Full History

The Beccles Choral Society

This first sketch of a history of Beccles Choral Society depends heavily on the research of Mrs Anne Gee (LGSM, M.A.), founder in 2000 of the Harleston Choral Society. The compiler also acknowledges the assistance of David Lindley who generously shared his unrivalled knowledge of all things Becclesian.Prehistory

The first mentioned “concert and soiree” given by something calling itself the Beccles Choral Society was in January 1851. It took place in the Assembly Room (Public Hall), and was assisted by members of the Bungay and Halesworth choral societies. It was, the Norwich Mercury wrote, a success thanks to the efforts of Mr and Mrs Corbyn, musically active members of the Independent Chapel (today the United Reformed Church on Hungate). The event was attended by up to three hundred (where did they all sit?) Several months later there was a fund-raising event by BCS in the Beccles Assembly Room, held in aid of the Beccles Lying-in-Charity (maternity hospital) with a programme of vocal and instrumental music. Among the fourteen items were two overtures (Handel’s Saul and Mozart’s Le Nozzi di Figaro), an aria from Haydn’s Creation sung by Dr. Carnaby, four choir items, and a series of anthems, glees and madrigals. … Reserved seats were 2s. each; family tickets (for 4) were 6s.6d; back seats and gallery 1s: not inconsiderable sums in those days.Two years later another concert was held. “On Thursday evening 22 September 1853, at 7 pm for a 7.45 pm start, and assisted by several amateur friends”, notes a newspaper report, “the eighth concert of the Beccles Choral Society took place in the Assembly Room.” The friends must have been instrumentalists, comments Mrs Gee, “to make up a small band including piano, flute and violin. For the first time, a chorus from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus was included in the choir’s performing repertoire.”The choir is founded
Between 1853 and 1874 there is a gap in the records but on 15 September 1874 a proposal to form a Choral Society in Beccles was announced in the East Suffolk Gazette. Offering instruction “in both secular and sacred music”, it invited anyone interested to contact Mr Livock, the organist at St Michael’s Church. Thereafter there were regular concerts, for the most part in the Assembly Room, and occasional fund-raising for worthy local causes, such as Beccles Hospital (December 1877, December 187Smilie: 8).Notes Mrs Gee: “… on Tuesday evening 29 May 1877, a concert, described as a ‘selection from Judas Maccabaeus, Mendelssohn’s Psalm ‘Hear My Prayer’ and a secular selection’ was given by the Society. The conductor was Mr. Livock, the pianoforte player was Mrs. Corbyn and, on harmonium, Mrs. Harper. Of some interest is the involvement of a well-known Beccles family: Mrs. Catherine Crowfoot (nee Bayly), the lady Mayoress, joined the Reverend Raven and Mrs Kinnell as a soloist, and herself sang the Mendelssohn.”The Society, as reported in the local press, continued to rehearse and perform in the 1880s, tackling Stainer’s “Daughter of Jairus”, Schubert’s “Song of Miriam” and Beethoven’s “Ruins of Athens” alongside the established fare of Handel (with repeated resort to Judas Maccabaeus) and of Mendelssohn. It was not until 1891, it seems, that the choir first sang a full version of Haydn’s Creation. There is a gap in the mid-1880s and after the establishment in 1889 of the Lowestoft Choral Society “there is some evidence of defections from Beccles to Lowestoft.”

The Choir pictured in May 2005 (photo courtesey of David Hermon)

The Beccles Choral Society continued to give annual concerts, however, in 1896 performing (extracts from) the Messiah in the Parish Church together with the choir of St Michael’s, before a “very large congregation”. During the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, there was a grand concert in the Beccles Public Hall, on Monday 13 December, of Haydn’s Creation, “performed in its entirety with London soloists and a ‘full orchestra and chorus of 100 performers, with leader of the orchestra Mr W.E. Tuddenham and conductor Mr W. Warder Harvey FRCO, the parish organist’.”

At the same time, we may note, there were many other forms of music-making in the town. One of the pillars of such vocal expression continued to be the Congregational Church (the new name for the Independent Chapel). It remained a lively and leading cultural body. In Small Town Jubilee, Beccles in 1897 (1975) the town historian Ted Goodwyn records that there was a Pleasant Sunday Afternoon Society at the chapel with talks and recitations but its main attraction was the singing. In Victoria’s 60th year on the throne the club had over 290 members.

A period of decline
The years from 1914 to the late 1930s have been described in dispiriting terms for choirs of our kind. They were a period of decline “occasioned both by the First World War and the development of the gramophone and radio”. By the late 1930s choral music had sunk to an apparently permanent “state of subservience, with orchestral music (formerly a train-bearer merely) as musical overlord,” writes Charles Reid in Arthur Jacobs’ (ed.) Choral Music (1963).

