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.

A Victorian Cathedral – The Building

Words by Iain Morrison, Hon. Archivist

Introduction and the Building

During the Covid lockdown I was looking for something to keep me busy and fortunately I had copies of all the Cathedral magazines from 1879 to 1902 at home.  The magazine was initially called the “Monthly Paper of Church Information for the Congregation of St. Mary’s” but from the beginning of 1880 the name was thankfully simplified to the “Monthly Paper” and cost 1d.  These magazines were the public face of the Cathedral and, as they were edited by a member of the clergy team, they also give us an idea into the thinking of the clergy at the time.  Reading through the magazines I realised that they contained much interesting material that highlighted all aspects of Cathedral life in the late Victorian period.

I thought that the best way to bring these matters to wider attention would be by a series of articles covering one aspect of the Cathedral at a time.  Even so, there was so much to choose from that it has been difficult to keep the size of these articles to manageable proportions.

Here is the first article on the Cathedral Building.

The Cathedral Building
This first article is about the Cathedral building from the opening of the nave in January 1879 to the installation of electricity in 1900 as viewed through the Monthly Paper.  First of all, however, a few words about the period immediately before the building was opened for worship.

The foundation stone was laid on 21st May 1874 by the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry and, according to The Pictorial History of St. Mary’s Cathedral published by Pitkin Books in 1969, “in the presence of a vast congregation, estimated at seven thousand people”.  The stone is under the north east pier of the central tower and contains a copy of the Trust Deed in a glass bottle, the Edinburgh Post Office Directory, Oliver & Boyd’s Almanac, newspapers and coins. A temporary Iron Church, known as St. Mary’s in the Precincts, was opened on 28th May 1876.  This building, which was erected on the site of the present Song School, cost about £1,170 towards which the Dean give a loan of £800.  The very first service, an early celebration of communion at 8.00 am, was attended by 53 communicants with larger congregations at both the 11.00 am Matins and 3.00 pm afternoon services.  The choir consisted of members of the congregation and assisted during part of the year by students from the Episcopal Training College in Dalry.

In the Cathedral’s archive there is a drawing of the Iron Church made by Reginald Campbell who was a chorister at the Cathedral from 1886 to 1890.  Also shown below is a picture of the interior of the Cathedral under construction which was taken in 1877.

The nave was opened on Saturday 25th January 1879 with services of Morning Prayer at 11.30 am and Evening Prayer at 4.00 pm.  The morning service was attended by the Bishop, Dean and Canons of the Cathedral and clergy from other churches in the diocese. Although both services attracted large congregations, the total collection amounted to about £40 [roughly £5,000 in today’s terms] which was described in the February Monthly Paper as “a sum utterly inadequate to defray the preliminary expenses for which they were required”.  This illustrates the recurring concern the Victorian Cathedral had, and still has, with the lack of money; it started with the very first service!

The next major event was the completion of the main spire on 6th June 1879 when the chaplains, Rev. R. Mitchell-Innes and Rev. W. M. Meredith, ascended the spire to lay the top stone and cross with appropriate prayers being offered. This was watched from below by a large crowd consisting of members of the congregation, clergy and choir. When the cross was finally cemented into place the attending choir sang the hymn “Praise the Lord, ye heavens adore Him” followed by short service in the Cathedral.

The lengthy Consecration Service, lasting well over four hours, was held on Thursday 30th October 1879 and, according to the December Monthly Paper, included all the Scottish Bishops as well as the bishops of Durham, Peterborough, Oxford, Bangor, Down and Connor and Madagascar, a total of 14 in all.  Also present were the representatives of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.  A large number of clergy were also in attendance from all parts of the British Isles and the Colonies including, rather interestingly under this heading, The Rev. Dr. Nevin of the American Episcopal Church.

The Cathedral choir was reinforced by singers from around the diocese and from York, Durham, Ripon and Leeds.

The details of the Dedication Service given in the December magazine are rather sparse but do give a lengthy summary of the sermon preached by the Bishop of Peterborough and a detailed description of the building.

After the service the bishops, representatives of the English Archbishops and the Dean planted sycamore trees on the south side of the Cathedral which from that time onwards has been called Bishops’ Walk.

There was a further service (this time of Choral Evensong) at 4:00 pm at which the sermon was given by the Bishop of St. Andrews.  His sermon was so long that despite the choir cutting out two anthems the service still lasted well over two hours.

In the evening the laity of the diocese entertained the clergy and visitors to dinner at the Waterloo Rooms.  This included several speeches from among others the Primus, the Bishops of Peterborough and Edinburgh, the Marquis of Lothian and the Lord Provost.

There is an interesting notice in the October Monthly Paper which seems to indicate a degree of unhappiness among regular members of the congregation with the arrangements for the Dedication Service.

