Of Choristers – ancient and modern

London, St Paul’s Cathedral School

Origins in the seventh century

Painting of Saint Paul's Cathedral in the early 19th century by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd
St Paul's Cathedral London
Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (early 19th century)
Source:  Wikipedia

The school was almost certainly founded in the seventh century at the same time as the Diocese of London. However, nothing is known about it until the twelfth century when Richard de Belmeis, Bishop of London refounded it for the choristers. Their house stood almost on the site of the Carter Lane School. St Paul’s seems to have been the earliest cathedral to house its choristers instead of boarding them out with canons. The boys were in the charge of the almoner who, as well as looking after them, was responsible for their education.

The fourteenth century

In 1315 William of Tolleshunt was made almoner and was given a house near St Paul’s by Bishop Richard of Newport to accommodate the choristers. William of Tolleshunt died in 1329 and left a shilling to each of the senior choristers and 6 pence to each of the juniors. He also left £1, six shillings and eight pence to provide them with shoes in return for singing twice daily the psalm de profundis, the Lord’s Prayer and Ave Maria for his soul. Later in the fourteenth century the almoner records that if a clerk were not kept to teach the boys grammar they must go to St Paul’s school, the predecessor of Colet’s school, for their lessons.

Choristers acting at court in the sixteenth century

Acting had always been a popular pastime with the choristers and at one time they petitioned the king to prohibit certain amateurs from acting their plays. They became such a favourite band of players that they were frequently asked to act at court. In 1584 they put on a play at Hatfield House for Queen Mary and the Princess Elizabeth. Music followed the play and the princess accompanied the choristers on the virginals. In the same year Dean Newell instructed the master of the choristers, Thomas Gyles, to teach his boys writing, music and the catechism, and send them to St Paul’s school to learn grammar and read good books.

The seventeenth century

There is a small oil painting depicting Bishop King of London preaching to James the First and his queen at Paul’s Cross in 1620, and in the background are twelve little white blobs, the choristers! Acting came to an end in 1626 as there had been instances of the kidnapping of boys to other groups of players. Also it was thought to be inconsistent with their religious duties.

The Civil War

The time of the Civil War was much the same for St Paul’s as in every cathedral city in the land; the usual destruction took place and in the words of Cromwell’s Commissioners:

"Those servants of the church whose duty it had been to perform the most solemn services should find some employment less offensive to God than singing his praises".

The Restoration and the Great Fire of London

At the time of the Restoration it was with great difficulty that a sufficient number of suitable boys could be found to establish a new choral tradition.  To add to the problem, the Great Fire of London in 1665 destroyed the cathedral and Colet’s school where the choristers had been educated during the war. But a fortunate appointment had been made in Dean John Barwick, himself a keen musician. He worked hard to restore order out of chaos and even managed to gather a choir of boys. Whether it was for those boys or for another group is uncertain, but an almonry was built about 1666 in Pardon Churchyard. It was very soon demolished for fire reasons, being so near to the cathedral.

Christopher Wren appointed as architect for the new St Paul's

After the Great Fire of London, Christopher Wren was selected as the architect of the new St Paul's, the previous building having been completely destroyed. Although the architect of many fine buildings, Wren is particularly known for his design for St Paul's which is the only Renaissance cathedral in England.

However, his ideas had initially met strong opposition but were finally accepted in 1675. Construction was completed in 1710 and today St Paul's is regarded as one of England's finest buildings. Michael Wise, celebrated church composer, became almoner and master of the boys in 1686 and John Blow, even more celebrated, one year later. In 1697 one Charles King held the appointment while Jonathan Battishill, later to become a "great" in church music, was one of his choristers. King was popular with the boys – apparently he never used the cane!

The eighteenth century

Saint Paul's from the river
St Paul's Cathedral at night from the river
Photo by "Homemade"
Some rights reserved

They all moved to a house in the parish of St Benet until Charles King's death in 1748. His successor was William Savage and the boys lived with him at Bakehouse Court until he was dismissed for misconduct. Meanwhile, Maurice Greene, former chorister and composer of much well known church music, had been appointed organist and remained until his death in 1755. William Savage was succeeded as almoner by John Bellamy, followed shortly after by John Sale who found that his allowance for the boys was totally inadequate. He asked the Dean and Chapter for a larger allowance but was refused. He had no alternative but to turn the boys out onto the streets.

Some went to their own homes but those who lived further away were virtually homeless. As long as they turned up for service and practice, for the rest of the 24 hours there was not a soul who cared where they were or what they were up to, and of course they were having no education at all.

