"Pests of the Parish" (Anglican Choir Bands in the East Midlands 1700 - 1900)

June 2005 Meeting Report

Guest Speaker - Kate Holland


Before the Reformation, church music took the form of chanting of psalms, usually unaccompanied. Thereafter, change came only slowly; indeed, Puritans regarded music, along with elaborately decorated church interiors, as a distraction from the word of God, and tainted with Rome!

  By the 18th century suspicion of music was fading even among ‘low’ church­men. This was, after all, the century of Bach and Handel. John Wesley and his brother Charles were in the forefront of those encouraging singing in church. Rousing hymns were added to the more austere chanting, with Charles himself one of the most prolific hymn writers. Although the Methodist movement split from the Anglican church soon after John Wesley’s death in 1791, hymn singing was by then well established and has remained an important element in Anglican services ever since.

  Until the mid-19th century, church organs were usually found only in cathedrals and large town churches. In small rural churches like Keyworth, singing was either entirely unaccompanied or supported by one or two instrumentalists (the seed from which choir bands grew), who might do no more than play the occasional note to keep the singers in tune. Much would depend on the musical skill and enthusiasm locally available: at one extreme there might be a choir and several ‘minstrels’, led and trained by a talented musician, and perhaps financed by a local squire who paid for instruments, hymn sheets and musical scores. At the other would be congregations struggling to make a joyful and tuneful noise, and who, with no-one and no instrument to lead them, only succeeded in making a noise!

  Keyworth seems to have been among the latter until in 1842 a new curate, Lawson Dykes, paid out of his own pocket for a double bass viol, a single bass viol, clarionet, trombone and serpent, and began to train members of the congregation in their use, together with a choir, in performing hymns, psalms and anthems. Ironically, this was just about the time when most Anglican churches were beginning to dispense with minstrels, and replace them with harmoniums or organs.
  A parallel 18th century development in Anglican churches was the intro­duc­tion of a gallery, usually towards the back of the nave and constructed of wood. Again, this may have owed something to the influence of dissenting churches, which were built in large numbers throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and commonly had wooden galleries. Their purpose was two­fold: to accommodate growing congregations as parish populations grew; and also to accommodate choir bands, both singers and instrument­al­ists. Keyworth church acquired such a gallery, probably during the 18th century.

  A behavioural problem seems to have arisen in seating singers and instru­men­talists in the gallery. Perhaps many were high-spirited youngsters, apt to be bored with lengthy liturgies. Perhaps they were more difficult to super­vise from the priest’s stall below. Whatever the reason, they sometimes earned the sobriquet ‘Pests of the Parish’, and this may be one reason why minstrels were disbanded after the mid-19th century, and the galleries that accommodated them pulled down. Other reasons were declin­ing church atten­dance requiring less seating accommodation, and the intro­duction of har­moniums and organs. Keyworth seems to have acquired its first organist in the 1860s (probably playing only a harmonium), and lost its gallery as part of a wholesale restoration of the building in the 1870s. The choir survived - but now located in the chancel, much nearer the eye of the priest.

  Kate’s talk was richly illustrated with recorded music, a variety of instru­ments, and documents: a most entertaining and informative lecture.