Gary Tollerfield

A short profile

Born at Tooting, South London, on 12th May 1938, Gary Tollerfield’s arrival coincided precisely with the first anniversary of King George V1 and Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. Gary’s mother woefully told the story that, had he only been born a year earlier, he would have qualified for a free pram.

However, when Gary was three months old, his family moved to a new house on the Springpark estate at Shirley, Croydon, Surrey, which was in the parish of St Mary’s Addington, interestingly, only about a mile or so from where Barbara Childs was born at West Wickham, Kent.

Unlike Barbara, Gary’s family stayed at Shirley throughout the war, as his father was a Customs & Excise Officer working at Kennington, opposite the Oval cricket ground. The sights and sounds of bombers and V1s remain a vivid memory for Gary, as more V1s fell on Croydon than any other London borough. But then, after the war, seeing Len Hutton, Dennis Compton and Don Bradman play at the Oval from his father’s office window was certainly a consolation, as was visiting Burrough’s gin distillery; Dad always had a bottle at Christmas!

During the war Gary walked to Benson Primary School, being told to run to one of three “safe” houses should the air raid sirens go off. He was just five years old, could one imagine parents doing that today? On one occasion he fell into a ditch which was intended as a tank trap in the event of invasion. Eventually a policeman came to his rescue. One V1 stopped right overhead and the family dived into the Morrison shelter. The V1 landed a few hundred yards away in the woods, blowing open all the doors and smashing windows. As there were very few houses occupied, he remembers shutting doors and picking up broken glass. Gary and his friends played on the twisted carcass of that offending doodlebug for some years before it was eventually taken away.

In 1945 as the war ended, a good friend, Martin Farrant, asked if Garywould like to join the choir at St. John’s Church, Shirley; Martin already had a brother and his father in the choir. Interestingly, this was the Martin Farrant who was later ordained, became Vicar of Dorking Parish Church and married Gary’s older sister. Gary passed his voice test with flying colours and was accepted into the choir, the first choir practice igniting a musical spark which was to last a lifetime. Also, as a boy, he found the choir pay and the 2 shillings for a wedding, very acceptable. There were many weddings just after the war and on one Saturday Gary sang for ten, bringing seemingly untold wealth, but the fact that the organist played Sheep may safely graze before every one has given Gary a life long aversion to the piece.

The organist and choirmaster of St. John’s was, to say the least, rather eccentric, but he was known to have the best boys’ choir in the area. This was Arthur Rogers and he bestowed on Gary a deep love of music, especially the music of the church and the organ. He had his first piano and organ lessons from him and along with other choristers was taken — at Arthur Rogers expense — to St Paul’s Cathedral on a Sunday afternoon to hear Evensong. This was in the late 1940s and the war damaged and boarded East End and Transept of the Cathedral made a deep impression, especially the hole through the floor where a bomb exploded in the crypt. The organ and the ten second echo was certainly a thrill and, for Gary, still is even if at first it was only the Willis on Wheels.

Whilst in Arthur Rogers’ choir, Gary attended RSCM chorister courses at Canterbury — where housemasters were John Brough and a certain Mr. Reg Adams — and twice at Darley Dale. The steam train journey to Matlock was to ignite another enthusiasm! One memorable service he sang  in was the 1951 Festival of Britain Service at the Royal Albert Hall and Gary still has the music, the 78 rpm record and a silver plated RSCM medal with “Festival of Britain 1951” cast on the reverse. Gary was entering the audition process for singing at the Coronation when, sadly, his voice broke, so that was the end of that!

However, in 1949 aged eleven, Gary attended Archbishop Tenison’s School at South Croydon, which meant — for those with a transport inclination — a journey on an LT with outside staircase and E1 and Feltham trams. In 1950 the new RTs arrived — those were the days. Being a church school, services were held at St. Peter’s Church, where he joined the choir and continued organ lessons on the three manual Willis with the organist and choirmaster Mr. Bunn, who was himself a pupil of John Dykes Bower. This was Gary’s first encounter with a Tuba and Pedal Trombone! Then at fifteen years of age, soon after his voice had broken Mr. Bunn asked if he would like to sing in the St Paul’s Cathedral Special Service Choir, now as a tenor. This was a chance he was not going to miss, so off to an audition with Sir John Dykes Bower. Once he found his first note he was away, having benefited from all those RSCM courses. Gary was in, to sing Messiah and the St. Matthew Passion every year. Fifty years later he is still doing it, having learnt a great deal from Sir John, Harry Gabb, Christopher Dearnley, Barry Rose and now John Scott. This year he feels, reluctantly, he should retire before John Scott makes the decision for him!