As concerns Beccles Choral Society, Mrs Gee notes something similar. Records become more scanty “though the Society performed for the Coronation celebrations in 1910.” Disbanded in 1915, the society was reformed as the Beccles Music Society in 1918, disbanded once again in the 1920s, and then revived in 1925. In 1929 the conductor of the revived society (E.P. Thompson, incumbent of St Michael’s) died suddenly and Reverend Bateman of Geldeston had to hurriedly train the choir for its forthcoming concerts the following spring. Thereafter it ceased to exist once again, although Mr E.E. Hales of the Beccles Congregational church conducted choirs in both Beccles and Bungay.

Three Men in a Train: the society revives
The Choral Society was finally revived in 1935 (“by three men in a train” writes Mrs Gee mysteriously) and since then, with the exception of the Second World War, has given one or more concerts each and every year.

During the 1940s and 1950s Dr Martin Shaw and Benjamin Britten were both patrons of the society and it regularly joined with other local choirs (Bungay Choral and Great Yarmouth Musical Societies, for instance) for special performances. A number of nationally-known soloists, from Covent Garden, Sadler’s Wells and other concert platforms sang with the society from the 1950s to 1970s, among them Valerie Masterson in the March 1962 performance of the Mozart Requiem.

Having long outgrown the Public Hall, except for its Tuesday rehearsals, and today finding limited space even in St Michael’s Church, Beccles, for all who want to attend its concerts, the society, faces a new and challenging period in its evolution.

JC – May 2005

The Beccles Choral Society would like to thank Mrs Anne Gee for sharing her discoveries and looks forward o the publication of her “Study of Some East Anglian Choral Societies, 1824-1960WE WOULD ALSO WELCOME ANY PHOTOS, clippings, reminiscences or other materials about the Society that anyone has, whether it concerns the early days or more recent history. If you have such records or mementoes, please get in touch with BCS.

THREE MEN ON A TRAIN: A REPLY (27 MAY 2005)My grandfather A.F. Groom, my uncle O. Lloyd Smith and their acquaintance Percy Blake all travelled daily from Lowestoft to Beccles by train and eventually became residents of our town. They deplored the fact there was no a choral society in Beccles and in 1934 a public meeting was convened.)

Grandfather was elected chairman. He had a fine tenor voice and, for nearly 40 years, was much in demand for solo performances in the Lowestoft area. (Later he served as organist at St Michael’s Church throughout the 1939-45 war.) Mr Blake, a schoolmaster, became secretary; and Uncle undertook the position of accompanist, in tandem with R.H. Firth. Two years later Mr Firth took over as conductor of the society, a position he held for 41 years. His long service was given special recognition at a concert held in his honour in 1979.)

Contrary to what was implied in Mr Crowfoot’s article (Beccles & Bungay, 20 May), many concerts were given by the society during the war years, despite a lack of tenors and basses. Often they were in aid of national events such as Battle of Britain week and Wings for Victory week. Peace was heralded in 1945 by a performance of Merrie England in the Public Hall. There was a chorus of just 28 members, including four tenors and four basses.)

(Brian Patrick, Beccles & Bungay, 27 May 2005)

“Unusual experience of Beccles Choral Society’s conductor”
Beccles & Bungay Journal, 11 May 1935

Beccles Choral Society, founded just over seven months ago, is fortunate to have such a talented honourary conductor as Mr W. Storeton-West, who for some time has been organist and choirmaster at Beccles Parish Church. Once the services of Mr Storeton-West had been obtained the problem was to get him home owning to the lack of late trains to Lowestoft: the last leaves Beccles Station at 8.45 pm when the members of the enthusiastic Society are busily engaged in their weekly practice. A rota of car owners was prepared, and these friends carried out their duties most willingly.)

The secretary, in his annual report, outlined the help given by the car owners. Much amusement was caused, however, when Mr O. Lloyd Smith, who was largely instrumental in brting the Society into being, commented that no reference had been made to the occasion on which the Society’s conductor Mr Storeton-West walked back to Lowestoft. He had missed the train and had to foot it home, walking the whole nine miles and arriving at 11.30 pm. Immediately an enthusiastic member of the society, Mr C.A. Stannard, who is proprietor of the Anglian Garage, Beccles, jumped up and said that the conductor need never walk home again if he missed his train. All he had to do was go to the garage and ask for a car.)

A little later in the meeting the conductor made a hurried departure to catch his train but in spite of a big effort he saw, on reaching Beccles station, that it had started on its way to Lowestoft. He returned to the meeting and Mr Stannard immediately offered to put his promise into execution. Mr Storeton-West, however, remained to the finish of the Annual General Meeting and was then conveyed home.)

Already thoughts are turning to the Society’s second season which starts on Thursday, 24 September, and Mr Storeton-West is again to be in charge. Haydn’s “Creation” will be the sacred work and an invitation has been received from the Congregational church to give it there.)


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