Traditional Church of England in Ashford

“That even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away; to cleave to those which shall abide”

Ashford Parish Church Choir in 1936 when Dr Paul Steinitz, founder of the London Bach Society, was Organist & Choirmaster.

St Mary the Virgin Ashford – Christmas with the Parish Church Choir in the 19th Century

It is most intriguing what can be discovered by a cursory glance around part of a church.  What I discovered were two fine books with cloth board covers of green, and Gilt edging/ wording dated about 1860 and entitled “Christmas Carols; New and Old”- words edited by Rev Henry Ramsden Bramley, MA Fellow and Tutor of St Mary Magdalen College, Oxford: Music edited by John Stainer MA, Mus Doc. of the same college.  The books were printed by Novello, Ewer & Co., London & New York, and sold at a price of 4/-.  Inside they are stamped “H.J. Goulden & Wind, 35 Bank Street Ashford” on the first page, and with a very attractive antiquated Ashford Parish Church Choir stamp on the inside cover.  Within this stamp is a number – on one 43, and on the other 52, and No.52 is the Organ copy.  Fortunate, indeed that the Organ copy has survived, for here we glean so much information about the Carols sung in the latter part of the 19th Century, under the Precentorship of Dr Wilks.  We can obviously tell that there were at least 52 copies of the book, and they are specifically for Choirs, not congregation.  This adds extra evidence of the strength of the Choir in those days, and, as will be seen, there were just a few regular soloists - obviously the men and boys with the finest voices - who brought the hearts and minds of the townspeople that bit closer to the Christ-child lying in the manger.

The Index which I have reproduced with this article, will be of great assistance to the reader who wishes to glance at each Carol I mention here, and ascertain the author, and composer.  This Index, however, is taken from a copy of the same Carol book which I discovered in Little Chart new church during a bellringing visit in October 2004, and which was printed by Novello in 1951 price 6s and 9d.  Whereas the old books we have here sustitute many ‘s’ letters for ‘f’, which is actually quite unusual for as late a period as 1860, the 1951 book is printed with the normal ‘s’.  This is of great assistance to you, the reader – and how marvellous that 90 or so years after our carol books were printed, they were still printing exactly the same book!  It is splendid, too, how I should stumble across this newer printing quite by chance – some might say coincidence, but perhaps we should say, Divine providence!

Anyhow, I intend now to give details of the Carols, used here at Ashford, the soloists, and one or two asides which I have noted during my duties within our lovely old Church.

It is interesting to note that only the following Carols were deemed acceptable for use in sacred places: 1-9, 13-17, 19-22, 26, 27, 29-32, 34, 36, 38, 41, 43,44, 46-48, 50, 53-55, 57, 58, 60, 62, 65, 66,70. “The rest may fitly be reserved for less sacred places and occasions”.  Of course, in those days the guard against irreverence was very tight – unlike the rather sad ‘anything goes’ culture of this unfortunate era.

So, we open the Organ copy at No.1, and discover that God rest ye merry Gentlemen was sung here; in harmony and without solos.  No.3 A Virgin unspotted: V1 in parts, V2 Full, V3 Trebles, V4 Full, V5 Men sing the first half and the second half is Full choir in parts, V6 is a Quartett – Treble~Brimley, Alto~Head, Tenor~A. Pearce and Bass~Dyson.  We have a board on the belfry wall recording a peal of J.Holts 10-part Grandsire Triples, Feb 29th 1908, conducted by Arthur J. Dyson.  Was this the same gentleman?  V7 Treble~Brimley and V8 Full.  We know this carol today with the slightly different words of ‘A Virgin most pure’, but the tune is the same.
Founder of the Choir, and Precentor in the 19th Century, Dr Wilks.
Dr Wilks: founder of the Choir, and Organist, Choirmaster and Precentor approx 1840 - 1920

No 4 Come ye lofty: V1 in parts, V2 Full, V3 Boys, V.4 Men and V.5 Full.  No 6 The First Nowell : This page is VERY dog eared – the first 25 pages were falling out until I tipped them back in with glue! I suspect this carol was sung Full in parts, very regularly!  No 8 Good Christian Men Rejoice: V1 in parts, V2  Treble~Swaffer and Barnett. Alto~Head, Tenor~Civelic, Bass~Pearce.  A George Swaffer is recorded on a peal board in the belfry of a peal of Stedman Triples May 11th 1936 Conducted by C.W. Everett.  Is this the same Gentleman as the one who sang solos here as a boy in the late 19th Century? V3 is Full.

No 10 Good King Wenceslas: V1 Full in parts.  The next three verses alternate between Tenor~Crocker, and Treble~Williams.  V5 Full chorus in parts.  No 13 On the birthday of the Lord: V1,3,4 Full in parts, and V2 Men in Unison.  No 16 Waken Christian Children: V 1,2 Full, V3 Boys, V4 Men, V5 Full V6 Tenor~Beening V7 Full V8 Boys and V9 Full.  No 17 A Child this day is born: V1-4 in parts and V5 in Unison.  No 19 When Christ was born of Mary free (to an old tune)V1 Full in parts, V2 ½ men ½ boys, V3 Boys, V4 ½ Full ½ boys.  No 20‘Twas in the Winter Cold: All 5 verses in parts except V4 Men in Unison (this Carol is marked up in the same way in Carol Book No 43).  No 24 The moon shines bright: V1 Full in parts V2 A boy, V3 in parts, V4 Men, V5 in parts, V6 is a Quartett – Treble~Butcher, Alto~Head, Tenor~West, Bass~Dyson, V7 Men, V8 Boys, V9 Unison and V10 Full in parts.  It is interesting to note at verse 7 the line “Instruct and teach your children well” and reminds of the importance of handing down Christian principles to the next generation.  Now deeply unfashionable, how the church needs this today!!