The nineteenth century

Maria Hackett

In about 1811 Maria Hackett began her great work for choristers.  After many letters to the bishop, the dean and other dignitaries, and about four years later, she saw her dream come true. Mr Hawes, a vicar choral was appointed almoner at an increased salary and the boys were sent to live with him at 27 Craven Street, Charing Cross.

Upheaval in the mid-nineteenth century

Some years later eight St Paul’s boys and ten "children of the Chapel" were living at 7 Adelphi Terrace. When Mr Hawes died in 1848 Archdeacon William Hale became almoner and the boys lived in his care in the Chapter House. Two years later the boarding school was abandoned and the choristers, of whom one was John Stainer, future organist of St Paul’s, were taught at 1 Amen Court, going to their homes at night. However in 1872 some boys were boarded in Amen Court and some in the Chapter House.

Expansion of the choir and laying the foundations at Carter Lane

Saint Paul's Cathedral at night
St Paul's Cathedral at night

This was an important year in the musical life of St Paul’s. Stainer became organist in succession to Sir John Goss. He gained permission to enlarge the choir to 40 boys and 18 men so this move required the building of a new choir school. In January 1874 the foundation stone of the new choir house in Carter Lane was laid and in a year’s time it was ready for occupation.

There is a true story which dates from this time. Two choristers who gave out the music discovered that they were short of copies so decided not to give any to Dean Church or Canon Liddon. Punishment followed but the boys, undeterred, went to Novello’s and ordered two expensive copies of a work which was also in short supply, and had them charged to the Dean and Chapter! What followed is unknown. Entry to the choir school at this time was quite demanding.

The written examination included catechism, religious history, reading, writing and Latin.

The Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria

In 1897 a chorister, E Girdlestone, describes the great gathering on the cathedral steps for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. The choirs of St Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, St George’s Windsor and the Chapel Royal were lined up in the middle of the steps with Sir George Martin, organist of St Paul’s, facing them. There were two military bands and the voluntary choir at the back — 650 voices and 200 instruments. In the meantime a great procession passed by consisting of British and colonial troops 50,000 in number with 200 guns. These were followed by many red and gold carriages carrying a variety of royalty. After some time he saw helmets and swords glittering in the sunshine; it was the procession of the princes. There followed the eight cream ponies of the Queen, and finally the Queen herself.

When everyone was in their place Sir George Martin raised his baton for the Te Deum he had composed specially for the occasion. The service followed and at its end the Archbishop of Canterbury called for "three cheers for the Queen". The Princess of Wales then beckoned to the boys of the choir to come closer to her carriage and as Girdlestone put it, "a stampede followed". She gave them a bow and a smile which, said Girdlestone, they were able to return. As the procession was leaving, the archbishop summoned the boys to the front of the crowd so they might get a better view. Later they went up to the stone gallery and saw the searchlights playing on the dome which looked like a huge silver ball.

Further chorister reminiscences at the end of the nineteenth century

JA Bouquet was a chorister between 1885 and 1890 and he had a few memories of his time in the choir. He remembered the advent of the Oxford Movement at that time and how it gave new life and meaning to the services. He said that the choristers’ favourite canon was the precentor, Henry Scott Holland who was responsible for the revival of Bach’s music at St Paul’s. There were choristers’ outings then, as today, and Bouquet’s favourite was to Drury Lane to see Dan Leno, Marie Lloyd and Little Tich.

The twentieth century

In the 1930s the Carter Lane school was being modernised so choir practices had to be held in the cathedral crypt. At this time Mr Jessop Price became headmaster and it wasn’t long before academic standards rose significantly and the boys were winning scholarships to the major public schools.

The Second World War

Saint Paul's in the Blitz - photo by Herbert Mason
St Paul's during the Blitz — by Herbert Mason
Source: Wikipedia

At the outbreak of the second world war the choristers were evacuated to Truro singing services in Truro Cathedral.  The juniors were housed in Trewinnard Court, the boarding house of Truro Cathedral School, and the seniors were boarded out in the town. Dr John Dykes Bower, organist of St Paul’s and his assistant Dr Douglas Hopkins took it in turns to go down to Truro for a month at a time and in between, a month at St Paul’s where the lay clerks were singing the services. The choristers were brought up to London occasionally for a short spell when it was thought to be safe. Dr Dykes Bower was called up to the Royal Air Force just before the great fire bomb raid in the City – he had been appointed organist in 1936 from being organist at Durham Cathedral. He was a first class musician both as organist and choir trainer. When conducting he achieved miracles with the smallest amount of visible effort; someone once said his beat was like God "no beginning and no end"! He was known affectionately to his choristers as "Dickie-Boo". He was knighted in 1968 shortly after his retirement.

