Village of Song
Eighty-four years ago the choristers at St Mary’s Parish Church in Bolsterstone were becoming a tad restless. They enjoyed singing hymns and other sacred music, but they wanted to expand their musical experience and asked the choirmaster, William Evans, if a larger male voice ensemble could be formed.
Present-day choristers can thank Bill Evans for enthusiastically taking up the request in 1934. For Bolsterstone Male Voice Choir grew into a choir of international reputation with an array of trophies on show in its headquarters, the Castle Inn, next door to the church where it all started.
It is a remarkable story. From those humble beginnings in St Mary’s, the choir became known as England’s largest village choir, and went on to twice win the International Eisteddfod, then the world’s leading choral competition.
William Evans, still remembered with great fondness locally, led the choir for 30 years through difficult times, including the war years, and a tragic accident in 1947 in which Mr Evans’s father was among the nine people killed when a coach carrying choristers, relatives and supporters to a music festival careered out of control down a steep hill as they approached their destination of Holmfirth, crashing into a warehouse in
the centre of the town. William Evans died in 1965 when his choir was on the brink of its greatest achievements.
The choir’s biggest successes – winning the Langollen International Eisteddfod – came in 1972 and 2002, initially under conductor Alvin Tipple, William Evans’s successor, and then with the choir’s current musical director, Francis Wells. Its most audacious victory – still talked about today – was winning the 1984 Welsh Choir of the Year title under conductor Jeffrey Wynn Davies, the first English choir to do so. In an otherwise all-Welsh final, one newspaper likened the success to “beating the Scots at an Edinburgh bagpipe tournament”.
The result left the audience at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, stunned. History repeated itself in 1995 when the choir, led by Catherine Williams, won the title again. Other notable successes include the National Male Voice Choir Championship at Huddersfield in 1992 and again at Rhyl in 1997 under the then new musical director Chris Wiltshire, who still writes music for the choir.
The choir, whose signature song is Hail Smiling Morn! prides itself on being at the heart of the community and has raised many thousands of pounds for charity. In recent years, the choir has undertaken concert and competition tours to South Africa, Denmark, Italy, Germany, Malta, Greece, Rhodes, Prague, Northern Ireland and Hungary. In the summer of 2016 the choir enjoyed a concert trip to Amsterdam and were joined by some members of Worrall Male Voice with whom we have a friendly relationship, giving regular joint concerts.
Bolsterstone Male Voice Choir has prided itself on arranging and taking part in top quality concerts, singing in such imposing venues as the City Hall in Sheffield, the Royal Albert Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall in London and Huddersfield Town Hall and many other similar venues. And we are happy singing at much smaller events, on occasion outdoors.
The choir is fortunate to be led by high-calibre professional musicians: musical director Fran Wells; deputy musical director Daniel Timmins; and accompanist Lorraine Pearson.
In 2012, Bolsterstone Male Voice Choir embarked on its most ambitious musical journey since its foundation, spending months of intensive rehearsal of a suite of music written for the choir by the leading British jazz musician John Surman. Lifelines, commissioned by Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and the BBC, was given a warm reception when it premièred at Huddersfield Town Hall on Saturday, November 15th. The next day the choir, conductor Fran Wells, John Surman and pianist Howard Moody received a five-minute standing ovation from a 700-strong audience when the work was performed again at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank, London, as part of the London Jazz Festival. The London concert was broadcast on Radio3. One critic said that the performance had “stolen the festival”.
John Surman won the Contemporary Jazz Composition Award for Lifelines at the British Composer Awards in London in 2013 attended by Bolsterstone MVC representatives.
The choir was pleased in its 80th anniversary year to welcome a new President, John Gill, proprietor of Bradfield Brewery.
That the choir has survived and thriven for 84 years is due to the hard work of officials, members and supporters. The late Tom Cooke served with distinction and humour as secretary for 45 years. He was assisted in later years by Alan Hobson, who went on to serve as secretary for 13 years and was chairman for three years. Frank Milnes, after 31 years’ service in the choir, took over as chairman on the untimely death of Terry Hardisty in 1996 after 19 years in the role.
There are various theories about how the choir rose from humble beginnings to national and international prominence but the partnership between Tom Cooke and Terry Hardisty was a highly significant factor. A similar strong partnership between Frank Milnes and Alan Hobson kept the choir on a strong, upward path.
John Raynor served for two years as chairman when Frank Milnes retired from the post in 2005. He was succeeded by Alan Hobson in 2007 who handed the baton to Roger Pont in 2010. Roger Pont served for seven years in successful partnership with secretaries Graham Walsh, Adrian Reynolds and Mick Siddall who became chairman after two years as secretary in 2017. Rob Firth, whose late father Eric was a top-tenor for many years, became secretary after eight years’ choir membership.
