Down the years with Weston's parish church

At Exeter Cathedral on Christmas morning the Bishop will perform the traditional ceremony of blessing the boy choristers. Moving between the choir stalls he will place his right hand on each boy's head and say: God bless you, my son"

At Exeter Cathedral on Christmas morning the Bishop will perform the traditional ceremony of blessing the boy choristers. Moving between the choir stalls he will place his right hand on each boy's head and say: "God bless you, my son".It is an act that stresses the fact that choirboys are rather precious, and this was never more so than today, when for lack of them church choirs become fewer. Weston Parish Church choir is Weston's senior music combination and has a long and fine tradition behind it, but today it struggles to maintain it with inadequate forces. Still, the choir survives, and has just moved into new choir stalls.In the services of Morning and Evening Prayer in the Prayer book there is the rubric which states: "In Quires and Places where they sing, here followeth the Anthem." We do not know when Weston Parish Church first had a choir, but in the rather brief and disappointingly dull church records note there is an item which states that in 1718 John Taylor was paid sevenpence for "Mending ye singer seat".Between 1718 and the 1800s the choir appears to have lapsed for a time. There is no reference to the music aspect of parish church services in Weston's first guidebook, published in 1822. This mentions that there were services twice every Sunday "at half-past ten in the forenoon, and at half-past two in the afternoon".The guidebook adds: "The officiating minister is the Rev Stiverd Jenkins, whose active benevolence and zeal in the discharge of his duties have most justly endeared him to the whole population."This Mr Jenkins, who was the curate in charge, is credited with restarting the choir in 1823. The singing was led by a church orchestra comprising a fiddle, a flute, and a bassoon. The bassoon was played by George Porter, and in Weston he was known as the man who played "the horse's leg". The Porters, apparently, were a family of blacksmiths, and all keen church members.One of the old inhabitants interviewed in the last century by the local historian, Ernest E Baker, had this comment on the parish church music-making of his day:"Talk of Church music! You should have heard the singing in those days - such holloaing, scraping of fiddles, and blowing you never heard. If you had, you would have been pleased. Billy Board always blew the organ as soon there was one to blow; and as his Church salary was small he would go round every Christmas collecting money for 'playing' the organ. 'But you don't play, Billy,' people would say, 'Don't I?' said Billy. 'I know very well they couldn't get on without me: I do the hardest part of the work, and the most difficult. I blow the billise'".The parish church choir's standard in those days does not appear to have been high. Ernest Baker records that after evensong one Sunday, the Rev Stiverd Jenkins called his choristers together and commented: "Well singers, what do you call it this afternoon - singing or screaming? Screaming I should think."Music-making generally at village churches was incredibly amateurish in those far off days and P H Ditchfield, an authority on its history, wrote: "When the clerk gave out the hymn or Psalm, or on rare occasions the anthem, there was a strange sound of tuning up the instruments, and then the instruments wailed forth discordant melody; the Clerk conducted the choir, composed of village lads and maidens, with a few stalwart basses and tenors."Everybody sang as loud as he could bawl; cheeks and elbows were at their utmost efforts, the bassoon vying with the clarionet with the bassoon - it was Babel with the addition of beasts."And they were all so proud of their performance. It was the only part of the service during which no one could sleep, said one of them with pride - and he was right. No one could sleep through the terrible din ... And those anthems! They were terrible inflictions. Every bumpkin had his favourite solo, and oh! the murder, the profanation. 'Some put their trust in charrots and some in 'orses, but they didn't 'quite pat off the stepheny', as one of the singers remarked, meaning symphony. It was all very strange and curious."In many churches the orchestras were succeeded by barrel organs, but there is no evidence for one at Weston Parish church. Barrel organs had a limited repertoire, sometimes of both religious and secular tunes. There is one museum piece that plays "Yes, that will be glory for me" and goes straight on to "Stop your tickling, Jock".Either at the time it was built or shortly afterwards the new Weston Parish church was equipped with an organ. This was replaced in 1850 by a reportedly splendid organ donated by Mrs Smyth-Pigott, wife of the lord of the manor. This organ was rebuilt in 1883, and renovated in 1938.Many of Weston's best singers have