiences. Canon Feaver was a gentle, softly spoken man who treated the choristers with nothing but kindness.

 

My recollection is that Roger Clifford was then Head Chorister, with his brother, (whose name I forget), as deputy. Barry Smith was No 3 and James Finch, No. 4. In those days, the senior choristers were allowed to administer corporal punishment with a slipper in order to keep discipline; imagine that today!

 

In October 1944 it was finally decided that I was a suitable candidate, (along with a number of other boys), to be admitted full chorister. In those days, the demands on boys’ time were quite high. In term time, we sang Evensong each Monday, Tuesday & Thursday, followed by a short practice. Friday evening was a practice night initially for the boys followed by a ‘full’ practice with the men beginning at about 7.30. On Saturday afternoon there was a full choral Evensong. On Sunday came Matins at 11.0 am followed by a choral Eucharist for senior boys and men on the second and fourth Sunday in the month. Evensong in the nave was every Sunday at 6.30.

 

I lived more than two miles from the cathedral. In winter months I was allowed to take the bus into town, but during the better weather, I was expected to use my cycle. Choristers’ bicycles were parked in a rack just inside the deanery garden. On one occasion, although I had locked the front wheel to the rack, when I came out of Evensong, the rest of the bike had disappeared! The Dean kindly telephoned the police on my behalf who came and took notes, but I was never to see the cycle again.

 

At the end of my first full term, I was surprised to be given a small brown envelope by the senior lay clerk. It contained a half crown; in today’s money, 12 ½ pence. Up to that moment I had no idea that choristers were paid and, if I managed to keep the job, that my yearly emoluments would in future amount to 10 shillings, - in today’s money, 50 pence. Ever after that, the fish & chip shop in Catherine Street could expect a visit each quarter.

 

One of the ‘perks’ of being a chorister was that in most years, we were offered a conducted tour of what was loosely referred to as, ‘the tower’. Here we were allowed to explore most of the galleries inside the abbey as well as the roof spaces and, of course, the tower itself with its bells and ringing chamber. I remember that, on one occasion, we were allowed down a very narrow winding staircase inside one of the pillars to where there is a small window which offered a view into the nave. Past the window, the staircase had been blocked. I wonder if the access is still there.

 

Once, I managed to get myself locked in the cathedral. It had been my turn to put the music away after Evensong and I had been working on my own in the old choir vestry. Having finished, I let myself out of the door under the organ to be met by complete darkness; the duty verger having gone home believing the building to be empty. In those days, (and I would guess that the war was still on), the only light left on was a small-wattage bulb hung high at the crossing. As far as I knew, there was no telephone in the building so for a while I was at a loss as to what to do. However, I made my way to the, (then), only lavatory which was, (and may still be), housed in a room off of the south aisle in the quire. The room had a small window, the bottom two-thirds of which was fixed, but with a louvered window to the top. I just managed to squeeze myself through that gap and drop to the ground.

 

I suppose that it was at about this time I sang my first solo. (It’s what they say about buying your first car; you never forget your first one, do you?). Actually, it was only the treble line in the quartet of Walmisley in D. I was extremely nervous even at the prospect. The service was to be the last choral Evensong in the nave before the break for the long summer holidays. I took a music copy home and went through it many times whilst being accompanied on the piano by my mother. Fred Bradley sang bass, Geoffrey Richardson alto, and I forget who took the tenor line. I assume that the ‘performance’ went reasonably well, since Fred Bradley came to me afterwards and told me that I’d done well.

