Early 19th century popular psalmody in the Isle of Man


The popular psalmody[1] of the Anglican parish church in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries has until recently received scant scholarly attention.[2] Because it has survived in written form it has largely been ignored by students of 'folk music', while its idiosyncrasies of style and cheerful indifference to musical orthodoxy have led mainstream musical historians to see it as of peripheral interest. Yet this music was important to our ancestors, in the Isle of Man as elsewhere: much of it has a robust vitality of its own and the books (especially the manuscripts) in which it has survived, having been the property of ordinary people and passed from one user to another, often contain non-musical material, thus enabling us to study jointly the music and lives of the people who played and sang it.

The aim of this paper is to draw attention to a number of MSS of this type which are in the library of the Manx Museum, to provide a preliminary survey of their nature and contents and to indicate possible lines of future enquiry. Its purpose will have been served if encourages some Island resident with interests in music and social history to investigate this material more thoroughly.

The 'west gallery' period: an overview

Following post-Reformation attempts to improve the quality of congregational singing in parish churches, voluntary choirs were formed in the eighteenth century, originally to lead the singing. Often they were joined by instrumentalists and performed in a gallery built for the purpose at the west end of the church. The period under discussion is for that reason sometimes known as the 'west gallery' period -- a convenient, if not exact, term.

The growing confidence and independence of these performers created a market for two-, three and four-part compositions, and for psalm-tunes more elaborate than the traditional psalm-tunes (the 'proper tunes') which had been sung monophonically and perhaps rather tediously by Anglican congregations since the Reformation. Later, Methodism, with its emphasis on hymn-singing, gave further impetus to the composition of new tunes. Published collections of tunes were too expensive to allow multiple copies to be bought: choirs worked with manuscript scores or part-books copied from a single purchased book.

By no means were all composers trained professional musicians, and their harmonies in particular often reflect popular taste and the persistence of older harmonic styles. The very independence of the choirs all too frequently led to conflict with the clergy. This, and their music's failure to conform with polite notions of correctness and decorum, led to the decline of the choirs and the effective suppression of much of their music by early Victorian reformers.[3] Instrumentalists were replaced by organs, harmoniums or even barrel organs, and the choristers were moved out of the galleries and dressed in surplices. Although many of the tunes remained (and still remain) in use, they appeared in the denominational hymn-books of the later nineteenth century harmonised according to orthodox rules of harmony.[4]

West gallery psalmody in the Isle of Man: written evidence

Written evidence of popular psalmody in the Isle of Man during the west gallery period survives in the form of sixteen musical MSS, all dating from the first half of the nineteenth century, and in the recollections of William Duke (1798-1873), shoemaker and parish clerk of Arbory, as recorded c1860 by Dr John Clague and published some fifty years later in Manx Reminiscences.[5]

Working methods of a choirmaster

Duke's recollections are of more than local interest. They include minute details of one choirmaster's working methods -- details of a sort which are rarely recorded. Duke's is the fullest account so far known anywhere of how a choirmaster of this type actually worked. Through him we know of Master Shepherd, the choirmaster who came from Cumberland and taught choirs in several Manx parishes in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. We know how Shepherd rehearsed his singers, how he grouped them, how he beat time, how he used a pitch pipe to give them their notes (an indication that the singing was unaccompanied, at least in the parishes of Rushen and Arbory at that time) and how he used a five-point pen to rule staves for his manuscript.

In teaching the musical scale, Shepherd used the so-called Lancashire solmisation, a system of representing the scale by the syllables fa sol la fa sol la mi fa. Essentially a reduced version of a system which goes back to Tudor times and beyond, the 'Lancashire' system was already obsolescent, being gradually replaced by the 'Italian' system,[6] although even today it survives in the southern states of the USA where the Sacred Harp tradition, with its 'fasola singing', is still alive and healthy.[7] Clague quotes a mnemonic used by Shepherd:

Above your mi twice fa sol la
And under mi twice la sol fa
And so comes mi in either way.

Trained in an entirely different musical tradition, Clague saw little merit in the system, although his notes for Manx Reminiscences[8] indicate a better understanding of it than does the literal English translation (apparently made direct from the Manx without reference to Clague's notes) which appears in the published version.

Clague mentions that he has Shepherd's pitch pipe and some of his musical manuscript, including the music for a funeral hymn, My life's a shade, in his possession.[9] The pitch pipe is now in the Manx Museum, donated by Clague's friend Archdeacon Kewley. Its pitch is very close to modern concert pitch.[10] Four musical MSS, nos. 435A-438A, also donated by Archdeacon Kewley, are catalogued in the Manx Museum Library as copies of Shepherd's music.

