College of St George Archives Blog

College of St George Archives

We shall be in darkness

February 15th, 2017

Bundles of letters to Thomas Batcheldor, Chapter Clerk of the College of St George from 1846 to 1866, are kept in the Chapel Archives. The collection of letters [SGC I.E.1-5] could be considered the equivalent of Batcheldor’s email inbox and they provide an interesting insight into the business of the Chapter Clerk’s office in the mid-nineteenth century.

Many of the matters discussed remain relevant to the running of the Chapel today: engagements for the choir, keeping the organ in tune, appointments to jobs in the College, arrangements for work to the fabric of the Chapel. There are some matters, however, that are very much of their time. Two letters sent to the Chapter Clerk by organist and master of the choir, George Job Elvey, in 1859 give just such an example. On 19 January Dr Elvey wrote to say that only four packets of candles remained and that they would last ten more days [SGC I.E.4/11]. He explained that the candles were being used up more quickly than previously “in consequence of the great draught”. A large curtain recently set up in the organ loft also “considerably darkened” the Chapel so that it had to be lit up for longer. A little over a week later, 27 January, comes a second letter from Dr Elvey [SGC I.E.4/12] – there are now only two boxes of candles remaining and as he believes tapers are not kept ready-made but only made to order they cannot afford to lose any more time. Elvey urges Batcheldor, “be so good as to give the order for them or we shall be in darkness.”

It is easy to overlook, in the days of instant lighting at the touch of a button, how pressing the need must have been to keep up the constant supply of candles and tapers in order that early morning and evening services could keep running in the Chapel. A collection of Chapter bills held in the Archives shows that in October 1858, only three months before Elvey’s urgent requests, the Dean and Canons had received a bill for £35 5s for candles and tapers from J. Garnett – the equivalent of more than £1,500 in today’s money! [SGC XIV/1858/8]

There is also evidence that relationships developed between Chapter and those tradesmen who regularly supplied them. Orders and bills alone do not tell us anything of this, but in July 1865 the widowed Mrs Charlotte Garnett wrote to Mr Batcheldor because she had heard that he continued to order candles from her late husband’s firm because of her continued interest in it [SGC I.E.5/92]. She thanks him “sincerely and respectfully” for this “kind sympathy”, but feels she has a duty to make it clear that she has not received any benefit from the company since her husband died in 1859. The final record we hold of a payment by the Dean and Canons to Garnetts’ is from 1861. Later that decade, bills for candles came from Domenico Piccirillo (for altar candles) and Edwin Alger.

Kate McQuillian, Assistant Archivist

A host of relics

January 16th, 2017

Windsor Castle is visited daily by thousands of tourists. The number of visitors to St George’s Chapel has grown dramatically in the centuries since its foundation, but the practice of travelling to visit St George’s has been a tradition for hundreds of years. Long before commercial tourism came into being, people took time out of their lives, leaving their homes and their jobs, in order to travel to Windsor as pilgrims.

Unlike tourism, pilgrimage was not supposed to be an activity undertaken for pleasure but as a religious exercise. Great spiritual benefit was thought to be derived from visiting sites of significance or being in the presence of objects considered holy because of their close association with holy people. Such objects are known as relics, from the Latin reliquiae, meaning ‘remains’. Most commonly, relics in the Christian tradition have consisted of body parts of saints and sometimes pieces of their clothing or of other objects thought to have been owned or used by them in life. In England before the Reformation the veneration of relics was widely encouraged. Often they were placed in highly decorated caskets, known as reliquaries, both to protect them and to give an outward sign of their high status.

Early inventories of the College of St George show that in the Middle Ages the Chapel was home to a spectacular array of relics which drew pilgrims to Windsor. These included the burial places of two famously saintly men, King Henry VI and Master John Schorn, and a piece of the True Cross, encased in a gilded and jewelled reliquary, which had been gifted to the Dean and Canons by Edward III. In addition to these, the medieval inventories of St George’s Chapel (which date from 1384 and 1410) enumerate several weird and wonderful artefacts believed to be connected with Christian saints, such as a crystal vessel containing the milk of the Blessed Virgin Mary; two thorns from the crown worn by Christ at his crucifixion; one of the stones thrown at the martyrdom of St Stephen; and two fingers, part of the heart and part of the skull of St George.

