Life of a chorister

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)

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.