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West Gallery Music in Cornwall

Harry Woodhouse, author of Face the Music, and a long article on WG music in Cornwall in Cornish Studies, Second Series, No. 1, writes here about the results of his 20 year researches into the subject.

Research findings on Cornish gallery music and musicians



I am blessed with a voice like a fog-horn, so am sadly unable to sing at our Association meetings. However, I learned to play the clarinet, and in later life, the serpent and ophicleide, so the resemblance to the fog-horn is even greater now. I did learn the bassoon once, but my father said that he could make a better noise than that without the instrument.

For over ten years my wife and I, with a group of friends, have been researching church and chapel bands in Cornwall. We have visited dozens of churches and chapels, studied church and chapel accounts in the County Record Office, Truro, and read hundreds of church pamphlets and parish histories.

Physical evidence

The physical evidence in places of worship today is meagre, especially when compared with the wonderful galleries in Dorset. The only church gallery we know is in Tregaminion, but there is no evidence that it ever contained a band. At least a hundred Cornish churches did contain galleries, as can be seen in the records, but our Victorian architects and builders swept them away leaving hardly a trace; in just one church, Launcells, some rather ordinary box pews survive. The Wesleyan movement was very strong in Cornwall, but of course, bands in chapels seldom had special places from which to play.

A few musical instruments from bands survive in Cornish museums: a 'cello, a flute, several clarinets, and a serpent. My own serpent came from the loft of a house in Rilla Mill where it was found in its green baize bag, together with a bassoon fitted with a metal bell. Only in 1992 an ophicleide came to light in the loft of a farmhouse near Newquay. It was just like new, again in its green baize bag, and had been played in the local chapel by the grandfather of the present owner.

Bands and instruments

One hundred and twenty-four churches and chapels in Cornwall have been found to have had bands. Since many of the old records are missing, it is possible that there were many more. In 1900 there were still eighteen parishes in Cornwall using orchestral instruments in church. [1]

Band sizes varied from one to six instrumentalists, with a mixture of strings and wind. Instruments found include the 'cello (described variously as Baze vial, bazz, bess viol, violinsillo, beais veial, etc.), violin, flute, clarinet, bassoon, oboe, serpent, ophicleide, double bass, cornet, bass horn, fife, trombone, and key bugle, in decreasing order of frequency. Dates varied from 1785 (a 'cello. clarinet and oboe) to 1900 (a violin, cornet and trombone). We recorded the purchase of twenty pitch-pipes between 1760 and 1812, and 'strings for the bassoon' and 'strings for the Hautboy' [oboe] at Poundstock and Tresmere respectively.

Thirty-one harmoniums were recorded, and one seraphine still exists at Sheviock church. Gallery curtains were referred to in eight churches between 1798 and 1827, with one having 'a gilded knob for the gallery'. A mystery surrounds numerous references to 'ribbons for the singers' between 1791 and 1804, for example at Tywardreath 'Pd for 12 yds of Ribbonds for the Girls, 6s 0d'. [2]

We have searched in vain for evidence that church bands also played at secular village events. However, in 1832, some of the instrumentalists of Launceston Methodist Chapel were reprimanded by the trustees for attending the theatre with their instruments. [3]


A great deal of information has been collected about Cornish singing-masters; forty-three churches mention them and 153 are recorded by name during the period from 1737 to 1858. Some churches paid two singing-masters, but more commonly a singing-master taught at several churches. Richard Frain held such office at Egloskerry for thirty years and in 1797 he was paid for 'teaching ten tunes at five-pence each'. There were also visiting singing-masters who were paid for accommodation for themselves and for their horses.


Singers often visited other churches; for example, in the eighteenth century, Lanreath received visits from the singers of Morval, Lanteglos, Liskeard, Pelynt, Lansallos, Duloe, and St Martins.