When the Reformation came to England in the sixteenth century, religious practice at St George’s Chapel was less badly affected than in many high-profile churches in the land, but some changes did have to be made. The veneration of relics was recognised as one of the practices of Roman Catholic Christianity and so had to be stopped. In the following years, many of the treasures of the Chapel were sold off by the Dean and Canons for two purposes: first that they were no longer allowed to be in use in the Chapel, and second to raise revenue to meet some heavy charges imposed by the crown. In 1552 King Edward VI ordered a new inventory to be taken, which shows very few of the relics remaining. The Dean and Canons were ordered to surrender their remaining treasures, including reliquaries, and these were weighed and then melted down for coin in the Jewel House of the Tower of London in November 1552. The fate of the jewels and precious metals therefore is documented, but what became of the once revered fragments of bone, cloth and wood is unknown.

Kate McQuillian, Assistant Archivist

Don’t change the record!

December 15th, 2016

The history of royal wedding ceremonies that have taken place at St George’s Chapel is a long and illustrious one that reached its peak in the nineteenth century, when five of Queen Victoria’s nine children solemnised their marriages in the Chapel. Each of these is recorded in the Chapel’s Register of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, part of a sequence which dates back to the early seventeenth century [SGC R.2].

So when, almost sixty years ago, while preparing for the wedding of a minor royal at St George’s Chapel, the Dean and Canons received a letter from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office stating that the happy couple would be required to sign the Royal Marriages Register and not the register of St George’s Chapel, Chapter was prepared to fight its corner.

The Dean immediately wrote back explaining that all marriages solemnised at St George’s Chapel were included in the Chapel register and he saw “no reason why this practice should not continue”. Indeed, since the beginning of the Chapel’s then current register, Royals and non-Royals alike were included indiscriminately. The response from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office that, according to the Registrar General, “it is a fact that these Royal Weddings should not be entered in the local register” did nothing to deter Chapter from investigating the matter for themselves, as the Dean promptly informed the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. The response is worth quoting in its entirety: “How splendid! I foresee a war of words which will make the Records of the United Nations Assembly very tame reading in comparison. “Let Right be Done”.”

The Dean’s letter to the College’s lawyer makes for equally interesting reading: “What I wholly fail to understand is that we should, in effect, be forbidden to enter Royal or semi-Royal weddings in the St George’s Chapel register… I can hardly bring myself to believe that this most ancient privilege is to be removed”. His incredulity increased on learning that the marriage register at the Chapel Royal was not subject to the same rules: “Are we then at St George’s less privileged than the Chapel Royal?” The lawyer’s response was plain; there was no real reason behind the Registrar General’s request and he himself had attended a royal wedding previously where the couple had signed the parish register. He recommended that “you carry on exactly as you would have done” and he saw “no reason why you should not ask the parties to sign your own register and no-one present need be any wiser”.

Nevertheless, the Dean did make his intention to use both registers clear to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. This pleased the official in question who stated happily: “I am all for tradition and am delighted that you are going to stand firm. You may be sure that I am on your side and will be prepared to bail you out if this should become necessary!”

This fascinating set of correspondence came to light during a review of twentieth century papers from the Chapter Clerk’s office [SGC CL 109]. The letters offer a glimpse of the relationships between not only St George’s Chapel and the Royal Household at this time, but also those that existed between the Royal Household and governmental departments such as the General Register Office. Furthermore, the letters highlight the importance of the historical status and traditions associated with St George’s, and the desire of Chapter to maintain these.

Anastasia Porteous, Archives Trainee

Travels with Bishop Welldon

November 15th, 2016

Stafford Crawley (Canon of Windsor, 1938-1947), after completing his education at Harrow & Magdalen College, Oxford, spent several months travelling in India, Tibet and China in 1899, after which he returned to England to attend theological college to prepare for ordination. Canon Crawley’s diaries, along with a large collection of his family’s correspondence and some photographs, were presented to St George’s Chapel Archives by his children in 1984 and have since proved a fascinating resource for the study of society during Crawley’s lifetime. His diary of 1899 is the earliest held here and it is by far the most detailed of the collection as there are very few days with no entry.

