Little is known for sure about music in St. James Church before the nineteenth century. As elsewhere, there was almost certainly music in our church for centuries before this time. Indeed, having so many rectors steeped in the rich musical traditions of New College, Oxford, it is very likely that those of them who were actually resident in Great Horwood tried to pass on at least the basics of psalm and canticle singing to the congregation. In fact, the earliest surviving reference to a group of singers at St. James Church is to ‘Psalm Singers’ who, according to the churchwardens’ accounts, were given 5s. in 1834 and a further 3s. 10d. in 1836. These were noted as gifts rather than payments so the absence of any further gifts to the psalm singers does not necessarily indicate that they had stopped singing. It is just as likely that they continued to sing but their services were taken for granted after the first few years. By contrast, the bell ringers received small financial gifts almost every year; usually two payments of 2s. 6d. each year. The psalm singers, as their name suggests, led the singing of psalms and canticles. However, they were not accompanied by an organ at this time because the plans for the 1830s church restoration show that the church did not have one.
It was not until the 1874 restoration of the church that the organ was installed. Prior to this, musical accompaniment might have been provided by a smaller keyboard instrument or by a group of amateur musicians playing a variety of different instruments, perhaps from the gallery that once stood at the west end of the nave. The fact that the gallery was removed at or around the same time as the organ was installed might indicate that it had been a musicians' gallery. However, there is no mention of any financial gift to instrumentalists in the churchwardens' accounts so we cannot be sure whether there were instrumentalists or not.
William Green's plans for the interior of St James Church c.1830. The position of the gallery is indicated by the four small squares and dotted lines towards the left of the plan. The gallery might have been built to provide additional congregational seating, although it looks a little small for that purpose and might have been for a small group of instrumentalists. By permission of Lambeth Palace Library.
During the Victorian era, the formality and richness of organ and choir-led music became increasingly important to Anglican worship. The Bucks Herald reports that the Vale of Aylesbury Church Choral Association was established in 1857 ‘for the cultivation and improvement of congregational church music’ in the area. Without an organ, Great Horwood church-goers were unable to be a part of this and it is clear that this was one of the improvements that Rev Adams hoped to bring about through the restoration of St James in 1874. George Gilbert Scott's plans for the restoration show both an organ and choir stalls. With the school having moved out of the church into its purpose-built premises in 1861, the north chapel was an ideal place to install the organ.
Tim McSweeney playing the organ, Easter 2012
The organ has required a great deal of expensive maintenance over the years and fundraising to repair or improve it was required as early as 1896 when the proceeds of ‘amateur theatricals’ were divided between the Great Horwood organ fund and Winslow Parish Church expenses. In the late-twentieth century it became a fairly common occurrence in the middle of a service for the organ to start ciphering, that is to say sounding continuously, and we would have to clamber around inside the great instrument to find and remove the leaking pipe. Nevertheless, the organ has given 140 years’ good service to the church and will hopefully continue to do so for many years to come.
In Great Horwood Past & Present, I asserted that, once the organ had been installed, the church lost no time in establishing a choir. However, I have now found evidence that the choir was actually established before the organ was installed. The Bucks Herald reports that on 12 May 1864, the first meeting of the United Choir of Buckingham and the neighbouring villages was held in Buckingham parish church. Rev. Simon Adams attended as Rural Dean and Great Horwood is listed as one of the village choirs present. Buckingham choir master, Owain Jones, had visited each of the village choirs repeatedly to prepare them for the occasion. The massed choir of 140 comprised 8 parish choirs, including the 'surpliced' choir of St Peter and St Paul, Buckingham.
In 1876, Great Horwood choir appeared for the first time in the list of choirs attending the Vale of Aylesbury Church Choral Association’s annual festival. The Bucks Herald reported that 18 members of the choir attended. The Great Horwood choir is included in the list of ‘non-surpliced’ choirs on this occasion. Until the church had choir stalls for the choir to sit in, robes would probably have looked out of place. From 1876, the choir attended the Aylesbury festival every June. This was an exciting day out for the choir members. The massed choirs of 20-30 local parish churches gathered at St. Mary’s Aylesbury for morning and afternoon full choral services, including chants, hymns and anthems, as well as for a slap-up luncheon at the Aylesbury Corn Exchange. The Great Horwood School Head Teacher’s log book for the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries shows that the school sometimes had a half-day’s holiday due to choir members attending the festival.
St James Church Choir c.1910. The Reverend John Chevallier, Rector, is seated. Alfred Rich, Schoolmaster and Choirmaster, is standing immediately behind him. This photograph was probably taken at the dedication of the lych-gate in 1910. Clearly, it was a male only choir at this time.