 

Cricket played a minor part in our physical recreation. An occasional match was convened between the choristers and a Dean’s side, which consisted of some of the clergy together with lay clerks, playing the boys. Dean Thickness suffered with a leg wound received in action during the First World War which restricted his mobility somewhat. However, as a wicket-keeper he was extremely quick as I found to my cost. We played on a very sloping ground in Belmont Hill

 

In 1947, Dr. Tysoe resigned his post as Master, allegedly after a row with Dean Thickness. (Those who have read Alan Mould’s excellent book, ‘The English Chorister’ will know that there is a history of Cathedral Masters of Music being at odds with their Dean). With the going of Dr. Tysoe came the appointment of Meredith Davies. In his mid-20’s and a very different character, the most important thing I remember at the time was that he immediately improved the choristers’ pay! He also instituted a choristers’ saving scheme whereby a sum of money was also put aside each quarter the accumulation of which would be presented to the boy on leaving the choir. He also started, (or re-started?), the appointment of the award of ‘Woolham Scholar’. This was a ribboned medal struck with the chorister’s name and given to the four senior choristers who were also known, for obvious reasons, as ‘corner boys’.

 

1948 also brought the celebration of the Millennium Pageant in which a number of choristers were persuaded to take part both as actors and singers. My memory of this is hazy except to say that there seemed to be endless rehearsals and that the performances were given outdoors on the ‘orchard’. The only music that has stuck in my memory is ‘Non Nobis Domine’, - (Rawsthorne?). Also, at about this time came the inauguration of the ‘Friends of St. Albans Cathedral’. I think that it was the Duchess of Gloucester who was persuaded to become the first Patron. Because I was tall, I and another tall chorister, possibly Michael Ballard, were selected to position an oak desk in front of the Duchess so that she could sign the document. We were given dire warnings about avoiding her feet. Strangely, the Abbey archives have no photographic record of this event.

 

In 1949 the choir had the privilege of singing at the wedding of Meredith Davies and Betty Bates. I remember being slightly miffed because the choristers, (and, I suppose, the lay-clerks), were never offered payment. Choral weddings were rare events at the cathedral but when they occurred, choristers were paid six pence, (2 1/2p). Even rarer were choral funerals for which, for some reason, we would receive a shilling, (5p)! The local newspaper, The Herts Advertiser, printed a report of Meredith Davis’ wedding in which they said that the choristers had put a notice on the back of the bride and groom’s car, ‘Aisle Altar Hymn’. If this happened then I deny being involved!

 

From time to time, Meredith Davies would ask a chorister to turn the pages of the score whilst he played the closing voluntary. On one occasion I managed to pull the book down onto his hands and there was an expletive whilst I scrabbled about trying to return the book to the desk. I remember being extremely impressed by the way he managed to keep playing in spite of the disruption. The mark of a complete musician, I thought! I also had the privilege of ‘turning’ for someone who was then regarded at possibly the country’s best trumpeter; Harry Mortimer. I think that it was possibly a performance by the Bach Choir of the ‘Messiah’. Harry Mortimer and I stood on a podium in the organ loft overlooking the nave.

 

Another memorable event was a visit by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher. After the service, I asked the Precentor if I might go into the priests’ vestry and ask the Archbishop for his autograph. He cheerfully signed on the service sheet which I kept for more than 50 years. That service sheet now forms part of the Cathedral archives.

 

Sometime in 1949 my voice ‘broke’ and Meredith Davies suggested that I might like to join the back desks as an alto. I stood next to Geoffrey Richardson, a rare talent, who became my mentor. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to him and to Meredith Davies because that action enabled me to sing alto in my local parish choir for 32 years. When Meredith Davies left and the lamented Peter Burton became Master, I sang in the choir until my parents moved to London in the summer of 1950. Although for a few years afterwards I helped Peter Burton with the annual choir camps at St. Michaels, Tenbury Wells.

 

My parish church choirmaster, Richard Harrison, found out that I was writing this piece and asked if he could read it when it was finished. He reminded me of an occasion when, 40 years after I had left St. Albans, Welwyn Garden City parish choir was invited to sing Evensong at the Abbey. After a rehearsal in the, (new), song room I casually mentioned that, as a chorister, I had carved my initials in the song room piano lid. I was not likely to forget it because, when Meredith Davies discovered it, he gave me a beating! I had used the point of a pair of compasses.

 

However, to my embarrassment, Richard called all the boys together and described my misdemeanour to a horrified gathering!

 

This page was added by Alan Godfrey on 07/03/2017.

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