No 26 The Incarnation: V1 Full in parts, V2 Quartett – Treble~Williams, Alto~Head, Tenor~Civelic, Bass~Dyson, V3 Quartett -  Treble~Wright, Alto~Barnett, Tenor~Williams, Bass~Thompson, V4 Men, Full, V5 Quartett – Treble~Williams, Alto~Head, Tenor~Hole, Bass~Dyson, and V6 Full.  We note here that it appears that ‘Head’ were father and son.  A George Head is recorded on a board on the belfry wall, as taking part in a peal of 5024 Kent Treble Bob Major here on Feb 11th 1899.  This was presumably the father.  (This carol is also marked up in Carol Book No 43, but without specific details of the soloists)

No 30 See amid the Winter Snow: V1 Full in parts, V2 Solo~Taylor, V3 Solo~G. Elgar, V4 Solo~N. Harris, V5 Boys only and V6, Full in parts.  There are later markings in both this and Carol Book No 43 suggesting that V2 was Full, V3 Solo, and V4 Men only.  The tune by Sir J. Goss, this would have been one of the new carols at the time, and is still a favourite today.  No 31 The Babe of Bethlehem: V1 Full in parts, V2 Unison, V3 Boys, V4 Unison, V5 Boys and V6 Full.  No 33 A Cradle song of the Blessed Virgin: V1 Full in parts, V2 Boys with Full Chorus, V3 Full, V4 Men with Full Chorus, V5 Full.  No 34 Christmas Song: V1,3,4 Full in parts, V 2,6 Boys and V5 Men.  No 35 Jacobs Ladder (Which can be found in our New English Hymnal) V1 Full in parts, V2 Quartett – Treble~Barnett, Alto~Head, Tenor~Crocker and Bass~Dyson, V3 Trebles and V4 Full.  All the choruses sung Full.  

In Carol Book No 43, Carol No 37 The Wassail Song has written at the top of the page “Sung at Leeds Castle, 1889”.  It appears that the 19th Century Choir must have travelled there to enrich the Christmas festivities, maybe every year.  There are no details of how the verses were marked, and it would certainly be interesting to find out more about this excursion, if possible.  At this time the Castle was owned by the Wykeham-Martins, and was in quite a serious state of disrepair.

No 45 We Three Kings: Most interesting to note that Verse 2 was sung by the Vicar, very hierarchically apposite, and of course the Incumbent at this time would have been Canon P.F. Tindall.  How wonderfully this carol must have been redered – V1 Full in parts, V2 (Melchior) The Vicar, V3 (Caspar) A boy, V4 (Balthasar) Hedgling, V5 Full in parts.  Of course, we still sing this Carol today, more often at The Epiphany.

No 46 Emmanuel; God with us: V1 Full in parts, V2 Men, V3 Full, V4 Boys and V5 Full in parts.  The final carol sung by the choir No 67 – The Boy’s Dream: V1 Full in parts, V2 Bass Solo~Hallett, V3 Men-Full, V4 Treble Solo~Williams and V5 Full.

So, from this investigation, we can build up something of a picture of how our Parish Church Choir operated in the 19th Century, here in our glorious edifice.  It appears that the markings in these books date from the late 19th century, and indeed Mr F.C. Palmer’s knowledge has been invaluable in confirming that the books have certainly not been in use by our choir since the Second World War (and the other books presumably met their end many years ago).  Of course, if anyone would like to view the books, they are most welcome, and are stored safely in our Archive Room.  

Obviously, I should like to wish peace on earth and good will toward all men at this time, and hope that this short insight into the past will stir the imagination of one and all, and be something for us to build a strong future upon.                        Christopher J. Cooper, CHURCH ARCHIVIST.  November 2004.

Choir 1956 - Top: Outside the College singing Christmas Carols, and Below: following a Wedding



The Choir during Canon Bowen's Incumbency.

The Choir on a Choir Holiday in the 1970's - Dr Michael Lewis was Organist & Choirmaster

The Choir on Choir Holiday to Norwich Cathedral in the early 1980's

The Choir outside the Parish Church in 1981 - during the interregnum.  Peter Wheeler was Choirmaster.

Because certain individuals at the Parish Church caused such trouble in the 1980's through their obsessive politically correct campaign to have a mixed choir, this eventually happened.  (During Canon Sharp's Incumbency separate boys and girls choirs had existed independently of one another and with great success).  The usual result of this mixing is for all the boys to leave, (the last thing most pre-teen boys want to do is to mix with girls, or especially to sing with them!) and you end up with a soprano line.  This in itself is acceptable enough if a male only option must be dictated against, but a mixture is abhorrent.  There is nothing quite so offensive to the ear as a MIXED choir, and the reasons for keeping boys and girls apart for the sake of good order in such an organisation should also be glaringly apparent to all right-minded individuals.

The choir shortly before the retirement of the last Vicar, Canon Everett.

A choir of lower standard is the price to be paid for allowing liberalism in liturgy (which soon feeds through to the music).  At least most of the Evensong music is acceptable, but as for the lineup in the morning (a mixture of Songs of Fellowship, Liturgical Hymnal, Mission Praise and the occasional sprinkling of acceptable Hymns from NEH, mixed with - often modern - anthems and Communion Settings not worth the paper they are printed on, it is no surprise that the congregations are down on the pre 1994 numbers as well.  Like the drowning man clutching at branches before being swept away by the tide, the claim of the modernisers is that just one more innovation will suddenly have people flocking through the doors.... the innovation this time being to wreck the church interior, an innovation actively supported by the current choir!!  CofE modernisers have had forty years of peddling their trash, now it's time to restore real religion, and to restore our church before it dies completely.