Monday night is the choir’s rehearsal night in the village hall, once the village school, as it has been for 83 years. The village, high on a hill above Sheffield on the edge of the Peak district, reverberates as a large body of men, drawn nowadays from a much wider area, rehearse with gusto. Hail Bolsterstone!
A special day
Armistice Day 2017 will long be remembered by Bolsterstone Male Voice Choir members.
A service at St Mary’s and a concert in Holmfirth later that day remembered the fallen of the two world wars and other conflicts and commemorated the 70th anniversary of a terrible accident on Saturday October 18th, 1947, which took the lives of nine people when a coach carrying choir members, relatives and friends crashed at terrific speed in the centre of Holmfirth.
It was an emotional day. The church was full for the morning service conducted by the Rev Hilda Isaacson. Alf Pearson, whose father Alfred died in the crash, gave the reading. The act of remembrance by the cenotaph took place in bright sunshine. The choir sang Bring Him Home and led the congregation back into church while singing Now Thank We All Our God.
Back in church, choir secretary Rob Firth, gave an address about the Holmfirth tragedy. He said, though the crash had brought dreadful sadness, it had made the choir a stronger body. There was no doubt that the 1947 disaster was a big reason why the choir was held so dear in the locality.
Among the congregation were many relatives of those who died or were injured, including members of the Pearson, Cooke, Firth and Hodgkinson families. Sally Ashton, who lost her mother Thonney in the crash, had travelled from Evesham for the service and concert. After the service, a large number of people gathered in the Village Hall where Kathryn Cooke and helpers had prepared refreshments. An exhibition of items relating to the crash deftly put together by Barbara Frost caused much interest. Choir chairman Mick Siddall presented Cyril Cherry with a hamper, an inscribed whisky glass and a framed scroll on his retirement from the choir after nearly 50 years’ service.
The concert at Holy Trinity Church, Holmfirth, that night was a sell-out raising £2,000 shared equally by the Royal British Legion and the Friends of Holme Valley Hospital.
Among the items sung at the concert was Love Could I Only Tell Thee, the test piece the choir would have sung that tragic day.
The darkest day
The tragedy that befell the choir on Saturday Nov 11th, 1947, made national headlines and left a deep and lasting impression on the locality.
A terrible accident took the lives of nine people when a bus carrying choir members, relatives and friends crashed at terrific speed in the centre of Holmfirth.
It was at Hade Edge where, shortly after passing the Bay Horse Inn, the coach’s brakes failed and the vehicle careered out of control for nearly two miles down the steep hill into Holmfirth where the choir was due to sing at a music competition.
Despite a brave struggle by the young driver, the coach ploughed into a two-storey warehouse in the centre of Holmfirth and the building collapsed on top of the coach. There followed an heroic rescue of the 40 people trapped inside the crushed vehicle.
Irish labourers brought in to work on Digley Reservoir were having a drink in the Shoulder of Mutton opposite the scene of the crash. They dashed out of the pub, frantically clawing at rubble to reach the stricken passengers. The 5th Stalybridge Scouts, visiting Holmfirth for the day, joined in as did townsfolk and choir members and friends who had travelled by car, putting their own lives at risk as other parts of the building threatened to cave in.
The dying and the injured were taken to the Holme Valley Memorial Hospital in Holmfirth and Huddersfield Royal Infirmary. Eight people died that dreadful day and the toll rose to nine with the death in hospital two days later of Nora Firth, 51, whos son Arnold, a choir member, was one of the 24 people injured, some seriously.
There are sons and other relatives of crash victims still singing in the Bolsterstone Male Voice Choir, among them Raymond, Graham and Alfred Pearson whose father Alfred, 43, a father of nine, died in the crash.
The tragedy made the choir a stronger body. Talking a few years after the tragedy, Tom Wainwright, at that time the oldest member at the age of 62, said: “The Holmfirth disaster might have been the end of us but actually it helped to cement us together and since then we have always felt we could not let the choir slide away.”
A concert in Holmfirth on November 11th, 2017, marking the 70th anniversary of the tragedy was the third occasion on which the choir had paid tribute to the people of the West Yorkshire town who did so much to help on that day. Concerts were held on the 40th and 50th anniversaries of the crash and the 50th anniversary was also marked by the dedication of a stained glass window in St Mary’s, Bolsterstone, bearing nine crosses representing those who lost their lives: