When I was asked to write down my recollections of Farnborough Church Choir, I thought it would be ‘a piece of cake’.  I find, however, that my memory is not as good as I thought.  Not surprising though when I recall that it is roughly 72 years ago that I joined the choir at the age of 8 in 1931.

I certainly remember my ‘audition’.  It was in the vestry on boys’ practice night, a Monday.  Boys only on Mondays in the vestry – with harmonium; full choir on Friday night in the main church – with organ.  The Organist and Choirmaster (Old Tommy Atkinson to us) took me up and down a few scales and seemed satisfied with the response he got – so I was in.  For my first Sunday morning effort ‘Old Tommy’ placed me next to the lead boy, his son Bert, who had instructions to look after me and see that I did not stray.  Bert had a lovely voice and I felt very proud to be singing next to him.  Sadly he was killed during the Second World War.

I remember Noel Rich and Harry Beverly (Snowball) joining around the same time as me and later on Arthur Crandley (Candles), Tom Shelton and Dennis Kimber, but regrettably I cannot recall the names of others.  But I can remember some of the men: Mr Burgess, Mr Butler (who kept the village grocery store), Stan Mussell, Jesse Sawyer (young Christine Tilly’s Dad), Mr Round and  Mr Bryant.

I have a distinct memory of ‘pay night’ of course.  The ritual took place once a quarter in the vestry.  Normal pay 3s.6d.  But I discovered, when I became lead boy, my pay shot up to 7s.6d a quarter.  Heaven!  Every now and then boys were required to sing at a wedding or funeral.  No school secretaries in those days. The Headmaster, Mr Alfred Bootes, did all the necessary, so, ‘rat, tat, on the classroom door and in would walk ‘Old Tommy’ to request his flock to be in attendance at one or the other. 1s.0d for funerals, 1s.6d for weddings; there was always a bonus at weddings - we could all ‘ogle’ the bride!

Christmas was exciting; not only practising carols but also the choir would go out carol singing for a few nights.  The last night always included in its penultimate call a visit to ‘The Heppenstalls’ at the bottom of Church Hill by the stile to Chalky Luggett, where we each were given a few sweets, and ended with a trek up to Lord Avebury’s mansion at High Elms where, after our ‘performance’, we were ushered into the very large kitchen and presented with more sweets and an orange. Cor!

Easter was also a very happy and rewarding time for anyone even slightly interested in making music. The Easter Hymns were a joy to sing and the choir regularly performed a special at this time with many opportunities for solos. I can remember Mr Burgess taking most of the tenor solos and the bass solos were often taken by Jesse Sawyer; his voice was so deep it impressed all the boys who would spend the next couple of weeks trying to emulate the sound.  As far as I can remember the anthems usually came from “The Crucifixion” or “The Cross of Christ”. 

Old Tommy must have thought I had an aptitude for music because he called on my mother one day and asked if he could teach me the piano.  He charged 3s.6d an hour.  My parents could not possibly afford that but agreed to let me have half an hour for 1s.9d.  Old Tommy was very good to me, he often threw in an extra 15 minutes; but I blotted my copybook one Monday evening at boys only practice night.  The vestry was being redecorated and the harmonium was covered in sheets; so we all assembled in the main church and “you” said Tommy to me, “you can play the organ”.  I was over the moon.  He gave me some idea (I could not reach the pedals so it was fingers only) of how the beast worked and I was away.  Then Tommy said “I’m just going to the vestry to get another hymn book – so behave yourselves”.  Now Old Tommy was said to be deaf at 5 paces so all the boys said “Go on Undy, let it rip”.  How could I resist?  ‘When the Poppies Bloom Again’, a hit tune of the 30s, came out of the organ.  In modern parlance ‘I had gone’.  I was brought to my senses with a smart clout to the left ear with ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’.  Tommy had returned and was not amused.  Punishment?  Severe – he never let me touch that organ again. 

I vaguely remember seeing a large bag of cricket gear appearing in  the vestry one Monday night and this was followed shortly after by a match on Chalky Luggett – but the result, who played and why we played, has gone.   There was an outing to Hastings during the Summer.  I don’t remember the men ever getting excited but the boys certainly did.  Steam train (and it ran on time) from Orpington to Hastings, morning on the beach, lunch, more chasing along the beach and then – a visit to a proper tea-shop.  Cor!  When they spied all the fancy cakes to be devoured, the eyes of the boys stood out like organ stops.  It made the day.

One character I must mention was Nobby Haines.  Nobby was an ex Crystal Palace footballer who, on Sundays, acted as Bell-ringer and Organ Pumper.  No electrics on that organ, somebody had to go round the back and pump it before it would play.  In those days the organ pipes were in the organ chamber at the right of the chancel.  Every Winter Sunday morning I would be an early arrival at church and race up to the belfry to discuss with Nobby the previous days football results.  Those were also early days of Football Pools and one of my lasting memories was of Nobby pulling the bell with his foot in a loop at the bottom of the bell rope while, with pencil point frequently licked, he would check his forecast with the results in the Sunday paper.  I’ll swear that every time he got one right the bell sounded much louder!

I must say that I enjoyed my time in the choir and the knowledge gained helped me to pursue music as a hobby throughout my life.  Particularly during the war years when I took the opportunity  to teach myself to play the trombone, joined the station (R.A.F.) dance band and sang many of the vocals all round Western Europe. I remember vividly being approached by a vaguely familiar figure in a smoke-filled bar one night in Scotland who said “Excuse me but did you once sing in Farnborough Church Choir?”.  He was a lad of about my own age, 20 at the time, who had been a regular member of St. Giles Congregation.  My mates took this up of course and I was henceforth known as ‘The Choirboy’. 

It’s a Small World.

Phil Underwood (originally published c 2002)

see also Another Choirboy Recalls

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