A Tale of Two Lay Clerks

A Tale of Two Lay Clerks

A pencil drawing of an old man approaching a step, feeling for it with a cane, with his hat out in front of him
Stephen Heather, lay clerk.

Both the subject and the artist of this etching [SGC F.120/a] were lay clerks at St George’s Chapel. It may be assumed that Stephen Heather and Josiah French would have known one another well, as the final ten years of Heather’s career in the choir of St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle overlapped with the first ten years that French was here.

Stephen Heather first appears in St George’s School’s records of choristers in April 1766. The Register of Chapter Acts for 1748-1773 [SGC VI.B.7] tells us that he was elected probationer clerk on 2nd February 1770 and fully admitted as a lay clerk to the senior choir of St George’s on December that year. He remained a member of the choir for the next sixty-five years, until his death. The caption to this picture claims he had been associated with St George’s for more than seventy-six years by then, so he must have become a chorister as a very young boy.

We mostly know very little about the lives of the former lay clerks of St George’s Chapel, what information we have is pieced together from mentions they receive in the administrative records of the College of St George. In the case of Stephen Heather, we know from the Chapter Acts that during his lengthy service in the Chapel choir he was three times fined a shilling for failing to attend evensong: twice in April 1772 [SGC VI.B.7] and again on 14th December 1795 [SGC VI.B.8]. Sadly, for those of a curious mind, no explanation for any of the absences is given.

He appears to have remained a bachelor all of his life. There are certainly no mentions of a marriage or the baptism of any children relating to him in the Chapel’s registers, and as he lived and worked at St George’s from his youth until his death, one would assume that any such important family events would have taken place here. He lived in the Horseshoe Cloister, as the lay clerks do today, in the property that is now No. 16. The Chapter Acts record various repairs being done to his house – from mending tiling on the roof to laying a “privy floor” – but there is never any mention of other occupants. French’s portrayal of Heather in this picture, with dark glasses and a long stick held out in front of him, suggests that he was blind, but no reference to this has been found in the College’s records.

On 8th November 1830 the Chapter Acts note that “In consequence of [Heather’s] age & infirmities, attendance at services in future dispensed with, without any deduction.” [SGC VI.B.9] That he was allowed to live out his final year in Chapel accommodation and on full pay was surely in recognition of his life of dedicated service to St George’s. He was buried in the Chapel on 21st November 1831.

The artist of this etching, Josiah French, was a lay clerk at St George’s from 1821 to 1850. The Archives holds an obituary written for The Gentleman’s Magazine in June 1850, which describes him as quite a character [SGC F.120/b]. Initially apprenticed as a stocking weaver, he swore on the final day of the apprenticeship never again to touch a stocking except when putting on and taking off his own. Thereafter he pursued a career in music. He was an avid collector of two things: works of art, of which he had acquired 295 by the time of his death, and autographs. He was reportedly very determined in pursuit of the latter. The article includes an anecdote of French using his position at Windsor to obtain a prestigious signature: “One morning he was met on the Castle Hill full of spirits. ‘Well,’ said he, ‘I have got it.’ ‘What have you got?’ was inquired. ‘The King’s autograph, to be sure,’ was the reply. It was the autograph of the King of Prussia, who at that moment had not been in Windsor Castle an hour, and how the autograph was obtained no one ever knew.”

In addition to his employment as a singer, several bills survive which show that French was paid by the Chapter to copy out organ music and singing parts for use in St George’s Chapel [SGC XIV/1826/22 etc], in fact we hold four music manuscripts in the Chapter Library which contain some of his copying, as evidenced by his signature beside the parts he had done [SGC MUS MS 68, 75, 86 and 87]. More bills and receipts tell us that he was also employed to teach the young boy choristers to write [SGC XIV/1830/49 etc] and on 30th October 1843 he was paid £2 2s for his services in cleaning the altarpiece [SGC XIV/1843/64] – clearly he was a man of many talents!

Kate McQuillian, Assistant Archivist

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.