Shepherd's music manuscripts

Two treble part-books (MSS 435A and 438A)

MSS 435A and 438A are part-books measuring approximately 8.5 cm by 20 cm. Their contents are very similar in nature, being mainly treble[11] parts for settings of metrical psalms, the music written on the right-hand pages, all in the same hand, and the words, in different hands, on the left-hand pages, although on most pages of 435A the words are missing. The words are all taken from A New Version of the Psalms of David, by Nicholas Brady and Nahum Tate, a metrical translation of the psalms which first appeared in 1696 and which, over the course of the west gallery period, gradually replaced the 'Old Version' of Sternhold and Hopkins.[12]

MS 435A has 'Jane Anne Watterson her book' written in ink on the front cover. 438A bears the name of Robert Qualtrough, but other inscriptions on the inside of the front cover indicate other owners: Anne Moore, Thomas Qualtrough (followed by an illegible date), 'Ann Qualtrough her book in the year of our Lord 1833' and 'Anne Qualtrough aged 6 years'.

Pasted into both books is a printed copy of the words of the hymn Thou Lord alone that governst all, to be sung at Club Day at Kirk Arbory. 435A also has a printed text of the funeral hymn My life's a shade, pasted in at right angles to the treble part on the opposite page. The words are by Samuel Crossman (c1626-83) and appeared in his Young Man's Meditation of 1664. Underneath the music, the words of the first verse and chorus are written in the same hand as the headings which indicate the psalm to which each piece of music is to be sung.

'Henry Watterson's copy of Shepherd's music' (MS 436A)

The Museum Library catalogue describes MS 436A as 'Henry Watterson's Copy of Shepherd's Music'. Somewhat larger than the treble books (12 cm by 21 cm) but with words and music set out in the same way, it contains tunes and bass parts for metrical psalms. The music and headings are in the same hand as those of MSS 435A and 438A; and the words are apparently in the hand of Henry Watterson, whose name appears at the foot of several pages. It, too, contains the printed words of My life's a shade, pasted in at right angles to the music.

Provenance of the three MSS

It seems safe to conclude that it is to these three MSS that Clague refers when he says that he has the tune for My life's a shade, 'written by Shepherd in his own hand',[13] and that they were compiled in connection with Shepherd's work with the Kirk Arbory choir between 1816 and 1826. This is consistent with an 1812 watermark in MS 436A, although the Museum date of 1833 for MSS 435A and 438A is clearly too late, being perhaps the year when Anne Qualtrough acquired the book, which had already had several previous owners. It seems probable that Clague acquired these books from William Duke, who was Shepherd's pupil, who succeeded him as choirmaster at Arbory in 1826, and who sang the old psalm tunes in Clague's hearing c1850-60.[14] Duke may also have passed on to him Shepherd's pitch pipe.

A Methodist music manuscript? (MS 437A)

The association of MS 437A with Shepherd is extremely dubious. Although it is the same size as MSS 435A and 437A it has little else in common with them in content and layout. It contains hymn tunes in two, three and four parts, written in open score, on both sides of the page. None of them is supplied throughout with words, but in several cases a hymn number is given with a few words of text, sufficient to indicate that the tunes were intended for use with an edition of John Wesley's Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists. There are some eccentricities in the musical handwriting. The treble clef resembles a capital I or J of the period, and many of the sharps and flats in the key signatures are incorrectly placed. Sometimes the stave is drawn erratically. By contrast, the other three MSS in this group, which I regard as having originated with Shepherd, show a degree of notational competence and fluency of execution. It may be that the heading 'Shepherd's Lover' over the second hymn in the book, Charles Wesley's Thou Shepherd of Israel and mine has led to its being mistakenly attributed to Shepherd.

A list of titles and prices of medical, mathematical and musical books is written in the end-papers, as is the following list of names: Chas. Teare, John Garrett, Thomas Goldsmith, Philip Joughin, Thomas Kneale, William Christian, John Goldsmith, Charles Tear, Chas. Kneale, an illegible name lightly underlines, Jane Quayle, Anne Wade, Cathi Coswell, Elizabeth Kelly. The last name is written four times. Underneath a setting of hymn no. 194 in Wesley's Collection, the Wesley brothers' Arise, my soul, arise, we find written 'John Cowell Kirk Bride in the year 1804'. The third digit is regrettably very faint indeed and should not by itself be relied on.