Gary’s sporting prowess blossomed on the tennis court at Shirley Tennis Club, which brought him to the attention of Janet. Also, studying and other activities took precedence over his music before he qualified as a chartered quantity surveyor in 1961, followed by getting married at St Mary’s Church, Addington in 1962.

Gary and Janet bought their first house on the then new Greenacres estate at Aylesford and soon joined the choir of St Peter’s Church. He assisted Harold Moore as organist and played a key role in the fund raising for the organ rebuild.

In 1964 their baby Sarah was born and happily the musical genes took hold, and she went on to obtain a degree in music. Very much the performer, Sarah has taken part in KCOA meetings at Platt over the years. Paul was born in 1967 and although now a chartered mechanical engineer, he was a music scholar at Tonbridge School, playing the Haydn trumpet concerto in his final year.

One bonus for Gary whilst Paul was at Tonbridge, was a series of organ lessons on the Binns organ from Paul Hale, who was Assistant Director of Music at the time. This was of course before the fire, which tragically gutted the Chapel and destroyed the organ. Through Paul Hale’s patient tuition he learnt a great deal about technique, attention to detail and performance, although Gary confesses he recognised only too well his limitations. These lessons were a revelation and he valued them enormously.

By 1965 he had opened his own office at Wrotham and Gary and Janet moved to Offham. In 1966 he felt that Ryarsh Parish Churchneeded an organist more than Aylesford needed a tenor. Then, in 1969, after three happy years, he was asked to play for the funeral of Canon Bristow at St Mary’s Church Platt. Platt’s organ turned out to have the heaviest action he had ever played, almost to the point of seizure. However, he had discovered an organ with a wonderful sound and a church with a good acoustic and a good choir. When he was invited to become organist and choirmaster by Canon Soar, he knew it was where he was going to stay, even though they had just moved to Paddock Wood. Approaching some 100,000 miles later Janet and Gary are still making the journey which has become part of their lives.

The rest, as they say, is history including the raising of 43,000 to rebuild the organ at Platt in 1983 when Rev. Victor Kingston — a Queen’s Chaplain — was vicar, not to mention the En Chamade trumpets installed in 2001 at the West End and playable on a new third manual.

Gary cannot remember precisely the year he joined the KCOA, but it was soon after he came to Kent, probably in 1963, and members then included Dr. Gerald Knight, Mr. Bennett and George Jessup. Committee meetings at Mr. Warriner’s house at Boughton Monchelsea, with tea and cakes, were an occasion not to be missed. He remembers suggesting that perhaps the KCOA could venture out of the county, but that was out of order! Eventually he arranged our first outings to Oxford, Cambridge and St Paul’s in the 1980s. He has also served on the Rochester Diocesan Church Music Committee for over twenty years bringing Gary a tremendous fulfillment and enjoyment from the church and its music.

It was only Gary’s modesty which prevented his profile being published earlier, surely a modesty much misplaced, as his service to our Kent County Organists’ Association has been quite unique. Not only has he served as our President twice, but he remained our Secretary for a full twelve years, guiding our Association through changing times, providing unfailing dedecation and enthusiasm. He also founded our journal, gathering reports and news items, presented, always, with a photographic delight on every cover, a service he continues to this day. Also, we must not forget or underestimate his inimitable Janet. How often did we telephone and, yes, it was Janet who invariably took the call and solved the problem.

Gary and Janet have now handed on many of these responsibilities to a succeeding generation and are, quite rightly, more free to enjoy our meetings. Nevertheless, we remember and fully acknowledge that without their ceaseless dedication our Association would not be as it is today, one of the largest and most successful in the country. 

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