Singing at a Coronation – or two

by Harry Coles


On coronation day, Wednesday 12th May 1937, in travelling from my home at Deptford, SE8, how was one to get to SW1 in time, through the multitudes in the streets? To them, it was the most prodigious day in their lives! Not 20-years had passed since 1914-18, with its privations of rationing and zeppelin-raids on the populace, being their lot. And in the Forces, the awful slaughter of the land’s finest manhood in that just terrible War! The land was left eventually with a superfluity of spinsters. In some villages not one man in the King’s Forces had returned!

To get to SW1 one showed one’s orange Choir Pass, mine No. 362, and with the assistance of the Police, the crowds exultantly happy, they parted like the Red Sea to let one through. It was also our Hook number for robes, one’s place in the Procession to the Abbey and, eventually, one’s seat number. We were to be robed by 8.00 a.m., seated by 8.30. We got away eventually about 2.30 p.m.! Before and after the Service, we were allowed to consume what could go into a cassock pocket, but no liquids! Of the latter, recommended before starting out from home, was half a glass of milk! First aid, etc., was within call.

Zero hour for us was 7.45 a.m., to assemble in the Hall of Westminster School, Dean’s Yard. Though having been at work then for over a year with a firm in Whitechapel, E1., I was then still a treble chorister of 18 years 3 months at the Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St. Saviour and St. Mary Overie, Southwark, but at weekends only. I’d joined in January 1931, when nearing 12 years of age. At St. Olave’s and St. Saviour’s Grammar School (“STOGS” — Royal Charters granted in 1562 and 1571) by Tower Bridge, to where the Chapter sent us, we elder choristers sang tenor or bass, but at the Cathedral treble, not alto!

This phenomenon was peculiar to our beloved Dr. Edgar T. Cook, CBE., Organist there 1909-1953, that being London’s first Gothic structure. When aged about 14, further down the choir then, we all heard the top boy on decani, approach Cookie with: “Would it be possible, Sir, to leave the Choir after the August holiday?” “And why?” “Well you see, Sir, it’s like this; I’ve already left STOGS, because I’ve been successful in winning a Choral Scholarship, in Tenor, to Kings!” Ernest Watkins was duly there at Cambridge under its famed Boris Ord.

On entering the School Hall, in one hand I held my precious crimson-covered score of the Music and the Rite, and in the other, my green pork-pie hat! A congenial gentleman approached, whose wireless voice was far more familiar than his visage, with a: “Good morning, Sir; and are you a Tenor or a Bass?” And I, in my very deepest early-morning voice of an 18-year old, replied: “Treble, Sir Walford!”, and left others to pick him up, and dust him down!

Dr. Cook had chosen his top three boys from decani and cantoris sides. Later, we found ourselves on cantoris, right in the very front, above the pulpitum (which held specially-chosen orchestral players, with Dr. Ernest Bullock, our conductor, (Organist of the Abbey), but below the organ pipes. One had the advantage there over those opposite, in having a direct view across to the Royal Family, seated on the south side of the Sanctorium!

But who later should come and sit next to me, I being at the end of the row which was the first bay east of the pulpitum, a sub-conductor, he now resplendent in Court Dress with buckled shoes and cravat, but Sir Walford Davies, Master of the King’s Musick!! We got on together like a house on fire! A sweeter person one could never have met, just as lovely as his music.

On a previous day, duly robed, all had gone into the Abbey Garden, where the panoramic Coronation Choir and Orchestra, May 12th,1937 photograph was taken. The writer may be the only one alive now to name the Doctors of Music therein assembled, they in their beautiful convocation gowns and hoods; but it being some 40 inches wide and 10 inches deep, my copy is particularly dilapidated after 66-years’ handling!

Of trebles, St. Paul’s Cathedral sent thirty and the Abbey likewise, plus their respective men, and other singers from Royal Chapels, Cathedrals, and of Oxbridge Colleges having a full Choral Foundation, as required. Printed booklets on the two coronations contain names and other relevant data and 1937’s revealed too a cathedral organist who, having submitted his own name (in lieu of one of his lay clerks) sang as a bass!

In 1937, the Abbey’s organ was undergoing a rebuild by Harrison & Harrison Ltd. of Durham, in readiness for the coronation, the Dean & Chapter having thus relegated its lovely Pearson Organ cases to the Abbey’s triforia! Its north case is the memorial to England’s greatest composer, Henry Purcell, Organist there, 1679-1695. The firm’s M.D., Arthur Harrison, had died in November 1936, so the instrument was rather hurriedly got together ready for the great event, housed then in a kind of battleship-grey wooden structure, which this chorister thought rather hideous!

At the coronation there was orchestral music before and afterwards, and we heard Dr. Peasgood, Sub-Organist, if memory fails one not, regale all with the great Prelude in C minor, BWV 546, of Bach, which was a particular thrill! Well before 1953, the instrument had been superbly restored, its Pearson cases (now filled with pipes), all duly embellished most beautifully.

In 1937, to sing first-performances of works written for the occasion, to us was a particular thrill, and to see the composers of same: Edward Bairstow, Walford Davies, George Dyson, William Harris, and Vaughan Williams, more so! Their music then is still being sung. Similarly, new works for June 1953 by: Dyson, Harris, Howells, Walton, Healey Willan, and Vaughan Williams, the composers being present, and that in a week horridly cold and wet! Such precluded a 1953 coronation group-photo being taken. And with that coronation, Dr. Cook, having died on the 5th March, with my having been picked to sing at that one too, was purely by chance. Southwark’s Precentor then had organised a ballot amongst us six lay clerks. It resulted in two tenors, and a bass attending, myself the latter!

In 1953 too, with my green Choir Pass No. 369, the route there appeared after a 16-year interval, nevertheless somewhat familiar, finding myself, eventually, and very coincidentally, but a yard or so behind my 1937 seat! Nationally, only three sang at both coronations (we’re in touch), and each has the two medals from Buckingham Palace accordingly.

On Her Majesty’s 40th anniversary, that memorable 2nd June 1993, by prior arrangement the triumvirate (with wives) met at Buckingham Palace, where we were delightfully welcomed therein. We carried a lovely bouquet for Her Majesty as pre-arranged. She had attended the Derby that day. We delighted there too in a very welcome repast. Her Majesty proffers just excellent sherry!



Go to Next Page

Go to Previous Page

Go to Index Page