Decay in the English Church:
The Rise and Fall of the West Galleries
Reproduced from an article in West Gallery no.8.
We are fortunate that we are relatively well supplied with information relating to West Gallery music in its local context, but as yet, little has been written of the national context into which West Gallery music fitted. Setting aside for the time being the purely musical changes and developments of the time, (because we do know quite a lot about those) what political conditions - in the context of the established church rather than of national politics - allowed West Gallery bands to come into being, and what brought about the (literal) downfall of the galleries?
No national West Gallery 'movement' existed to publicise the activities of the people involved, yet groups of musicians and singers (I'll use the term 'singers` generically from now on, as most of the clergy did) established themselves in many parishes over a period which, in historical terms, is very short: the first fifty years or so of the eighteenth century. Organic growth would have accounted for the geographical spread; parish would have influenced neighbouring parish, and the emergence of dissenting chapels influenced the spread of the music, but there must have been something else which facilitated the establishment of West Gallery bands; some condition favourable to their existence, because organic growth alone could not have enabled disparate groups of people from largely unenfranchised levels of society to establish the kind of local power-bases which contemporary records show that they did. (The right to vote in general elections was at that time based on the payment of Land Tax, and only the 'forty-shilling freeholders' - those paying Land Tax on freehold property with an annual value of £2 or more - were able to vote.)
I would suggest that some of the answer lay in the state of the established church. The West Gallery period was a time of decay in the English church: when it was possible for a clergyman, as Parson James Woodforde records, to send money instead of attending in person at Archdeacon's visitations, at which sometimes the Archdeacon himself also merely sent money: when it was common for a clergyman to hold two livings, (the well-known 'pluralism' of the period) and not serve either of them himself, when levels of ecclesiastical duty were so low, as the Vicar of Fordington recorded in the 1820's, that prior to his arrival in the parish, 'no man had ever been known to receive the Holy Communion except the parson, the clerk and the sexton', and when the clerk, sexton and the singers could - and did, apparently - step in to fill an effective power-vacuum in village churches.
The clergy were drawn almost exclusively from the higher echelons of society. The poor urban cleric - perhaps unbeneficed, serving only an outlying chapel - who had been around since pre-reformation times was now almost a thing of the past. Some clergymen, perhaps those with poor livings and large families, or those who were simply not good with money, still augmented their incomes with teaching, and almost all clergymen of the period were involved in money-lending, (at interest) to their parishioners - a traditional responsibility of the urban cleric, though some of them charged usurious rates for doing so. They were all university educated, and the universities (both Oxford and Cambridge, for there were really only the two at the beginning of this period,) were still largely unreformed. Those who wished to become Fellows were barred from matrimony and were required to take holy orders. Jews, Roman Catholics, and Dissenters were not admitted to take degrees, and women would not have been admitted at all - had anyone at the time imagined that they might wish to be. Their livings may have been in the gift of their university college - if it were well-endowed - or they or their families might have purchased the right of preferment to a living (the 'advowson',) from some local landowner. In most English counties, the church was a major landowner, second only perhaps to the landed gentry, and its tenants - the clergy - came to form an elite group in country society. They were economically secure and had a degree of 'entree' to higher society as a result of their social status. They were often not local people, though some local dynasties were established where advowsons had been bought, but this did not mean that they were out of touch with the people of their parishes, - on the contrary - they danced, hunted, shot, fished, dined and supped with them, but they largely neglected the cure of souls in a church which some historians maintain was socially, economically and, especially evangelically, moribund.
The West Gallery singers, in contrast, were members of the local community. Farmers, Shopkeepers and Tradesmen, with the occasional Schoolmaster to provide the necessary degree of musical literacy, the singers may also have provided - individually or collectively - the music for weddings, village 'hops' (an eighteenth-century term,) funerals and social events. Of the records relating to West Gallery singing that have survived, there are almost no references to this having been a nobility or gentry activity, although as I have already mentioned, during the earlier part of the West Gallery period social mixing of all levels of society in villages was common.
Contemporary accounts show that some of these bands of singers did indeed see themselves as exercising considerable power at a parish level, and they seem fairly often to have come into conflict with the local church hierarchy. This cannot have endeared them to the clergy, and the extent to which they had become a thorn in the ecclesiastical flesh may have contributed to their decline and fall, but the fact remains that in the established church of the land - almost as an echo of the post-Reformation period - the birds flew in and out of the windows and the dogs ran between the pews, and such conditions could not continue for long. In one notable instance, (Castle Cary in Somerset) the church-yard was used as a fives-court, and the long-suffering vicar of Fordington (as John Kilvert's diary records,) saw the sacrament turned inadvertently to sacrilege by his poor parishioners, who, unused to receiving the sacramental chalice, wished loudly 'Here's the good health of our Lord Jesus Christ', and - to the incumbent himself 'Here's your good health, Sir' before they drank from it. The success of Methodist chapels in particular at attracting large congregations away from parish churches to hear their popular tunes caused some parishes to attempt to recruit choirmasters from the chapels. Though the remark is attributed to (inter alia) General William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, it was George Whitefield, John Wesley's first 'disciple', who said that he 'Saw no reason why the Devil should have all the best tunes', and, the popularity of both the music of the dissenting churches and of their services posed a threat to the established church. Until the late 1780's, Methodism was still seen by the established church as what we would now call a 'separation philosophy' and the established church had to begin to react. Neither the established church nor the clergy at a local level really wished for change, but it is obvious that something had to happen. The appeal of 'churches for the people' was set out in a derogatory article in 'The Weekly Miscellany' of 21st July 1739:
The Methodist preacher stands on an eminence, with admiring and subscribing crowds about him. He is young, which is good; looks innocent, which is better; and has no human learning, which is best of all'.
The article went on to heap insults on the heads of dissenters, but the appeal of the dissenting chapels was in the insult itself. This was just what the ordinary man wanted of his minister. Individual clerics within the established church were well aware of the reasons for the popularity of the new chapels, and railed both against the methodists and against the low standards of musical performance in parish churches. In a tract of 1744, Dr.John Scott acknowledged that:
The Methodists have got some of the most melodious tunes that were ever composed for church music, there is great harmony in their singing, and it is very enchanting'
and in a sermon of 1787 the Rev.W.Jones, Vicar of Nayland and author of the tune 'St.Stephen', said:
The psalmody of our country churches is universally complained of, as very much out of order, and wanting regulation in most parts of the kingdom'
By 1833, there was enough general disquiet within the church of England for a reform movement to have grown up, centred around four clergymen Keble, Pusey, Froude and Newman, all fellows of Oxford colleges. They felt that as a result of the Reform Act of 1832, the church was no longer in the safe keeping of 'churchmen', and the movement, at first called the Oxford Movement, but later to be known as The Tractarians, after the series of ninety publications 'Tracts of the Times', (1833-41) which were sent to every parsonage in England, favoured a return to a more formal, more Catholic Anglicanism. Their attentions were not focused specifically on the West Gallery singers; they were motivated by the general state of decay, and what they saw as the principal threat to the church, secular political control by 'Liberals and Dissenters', (though both categories could well have included West Gallery singers) but the time was ripe for change.
The rest of the story is familiar to us: the move towards formality meant the end of the singers, and the emergence of surpliced choirs with organs. Though a few remain, most of the wooden galleries were torn down, the instruments disposed of, and the music dispersed to the Baptist and Methodist chapels, to the curious 'Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion' (A Calvinistic form of Methodism) and to the village inns and alehouses. By the late 1870s, almost nothing remained.