On his journey to India Crawley travelled with James Edward Welldon, who was to be consecrated as Bishop of Calcutta. Crawley writes in his diary [SGC M.126/K/1] that Welldon is a great man but that he (Crawley) cannot share his thoughts and admits that he doesn’t amuse or interest Welldon. Although he feels he is unable to be of any practical use to Welldon while staying in Calcutta, Crawley is never critical of him. However, evidence of Welldon’s capacity for expressing himself forcefully is seen in Crawley‘s diary entry, reporting that Catholics in India are angry with Welldon for saying that Catholic nations everywhere are declining. Welldon’s maxim about schoolmastering was that “boys must first be crushed as if with a sledgehammer, then afterwards one can allow any liberties”. Crawley kept in touch with Welldon while training for ministry at Cuddesdon and afterwards.

A further impression of Welldon’s character may be found in this poem which E.M.Forster wrote about him after the bishop had criticised Labour MPs for “vulgar profanity”.

My brethren, nothing on earth is finer
Than a truly refined inarticulate miner
(Or may we say ‘under the earth,’ for there
Is a miner’s place, not up in the air ?) ;
But he must be refined, he must be meek,
Expert at his job, yet unable to speak,
He must not complain or use swear words or spit ;
Much is expected of men in the pit.

It is different for me. I have earned the right,
Through position and birth to be impolite.
I have always been used to the best of things,
I was nourished at Eton and crowned at King’s,
I pushed to the front in religion and play,
I shoved all competitors out of the way ;
I ruled at Harrow, I went to Calcutta,
I buttered my bread and jammed my butter,
And returned as a bishop, enormous of port,
Who stood in a pulpit and said what he thought.
Yes, I said what I thought and thought what I said,
They hadn’t got butter, they hadn’t got bread,
They hadn’t got jam or tobacco or tea,
They hadn’t a friend, but they always had me.
And I’m different to them. I needn’t be meek,
Because I have learned the proper technique;
Because I’m a scholar, a don, and a dean,
It’s all in good taste when I’m vulgar or mean.

I can bully or patronize, just which I please ;
I am different to them. . . . But those Labour M.P.s
How dare they be rude ? They ought to have waited
Until they were properly educated.
They must be punished, they’ve got to be stopped,
Parliamentary privilege ought to be dropped.
They shall be scourged and buried alive
If they trespass on My prerogative.

May I most clearly state, ere I lay down my pen,
That rudeness is only for gentlemen ?
As it was in the beginning, it shall be … Amen !

Jill Hume, Archives volunteer

William Edington, statute writer

October 5th, 2016

October this year marks the 650th anniversary of the death of William Edington, Bishop of Winchester. A financially astute servant of King Edward III, Edington served as Keeper of the Wardrobe, Treasurer and Chancellor throughout his career, arranging the kingdom’s finances to enable the king to pursue the costly Hundred Years War.

To find his significance in the history of the College of St George we must look back to our College Statutes. Amongst the oldest records relating to the College, these were first produced in 1352, four years after the College was founded by Edward III. The oldest surviving copy is on a vellum roll in the St George’s Chapel Archives, dating from the late-fourteenth or early-fifteenth century [SGC XI.D.20].

The College statutes were written by William Edington and Simon Islip, the Archbishop of Canterbury. They were entrusted with the work by Pope Clement VI, who stated in a papal bull issued on 30 November 1350 [SGC PB.3] that he fully approved and supported Edward III’s intention to found a college of canons, priests, clerks and Poor Knights at Windsor for the salvation of his soul and other people’s. Clement VI confirmed his confidence in Edington’s and Islip’s mindfulness of God and so granted to them the authority to order and enact statutes for the College and to appoint its first members.

