A Victorian Cathedral – The Song School

The Song School

The definitive authority on Phoebe Anna Traquair, the artist who decorated the walls of the Song School with some of the finest murals in Scotland, is Dr. Elizabeth Cumming whose book on the artist was published in 2012.  I am, however, looking at the Song School from a different perspective, that of the various articles about the Song School that were published in the Monthly Paper up to 1901. Interestingly the Monthly Paper uses Song School, Choir School and Music School interchangeably.

Initially the only choir led services were those held on a Sunday but from January 1880 daily choral evensong were added. It soon became clear, however, that this arrangement simply would not work without a school being set up for the choristers.  Consequently in May 1880 the choir school opened in Old Coates House with Mr. Albert Howard appointed as schoolmaster.  Up to this time the number of regular boys had not exceed twenty but the hardship of requiring the boys to attend matins, two evensongs every Sunday as well as daily evensong during the week made it desirable to increase the number of choristers to forty.  The idea was that for the Sunday services all boys should attend matins at 11:00 am, twenty the afternoon service at 3:30 pm and the other twenty the evening service at 7:00 pm.   The difficulty, however, was that the school room in Old Coates House could only accommodate twenty, so the increase in the number of boys had to be limited to ten.

To add to the problems the Cathedral Library, where the choristers practiced, was extremely badly ventilated, excessively hot and, due to the sighting of the heating boilers directly underneath, prone to gas fumes.  It was, therefore, essential, both to increase the number of boys and for their continuing good health, to find a larger and healthy building for the choir school.

These problems were raised at the Congregational Meeting held in the Freemasons’ Hall on 22 December 1881 but as reported in the April 1882 Monthly Paper, lack of money prevented the project going forward. Two members of the congregation had donated £1,200 but a further £800 was required.  By January 1883 there were 36 boys in the choir but only accommodation in Old Coates House for 30, the other 6 boys being educated in local schools. There may have been some resistance within the congregation to the idea of a new choir school building as this extract from the January 1883 Monthly hints.

“To some it may appear that a school is unnecessary.  But it is quite indispensable.  The daily service prevents them from attending ordinary schools; and in order to have a good Choir, the boys require special supervision.  A Choir boy should have a naturally good voice.  This voice must be carefully trained.  The boy must be well fed and clothed, and he must be in good health and spirits.  With all this, time must be found for his education, and at service than other boys of his age.  He therefore requires special provision for the arrangement of his teaching and healthy recreation.  Hence a good school-room and good play-ground are of great importance.”

However, by June 1884 only a further two contributions had been received taking the money available to £1,400 although the overall cost had reduced to £1,800.  In view of the shortfall an appeal was printed in that July’s Monthly Paper.

Music School.

We are requested to publish the following Statement which is now being circulated amongst the members of the Congregation: –

“Ever since the opening of the Cathedral, the want has been felt of a suitable room in which to hold the Choir practices.  The only room at present available for this purpose is the Library of the Cathedral, which has to serve also as Vestry for both clergy and Choir.  This room is not only too small, but is also ill ventilated, and from its structural details is quite unsuitable for a music room, while the large number of cassocks and surplices hung round the room render it still more unfit for good vocal work.  It is felt that the time has now come when a strenuous effort should be made to have a properly constructed and equipped “Music School” erected within the Cathedral precincts, to give the requisite facilities for the due development of the Musical Services of the Church.  Plans of such a building have been obtained from Mr John Oldrid Scott, Architect to the Cathedral.  The site proposed is at the north end of Coates House, and the style of architecture is intended to harmonise with that of the Cathedral, and at the same time not to dwarf the old house.  The estimated cost is about £1800, towards which sum £1400 has already been promised by a few members of the congregation and other friends.  It is most desirable that the building should be commenced at once in order that it may be finished before winter sets in.  The want is so pressing that it would be most unfortunate should it be necessary to postpone the commencement of the building operations for another year.”

In July 1885 it was announced that “the Music School, which has been in course of erection for the last few months, is now approaching completion.” There was still a shortfall of £150 and those in the congregation who had not so far contributed were urged to do so.  The formal opening of the Song School was announced in the January 1886 magazine and the outstanding money must have been raised as reference is made to the purchase of an organ “which will be used for practice, so that the Cathedral will soon be more quiet for those who have been desirous to come in for private devotion.”  The organ (which was built by Messrs Willis and was water powered) was formally inaugurated by a recital on Christmas Eve 1887.  The building was insured in 1886 for the sum of £1,900 – roughly £262,000 today.