Clague's notes for Manx Reminiscences,[15] but not the published edition, tell us that William Duke taught a choir at Balladoole in c1840. (There was a Methodist chapel at Balladoole, Arbory, which later became a private house.) If Clague did acquire this book from Duke, it is possible, in view of the specifically Methodist character of its contents that Duke used it at Balladoole, a possibility which would not preclude its having been compiled elsewhere at an earlier date. It would seem that the personal names written in this manuscript offer the best hope of discovering further information about its provenance and history.

Ten part-books (MSS 2201/1A-10A)

MSS 2201/1A-10A are part-books, approximately 8.5 cm by 19 cm, set out in much the same manner, and with the music in the same hand, as 435A and 438A. The texts are in various hands. In some books the left-hand page, which one would expect to contain the text, is blank. The books contain treble or contra parts, except 2201/4A, which has music in the tenor clef. Although several items appear in more than one book, no two of this group of ten are alike in their content or in the order in which they are written. Thus we are clearly not dealing with anything like a set. Most, however, contain the solmisation rhyme associated with Shepherd and other material illustrating musical theory.

Range of musical material

More importantly, MS 2201/3A is very similar to MS 438A, much of the contents, including the part for My life's a shade, being identical and in the same sequence. MS 2201/10A contains a contra part for My life's a shade, and using this book and MSS 436A and 438A it has been possible to reconstruct the four-part setting of this funeral hymn as it was sung in Arbory and Rushen in the early part of the nineteenth century.[16]

Taken collectively, these ten books provide an interesting range of material. Settings of metrical psalms predominate, the words again being invariably the New Version by Brady and Tate. Apart from My life's a shade, there are two popular funeral hymns, Since our good friend has gone to rest and the once universally known set piece by Edward Harwood, The Dying Christian, popularly known as Vital Spark.[17] There are some anthems, canticle settings and some Christmas hymns.


In some of the books non-musical material has been added later, as well as owners' names. There is some writing in Manx, a reference to Belle Abbey, Colby, and a fragment of verse in English entitled The Ranter:

By chance it was the other day
I met a pilgrim on the way
In conversation we did enter
And I found he was a ranter.

Personal names include Henry Watterson (written at least three times in different books), Margaret Maddrell, William Duke, Richard Duke, Thomas Watterson, Jane Qualtrough of Colby and Linda Kelly of Castletown.

Dating the books

The precise dating of these part-books would be extremely difficult. A watermark of 1806 in MS 2201/8A would be consistent with its being written during what Clague implies was Shepherd's first visit to the south of the island in 1809.[18] The lack of uniformity in the books, however, suggests that they were not all compiled at the same time, and it seems likely that, considered together and in relation to MSS 435A, 436A and 438A, they constitute a written record of Shepherd's work over the whole period of his activities in Rushen and Arbory. As such they are unique.

Further work needed

Further work on these MSS might seek to establish the source or sources of the music written in them by Shepherd. At least one psalm-setting, that of Psalm 45 vv 3-6 in MS 436A, appeared in Matthew Wilkin's A Book of Psalmody, published in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, c1740,[19] and was not necessarily new then. It is probable that Shepherd, like any other choirmaster of the period, made manuscript copies from printed books, though it would be interesting to know from which books. By careful collation of the various part-books it should be possible to reconstruct a substantial part of the Arbory choir's repertoire, to compare it with known sources,[20] and to assess the possibility that some of it was composed by Shepherd himself.

Archival research should make it possible to identify the various individuals named in the books, and thus to build up a picture not only of the music used in the parish church in the early years of the nineteenth century but also of the people who sang it. In view of the uniquely detailed account in Manx Reminiscences of Shepherd's working methods, further information about him would be of more than local significance. At present the date of his death and even his Christian name are not known.

A word of caution is needed. None of the part-books which constitute MS 2201A is in good physical condition, and some are actually disintegrating. Repeated handling of the sort entailed in collation seems inadvisable in their present condition. It is very much to be hoped that these invaluable MSS can be microfilmed so that the necessary research can be carried out without risk to the originals.

[Postscript: further work has been done on these manuscripts, predominantly by Francis Roads, who presented a paper at the 1997 conference on Georgian psalmody organised by The Colchester Institute. This has been published in Georgian Psalmody 2: Papers (ed. Turner, 1999, SG Publishing). Sue Glover]

John Sayle's bass book (MS 1234A)

Evidence for instruments

Shepherd's use of the pitch pipe, like his use of solmisation syllables, clearly indicated unaccompanied choral singing. There is, however, conclusive evidence that instruments other than the organ were used in the performance of sacred music in the Isle of Man in the first half of the nineteenth century. Tooled on the outside front cover of MS 1234A are the words 'John Sayle. Bass Horn', suggesting formal membership of an organised band. On the inside front cover we find written 'John Sayle's Serpent Bass Book September 24, 1837'. The book measures 13.2 cm by 22 cm. It contains a variety of sacred and secular music, set out in a remarkable variety of ways, chosen no doubt for the convenience of the owner, who as a performer may have had more that one musical function.

