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William Cobbett on Country Singers

Firle, near Lewes, Sussex, 30th July 1832

At this church at Firle, which is in its itself and its surrounding trees a most beautiful thing, ... there was not a shabbily dressed person: the yong men were nicely and decently dressed, as they ought to be. The more aged were dressed according to their age; the parson, in a very plain discourse on the subject of baptism, confirmation, and the Lord's Supper, gave us some very wholesome instruction, and in a very unaffected manner; and, what I have not seen since my return from AMERICA in I800, the psalm-singing was in the old fashion, by a group of chopsticks assembled in a gallery. This is apparently a trifling affair; but it has been an affair of great importance to the established church; and very well worthy the attention of even a statesman. "Why then," someone will say, "do you address it to a fellow like Peel's-Bill Peel?" Why, I do not address it to him, I am about to write to him on other matters, of which, indeed, he understands no more than he does of this; but I have the pen in my hand: it will amuse my readers to know how I came to the village of Firle; and I may as well put down here, as anywhere else, what I have to say about this psalm-singing by their conduct relative to which the parsons have driven innumerable flocks from the church to the meetinghouse.

Fifty years ago it was the universal practice in all the villages and in all the country towns, for psalms to be sung by singers, consisting of persons belonging to the parish, who sang while the rest of the congregation sat silent. When PITT and his villanous paper-money had introduced a mass of luxuries, theretofore unknown in England, boarding-schools sprang up among the other toad-stools of the system. Music became part of education, and the farmhouses, out of which the men and boys had been driven to make way for the music-master and the piano, became scenes of refinement in which the nose was turned up at the homely singing of the church. Organs were introduced; the general singing of the congregation, in imitation of the tabernacles of LONDON, crept about from church to church; hymns took the place of the psalms, but all this did not nearly equal what was going on in the meeting-houses.

In hundreds and in thousands of instances the church congregation has been absolutely broken up by the musical ears of the parson's wife and daughters being too delicate to endure the choristers of the gallery. At BOTLEY, where I myself lived, there had always been a set of singers in the parsh, priding themselves on their powers in that way, BAKER, the parson, came out of SUFFOLK to take posession of his living about a year before I went to live in the village. He and his wife were both "musical"; their ears were shocked at the parish singing; they wanted to have an organ, which the parish would not consent to. The parson then exerted his authority, and forbade the singing which had been going on for two centuries; and he and his wife actually used to exhibit as singers before the congregation, just like a couple of player-folks singing a duet on the stage! But mark the consequence; the singers left the church; the congregation followed them; a crowded Methodist meeting-house began instantly to hold the people; and I have been at the church many times when there has been nobody but myself and one or two others of my own family, together with the parson and the clerk and the parson's wife. So that, as far as religion is concerned, the tithes at Botley, at any rate, are of no use whatsoever, though the rector be resident; and this arising, in the first instance at least, from his stupid interference in the taste of his parishioners.

This, or something very nearly resembling it, has been the case in thousands of parishes, and it is one of the things which have actually laid the foundation for that series of proceedings which must end in taking revenge upon this Establishment. The people venerate things long established. Of all the people in the world none dislike innovation so much as the country people in England. Improvement, when it is real, and even manifest, finds great difficulty in making its way amongst them, because it necessarily implies change. What an insolent fool must a parson have been then to want to do away with a practice so long established, and at the same time so great a favourite with the people. About twenty years ago there was the common psalm-singing at MICHELDEVER; and I remember that my second son, who was there a little while at school with the parson of the parish, used to describe to me with great delight, the singing at MICHELDEVER, of which we had none at BOTLEY. Old FRANCIS BARING had too much sense to suffer this order of things to be disturbed; and the parish used, as far as I can judge, to be a very happy one; but TOM BEARING having succeeded, with his great stock of piety and with his curate (for he himself is the rector) of, apparently the new caste, the psalm-singers are banished, and the hymn-book introduced; the parson stands up in his pulpit as head-singer; and there is a bawling and squalling that admit not of adequate description. To be a singer in a parish used to be a little feather in a chopstick's cap; even that is now too great an honour for him: he is to be nothing but a hewer of wood and a drawer of water. I was, therefore, having long been disgusted with the innovations introduced in this respect by the insolent parsons and their more insolent wives, not less pleased than surprised, at hearing the psalms sung by a set of singers with smock-frocks on their backs, just as I used to hear them when I was a boy. And very sure I am, that if the church revenues wore taken away from those who now unjustly devour them, and a clergy established upon just and equitable terms, all the ancient manners, all the ancient virtues, and all the ancient absence of crime, would again return; while the tasteful parsons and their tasteful wives might become player-folks if they would, or follow some other calling, in which, at any rate, they would not be mischievous to the country.

from The Political Register, August 1832


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