The statutes that Edington and Islip produced covered a wide range of subjects in meticulous detail; everything that they considered important for the successful operation of the College and of St George’s Chapel. There are instructions about each member of the College, from the Dean (then known as the Warden) to the boy choristers: where they are to live and how often they are expected to attend services in St George’s Chapel, how much they should be paid and the penalty if they did not fulfil their obligations. For example, each Poor Knight was to receive 40 pence in sterling silver a year, plus 12 pence for every day he was resident at Windsor. If a Poor Knight was not in residence then his money for that day would be distributed among those who were. A Poor Knight was obliged to attend four services each day: two masses, evensong and compline, and to say one hundred and fifty salutations to the Virgin Mary, interspersed with fifteen recitations of the Lord’s Prayer, at each.

To ensure sound religious practice and financial management rules were provided about which people the Dean and Canons must keep in their prayers, about the duties of the different offices to be held by the Canons of the College and about how to invest any money that the College had left over at the end of a year. The statutes go into detail about the behaviour and appearance of members of the College – canons, vicars and clerks were discouraged from frequenting “taverns and suspicious places” and could be suspended from entering the quire for appearing too often in unclean or ridiculous attire. To maintain both the peace and the reputation of the College, anyone proven to be a defamer, grumbler and sower of discord was to be expelled.

Following Edington’s death, which is believed to have fallen on 6th or 7th October 1366, a tomb bearing his effigy was erected to commemorate him in the nave of Winchester Cathedral. Our statutes form another lasting memorial to his life and work as, with the addition of a number of supplemental charters to make them workable in the modern era, they are still in effect for the governance of the College of St George today.

Kate McQuillian, Assistant Archivist

The Blind Traveller

September 15th, 2016

The foundation of the Naval Knights of Windsor was established in 1795 to accommodate and maintain “seven Gentlemen who are to be superannuated or disabled Lieutenants of English Men of War” in exchange for their attending regular services in St George’s Chapel. Each Naval Knight was permitted four months leave each year, provided that at least four of them remained in residence at all times. One man, however, extended his leave far beyond that.

James Holman, born in 1786, entered the Navy as a 1st Class Volunteer at the age of twelve. From 1807, he was commissioned as Lieutenant but in 1810, at 25 years of age, he contracted an illness which left him totally blind and with limited mobility. This ended his naval career and in 1812 he was appointed a Naval Knight of Windsor. Within a short time he was said to have found the “quietude of the life there intolerable”. He petitioned for a leave absence, citing that his only chance of recovery lay in a “continual change of Air and Scene”. His extensive, well documented travels earned him the title of The Blind Traveller.

Lieutenant Holman travelled alone, “trusting his own sagacity and the sympathy of others”. His childhood ambition to see the world became an ambition to experience it and the rest of his life was dedicated to his travels. On his first tour of Europe, he had a highly unusual adventure while believing himself to be waiting in a stationary carriage in Bordeaux. He patiently awaited assistance to exit the carriage for more than an hour before the other passengers returned to explain the delay. During that time, they had arrived at the Dordogne River, the other passengers had crossed by ferry and caught a coach to take them downstream, while the carriage – with Holman still aboard – had been transported onto a raft and he had travelled four miles by water without having the least idea of moving!

His adventures would take him across the world. In Italy, he charred his walking stick at the summit of Mount Vesuvius and in Russia, while attempting to reach the Chinese border, he was mistakenly arrested as a spy. He would eventually make it to China on one of his later travels as well Australia, New Zealand and Syria among others. He would also visit Africa and America, and was part of the second party to climb Table Mountain on horseback. Later, travelling through Equatorial Guinea, he joined the fight against slavery and spent some time working on anti-slaver ships.

In 1832 Lieutenant Holman achieved the distinction of being the first blind person to circumnavigate the globe. He published an account of this journey under the title A Voyage Round the World (1834-5). His achievements were widely recognised: he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Linnaean Society and his writings on plant life in the Indian Ocean are cited as a source in Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle.

In his own words, Holman found that through travel he was “enabled to extract from calamity so large a measure of enjoyment. How many resources against discontent and loneliness this beautiful and varied earth presents.”