Musical contents

Much of the secular material (dance and other band tunes, Rule Britannia, selections from Handel's Water Music, etc.) is simply written out as a bass part. One instrumental piece, Galler Herring, is written in the treble clef; another in two parts (treble and bass clefs).

A three-part Christmas hymn, Awake up my glory, is written with the two upper parts for voices in the treble clef and the bass for an instrument. In another case, that of the anthem based on part of Psalm 57 (which also begins Awake up my glory but is not the same as the Christmas hymn), the bass is written first, separately, followed by a three-part vocal score. For a four-part anthem All glory to God it is the tenor, treble and bass which are written braced in score, with the counter written separately at the foot of the page.

In the more elaborate Easter set piece Calvary by, but not attributed to, James Leach (1762-98),[21] an instrumental bass part has its own stave for a trio section (independent of the vocal bass part) and a treble solo section, whereas in the final Chorus section the bottom line is set out as a mainly vocal bass, with several brief passages where voice and organ alternate.

Six of the seven four-part hymn tunes, Mount Olivet, Madrid, Alesbury, Cambridge, Devizes and Nativity, are written without text in open score but with the two inner parts (air and counter, in the treble clef) unaccountably bracketed. The seventh, Scarboro, has treble, counter and tenor in score, with a separate bass stave. The musical handwriting is fluent throughout, with few errors, although there are occasional signs of uncertainty in notating dotted rhythms where note values are small.

Evidence of band members?

A list of names is written on the rear flyleaf, although some Christian names are missing because the page has been torn: --- Cowley, --- Sayle, --- Howgate, --- Henery, --- Curphey, (John?) Henery, --- Hall, --- Harrison, Robert Cowley, James Sayle, John Sayle, James Black, Thomas Rimmer. If these are indeed the names of band members, as seems likely, John Sayle's book provides valuable early evidence of a band, its repertoire and the individuals who belonged to it. Further research might seek to establish the sources of its varied contents and to explain the apparent idiosyncrasies of its notation.

[Postscript: Fenella Bazin presented a paper on John Sayle at the 1997 conference on Georgian Psalmody, organised by The Colchester Institute. This has been published in Georgian Psalmody 2: Papers (ed. Turner, 1999, SG Publishing). Sue G]

John Lancaster's book (MS 1524A)

The inside front cover of MS 1524A bears the inscription 'John Lancaster's Book, Feby 28th 1842'. A subsequent owner has written underneath and again on an end-paper 'Mr Thos. Kewley Meusician. Laxey'. The name John Gelling also appears, probably a later addition. This book measures 14.3 cm by 24 cm. There is no conclusive evidence that it was originally compiled in the Isle of Man. One tune is entitled Derbyane and another Oatlands,[22] but they do not necessarily refer to Manx place names: in the first case Lancaster's imperfect orthography makes it impossible to assume that he is referring to Derbyhaven (the tune is certainly different from that of the same name which appears in later published hymn books), and in the second the place name Oatlands occurs in North Yorkshire and in Surrey as well as in Santon.

There is no record of John Lancaster in the extant 1841 Manx Census returns, nor is there any trace in Manx archives of his will or letters of administration relating to his estate. As for Thomas Kewley, there is no shortage of reference to the activities of the Kewley family in Laxey during the mid nineteenth century, but I have so far been unable to find any which can be specifically connected with the owner of the book.

Musical contents

Lancaster's compilation consists principally of some 150 hymn tunes in four parts, without words. They are written in open score, but the lower two parts, containing the air and the bass, are bracketed as if for keyboard, although the use of separately written quavers and semi-quavers where an instrumental part would have them joined with beams may indicate that vocal performance was intended. The music for eight anthems or set pieces is written at the back of the book, which has been inverted for the purpose. In some cases the bass part has passages marked for organ only, and in both hymns and anthems the word 'Symphony' appears from time to time, in various abbreviations and mis-spellings. The word originally denoted an instrumental passage; whether it here indicates simply an organ solo or some other instrumental accompaniment is not clear.

About a third of the hymn tunes have survived in the denominational hymnals of the late nineteenth century, although it is notable that a significant number have done so only in the Primitive Methodist Hymnal of 1875. This does not of itself indicate that Lancaster was a Methodist, but rather illustrates the Primitive Methodists' taste for tunes of the west gallery period, retained long after other denominations had abandoned them. Even in the Primitive Methodist Hymnal the tunes appear with orthodox 'polite' harmonies, whereas Lancaster's versions are robustly 'vernacular' in style.