The first mention of the murals appeared in the November 1888 Monthly Paper.

“The Song School Frescoes.

These most beautiful pictures are now rapidly growing under the skilful hand of the lady who is so willingly spending time upon this great work.  Already the Eastern wall is glowing with colour, the central group being well-nigh completed, the subject being “three Angels at the Sepulchre, and the visit of the three Marys.” The work is exceedingly beautiful, and faces being perfect in purity of expression and character; and it is surprising, how, even now, in their unfinished state, the pictures arrest the attention and claim the interest of everyone that enters the Song School.”

It was reported in the February 1890 magazine that the east wall was now finished and work was to start on the north wall.  By January 1892 the wooden panelling beneath paintings had been finished but the cost had not been met, a balance of £7, 15s. 9d still outstanding.  The July 1892 Monthly Paper reports that the murals were finished and “the room is open to visitors daily from 10.30 to 12.30 and 2.30 to 3.30.  There is no charge for admission, but visitors are requested to inscribe their names in the “Visitors’’ book”, and to drop a contribution into the Box, towards defraying the expense of the panelling, gilding of the roof, varnishing of the walls, etc.; there being still a considerable deficit remaining to be met.”  Almost three years later in May 1895 there was still a debt of £20 and “it was necessary to obtain an advance from the bank, and on this a high rate of interest is payable.”

The last mention of the Song School in the Victorian period was an article printed in August 1900.

“Song School.

During last month the interior walls of this building have been carefully cleaned and varnished, with the result that Mrs. Traquair’s beautiful fresco paintings, which had the appearance of having faded, but were only coated over by smoke and dirt from the now abolished gas [lighting] and stoves, stand out in all their original freshness.  The Board of Management have been obliged, with great reluctance, to forego the painting of the roof, which Mrs. Traquair wished to be undertaken with the object of bringing it into harmony with the walls, and improving the light.  The estimate for painting the roof amounted to £30.  It is most desirable that it should be done, as it has the effect at present of a heavy dark pall hanging over delicately ornamental walls.  But it must remain as it is unless some generous friend should volunteer to bear the cost of painting and decorating it.”

It was reported at the December 1900 Cathedral Board Meeting that the ceiling had been painted at a cost of £43 which was partly covered by an anonymous gift of £30.


Deviating from my aim to only use information from the Monthly Paper, I have found some interesting choir related items from this period in the archive.

I mentioned above that Mr Albert Howard was appointed as the first schoolmaster of the Choir School in 1880, however, he resigned this position in 1886.  In his resignation letter he states “The principal cause of my resignation is that I consider that the person who has charge, as I have, of the boys both inside and outside the Cathedral ought to have an ‘absolute veto’ against any boy being kept in the Choir,  whom he considers to be an unfit companion for the others, or who commits any grave breach of discipline; and this the Cathedral authorities do not see fit to grant, although no reason has been given for the refusal.”

In September 1888, the new Schoolmaster, Mr. Keith, was given such authority in a letter from the Precentor, Rev Alfred Griffiths which states:

“Mr Keith has the power of temporary suspension of Choir boys for offences which come under his notice until my further order.  He should, however, give notice in such cases to the Precentor and Organist.”

Even more intriguing is a letter from Mr. Keith dated May 30th, 1887.  We don’t know to whom it was sent.

“Rev Sir,

Allow me to suggest the following: –

  1. That the Gentlemen (Regular and Voluntary) of the Choir do not talk after coming out of the vestry.
  2. That they do not speak in the stalls.
  3. That the Voluntary Gentlemen do not break through the boys when in line in order to get to their places in the vestibule.

The task of maintaining a highly efficient discipline will be greatly increased if the above are allowed to continue.  The most powerful of all the means of discipline is example not from one or two adult members of the Choir but from all.”

However, ending on a positive note I have found a catalogue, dated 1888, listing all the books in the Chorister’s Library. All 310 books are listed, divided into subject area such as biography, botany, fiction, history, science, zoology and even a collect of annuals.

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