West gallery music: an introduction

During the past few years, a great deal of interest has developed in 'west gallery' music. By west gallery music, we mean an amazing, powerful form of traditional music found in English parish churches and non-conformist chapels in the 150 years or so between 1700 and 1850, until it was suppressed by the authorities and driven out of the churches.

Until about six years ago, the study of this music in the UK was confined to a few eccentric scholars, but missionary work by people like Vic Gammon, Rollo Woods and Ian Russell and groups such as the Mellstock Band, the Madding Crowd and the John Moore Quire led to a growing interest which exploded into life in 1990. Dave Townsend and I thought that if we held a weekend workshop we might attract 20 or 30 nut-cases like ourselves who had been stunned by the sheer quality of the music. In the event we pulled in over a hundred singers and instrumentalists, from counter-tenors to serpents, from 'folkies' to Royal College of Music graduates, and in few brief months appeared on Folk on Two, Songs of Praise on television, and knocked out audiences at Sidmouth and Whitby folk festivals -- the rest, as they say, is history.

Parish church music before the west gallery period

Whilst we know something about the music and performance styles of the church music made in the great cathedrals and colleges in pre-west gallery days, we have little idea of what might have been played and heard in the more lowly setting of parish churches and chapels from the post-Elizabethan era. What few scraps of information we have found suggest that little music was heard; what was heard were unaccompanied voices (or a solitary voice), and that the quality of that was poor.

From the Commonwealth period when music was forbidden in churches there are some splendid stories of Cromwell's men breaking-up organs, going down the streets tootling on pipes torn out of their cases, but these are probably apocryphal; few parishes would have been rich enough to afford such instruments. The picture then was of long services, even longer sermons, and little to relieve the tedium.

The origins of west gallery music

The origins of west gallery music are obscure, but seem to have sprung out of a desire on the part of the church authorities at about the end of the seventeenth century to 'improve the quality of psalmody'. This wish seems to have found a ready response with parishioners who wanted to do more than sit in dull silence at the point in the service where 'the psalm may be said or sung'. There were two obstacles in improving psalmody at this point in time; firstly, a lack of suitable material to perform; secondly, a place from which to perform it, since in most parish churches all available space was owned or rented.

The answers to the two problems were not long in coming.

Music publishers, teachers and west galleries

In this post-Restoration period a great deal of excellent secular music was being produced, and many of the publishers of this material moved into setting sacred music for use in parish churches. I'm sure that many readers will be familiar with the name John Playford as a marvellous publisher/composer of English dance music, but I wonder how many are aware that he was an enormously influential publisher of psalm and hymn tunes. Over and above this largely London-produced material, there sprang up many local composers singing masters, some of them itinerant teachers who produced remarkable music.

The answer to the problem of performing space was solved by the (sometimes hasty) erection of galleries in the west ends of parish churches -- hence west gallery music.

Psalms and hymns

Although at first confined strictly to psalms (only the word of the Lord being permitted within the services), it was not long before hymns began to appear. The early ones were often paraphrased settings of biblical texts -- hence 'While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night', which we have found set to over 150 different tunes! Soon the words of hymn writers such as Watts and the Wesleys were providing inspiration for village composers all over the country and a distinctive form of English music was alive and kicking.

Singing schools

In parish records all around the country, details of the setting-up of singing groups may be found. Often this is in the form of an agreement, and this one from Alberbury in Shropshire made in 1788 is typical.

It was agreed by the Majority of a Parish Meeting of the Parishioners ... that the parish should be at the Expence of paying a Proper Person to improve and instruct any Young People that are willing to sing Psalms (to the Glory of God) in the said Church.

The next entries are for payments for meat and drink for the singers, to a Mr Michiner for instructing the psalm singers, and for the purchase of five psalm books. The only item missing from the Alberbury churchwardens' accounts is the purchase of a pitch-pipe. This was a wooden whistle or recorder-like pipe with a sliding insert which could be moved in and out to vary the pitch. Such an instrument had become necessary because the groups usually sang in three- or four-part harmony.


The early west gallery singing was, with only a few exceptions, dominated by male voices. In much of the early music the melody line is given to the tenor, with an underpinning bass harmony, contra-tenor as a counter. and a treble voice or voices above. As far as we have been able to discover, most early groups sang unaccompanied, but plainly, with limited local resources, often with little schooling, it would have been difficult for relatively untutored singers to hold their lines against other parts. This is probably the most significant single reason for the introduction of instruments. Fiddles would almost certainly have been available within village communities, but the cost of bass instruments would have been beyond the pockets of the middling tradesmen and artisans who made up the groups.

