Reminiscences of a Quirister (H.H.Longbottom)

In 1903, my mother having died, I was living with my aunt at Curdridge, near Botley. She received from a cousin who was a miller at Durngate Mill, Winchester, an advertisement stating that there would shortly be a trial of boys' voices for entry into the choir of Winchester College. The choristers, known as Quiristers were educated, housed, fed and clothed at the expense of the College and during holidays were each paid a weekly sum in lieu of board and lodging and given many yards of calico for making shirts and a yard of red twill for making neckties. The possibility of my younger brother and I, one or both, getting into this school was regarded as a true Godsend, and my aunt, a highly intelligent and active lady, set to work in order that we should attend this trial of voices. Not only would success in this enterprise give us a chance of a good education, but it would solve the problem of our keep.

The day came for the trial of voices and my aunt wlith both of us boys set out for Winchester. It appeared that there were three vacancies to be filled. The Master of the Quiristers Mr. Edward George Williams held a short examination of the candidates for proficiency in the "three R's", following which, Dr. Edward Thomas Sweating the Master of Music at the College examined us briefly in our knowledge of music and, more importantly, to assess our voices. I was really a little too old for acceptance but in view of the quality and clarity of my voice it was decided that I should be passed for entry. The two other successful candidates were Frank Aldis May and Gladstone Evans.

After some further formalities we three were taken into the College via Kingsgate St. and College St. to be examined by the Warden in religious knowledge. It was now dark and our admission through the massive College gate (through the "Needle's Eye") into a cobbled yard surrounded by high flint walls was a somewhat eerie experience. The Warden, Godfrey Boles Lee, was a remarkable man: he seemed very aged; he was a slightly-built old man with an ascetic cleanshaven face. He was wearing a black skull cap and sitting with his head hunched into his shoulders in a high-backed chair. His manner towards us was somewhat irascible and his voice thin and harsh. He snapped out a few questions concerning the Bible and, coming to poor Evans who was the youngest, he asked for the meaning of verse 12 of Psalm 49 (...man will not abide in honour: seeing he may be compared unto the beasts that perish...). Evans began a stammering reply but was cut short by the Warden who berated him for giving the wrong answer. At this point the Warden's younger daughter, Miss Mary Dee, cut in with: "You should remember, Father, that these are only little boys!" With a grunt from the Warden we were dismissed. Warden Lee died soon after this episode and with other Quiristers I attended his funeral and burial in the College cloisters.
Life at school I found very pleasant. Mr. Williams was a kindly man, but with a rigid code of conduct and good manners. He was a good teacher with a lively sense of humour and his lessons were stimulating. He took trouble with the dimmer scholars; he laid great stress on the importance of good handwriting, spelling and grammar; we were provided with good textbooks. Teaching at the school was more personal, for there were only sixteen choristers, though we were joined for lessons and sports only by five day boys, private pupils of Mr Williams. Our Master was good at all sports and he had three fine sons, Kenneth, Lionel and Donovan who were also good sportsmen. Mr. Williams and his family lived in the Master's quarters at 64, Kingsgate St. The Matron was Miss Frances Brain. As I have said, Quiristers were provided with free board; they had all their meals in College Hall, having the same food as the "collegers" (scholars who lived within the College). We were also provided with uniforms of good grey cloth with "cutaway" coats with white metal buttons bearing the College crest, waistcoats, long trousers, round peaked caps ("cheesecutters") and boots, in the style of a century earlier. Our suits were made to measure by a first-rate tailor in Southgate St., Mr. E. J. Heyjl, a friendly, jolly man who, at the time of fitting, invariably gave us a shilling each as pocket money.