AG Frost, a chorister at this time, recorded his favourite works then. They were Parry’s I was glad, Brahms’ How lovely are thy dwellings fair and WH Harris’s Faire is the heaven (known to choristers as "fairies in heaven"). Equally he dreaded the Byrd masses and Thou art Peter by Palestrina ("Paddle steamer" to the boys because of the great effort needed).

A new school in New Change

In November 1965 the dean, the Very Reverend WR Matthews, laid the foundation stone of the new choir school in the New Change at the east end of the cathedral which cost in the region of £315,000.  A modern purpose built structure was just what was needed. Sir John Dykes Bower  retired in 1967 and was followed by Christopher Dearnley from Salisbury. The latter extended the repertoire considerably to include more modern works — he also introduced Haydn masses on Sundays accompanied by St Paul’s Chamber Orchestra. In May 1967 the new school was opened. Gone forever was the famous "crocodile" of boys crossing from Carter Lane to the cathedral at service time with the head chorister holding up the traffic. The Reverend JFH Llewelyn was now headmaster. He reduced the number of weekly sung services by four to allow more time for school work and recreation. More instruments were made available to the boys, and for the first time science was taught. Mr Derek Sutton was appointed headmaster in 1974 and at the retirement of Mr Harry Gabb the sub-organist, Mr Barry Rose from Guildford became master of the choir; he was responsible for the choir training and conducting at the wedding of The Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981.

In the same year the death occurred of Sir John Dykes Bower and a fund in his name was opened. When in 1985 the money had reached a total of £1,511.75 discussions were held as to the best use of it, it was decided that it should be invested and that the income used to supplement grants to the choristers for instrumental tuition. A new laboratory was created in 1988 and the standard of science work became very high.

Foreign tours and recordings

Saint Paul's Cathedral
St Paul's Cathedral
Photo by "Loloieg"
Some rights reserved

Also in 1981 there were two foreign tours, a short one to Holland and three weeks in the USA. Back home recordings by Hyperion of evening canticles by Stanford, SS Wesley, Wood, Blair and Brewer, and the St Paul’s Service by Howells were released.

In the following year two important events took place: non-singing boys were admitted to the school for the first time bringing the total numbers up to 60. Also Mr John Scott was appointed organist and choirmaster Christopher Dearnley having emigrated to Australia. Social events included a joint orchestral day with other London choir schools; the "Science Players" visited the school and the school visited The Barbican Centre for "Much Ado About Nothing" and The National Theatre for "Henry the Fifth" and "Treasure Island"; also there was an appearance on BBC TV’s "Jim’ll Fix It".

1990 – tour of Spain

1990 saw a tour of Spain by the choir who gave two concerts in Gijon and Oviedo with the English Brass Ensemble. The long coach journeys were found tiring, but otherwise it was great success. Later in the year the choir took part in three days’ celebrations for the ninetieth birthday of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

Every autumn the new Lord Mayor is blessed by the dean accompanied by the singing of the choir, that year in addition they sang Grace at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet. Another annual event is the Festival of St Cecilia then held in St Sepulchre’s Church, Holborn on 22 November. Three London choirs, Westminster Abbey, The Chapel Royal and Westminster Cathedral joined with St Paul’s in music by SS Wesley,  John Tavener and Jonathan Harvey. In the same year a recording of Stainer’s Crucifixion was made. This work went completely out of fashion some 50 years ago having been the “stock-in trade” of almost every choir at the time of its composition. But it is enjoying a revival now and it seems appropriate that the choir of St Paul’s should record it for Stainer as we have seen, was both a chorister there and later a very distinguished organist. Another recording, that of  Hodie, was made in the same year, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox.

The Festival of the Sons and Daughters of the Clergy

The annual Festival of the Sons and Daughters of the Clergy brought together the choirs of St Paul’s, St John’s College, Cambridge, Liverpool (Anglican) and Salisbury. A word about the Festival of the Sons and Daughters of the Clergy. The charity was founded in 1655 to aid clergy dispossessed by Cromwell. Nowadays it helps clergy and their dependants who are in need for any reason. Grants total about £1.5 million a year. About half goes to the education of the children of the clergy both in maintained and independent schools, and the rest for solving financial pressures of any kind. The elderly and sick clergy are assisted and those whose finances have gone awry; also for those suffering marital breakdown, and of course chorister scholarships are included.

The annual festival in St Paul’s is said to have taken place every year since 1655, but one wonders how it could have survived between that year and the end of the Civil War. Every year three different choirs are invited to join the choir of St Paul’s and the packed out congregation includes The Archbishop of Canterbury, The Lord Mayor of London, a number of bishops, Aldermen of the City of London and Masters of the City Livery Companies, and a distinguished churchman is invited to preach. The festival of 1992 brought together the choirs of Ripon, St Edmondsbury and New College Oxford and, of course, St Paul’s.