‘NOTICE – From the fact that until legally made over, the property of the Cathedral is vested in the Walker Trustees, the Clergy have not the full right of management. This must be accepted as a reason, if in any instance the interest of members of the congregation may seem to have been over-looked in regard to admission to the opening service.  It may be well to mention that the afternoon service will be free to all.  Notice will be duly given of all the arrangements finally made.’

The cost of the shell of the Cathedral was £86,000 with a further £14,00 for fittings, heating and bells, a total of £100,000 [over £13.2 million today].

This is a copy from an engraving showing members of the congregation arriving at the south door for the Service of Consecration on 30 October 1879.

The High Altar and Reredos, designed by John Oldrid Scott, were based on sketches left by his father Sir George Gilbert Scott and the mouldings and figures were executed by Miss Mary Grant of Kilgraston.  The cost of the Reredos caused some concern and the October 1879 Monthly Paper tells us that out of the estimated cost of £1,074 [about £142,000 today], £96 was still outstanding.

The east window was the next large project.  The wish to fill this window “with coloured glass as a memorial of the Misses Walker” was first mentioned in the November 1880 Monthly Paper and at a Congregational Meeting held in January 1881, a committee was set up to take this project forward.  However, it was not until May 1882 that an update on progress was published. The contract was awarded to Messrs Clayton & Bell of London with a total cost of £900 [roughly £115,000 in today’s terms] of which £180 was still outstanding.  Until this sum was forthcoming “the Committee would not feel themselves justified in ordering the actual execution of the work; but it does not appear to be beyond the reach of a vigorous effort on the part of the Congregation.”  The March 1883 Monthly Paper reported that the outstanding money had now been collected and the window was completed by May that year.  The May magazine contains a long article which fully describes the window.  Although the main theme of the window was originally envisaged to be the Te Deum, in the May 1883 Monthly Paper the subject was stated as “The rest of the Saints of God”.

In 1883 the Cathedral was struck by lightning during a storm on Easter Day but, due to the three lightning conductors on the building, there were no injuries or damage sustained. The April Monthly Paper commented ‘Some people little notice how we pray in the Litany to be delivered “from lightning and tempest”.  The more the Book of Common Prayer is studied, the more beautiful and wonderfully comprehensive it will seem.’

At the beginning of 1890 Mr. Hugh Rollo left money to the Cathedral for the building of a Chapter House.  This was announced to the congregation in the April Monthly Paper with more details being given in the July edition.  The chosen contractor was Mr. Morgan who was the Clerk of Works during the building of the Cathedral and whose company would also build the two western spires over twenty years later.  It was expected that the new building would be completed by the end of 1890 but it was not actually finished until June 1891.

In the same article in the July 1890 magazine that covered the building of the Chapter House, mention was made of other building operations being undertaken to the north side of the Cathedral.  A large chamber for the storage of coke with an outside staircase, and with direct access to the furnace, was built near the north-west tower, the existing coke storage facility being too small.  This also ended the necessity of taking the coke and ashes from the furnaces through the Cathedral itself.  A new furnace was also installed with the hope that ‘this will help to cure the “draughts” – about which the clergy and officials have heard so much of late.’

Drafts and the heating of the Cathedral were problems in Victorian times and, some would say, little has changed since then!  By the summer of 1898 it was recognised that the furnace was no longer fit for purpose and the Cathedral Board decided to install two powerful “convoluted stoves” to provide both heat and, in due course, electric light.  To accommodate the stoves, the floor of the furnace rooms would have to be lowered and the supply of fresh air improved. The cost would be in excess of £700 [approximately £96,000 today] but this would be covered by a legacy of £1,000 from the estate of the late Lady Jane Dundas.  It was estimated that there would be an annual saving in the cost of fuel of about £25.

Despite Lady Jane Dundas’s legacy, more money was required to cover the cost of installing electric light and the congregation was encouraged to contribute towards this project.  By the following summer work was well underway with installation of the required wiring and it was reported in the August 1899 Monthly Paper that this phase had almost been completed.  There was, however, a problem in obtaining the light fittings.  These had been specially designed by Mr. H. J. Blanc and were being executed in bronze by Messrs Singer of Frome-Selwood.  (I believe Mr. H. J. Blanc is Hippolyte J. Blanc a well-known Edinburgh architect and pioneer photographer.)

To install these lights, scaffolding had to be erected in the Cathedral.  This was both greatly inconvenient and unsightly, so it was arranged for temporary lights to be fitted to the pendant chains set up to hold the new lighting while waiting for these fittings to be manufactured.  The scaffolding would then be taken down but not before the stonework was cleaned to remove the dust and deposits left by the gas lights.  It was reported in the January 1900 Monthly Paper that except for the standard lights in the choir stalls, the installation had been completed. The total cost was £1,188 – about £155,000 in today’s terms.