From the beginning of the 18th century until the spread of the church organ in the mid 19th century, many villages had a quire (choir) of psalm singers. Often called ‘West Gallery Singers’ because they sat in the west gallery above the rear end of the nave, they sang the psalms and other selections from the Book of Common Prayer to tunes composed by local teachers and quire members.
In 1700, the nave was already ‘owned’ by the more affluent members of the congregation. Galleries to the north and south were built to seat the poorer members of the flock, and the west gallery became home to the singers and musicians.
And they took their job seriously. Here’s an extract from the Rules of a quire in Kent:
1773 Oct. 28th Ann agreement made for the Company of Psalm singers in Kenardington. We Do gree to forfitt two pence on all Sundays for not being at Church in Divine Sarvis time to joyn to sing to the praise an glory of GOD and to meet on Sunday Evening at Six o’clock and forfitt one penny and to meet on all Thursday evenings at Six o’clock or forfitt one penny for each Neglect of not being there at the time. The mony to be gathered by One Whom the Company apoint for that purpus and the forfitt mony to be Spent on January 1st 1774 at a place apointed by the Company. Agreed and aproved of by us Who have hear unto Sett our Names.
Thos Tolhurst X his mark
lsaac Dadson X his mark
Thos Leads X his mark
Wm Jones X his mark
And here’s what they might have sounded like.
They used their skills in other settings, too:
There is no doubt that the mixed groups of instrumentalists and singers which we refer to as ‘quires’ to distinguish them for the organ-driven, surpliced latter-day groups, became very important in parish life. Those who played for the singing in church would also have played a major part in parish social life on feast days, high days and holidays. They had status within parish society, the nature of their jobs often gave them a measure of independence, and they were not infrequently in conflict with the parson or the squire. Their music often travelled far and wide, and in surprising forms. For example, few people today realise that when they sing the Yorkshire anthem ‘On Ilkley Moor Bah’t ‘At’ they are actually singing a west gallery hymn called ‘Cranbrook’, composed by the Canterbury shoemaker Thomas Clark who alone wrote hundreds of such splendid tunes.
The following far more secular song (just listen to the repeated chorus) might well have been sung on the village green on the night of the Whitsunale celebration that is a central event in Farewell to Kindness. If I do a book trailer, this is the song I want in the background. I couldn’t find a version sung by a West Gallery quire, but this one is pretty and the words are clear.
Much of the material for this article and all the quotes came from the West Gallery Music Association.