Chapel-en-le-Frith's Male Voice Choir and Ladies Choir
PUBLISHED: 11:21 23 May 2014 | UPDATED: 11:21 23 May 2014
When delving into the history of two High Peak choirs, Mike Smith hears about the rejuvenating effects of singing and discovers the links between an Essex seaside town and Derbyshire
Since its formation immediately after the First World War, the Chapel-en-le-Frith Male Voice Choir has been entertaining audiences for an unbroken period of 95 years, even carrying on with reduced numbers during the Second World War. Writing in the programme for the choir’s diamond-jubilee concert, Bert Longson recalled the origin of the group: ‘One night after I had been to a choir practice at Town End Wesleyans, I was talking to George Muir, Joe Lomas and Joe Pearson at the bottom of the school yard. We started singing and a schoolmaster came across the road and said, “With voices like that, you ought to form a male voice choir.”’
Suitably encouraged, the friends sought recruits from men who had returned to the town after serving in the Great War: a conflict that had cost Bert the use of both his legs. With Bert’s uncle, Tom Longson, as their first conductor, the choir progressed from carol singing to participation in shows organised by Chapel-en-le-Frith ex-Servicemen’s Operatic and Dramatic Society, where their singing was one element in ambitious programmes that included one-act plays and orchestral pieces.
In 1927, the choir broke away from the society, leaving the drama group to continue as Chapel Players, a thriving amateur dramatic society to this day. Proud of their origins, the choir has staged a number of anniversary concerts over the years, including a special golden jubilee event, where they sang to the accompaniment of the famous Fairey Band, conducted by the fabled conductor Harry Mortimer. Another notable performance saw the choir joining Mike Harding in a rousing rendition of the ‘Manchester Rambler’ at an event to mark the 80th anniversary of the Mass Trespass on Kinder Scout. The entertainer was moved to comment: ‘You are the best backing group I’ve ever had’.
As testimony to their contention that ‘singing is the key to a long life’, the choir includes stalwarts such as Roy Buxton and Edward Green, who have been members for more than 50 years. However, the choir has widened its age-profile and its target audience in recent years. Vice-chairman Martin Mullis says, ‘As well as recruiting several younger singers, we have secured a grant from Derbyshire County Council to allow us to put on free concerts in areas not normally exposed to choral singing. A recent concert at Gamesley, an estate for people re-housed from Manchester, was a great success.’
Publicity officer John Goodchild says, ‘Thanks to the high standards set by our musical director and conductor John Briscoe, we are able to perform with the country’s top choirs. Recently, we joined 1,500 male and female singers in a concert at the Royal Albert Hall which raised £150,000 for cancer research. This year, we are giving a concert in aid of Prostate Cancer UK, when our guests will be the Orpheus Male Voice Choir from Leigh-on-Sea, a town with a very special link to Chapel-en-le-Frith.’
Leigh-on-Sea is situated on the Thames Estuary. As a former Leigh resident Pam Hobbs explains in her book ‘Don’t Forget to Write’, the evacuation from Dunkirk in May 1940 resulted in a decision to evacuate 20,000 children from the Essex coast. After being given just 24 hours’ notice, each child was required to collect their gas mask and to fill one suitcase with essential possessions (as Pam didn’t have a suitcase, she had to make do with a sandbag). Before boarding a special train, each child was issued with a name-tag and a self-addressed postcard which would be used to inform their parents when they reached their unknown destination.
In fact, the evacuees were destined for various locations in Derbyshire. Pam was billeted at Charbury, before being moved to Kirk Langley. After winning a Scholarship to Westcliff-on-Sea High School for Girls, which had been re-located to Chapel-en-le-Frith, she spent the second year of her evacuation in the High Peak town. A house known as Frith Knoll was used as a school for the younger girls, while the senior pupils were educated at Bank Hall, famed as the former home of Squire Frith, remembered in ‘Squire Frith’s Hunting Song’, which records his pursuit of a fox for 40 miles.
Westcliff High School returned to Essex in June 1942, when the threat from the Germans had lessened. During her two-year stay in Derbyshire, Pam had developed a love of the countryside and also a passion for writing, thanks to penning numerous descriptive letters to her parents. In later life, she became a travel-writer and is now based in Canada. During their visit to the Peak District, members of Leigh’s Orpheus Choir will be invited by the members of Chapel’s Male Voice Choir to visit those areas of Derbyshire that had made such an impact on Pam and the other evacuees.
Cllr Ann Young, a former Mayor of the High Peak, was another evacuee, although she came from London to Chapel-en-le-Frith. Ann served as president of Chapel Ladies’ Choir from 1999 until her death in 2011. Although the ladies’ choir cannot match the town’s male voice choir for longevity, it will be celebrating its fortieth birthday this year; ‘forty years young, if you please’, according to some senior members, who include two founder-members, Pauline Turner and Mary Hipwell.
The choir was formed at the instigation of Ray Holden, a bandsman and the licensee of the Roebuck Inn, and Eva Salt, a well-known Chapel resident, who placed an advertisement in the local paper, asking for ‘ladies who like a night out and a jolly get-together’. As this invitation proved irresistible, the new choir came in being just two months later, in September 1974.
Ray Holden died only one year after becoming the choir’s first conductor, leaving the baton in the temporary charge of three different musical directors until a permanent replacement could be found. After this stuttering start, the choir was lucky enough to find Norma Clough, a leading Buxton soprano. During her 27-year reign as musical director, the choir grew in size and musical stature.
Over the years, the choir has toured in France, Holland and Belgium, twinned with the Schwalheim Choir in Germany, forged links with choirs in Wales and Sheffield, and sung in prestigious venues such as the Painted Hall at Chatsworth and the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool. The highlight of this year will be the Ruby Anniversary Concert, featuring solos from various former conductors and accompanists. Even Norma Clough will be returning, after an absence of ten years, to conduct two of her favourite items, and the choir will sing two compositions created for the occasion by their current musical director, Dorian Kelly, who has used lyrics taken from poems written by Judy Brown, a choir member.
Chairman Suzanne Kelly says: ‘The choir is still flourishing after 40 years. It has 49 members, with the oldest approaching 90 and the youngest still at school.’ Echoing the belief expressed by the Chapel Male Voice Choir that singing is the key to a long life, she says ‘We come out of Monday night choir practice feeling younger than we were when we went in.’
At the Palace Hotel, Buxton, on 24th May, 7.30pm, the Chapel-en-le-Frith Male Voice Choir will be performing alongside the Orpheus Male Voice Choir from Leigh-on-Sea in a charity concert for Prostate Cancer UK. See www.chapelmalevoicechoir.co.uk for ticket availability.
The Ruby Anniversary Concert of the Chapel-en-le-Frith Ladies’ Choir took place at Chapel-en-le-Frith Methodist Church on 17th May at 7.30pm. See www.chapel-en-le-frithladieschoir.co.uk
Both the Chapel choirs are producing CDs this year. ‘Don’t Forget to Write’ by Pam Hobbs is published in paperback by Ebury Press.