1992 – tours to Japan and France

In the same year the choristers travelled to Japan as guests of the Hyogo Prefecture; their programme included Britten’s Ceremony of Carols which was particularly well received. There was also a short visit to Paris to sing in Nôtre Dame, and at home an exchange visit with Westminster Cathedral and performances at the Barbican with the LSO at one of which Tom Colwell was the soloist in Mendelsson’s Hear my Prayer. The funeral of Sir Charles Groves, a chorister from 1924 to 1930, took place in the crypt for which the full choir sang.

1993 tour of the USA

Saint Paul's Cathedral
St Paul's Cathedral
Photo by Dave Gorman
Some rights reserved.

1993 saw the 24 choristers, 12 vicars choral, two organists, the dean, precentor, headmaster and others set out on an 18 day tour of the USA in April and May.  Thirteen concerts were given and the venues included Washington, Detroit, Corpus Christi (Texas), San Francisco and Miami. At home the Sons and daughters of the Clergy guest choirs were Wells, Llandaff and York. An exciting new work from Francis Grier, Let us invoke Christ, was performed and included in volume four of Hyperion’s recordings of The English Anthem. There was more contemporary music when Tavener’s Hymn of Paradise was performed at the same time as Beethoven’s Choral Symphony when the choir was joined by the Cathedral Chorus.

The headmaster, the Reverend Gilbert Hopley retired in the following year and a temporary appointment was made in the person of Mr George Hill, one time headmaster of St George’s School, Windsor. On 15 July there was a short ceremony in the crypt for the unveiling of a memorial tablet to Sir Charles Groves at which the choir sang. This was a year of the unprecedented number of boys of solo calibre; to name a few, Richard Bannan, Alexander Budd, Connor Burrowes, Jason Matharu, David Nickless and Reece Proudfoot. This is not really surprising as every chorister now receives individual coaching in his singing. For the first time in 20 years the St Matthew Passion was given in Holy Week; in times past it had always been alternated with Brahms' Requiem at this time. The choir was busy with recording, more psalms, more English Anthems and more Christmas carols.

1995 – the appointment of Stephen Sides as headmaster

An innovation in 1995 was the creation of "houses" in the school by acting headmaster George Hill. These were chiefly for competitive reasons and were named after eminent Old Boys, Boyce, de la Mare, Groves and Stainer. In September Mr Stephen Sides was appointed as the new headmaster coming from Hereford Cathedral (junior) School. There was a further performance of the St Matthew Passion, also the choir took part in two Proms. Westminster Cathedral was celebrating its centenary and some members of the St Paul’s choir took part in this. The VE Day fiftieth anniversary service of thanksgiving, reconciliation and hope was a moving experience.

There was an innovation in that year’s performance of Messiah in that the arias were divided among four solo trebles Edmund Hill, Connor Burrowes, Anthony Way, and Timothy Hillier. Anthony had taken the part of "Henry Ashworth" in BBC TV’s serial The Choir, later recording a best selling album of music from the serial; of Connor’s many outside solo appearances was one with the choir of St Thomas’s New York. Towards the end of 1996 there was a short visit to Utrecht for the Early Music Festival and shortly before Christmas a tour to Brazil.

1997 – the tercentenary of the opening of the Choir and Sanctuary

Saint Paul's Cathedral
St Paul's Cathedral

1997 was the tercentenary of the opening of the Choir and Sanctuary of Wren’s cathedral. This was celebrated by many musical services and events, exhibitions and lectures between March and December. An important announcement from the Dean and Chapter stated that in future the school would be known simply as "St Paul’s Cathedral School" because children other than choristers were now educated there. Also a pre-prep department would be opening shortly for four to seven year olds to include girls. In the main school an extensive refurbishment took place with new or extended classrooms, a new art room, computer room, music room and 14 soundproofed music rehearsal and practice rooms with brand new pianos; also the chorister boarders were moved into new accommodation.

During August 1998, Connor and Edward Burrowes were in the musical limelight once more. Edward along with a few choristers from Salisbury and St Paul’s made a recording for Japanese music lovers, while Connor acted as arranger and conductor, his voice having broken. His last solo was at Easter time in 1998 in Strasbourg. Their younger brother Patrick, then 11, was a chorister at St Paul’s and their sister, Elizabeth a member of Salisbury Cathedral girls’ choir.

John Scott comments on the stamina of his choristers and their sense of pride and professionalism, he adds that this applies countrywide and that the standard of singing in cathedral choirs has never been higher. The pace of life is fast, for instance, Evensong is prepared in 23 minutes, which demands a very high standard of sight reading and produces real spontaneity of performance.

Back to the top