Feasts for the singers were recorded in nearly every church in Cornwall. Malt and hops were commonly given, but sometimes up to twenty gallons of beer or cider, with bread and meat to go with it, were recorded. The churchwardens at Jacobstowe noted in 1792: 'A pock of whoats for the same 2s 6d. Pd for Shuger and Tay and iggs, corrants and candles do. 2s 4d. For two pounds of Botter 1s 0d, 3 pints of crome 1s 3d, do. 2s 3d'. It was not uncommon in Cornwall for musical expenses, including these feasts, to amount to over a third of the church's annual expenditure.

Disputes and criticisms

In 1832 there were violent scenes in Liskeard, in a dispute as to who should sit in the musicians' gallery. At St Neot in 1803 there was a payment for 'Keeping sentry -- keeping down those who where no singing from the gallery 1s 0d'. From Falmouth is preserved this poem:

Arrived at the church 'tis diverting to see, Them all strut to Ned Kendal's vile twiddle dumdee, Whose bass and whose treble comparatively speaking, Are like old pigs grunting and little pigs squeaking. [4]

Singing at funerals was very popular in Cornwall, and 'Vital Spark' was often sung. In 1858 the local innkeeper's corpse was paraded around the streets of Truro with a group of singers and a brass band. [5]. In 1853 the parson at Marazion forbade singing at funerals, although we do not know for what reason.

Several churches in Cornwall record the first appearance of a surpliced choir, singing in the chancel, and accompanied by an organ. At North Tamerton this happened in 1884, and at Sheviok in 1850. The local newspaper compared the splendid performance with what had happened in the past: 'while the Western gallery, with many disorderly occupants, monopolised altogether the privilege of praising the Most High, the congregation remained uninterested and unedified auditors'.

Cornish gallery music

Our efforts to find Cornish gallery music have met with limited success, but we have found both published and manuscript music.

Printed music books

By a stroke of luck we found The Cornubian Tune Book by Richard Jones of Penzance which was published by William Cornish of Penzance in 1870. Jones composed all the tunes himself, mainly to the words of Wesleys' hymns, hymns from Lady Huntingdon's collections, and Hymns, Ancient and Modern. There are several splendid tunes, and all are printed in the conventional way for organ. The Bristol Tune Book, published in 1881, is not Cornish but contains many delightful tunes with Cornish titles including Lostwithiel, St Austell, St Feock, St Keverne, and St Mabyn. Occasionally Cornish hymns have been published separately, and we have found Furse from Precentor Furse who played in the church orchestra in Mevagissey, [6] and the Constenten Funeral Hymn which was sung at the graveside in Constantine in the nineteenth century, a '10th mode melody with modal harmony'. [7]

Cornish carols are well known and a great many are still in print today. The carols of Thomas Merritt are regularly performed (with organ, sadly) at his home town of Illogan. Mention should also be made of three other sources of Cornish tunes: Songs and Dances from Cornwall by Inglis Gundry, [8] Hengen by Merv Davey, [9] and The Cornish Song Book by Dr Ralph Dunstan. [10]

Manuscript music

The manuscript music we have found is of great interest. 'A set a psalm, and hymn tunes composed by Thomas Trethewey [1816-1870?] of Breage' (no date) contains eighty tunes which appear to be original, and one, Satisfaction (SM), by Groom. One tune, Concord (LM), is marked 'Inst' and 'voc', so clearly the music was intended to be played on orchestral instruments. The book is in private hands but the owner has kindly given me a copy.

The 'Tune Book of Hannibal Lugg Lyne of St Mawgan in Meneage' (c1840) is now in the County Record Office, Truro, reference X 540/63, and contains 163 tunes. Many are well known from other sources, for example Old Hundredth, New Sabbath, etc., but many have Cornish names: St Austle, St Austell New, Chacewater, Trethewey, Helston, Calynack, Mawgan Chapel. There is even an Ashman! One tune, Pleasure, is marked 'instrumental' suggesting that the music may have been used with a band.