Sources of hymn tunes

Not all the tunes in Lancaster's collection have so far been traced to printed sources but it is clear that Knapp, Stephenson, Clark, Harwood, Stanley, Jarman and many other well-known composers of popular hymn tunes of the period are all represented, if not always acknowledged. Lancaster also attributes tunes to two composers of whom nothing seems to be known at present: William Cawley (Cawley's -- for Easter) and W. Whysall (Pentonville).[23] It is therefore not impossible that Lancaster's book contains unique copies of some tunes, although it must be emphasised that detailed research into popular psalmody of the period is still in its early stages and many sources remain unexplored.

The inclusion of one tune, Whalley, by William Bury (1788-1857) may be evidence that the book was compiled in north-west England. Since Bury was still alive in 1842 and Lancaster attributes the tune to 'Mr Bury' it is at least possible that the compiler knew, or knew of, the composer personally. Certainly it is known that although Bury's tunes were widely circulated in manuscript in Accrington and district, they were not well known further afield.[24]

Comparing harmonisations

A comparison between the harmonisations found in Lancaster's book and those in two other sources known to have been used in the island in the period under discussion is instructive. Five tunes from Lancaster's book (Old Hundredth, S. Stanley's Wilton, W. Matthews' Tranquillity, Leach's Watchman and Harwood's Christmas Hymn)[25] also appear in Isaac Dale's The Mona Melodist ('A selection of Psalm and Hymn Tunes ... for congregational or Family Worship. Newly Harmonised for four voices. With an Accompaniment for the Organ or Pianoforte') published in Douglas by J. Quiggin, North Quay, c1838. Dale's academically correct harmonies exemplify the 'polite' style as completely as Lancaster's version the 'vernacular'. By contrast, if we compare Lancaster's version of Belvidere[26] with that found in MS 437A, the book from Kirk Bride discussed above, the harmonies are very similar, though not identical. It is clear that both polite and vernacular styles existed at the same time, each meeting the cultural and religious needs of a different social group.

Organisation of the book

A note in the Museum Library catalogue stating that many pages of Lancaster's book are missing is, I believe, misleading, although the pagination is so confusing that it is not difficult to understand how an error might have arisen. At some stage, pp. 92-93 have become detached and have been replaced with the aid of paste, inexplicably next to p. 63. This has induced someone in more recent times to attempt a renumbering of the pages, thus adding to the confusion. A close examination of the physical make-up of the book and its original pagination shows that little, if any, of the musical contents has been lost.

Lancaster began his work by numbering the pages of the book in pencil. He overlooked two leaves which follow p. 96, and they remain unnumbered. Some leaves originally between those which Lancaster numbered 127 and 128 were removed before the pencil numbering. The subsequent inking in of pencil numbers was not done completely or systematically. Lancaster did not simply start at the beginning of the book and proceed to fill it with tunes: the tunes were to be arranged in sections, according to their meters. Thus any tune of a given metrical pattern could readily be matched with the words of any hymn in the same metrical pattern. Clearly Lancaster did not have all his material to hand when he began his task, since the sectional arrangement did not work out exactly, but sectional arrangement was nonetheless his intention.

Most of the missing pages are in groups of four consecutive pages which occur between sections and are immediately preceded or followed by blank pages. This is true of pp. 88-91, 138-41, 170-3 and 186-9, and suggests that these pages were blank when they were removed, possibly for economy's sake, after the book's completion. The careful cutting-out of single leaves (pp. 168-9 and 184-5) in such a way as to ensure that their counterparts (pp. 174-5 and 190-1), which have music written on them, remain secure in the stitching reinforces this view, as does the fact that the index (albeit incomplete) does not list any tunes not found in the book as we have it. It is reasonable to conclude that the book as it is today is very close to the form in which Lancaster completed it. The modern pagination is best ignored.

Further research needed

Lancaster's book is primarily valuable as a fine collection of tunes and as a record of a particular musical style, and there is much scope for further research into its contents. It would, however, be interesting to know who Lancaster was, how the book came to the island, and exactly who used it thereafter.

Many manuscript books of popular psalmody were deliberately destroyed by Victorian reformers. Others must simply have fallen to pieces through use. The manuscripts in the Manx Museum which have been the subject of this paper must therefore be seen as a very significant collection, well worthy of scholarly attention. It is my earnest hope that some member of the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society who has regular access to Manx archives will take up the study of this hitherto neglected aspect of the lives of those who lived in the island before us.