A full account of Lieutenant Holman’s life can be found in an unpublished history of the Naval Knights of Windsor by Peter Clissold, held in the St George’s Chapel Archives.

Beth Elliott, work exchange trainee

The 670th anniversary of the Battle of Crécy

August 26th, 2016

670 years ago today, on 26 August 1346, one of the most significant victories in English military history took place – the Battle of Crécy – where, against the odds, Edward III’s army defeated the forces of Philip VI of France. The battle formed part of the long running dispute between England and France, later known as the Hundred Years War, which had been instigated by the founder of St George’s College, Edward III, to assert his claim to the French throne. Following the victory, the English forces were able to capture the strategically advantageous city of Calais from their weakened opponents within a year.

Despite its importance to Edward III’s campaign, not many reports have survived from Crécy. The fullest and most contemporary account now known was produced by an Italian, Giovanni Villani, sometime before 1348.(1) Edward III is reported to have chosen a stand at Crécy to confront the French army who were pursuing him. Villani states that while the French had 12,000 knights and almost numberless men at arms, the English had just 4,000 knights and 30,000 English and Welsh bowmen. These numbers are almost certainly greatly exaggerated, but they do give an idea of the relative sizes of the two armies. The English king used his position and small numbers to the best possible advantage, ordering that the carts carrying their provisions should be arranged to protect the English forces and leave only a small area in which the troops could engage. Combined with the (in)famous longbows, this strategy rendered large parts of the French army useless: their hired Genoese crossbowmen did not have enough range to out-shoot the English while armoured and horsed French knights could be brought down from a distance, thereafter becoming obstacles for their own men. Such tactics were considered ‘un-knightly’ by the French and much scorned by their chroniclers.

One of several theories about Edward III’s reasons for founding the chivalric company, later known as the Order of the Garter, in 1348, was to reward those who had served him well in France and to secure their future loyalty. Of the twenty five men usually considered ‘Founder Knights’ of the Garter, well over half had been present that day at Crécy and many of them also at the successful siege of Calais which followed.

Notable among these was Edward III’s eldest son, ‘the Black Prince’, who at just sixteen years old commanded one of the three divisions of the English troops. He was supported in this by Sir Bartholomew Burghersh, Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, and Sir John Chandos, who would all become Founder Knights. Meanwhile, Sir James Audley, Sir Reginald Cobham, Sir John Lisle, Sir John Grey and Sir John Beauchamp fought in the king’s retinue, Beauchamp carrying the Royal Standard.

However, not all those gave distinguished service at Crécy, and other battles in the Hundred Years War, were chosen as ‘Founder Knights’. Some were appointed later in the 1340s and 1350s, notably Sir William FitzWaryn, Earl of Northampton, William de Bohun and Sir Thomas Ughtred. Meanwhile, Richard FitzAlan, the Earl of Arundel, who had been given command of one of the three divisions of the English army at Crécy, never rose to the distinction of Garter Knight, although he lived for nearly thirty years after the company had come into being. The early development of the Order of the Garter is lost in obscurity and this apparent omission, along with many other details, may never be fully understood.

Kate McQuillian, Assistant Archivist

(1) A detailed analysis of this and other accounts can be found in Barber, R., Edward III and the Triumph of England (London, 2013).

Letters to Mother

August 15th, 2016

Philip Frank Eliot was appointed a Canon of Windsor in 1886. Prior to this he had been Vicar of Holy Trinity, Bournemouth. For five years he continued to hold the parish in plurality with his canonry at St George’s and during that time he is said to have spent more time in Bournemouth than in Windsor. This was not unusual behaviour for a canon in the nineteenth century, nevertheless, Eliot’s promotion to Dean in 1891 caused something of a stir amongst his colleagues and was thought largely to have been due to his wife’s position in the Queen’s household – Mary Emma Pitt Rivers had been Queen Victoria’s Maid of Honour from 1870 until her marriage to Eliot in 1883.

The Eliot family’s favour with Queen Victoria and the Royal Family is made clear in letters to and from Philip Eliot that survive in the St George’s Chapel Archives. Prominent among these are the letters that he wrote to his mother, describing in detail the services and social occasions which provided the opportunity for interaction with the Royal Family.