Membership of the church choir demanded a considerable time commitment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Choir practices were probably held at least once a week and the choir was certainly able to tackle fairly complicated anthems in four-part harmony. We know this because some of the copies of Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ still in the choir vestry today date back to 1897 and copies of Stainer’s ‘Crucifixion’ are from a similar time. Quite apart from extra services at Christmas, Easter, Whitsun and Harvest, there were morning and afternoon services every Sunday. The children in the choir would also have attended Sunday School in between these services. By 1911, the work-load of the church organist and choir leader was so considerable that Alfred Willmer of Pond Farm, Singleborough actually listed ‘Organist St. James Church’ as his occupation on the census form. Evidently he earned enough as organist to make a living.
By the 1960s and probably a good deal earlier, it was certainly no longer possible to earn a living as organist or choir leader at St. James. Annie Elmes had two jobs in addition to her position as church organist. Indeed, by the 1970s it had become quite difficult to find anyone willing to take on the role of organist and the lack of financial incentive was probably partly responsible. One of my earliest memories of going to church here as a young child in the 1970s, is of the rector, Rev. Roland Sleight playing the organ as well as taking the service.
My sister, Emily, and I joined the choir at St. James in the early 1980s, when Bob Horton was choir master. The choir was probably not very different from how it had been 80 years earlier but with both male and female singers and with usually only one service every Sunday. We rehearsed in our choir stalls and sung mostly four-part harmony music. The children in the choir were paid a few pence for each service we attended and I remember being very excited when I earned my first 50p. After that time, the choir was happy to be paid only for weddings, although we did insist upon our annual stipend of one Cadbury’s Creme Egg each every Easter.
Members of St James Church Choir, 1983 or 1984
Front row (l-r): Mary Lovegrove, Emily Lovegrove, Clare Lovegrove, Betty Sutton (organist)
Middle row (l-r): Valda Horton, Lesley Horton, Jenny Mayger, Rosemary Coram, Amanda Horton.
Back row (l-r): Veronica Rodwell, Andrew Howard, Colin Coram, Stephen Horton(?), Bob Horton (Choirmaster).
Also pictured: Bernard Sutton, The Reverend David Hemsley.
Mary Saunders was choir mistress from about 1984 to 1994 and she was also organist for most of that time. We were a choir of children and young people. Mary must have needed a lot of patience to lead a group of chattering children and moody teenagers and she did it very successfully as we were able to sing a variety of unison and three-part anthems very nicely. Mary took us to choir festivals with other local choirs where we would spend a challenging and enjoyable day rehearsing before singing full choral evensong together. Mary is also a very good cook and I think most of the choir members of that time would agree that one of the best things about being in the choir was the wonderful tea that she laid on for us after choir practice before the Nine Lessons and Carols Service every year.
Choir members taking part in the Palm Sunday procession 1991. Pictured (l-r): Diane Wilkinson (only pony tail and choir robe visible), Victoria Lovegrove, Simon Martin, Clare Lovegrove, Mary Saunders (Choir mistress), Andrew Howard.
In the absence of anyone else being willing to take on the position, I succeeded Mary as choir mistress in 1994 and led the choir for the next 20 years. With my younger sisters Emily, Victoria and Amy in the choir, singing at church was a family affair and we were delighted when our own daughters, Bridget Martin, Joanna Martin and Hannah Fuller, joined the choir in December 2015. However, it had become difficult to keep a choir going in a numerically small church. When choir members moved away from the area, there was no one to replenish the ranks. The size of the choir was usually in proportion to the congregation: a large choir when the church was full but only a small one at other times. We were able to provide two or three-part harmony even when we had only two or three singers, firmly believing that quality was better than quantity (albeit that we should have preferred to have both). The congregation and especially visiting clergy appreciated having someone to lead the singing.
The St James Church Choir sang for the last time on 25th December 2015. Sadly, early in 2016, choir members were informed that our services were no longer required and the choir was disbanded.
St James Church Choir and organists, Christmas Carol Service, 2011. Back row (l-r): Malcolm Harvey, Tim McSweeney, Simon Martin. Middle row (l-r): Janthea Brigden, Max Piggott, Emily Fuller, Tish Martin. Front row (l-r): Gerald Roads, Chris Finnemore, Elizabeth Martin, Clare Martin, Joanna Martin, Bridget Martin, Amy Lovegrove.
Sources: Churchwardens’ account book, MS, CBS, PR108/5/1. Bucks Herald 31 October 1857, 21 May 1864, 17 June 1876, 15 June 1878, 15 February 1896.