A book on 200 years of musical tradition at St Guthlac’s Church in Market Deeping has recently been completed by historian Elizabeth Parkinson, a member of St Guthlac’s. Titled ‘A Celebration of Musical Moments and Memories in St Guthlac’s Church 1818-2019’ it commemorates another significant moment in the history of the church as their William Hill organ has recently undergone a major refurbishment and has been rededicated 

The history begins between 1780 and 1830 with mention of the gallery musicians who were all male groups of musicians and sometimes singers who accompanied church services. While little is known of those at St Guthlac’s, contemporary sources often described such groups elsewhere as ‘shrill’ and ‘screeching’ and they stood accused of using the sermon as a convenient time to tune up their instruments.

Unimpressed with them, the church decided at a vestry meeting in 1826 to dispense with the singers and employ someone to teach the children to sing instead. In January 1828 this task was given to George Beaver who would be paid £10 per annum to teach the girls to sing in church, though not yet as a choir.

A barrel organ arrived in 1841 that ‘repeated its tunes with wonderful perseverance Sunday after Sunday’ for 35 years. In 1875 this was replaced with a harmonium which was more flexible and could be played at any tempo. The church needed someone to play it and in 1878 that person was Mr Wright, the new Headmaster of the Endowed School for Boys.  His salary rose from £5 in 1879 to £20 in 1884, reflecting the increased skill required.

The first recognised church choir is commemorated in a plaque in the church that is dated the 26th September 1878. It consisted of 22 men and boys (girls were not allowed).

The book tells of the ‘unstinting service’ that many members of the choir and organists gave. It did nurture many talented singers, some of whom left to join professional groups and at the other end of the spectrum one would-be singer was told that bell-ringing may be a more suitable pursuit!

The William Hill organ arrived in 1882 at a cost of £339 7s 5d. This significantly added to the church’s musical output as it allowed for a far greater range of music of more complexity. Historically congregations had not been part of the singing in church but by 1861 many hymns had been written and parish magazines featured articles teaching the art. 

With the organ came another important role – the organ blower which is described as ‘an isolated position… an energetic business, constant, unseen and unobtrusive’. The first organ blower to be named was 10 year-old Harry Davies, son of the Churchwarden. This was a paid position and Harry received 2 guineas a year. A contract with ‘The Blower’, possibly from 1908, revealed that they were expected find a substitute when they were not able to attend and that that person must be approved by the organist.

By the 1940s volunteers helped to pump the organ and it was often school children. There are rumours that one mischievous boy stopped pumping to tease the organist. Another adult blower was known to ring the bells, then pump the organ before retreating during the sermon to ‘The Vine’ public house and then returning to pump the organ – but not always in time! This role ended in 1947 when an electric organ blower was installed at a cost of £92.

Being in the choir brought benefits and annual outings became a feature of the calendar and over the years they went to Bridlington, Hunstanton and Cromer, among other places. In 1914 they went to Grimsby catching the Great Northern mail train from Market Deeping.  This was a special service arranged for them and on the day they took a tram to Cleethorpes “a place where at times the sea comes”.

The bell ringers often accompanied the choir on these outings but in 1931 they skipped off during a trip to Skegness giving ‘grave cause for alarm’. The ringers re-emerged in Wainfleet and ‘being merciful’ they were allowed back on the bus but ‘a detailed account of their movements and indulgences must be passed over’. Eventually they went on separate outings…

During WW1 girls were allowed in the choir – almost 100 years since the first girls had been encouraged to sing in church.  In 1921 there was discussion about having girls in the choir ‘but many difficulties had to be overcome’ and they had to wait another 25 years to join.  However, by the 1950s young boys had less interest in the choir so the girls were back in the game and this time were allowed to stay.

Being a chorister could be quite lucrative as they were paid to sing at weddings and some members remember receiving 2s 9d for their efforts in the 1960s which was “quite a boost to your pocket money when you are nine years old” one recalled.

During the 1960s Mrs Mary Mathias took over as choir mistress.  Described as “a hard taskmistress” who “expected a lot and got it” she was an accomplished mezzo-soprano soloist who had won many competitions.  She firmly put women and girls in the St Guthlac’s history books, establishing The Market Deeping Ladies Choir and The Deeping Girls’ Choir. 

Between the 1960s and the 1980s the choir attended various music festivals with members gaining medals in competitions. In recognition of their talent and skill they were invited to sing Choral Evensong in Lincoln Cathedral in 1997 and 1999. Since the early 2000s they have joined locals in the Market Place in Market Deeping to sing Christmas carols.

In 2006 the church appointed their youngest ever organist and choir director – who was 15 years old!  Despite his tender years he understood the role of music in transforming minds and chose music that would appeal to the younger elements of the choir and congregation.

Today the younger members of the choir are being developed and are enrolled in the Royal School of Church Music ‘Voice for Life’ scheme which enables them to learn music faster.

In 1993 the organ had another overhaul but by 2017 the organ almost failed completely and another major refurbishment was required. Finished in July 2019, its refreshed sounds and perfect mechanism are better than they could ever have been before and will delight listeners and organists alike.

Use of the photograph is with the kind permission of David Pearson.