This letter to Mrs Eliot was written not long after her son’s appointment as Dean of Windsor and hints at his difficulties adjusting to his recent elevation.

5 February, 1891: On Tuesday afternoon we got a telegram from Osborne saying that the Queen wished us to go to dine at Osborne on Wednesday and to stay the night. … Dinner was at quarter to nine. Mary had to dress in black as the court is in mourning – and she looked as nice as could be. The Queen came into the drawing-room for a moment before dinner, and kissed Mary and bowed to me. At dinner there were: Princess Louise – Princess Beatrice – the Duchess of Connaught – the Duchess of Albany – the Duke of Connaught – Prince Henry of Battenburg and two or three of the household. I sat next to Princess Beatrice on one side and Lady Waterpark on the other. The dinner was very lively and there was a good deal of conversation. I said “Grace” right this time!

Princess Beatrice talked a good deal to me especially about our going to Windsor. After dinner the Queen first talked to Mary and then came to me. – Nothing could be nicer and kinder than she was, and when I had got over my little speech of thanks “for her kindness and confidence” in appointing me to the Deanery, I did not feel at all nervous, and talked to her for nearly half an hour. [SGC M.885/3]

Only a few months later, Dean Eliot was able to report on the wedding of Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Princess Marie Louise of Schleswig Holstein:

8 July, 1891: As for the Wedding on Monday, it was magnificent as a scene. You must imagine the whole of St George’s filled from end to end with men in magnificent uniforms and ladies in magnificent dresses.

All the ladies who were invited guests were in low dresses. My lady looking as well as any of them.

The Archbishop and I walked side by side at the end of the clerical procession; two boys in surplices holding up the Archbishop’s long red train behind him. The Queen and the German Emperor and Empress and all the other Royalties were on a platform just outside the Communion Rails. …

The Service itself was very reverent and impressive and the music quite perfect. Immediately afterwards I had to go up to the Castle with the Register Books and was ushered into a Room where all the Royal people were, and had to show the Queen and the German Emperor and Empress and all the others where to sign their names.

There was a great fuss for a time about the Archbishop – as he had gone astray and could not be found. The Queen got quite impatient and sent 3 messengers for him before he could be found. [SGC M.885/4]

Later, as the bride and groom left, Eliot tells that the German Emperor “ran after the carriage like a school-boy and threw an old shoe at it!”

Dean Eliot’s confidence can be seen to grow over the years he spends as dean and he is able to report to his mother occasions when he has made The Queen laugh, or provided comfort to a member of the Royal Family in distress. His children were also allowed to take dancing lessons with some of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren, and this is a cause of great excitement for the family. The collection of Eliot’s correspondence also includes a number of letters to and from the Royal Family, including Queen Victoria herself. Although always formally expressed, these letters are evidence of the friendly connection between Eliot and the Royals.

Kate McQuillian, Assistant Archivist

A king five years ahead of schedule?

July 18th, 2016

On my third day of work experience at the College of St George’s archives on a two-week attachment, I was asked to catalogue the digital photographs which record the various sections of the ‘Tables’ of the Knights of the Garter, which hang in the Deanery at St George’s Chapel.

The ‘Tables’ are large hinged panels displaying the coats of arms of every individual appointed to the Order of the Garter since its foundation, arranged according to the reign during which they were appointed. They were moved from the main part of the Deanery to a room known as Mr Dean’s Upper Hall (later the library) in the 1920s by Dean Albert Victor Baillie, who feared their former position left them vulnerable to damage or theft.

Testing carried out on the paint and woodwork of the panels in the early 2000s suggests that these panels date from the seventeenth century, and indeed the central decorative panel is painted with the initials CR, presumably for Charles Rex, one of the two Charleses to reign during that century. There is strong documentary evidence that panels similar to these existed as early as 1400, but what became of those is unknown.

While examining the photographs, I noticed in one image from the collection an inscription which caused me something of a conundrum. I understood that it related to Edward III – Edwardus tertius – but some of the numbers did not add up.