In the archives of the Cornish Music Guild are two manuscript books which belonged to Thomas Prisk of Illogan. Although undated, one of the books contains an entry 'Joseph Pryor his hand and pen dated March the 25th 1838'. Most of the 314 tunes are in four parts, but where there is only one part, it is always the bass, suggesting that the books were used by a bass singer or instrumental player. One piece, New York (SM), has 'instrumental bass' written on it. The hymns have no words, but 'Vital Spark' is included complete with the words. Many tunes occur in both books, sometimes with minor differences -- possibly copying errors. Most of the tunes are well known from other published sources, but some have special Cornish connections: St Austell, St Austle by D. Tagg (same tune), Falmouth, Trethewey, Trenorgie, Helston, Carn Brea, St Leven, Redruth, Portreath. There are many tunes by A. Dunstan of Redruth. Further notes and a complete list of contents of these books are given separately (in preparation).

Also in the Guild archive is a manuscript book of 'Old Cornish Carols' collected by Thomas M. Banfield of St Ives (no date), which contains a few hymns and psalms.

In the County Record Office, Truro, is the manuscript organ book of Tregorrick Methodist Chapel, which closed in the 1930s. It contains St Austell, St Agnes, Swafield and many others. I possess a copy of a beautiful title page of 'Thomas Reed, Trenoweth, Mabe 1845' and one inside page of music in four parts. The rest of the book is now in America, together with the serpent which Mr Reed once played.

Further reading

Since this article originally appeared in West Gallery no.5, (Summer 1993), pp. 21-27, a more detailed article based on this research has been published. The full reference is:
Woodhouse, Harry (1993) 'Face the music', in Payton, Philip (ed.) Cornish Studies 1 (ISBN 0 85989 413 4; ISSN 1352-271X), Exeter University Press.

Reprinted from an article in The West Gallery Journal © November 2001

© Harry Woodhouse 1993 and 2001. This article first appeared in West Gallery 5, (Summer 1993), pp. 21-27. See Author's note regarding his 1993 article 'Face the music'


The writer gives his grateful thanks to his wife, and friends John and Caroline Black for helping with the research and their constant encouragement. Thanks are also due to the librarians and staff of the Royal Institute of Cornish Studies, and the County Record Office, Truro, and to Dr Richard McGrady and Rollo Woods for their wise counsel. This work was carried out with the assistance of a Caroline Kemp Research Scholarship, awarded by Exeter University.


[1] Brown, Canon Miles (1953) Truro Diocesan News Leaflet, September 1953. [ Back to text ]

[2] Church Accounts. DDP Series, County Record Office, Truro. Gordon Ashman notes: Ribbons were expensive and were given as a mark of distinction (or affection from a sweetheart). Such payments are not uncommon in churchwardens' accounts and I am sure I have read of a bequest in a Cornish town for ribbons for the dancers for the annual procession. [ Back to text ]

[3] Shaw, Thomas (1967) A History of Cornish Methodism, Bradford Barton. [ Back to text ]

[4] Kinnaird-Jenkins, William (1933) Falmouth Church 1663-1932, Redruth. [ Back to text ]

[5] Truro Buildings Research Group (1988) From Moresk Road to Malpas, [ Back to text ] Truro.

[6] Roberts, J. Kittow (1946) The Mevagissey Independents, Taunton. [ Back to text ]

[7] Harris, Ida and David (1975) The Church of St Constantine in Cornwall, Penzance. [ Back to text ]

[8] Gundry, Inglis (1982; 3rd edn) Songs and Dances from Cornwall, Redruth. [ Back to text ]

[9] Davey, Merv (1983) Hengen, Redruth. [ Back to text ]

[10] Dunstan, Ralph (1929) The Cornish Song Book, Truro. [ Back to text ]

Author's note

I would be delighted to discuss my findings with other researchers, and to help them in any way.

Author's Update 2001

I spent nearly 20 years doing the research, and the first results were published in Cornish Studies, Second Series, Number 1, edited by Philip Paynton, published by Exeter University 1993. ISBN 0 85989 413 4. There is no need to approach Exeter University - the book can be ordered from any bookshop or borrowed from your local library.

This was followed by my book Face the Music, Cornish Hillside Publications, 1997, ISBN 1900147 07 6 paperback, 1900147 08 4 hardback. Again it can be obtained from your bookshop or library. Most libraries in Cornwall have a copy.

I only have minor additions to add to what is in the book, which contains references to all my sources, including the manuscript music.



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