A month ago I picked a slim volume, R.J. Henderson’s 1981 History of King’s College Choir School, Cambridge, off a library bookshelf, hoping it might provide some entertaining anecdotes. It did.
The school was founded alongside King’s College in 1441 to provide somewhere for the choristers to be educated, and has grown into a co-educational prep school on West Road, a place I used to walk past in student days to get to the Music Faculty. The book’s fun, full of details from dusty archives and the unpublished memoirs and diaries of its members, and features plenty of people called e.g. Scrope, which is reassuring.
Two eccentrics spring off the page, the first being Charles R. Jelf, Headmaster from 1912 to 1927:
It might be thought that a headmaster who had accepted the post of Master over the Choristers at King’s College might well believe in the spiritual value of choral services and that the school existed primarily for the benefit of the choristers. On the contrary, Jelf’s extraordinary mixture of Anglo-Catholicism and Evangelicalism produced an attitude of derision towards the chapel services, which he openly decried as being nothing more than a concert of sacred music. He himself was a vicar-warden of St Giles, which he attended regularly with his family but, although he attended all chapel services, he derived little inspiration from them.
A similar contradiction was his extraordinary attitude that Oxford was superior to Cambridge in every respect. He refused to pay King’s College the compliment of incorporating as an MA of Cambridge University, wore an Oxford hood in chapel and never dined in College, although entitled to do so.
The other is his successor, the scatterbrained Cedric Moulton Fiddian:
Having sent a boy to his study to be disciplined at 9.30 in the morning Fiddian then forgot about him until, on returning to his study at four o’clock in the afternoon, he asked him why he was waiting there. The boy did not know, nor for that matter did Fiddian, who sent him back into school. On another occasion the headmaster instructed [senior matron] Miss Aikin to prepare a bed for a new boarder, a brother of one Bayliss, already at the school. The new boy was to arrive that evening. A brief remonstration from the matron that Bayliss was an only child was quickly waved aside. An hour later a shame-faced headmaster was forced to apologise and explain that he had only just that day opened the letter advertising the arrival of the ‘real’ Bayliss, who in fact had entered the school three years earlier. Like a good deal of Fiddian’s correspondence, it had disappeared under a sea of books and papers.
Some time ago I found a 1979 copy of the school magazine Fleur-de-Lys, from which I excerpt the following story, a magnificent tribute to a young girl’s imagination:
IF I WASN’T ME
I was madly in love with my pony, Misty, and I said to my dad, “Could I marry Misty?” and he said, “Of course you can’t,” and I said, “Why not?” and in the end he said, “Oh, all right,” and we married. The next day we got married. Only my sister came to the wedding. The next day I was grooming Misty and I looked in his water trough and realised I was a horse. The previous day dad had been told that there was a pony coming that I had to look after and he mistook me for that pony and he gave me some oats which I thought was the most disgusting stuff I had ever had and I spat it all over my dad and he was furious. Misty said that was delicious and kept on teasing me so a divorcement was made.
K.H., aged 10
If this sort of thing piques your interest, see also the brilliant King’s College Choir Book edited by Jonathan Rippon and Penny Cleobury, published in 1997. Full of delightful details, including this letter home from a 1950s choirboy that anticipates The Very Hungry Caterpillar:
Dear Mummy + Daddy,
I hope you received the Travel Form. Please return it as soon as possible
Last night was Founders Feast I ate.
1 Tongue sandwich
1 cheese ” (Dutch cheese)
2 chocolate biscuits
1 sausage roll
1 Candy sweets
3 glasses orangeade
BUT it was spoilt by Poor Nicholas (Steinitz) who turned white and fainted at the end He wasn’t drunk but I think he ate something which does not agree with him. I don’t know how he is but I expect he is better now.
Yesterday was the Fellowes match. A dog joined in and it kept running after the ball and worrying. In Mr Gaskell’s speech last night he said, “With the aid of some 3-year young research fellowes and a dog we managed to withstand the savage onslaugt put up by the choir school and beat them 2-0.” All clap except us who B-O-O-O-O! and then some chaps go S-S-S-S-S at the other end of the Hall!
Don’t forget Travel Form please