The inscription surrounding Edward III’s coat of arms appeared to read ‘Began to Reigne Jan ye 25. In 1322 And He Reigned 1 years & 5 mon.’ This was very suspicious as the reign of Edward III is well documented as having begun on 25 January 1327, when he was crowned at the age of fourteen after his father was deposed by the Queen and the Earl of March. He reigned for a little over fifty years before dying in June 1377.

Fortunately, closer examination of the photograph showed one perceived mistake was just a mis-reading on my part. The painter had mixed Arabic numbers and Roman numerals and what had looked at first glance like a 1 was in fact an L – the Roman numeral for fifty.

Even so, Edward III’s date of coronation has indisputably been painted on the panel as 25 January 1322, when we know that it was 1327. Surely there was a reason why?

There was no answer to this question – it seems that the painter had simply included the wrong date. It leads to an interesting thought on how even those employed by the highest in society to work on material relating to kings and queens can make slips of the pen – or paintbrush – and how one must always keep an open mind when looking at any historical evidence.

Stuart Hemsley, work experience student, St George’s Chapel Archives

Life of a chorister

June 15th, 2016

In January 1901 James Douglas, former chorister in the St George’s Chapel choir, wrote an account for his daughter of the years he had spent at Windsor, from 1847. Over a century later, their descendants gifted a copy of this account to the St George’s Chapel Archives [SGC M.1061]. It provides a fascinating account of life in St George’s College at that time through the eyes of a young boy who was “always sent out spick and span” by his mother and whose grandparents and aunts granted him “many indulgences”.

James tells how he and his fellow choristers were remunerated for singing in the Chapel with 18s a month and their schooling. For the occasional singing they did at Eton, however, each boy was paid with a 1lb loaf, 1lb of meat and one quart of beer for the day. At this time James was only ten years old.

Many of his recollections seem to be connected with food; buying freshly-baked ½d sausage rolls from a shop in Windsor; being treated to a large bowl of “strawberry mess” (strawberries beaten up with sugar and cream) by a kindly Etonian; visiting the Deanery each year on stir-up Sunday (traditionally the last Sunday before Advent, when Christmas pudding is made) and being given a mince pie “about the size of a large cheese plate”.

Of the pass-times of the choristers, who spent most of their days between 7am and 5pm in a mixture of school-work, singing in the Chapel and practising and learning to sing, James says that they mostly played marbles and went fishing. He attributes these choices to there being no cricket ground for them to use, a fact that he seems to regret. The choristers also took an unusual interest in candle-wax – James reports that they often “watched the candles more than thinking of the service that was going on” – because they could collect the drippings from them and, when they had enough, sell the old wax. Accordingly, they looked forward to draughty nights and James reports that some of them secretly wedged their candles with small pieces of paper so they would tilt slightly and drip more frequently.

The memoir also gives accounts of some of the men living and working in St George’s Chapel at the time. Notable amongst these is Sir George Elvey, then organist and master of the choristers, whom the boys liked very much because he very rarely punished them. Nevertheless, he was known to use a paper knife to hold their tongues down if they were not opening their mouths properly when singing. He also boxed the ears of any boy who sang carelessly or out of tune in a Chapel service – James recalls that this usually seemed to happen in the afternoon services and never in the morning. Other colourful characters include a rather lazy lay clerk, described as “one of the biggest men I ever saw”, who paid James 6d a month to hang his hat upon its peg and hand him his surplice; a virger with a fondness for long words but little idea of when best to use them; and a devoted member of the congregation, who could repeat any verse of the Bible correctly and would call out to any canon who made a mistake in the collect or readings during a service, “you’re wrong!”

James Douglas remained a singer throughout his adult life but, despite a glowing testimonial from Sir George Elvey and his own childhood habit of making a wish every time he tasted a fruit or vegetable for the first time in a season, he never made it into a Cathedral Choir as an adult. He ends his recollections of Windsor by saying they were “happy, very happy days, such days as few boys are privileged to have, and tho’ my life has not been at all what it should have been, yet the influence of those days has I think often helped me strive against evil.”

Kate McQuillian (Assistant Archivist)