Our duties consisted of singing at Morning Chapel at 8a.m. each weekday, and on Saints' Days and other special days we had other services. On Sundays, of course, we sang at Matins and Evensong. Each weekday morning except Saturdays, we had singing practice with Dr. Sweeting or one of his assistants. On one Sunday in each month Evensong was sung in the Cathedral at 5p.m. when each boy had to carry over some of the service books. It was the duty of two boys to convey the necessary books for the use of the organist at these services, and afterwards to ascend into the organ loft to collect these books for return. The organ loft was reached by a long dark winding stone stairway on Cantoris side, entry being behind tall iron gates at the back of the organ. One dark winter's afternoon, two of us had gone up into the organ loft and, laden with books and music, had made our slow way down the darkened stairway to the floor of the Cathedral. On reaching this, we found all in darkness, all the lights having been extinguished by a duty verger hurrying home, and the iron gates were locked. We eventually reached the south transept door which led out under an archway near the cloisters. This was locked, but by continually banging on it we attracted at last the attention of a passer-by who called out the verger. After some explanations, he unlocked the door and let us out.
A further duty of Quiristers at that time was to wait upon the Scholars at breakfast, luncheon and tea. The huge joints of meat for luncheon were carved by three butlers at a table in the middle of Hall and our duty was to hand the plates to the waiting Scholars sitting at the four long oak tables, to fetch vegetables from the vast kitchen below or to replenish the "beer" jugs with supplies of "swipes" from the cellar beneath Hall. 'l'he "swipes" was brewed in the College brewhouse, now a Library, by a large fat man named Jo Chamberlain who invariably wore a flat cap and heavy leather apron. He was always accompanied by a small army of cats, many of them without tails. The fetching of the beer was a duty we all disliked very much. After each meal we collected the broken bread that remained and put it into a heavy oaken chest chained to the floor. This food was given to the "weeders", a batch of poor women whose supposed work was to weed Chamber Court, though to the best of my knowledge this was never done by women in my time. Whilst carrying out their duties in Hall, Quiristers wore a linen butler's apron to protect their clothing. One boy, usually the youngest in the school, was stationed at the Hall door during meals to keep closed the huge and exceedingly heavy door, to keep out the draughts. Any failure on the boy's part would bring shouts of "DOOR! DOOR!"

Inside Hall there was a huge cast iron stove with fierce fires both sides. At these fires the Scholars, and often the small Quiristers on the Scholars' behalf, would make toast. The heat was so great that it was impossible to get close to the stove unless toasting forks stuck into long canes were used; these were termed "long-forks". The stove was, of course, very hot on top, and one form of schoolboy foolery was to bunk up a small boy on to the stove top and to try to keep him there with brooms. I have suffered this treatment myself on more than one occasion, and it was very unpleasant! As is well knovrn, Hall contains a large number of valuable portraits, celebrities of bygone years, Old Wykehamists who have held office in Church and State, benefactors, etc. One of my contemporaries at school, junior to me, was a small fairfaced agreeable boy named Bennett. One day he was fooling about in Hall by swinging a longfork round his head. The metal fork flew off with some force from the end of the cane and to Bennett's horror, struck the famous portrait of Thomas Ken, Bishop of Bath and Wells, tearing the canvas. Bennett nearly fainted with fright and the rest of us, fully conscious of the seriousness of the situation, agreed that Bennett must confess what he had done, and that we would support him as much as possible. This was done and Bennett, although admonished, was not as severely punished as we had feared. In later years I have examined the picture and found that restoration of the damage has been so good as to be quite unnoticeable. I should like to know that poor Bennett has also seen the repaired painting, but his whereabouts and subsequent history seems to be unknown.
In the course of our duties in Hall and in the handling of the plates and other crockery which was of a superior quality with the College crest upon each piece, inevitable breakages occurred. In the event of a serious breakage the boy responsible would be sent by the butlers to report the matter at the office of the Bursar who at that time was Thomas Kirby. Mr. Kirby was an elderly solicitor with a dour temperament who had no liking for small Quiristers: on one occasion, having seen one of us with hands in pockets, he reported him to the Master and threatened to have the tailor sew up all Quiristers trouser pockets. The Bursar's Office was in two pokey rooms over Outer Gate, reached by a narrow winding staircase and at the top of which was an iron studded door. When we were sent over to this office to report misdemeanours, breakages, etc., we chose a time in the lunch hour when we knew the Bursar would be out and his clerk, a thin gloomy man named Aslett would be asleep. After tapping lightly on tho door and getting no reply, we would tiptoe away and report that there was no-one in the Office. There, as a rule, the matter ended.

