On Christmas Day, at seven in the morning, the Cathedral choristers ascended to the beautiful Minstrel Gallery over the North porch of the Nave, and sang the Old Hundredth Hymn. This scene was picturesque, and should have been religiously impressive. Alas, it was often desecrated by the hooligans and Christmas Eve revellers. The baptismal font, the sculptured images and monuments, had to be encased in wood to save them from damage, and on one notable occasion fireworks were set off in the gallery. This caused great scandal, and ultimately the ceremony was abandoned.
A custom, which I hope still remains, was held in the Cathedral when Bishop Philpotts attended Sunday service. In my day the communion service was made special only by the choristers remaining and singing two traditional hymns, and a short sacramental piece. At the close of service the choristers assembled in the South aisle, through which the Bishop passed on his way to the Palace. Each boy, as he knelt, received the Bishop’s blessing. Though perhaps not greatly impressed by the ceremony when a boy, for many years after the blessing often came to my memory, when in trouble or danger. Most definitely it came to me when, in the year 1907, I was thrown onto the railway and the train wheels passed within an inch of my body.
Mentioning the almshouses brings the recollections of an eccentric gift to the Cathedral authorities in early days. This gift carried with it a condition that on 29th of May every year the choristers should for one hour ring a bell set up in the court-yard of the almshouses. The bell would be about 10lb in weight, and sufficiently loud to be offensive to everybody but the boys who, of course, were only too well pleased to keep up the dreadful din!
My first Master of Music at the Cathedral was Samuel Sebastian Wesley. Many stories of his eccentricities were current amongst us boys. On occasions he would come into the Singing School and say: ‘Boys, I am told some of you have been behaving badly of late. I don’t know who they are, but to be sure I must thrash you all round !’. And he did so – not severely, but formally.
On one occasion, just before the beginning of the afternoon service, Wesley was in the South transept admiring a piece of sculpture. Adjoining this transept was the boys of vestry. He called Bob Kit, the Head Boy, to him. Still absorbed for a few minutes with the sculpture, he at length looked and saw the boy by his side. ‘What do you want here?’, He remarked. ‘Please sir, you called me’, replied the boy. With the kick he sent Bob flying into the vestry. The service immediately thereafter began.
For all your services and anthems, previously learnt by the boys in the Singing School, rehearsals are held with the lay clerks in the Cathedral itself. Wesley was of course at the organ, situated on the screen. On one occasion the anthem was a modern one – the part of the chorus being marked ff. Coming out of the organ loft, Wesley demanded that the chorus should be sung louder and louder. ‘But I must have it loud and that’, he emphatically replied.
My brother, the late Dr William Stark, was an articled pupil of Dr Wesley, and often played the organ at the services. It was my privilege to be with him at some of his practices, to turn over the leaves of the piece he was learning. In due course Wesley and my brother left Exeter for Leeds, where the former was appointed organist of the Parish Church, and my brother was assistant organist. In succession to Wesley at Exeter came Alfred Angel from Wells Cathedral.
Exeter Cathedral Library and Archive © 2013
Fred R Spark was born in 1831. He was a brother of Dr William Spark, a pupil of Samuel Sebastion Wesley.
Re-published by permission of Exeter Cathedral Library and Archives
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