When reading old records one can almost detect a feeling of pride in the parish accounts when their subscriptions raised enough for the purchase of a bass viol, 'cello, bassoon, or serpent. Later purchases might have included an oboe (although it was more often called an hautbois, hoby, hotboy, etc.), a clarinet, and a flute, or flutes. The instruments were not grouped together as a band; instead, each instrument led a group of singers who would normally gather around the player, as in the marvellous painting of a village quire on the cover of the Watersons' 'Sound, Sound your Instruments of Joy'. In most parish accounts they remained 'the psalm singers' despite the addition of instruments, and they often cost a considerable proportion of the parish spending.

Quire costs

Parishes frequently maintained the instruments, paying for strings and reeds, and the singers were often paid for their work, sometimes in kind rather than money. Payments for ale, treats, dinners, malt and hops, and large sides of beef are recorded, as are payments for 'ribands for the singing girls' who now formed a part of many quires. Another often significant cost was for the purchase of one copy of a printed hymn or psalm book and some manuscript paper. Too poor to afford a printed hymn book for each member of the quire, the musicians would lovingly copy out the words and scores into their personal tune-books, the instrumentalists often adding the dance tunes of the period in the back of the book. Sadly, all too few of these tunebooks survive, but there are just a few in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library (for example, the John Moore books of sacred, song and dance tunes in the VWML under Accession Numbers 4494 and 4495). [Records offices, local history collections and county archives may also have a few -- these are well worth exploring. Sue G.]

Social status of quire members

There is no doubt that the mixed groups of instrumentalists and singers which we refer to as 'quires' to distinguish them for the organ-driven, surpliced latter-day groups, became very important in parish life. Those who played for the singing in church would also have played a major part in parish social life on feast days, high days and holidays. They had status within parish society, the nature of their jobs often gave them a measure of independence, and they were not infrequently in conflict with the parson or the squire. Their music often travelled far and wide, and in surprising forms. For example, few people today realise that when they sing the Yorkshire anthem 'On Ilkley Moor Bah't 'At' they are actually singing a west gallery hymn called 'Cranbrook', composed by the Canterbury shoemaker Thomas Clark who alone wrote hundreds of such splendid tunes.


There are many marvellous stories from these days. Not all of the richer parishioners who paid the church rates agreed with spending money on such 'indulgences'. Churchwardens were sometimes stingy with cash, but Harry Woodhouse has found a splendid Cornish account-book entry where the churchwardens were persuaded to pay for 'strings for the bassoon' -- we can all guess where that money went!

When churchwardens were more generous there were also dangers -- one set of Shropshire accounts records, in successive entries, a rather large payment for 'cider for the quire', followed by 'repairs to the trambone 1s 6d.'

The end of an era?

The downfall of west gallery quires seems to have come about for a variety of reasons: the Oxford or Tractarian movement sought its spurious, 'earlier' forms of worship; growing industrialisation led to greater conformity and movement from the country to the towns where a more conformable sort of worship was imposed; congregational worship led to the need for simple hymns of immediate appeal in which all of those assembled could join -- the complexity of much west gallery music precluded all but the dedicated quire members. Finally, there was the determined Victorian effort of both parliament and the church to gain authority: animal cruelty sports were suppressed; old traditions such as Shrovetide football (seen as and often truly little more than riots) were put down; churches were 'restored' and Hymns, Ancient and Modern replaced the old musicians' books of psalms and hymns, lovingly copied-out in manuscript. Thomas Hardy writes movingly of these people and their times, until eventually 'the old quire played no more' -- barrel-organs replaced bands, the instruments were scrapped, the tune books burned.

Survival and revival

Much of the music of the west galleries came from non-conformist sources or inspiration. When the Church of England bought harmoniums and organs, and replaced the quires with surpliced choirs, many of the singers simply crossed the street to the welcoming Methodist chapels; others sang in the streets or moved into the pubs. The music was too good, too vital to be allowed to die. To this day it may be heard in the Pennine villages above and around Sheffield at Christmastide, and with the formation of the West Gallery Music Association, it is heard increasing in the communities where it belongs.

There are many marvellous aspects of the revival of interest in this music. Firstly, there is the sheer joy of performing and sharing sounds that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end; next is the effect on listeners -- I cannot tell you how many times I've been told that 'if we had hymns like that in our churches today they wouldn't be empty'; lastly is the contribution we are making to much local and popular history -- we now have groups researching and performing all around the country, discovering that in almost every parish throughout England were singers and instrumentalists revelling in their own distinctive music -- 'Just pass us that rosin, George,' said one old player, 'and we'll show 'em who's the King of Glory.'