Stories in the Landscape: Turvey religious musical events in the 1800s

Religious musical events in Turvey

Bedfordshire newspapers recorded the regular church and chapel musical events through the 1800s.  They noted the philanthropy of the landowners such as Charles Longuet Higgins (CLH).  CLH cared about music in the church, funding the organ (the articles Philanthropy in Turvey and on the All Saints church organ provide further information) and, on most Sundays, playing it for the congregation.  “In the same spirit” CLH was teaching in the Sunday School. The main Turvey church restoration, funded by CLH, was carried out from 1852 to 1854.  Advice was taken from George Gilbert Scott (later Sir) who resisted a radical restoration then was commissioned for the restoration and rebuilding of the east end (see the article Philanthropy in Turvey).  

Turvey Choral Festival directed by the “The Father of Church Music”

CLH created the summer Choral Festival in the restored Turvey church.  Dean John William Burgon, the brother-in-law of CLH (see the article Philanthropy in Turvey) was primarily known for writing theological and biographical books.  He paid many visits to Turvey, including when as a student in 1841 he sketched the “West End” of Turvey church. 

Turvey Church. West End. 1841

Photograph of the pencil drawing “Turvey Church West End 1841” by Dean Burgon

In his book, Lives of Twelve Good Men, Burgon comments on CLH taking on the role of “The Father of Church Music”.  CLH invited 34 choirs from neighbouring villages to sing together each year from 1862 to 1877.  Burgon commented that other areas copied the concept but he did not list those festivals.  Burgon explained that Turvey became the centre of a movement for improving choral singing in the neighbouring parishes, “which, under the energetic guidance of one enthusiastic spirit, spread in every direction until the whole was leavened.”.  Burgon commented from his religious perspective this was “A mighty instrument, those Choral Festivals proved, for good.  The Psalmody of the whole Diocese thereby acquired a greatly improved tone”.  He noted CLH was proud of the strong social bonds being created between different choirs and congregations.    

Food and drink for the singers

CLH realised that singing enthusiastically can make people thirsty and hungry so always organised food and drink in the Abbey Grounds after each Festival.  Choir members were “hospitably entertained (with the Clergy and a large party of friends)”.  After 1877, CLH was experiencing “gradually declining health” so encouraged other parishes to hold the Choral Festival.  Burgon believed he continued to be its “guiding and informing spirit”, noting CLH’s “heart was in the movement until his heart ceased to beat”.  

Church choral traditions in Turvey

In 1953, a “contributor” to the Bedfordshire Times and Standard contrasted the past and present church choral traditions in the village.  He thanked Mr Charles Wooding “a genial personality” for having been the correspondent for the newspaper for fifty years, reporting that Mr Wooding’s own experience of leading a temperance drum and fife band as well as conducting a small string orchestra contributed to his enthusiastic support for Turvey Choral Festivals.  Wooding walked from Bedford to Turvey and back to listen to oratorios and chorales commenting “the long walk home was always full of singing and talking of the great music they had heard.”  The “contributor” explained that in 1872, Turvey Church Choir had 60 voices.  At each service, they were accompanied by the Sunday School orchestra conducted by CLH.  In July 1872, the Choral Festival attracted 700 choristers and clergy from 27 villages and three dioceses. People arrived in horse drawn wagons.  An order of Evensong for this festival can be seen here.

New Year Entertainment and Annual Christmas Supper 1873 

Turvey Church choir members were thanked by CLH by having a New Year Entertainment.  The Bedfordshire Times and Independent journalist wrote that in 1873 the annual New Year’s entertainment was celebrated in the Museum Room on 2 January with wine and biscuits.  The bell ringers and Sunday School teachers were included in the celebration.  CLH began by explaining “nothing gave him more satisfaction than being present on occasions like this”.   The event was used to praise the dedicated choir members while also naming the singers’ who missed services.  CLH read out the analysis from the choir register giving the “exact numbers of each member’s attendance for the year”.  He explained that given the three services each Sunday, the highest score would be 156 attendances.  CLH was delighted to announce that several choir members achieved 151.  Colonel Higgins and the Reverend GFW Munby gave their thanks to everyone.  The article explained “chorales were sung at intervals” with CLH accompanying them on the harmonium.

The annual Christmas supper for Turvey Church Choir was delayed until 7 January 1873.  CLH provided a “good repast” in the Museum Room.  Choir members sang anthems and chorales with CLH as organist.  


Bedfordshire Times and Independent.  14 January 1873.  Turvey report

Bedfordshire Times and Standard.  20 October 1953.  Contributor report on Turvey music in the past and present.

Burgon, Dean J.W. 1889.  Lives of Twelve Good Men:  John Murray.  London

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2021.  Entry for Dean John William Burgon.  Oxford

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