been members of the parish church choir down the years. For interesting memories I am indebted to a well-known Westonian, Gilbert A White, who looks forward to achieving his diamond jubilee as a member of the choir next Easter. He joined at Easter, 1907, at the same time as Ron Barnes, a fellow tenor and former chairman of the Weston Choral Society. Mr Barnes died earlier this year after 59 years as a member of the choir. Mr White achieved the remarkable record of 60 years' service, and has served under seven Rectors and eight organists.When Mr White joined the choir in 1909 the choir had 24 boys, six probationer boys and 16 men. The men comprised four altos, four tenors, and eight basses. Choir practices were held on Tuesday and Wednesday from 7-9pm. "The practice before any festival used to last until 10pm or 10.15pm," said Mr White, "and the boys had to stay for the full time."At matins on Sunday there was always an anthem, and in addition the Te Deum was always sung to a special setting. Choral Communion was held on festivals and also once a month. The Choral Communion followed matins, and since in addition to the Tuesday and Wednesday practices choristers were required to rehearse in the Vestry on Sunday morning from 10 until 10.45pm, they were often in church from 10am until 1.30pm!"Mr White recalls that parish church choirboys in his day wore mortar boards and Eton collars. They were periodically given chits to collect two new Eton collars from Mr Wm C Thomas, whose draper's shop stood at the corner of High Street, premises now occupied by Messrs Burton. The senior men choristers wore top hats.Payment for choirboys was 12s. 6d. a quarter for the top boy, and 2s. 6d. a quarter each for the rest. Top boys received 1s. for a wedding or funeral, and the rest 6d.The choirboys had an annual outing, separate from the men's outing, and on these often went to south coast resorts. Every Christmas they also went to the Rectory for a supper and singsong. Each boy had to sing something for his supper.At Christmastime, too, the parish church choir used to give a carol service at the General Hospital and sing at the Royal and Grosvenor hotels.Boys will be boys even if they are choirboys, and Mr white confesses to having knowledge that the parish church's young choristers had a boxing ring in the old churchyard which was formed by a hedge and three gravestones! New boys were instituted by being thrown into a hedge to the south of the church. This hedge was 12 feet long, four feet wide and six feet high.On "pay night" the choirboys usually made for "Ma Evans'" shop in High Street, which stood opposite the Market (later Playhouse). Ma Evans sold confectionery and cooked meats. Hot pies and black pudding were much in demand. A visit to Ma Evans' was varied with one to Coffin's fish and chip shop in James Street.On summer evenings the boys used to take towels with them to practice and afterwards go off to have a swim in the bathing cove near the Kewstoke toll gate.Mr White lived at Milton. There were no buses in his choirboy days and he had to walk. The route home was partly a cart track and there were few houses, and no street lamps for the greater part of the journey."I don't mind admitting I sometimes got a bit frightened, on dark nights," he said, "because I made the journey alone. I cut myself a stick with a good knob on the end, and I used to carry this with me, hiding it in a hedge when I got near the church and picking it up again to carry on my way home."Mr White is one of the fast dwindling number of choirmen of the "old school" who in addition to regular attendance at practice are in their places for both Sunday services.Few church choirs now maintain the all-male traditional. apart from the difficulty of getting boy choristers there is the onerous work of training them. In former days when most children went to Sunday schools they got to know the hymns and this, of course, was a great help when they joined a choir. Today many of the boys who are recruited for choirs have not been Sunday school scholars and have to be taught even the most popular hymns note by note!Recruiting men is also a problem. Few adults are now prepared to tie themselves to one night a week for a choir practice, and attendance at two services on Sundays. Men who might be attracted because of their musical ability are discouraged from doing so by the restricted opportunities for singing anthems and other special work because of the emphasis put today in some churches on congregational singing and the often poor quality of the boy choristers. The outlook it not good for church choirs, but it is to be hoped that by continued goodwill and effort the Weston St John's tradition will be maintained, and that the new choir stalls will be so well used that in years to come there will again be an item in the church accounts for "mending ye singer seat".This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on December 16, 1966

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