Anglican Minstrel (or West) Gallery Singing, and its Relation to Berkswell Church

Berkswell Church stairs to gallery.
Postcard, Frederick Lewis. Warwickshire County Record Office reference PH352/28/38

In the 17th Century the Puritans swept away flowery instruments like organs. This was ‘enforced’ by the Long Parliament in an act of 1644called ‘Further Ordinance for the demolition of monuments of Idolatry and Superstition in Churches’.The 1644 act called for the speedy demolishing of all organs, images and other “matters of superstitious monuments” in all cathedrals, collegiate or parish churches and chapels throughout England and Wales. We have no evidence that prior to this Berkswell had an organ but it sets the scene for us.

The type of music was similarly purged, less flowery music was sung with an emphasis on psalmody. The Puritans were not against music and were in the throes of setting up a College of Music in 1660 which was only halted by the Restoration of the monarchy. Singing was more plainsong, unaccompanied and without harmony. Mostly settings for psalms and the range of hymns was quite small. William Gresham in 1780 said that he had limited the number of tunes in ‘Psalmody Improved’ because otherwise ‘the congregation could not retain them’. The Old 100th (All people that on earth do dwell) is a long surviving tune through these times. We also have to remember that the musicians learnt these pieces off by heart as few would necessarily know how to read and write. This music is often referred to as Georgian Psalmody.

The Berkswell band

The starting note was usually given using a pitchpipe and was pretty much the practice for most of the 18th century. Over the 18th Century bands started to be formed, evidenced in Berkswell with the three pews for ‘ye singers’ and the subsequent purchase of the ‘Berkswell’ Cello. These bands consisted of villagers, a number bringing their own instruments, ranging from the ubiquitous flute, clarionet, bassoon and violin to the lesser played instruments like fife and oboe. So started minstrel singing throughout the English Church, initially with just the melody being belted out but more and more harmony singing was introduced.

One further significant development, during this period of ‘organ less’ accompaniment, was the location of the singers in the church. Prior to the Commonwealth and subsequent to the reintroduction of organs, singers were generally located in the Chancel. However during the ‘organ less’ period, minstrels were generally located at the west end of the church, not always, but usually somewhere the nave. This did lead to (or perhaps resulting from!) contention with the clergy at the other end of the church, with differences in opinion over things like …the length of the sermons. A contention heightened, literally, when galleries were erected at the west end specifically for the minstrels. In Berkswell the west gallery was constructed in 1777. These galleries were quite often, part funded by the minstrels, paying effectively for their own seats in the gallery (and jealously guarded as a result!).

Reintroduction of the organ

The 19th century saw the gradual decline of the use of minstrel galleries as organs were reintroduced around the country. In Berkswell the west gallery came down in 1896 to make way for the Willis organ in 1897. It is still here and working mainly unchanged, today.

More formal choirs replaced the minstrels and 1927 saw the inauguration of the School of English Church Music (SECM) a forerunner of today’s Royal School of Church Music (RSCM)


1 Acts and Citations.

2 An update on the 1643 Ordinance for demolishing superstitions images, etc., and removing Communion Tables from the East End of Churches, before 1st November, 1643.

Many thanks to Berkswell Church for the permission to reproduce this article.

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