One of the duties then, as perhaps today, was to sing the Wykehamist Latin Graces at the annual Domum Dinner held in Hall when there were present not only members of the Governing Body, but the Lord Lieutenant of the County and other important people. It was also customary each year for three Quiristers to attend the Old Wykehamists' Dinner in London for the same purpose. This was an event of great importance and pleasure for the three selected; they were taken to London by Dr. Sweeting, given a grand luncheon, treated to visits to Madame Tussaud's, The Zoo and so forth, and finishing with dinner at an hotel. Returning home late with strange tales to tell, they basked in the envy of their comrades. I was never fortunate enough to be selected for this, though in one year, my brother was. During the summer we were often invited to garden parties at the houses of the various College masters and others, at which we sang part songs and glees; there would sometimes be strawberry teas and games to follow. Life at such times was very pleasant and carefree.

One of the subjects taught was piano playing, though this was on a voluntary basis and had to be paid for privately. Mr. Williams undertook the training of the beginners. One of his pupils in my time was Tom Valentine Clift. He was not much good at reading music but had an aptitude for playing quite complicated music by ear. He liked loud music with strong chords. When possible, whether authorised or not, if he managed to get to an organ stool, he was in his element. It was the custom of organ tuners who came to Chapel, School and Music School to get two Quiristers to assist. One of them was always a boy who could play the piano, to press the keys as ordered by the tuner working at the back of the organ, and the other boy was required for blowing, for in those days organs were all blown by hand.
On one occasion Clift had been selected to assist the tuner when tuning the School organ. The organ was on the platform and the bellows chamber - a cupboard almost - beneath the stage was reached by a small doorway in the east wall of the building (this has now been bricked up but the site can still be seen). We had been working for most of the morning but were needed again in the afternoon. We hurried over lunch and got to the building before the tuner had arrived. Clift jumped on to the organ stool and began, with rny help as blower, his repertoire of hearty organ pieces. A crowd of visitors had arrived at the College and was waiting to be shown the old School. On seeing the open door they went inside and, sitting down, prepared to listen to the music! This somewhat disconcerted Clift, who stopped playing, and one of the group came round to the "blow hole" to ask me in a most refined manner if there was an organ recital going on. When I explained the position, the crowd dissolved. I never saw Tom Clift after he left school, but many years later I was in the offices of the Ocean Accident Insurance Co., in Pall Mall, London, and observed on a war memorial there the name "Tom Valentine Clift, killed in action."

In 1908 I left school to join the firm of Jacob & Johnson at 167 High St., Winchester, printers, who had, in 1772 started publishing the famous County newspaper, the Hampshire Chronicle. My pay was one shilling a day (six shillings a week) and my job was to assist in the office of the proof reader. The staff, all male, were an interesting lot, almost Dickensian in type, and three of them were Old Quiristers. One of these, the foreman, William Masters, was a jolly, busy man, always trotting about the works putting something to rights and wearing an apron, rolled shirtsleeves and a cap. He never smoked - no one ever did in such an old place packed with papers and other inflammable material - but, like all the other old "comps" he was an inveterate snuff taker, carrying around with him about an ounce of snuff in one of his waistcoat pockets, loose! William Masters must have then been one of the very few Old Quiristers who had served in College under the famous Samuel Sebastian Wesley, who was, of course, organist of both College and Cathedral. He once told me that on entering College choir as a small boy of eight, he was informed by Wesley that it was customary for new boys to sing a solo in the anthem on their first Sunday. In reply to my query as to how he got on, William Masters told me "Well, I just didn't come in!" The other Old Quiristers there were Edward (Teddy) Stroud and Fred (Mons) Batten who had worked in the firm ever since leaving school.

This account was written by Henry Haydn Longbottom at Blackheath, London, in February, 1977.

 

[source: Winchester College]


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