In June 1857, the following notice appeared in The Ashford and Alfred News:
‘A Choral Society now in the course of formation under the direction of Mr Matson persons desirous of becoming members can have their names enrolled on application to Mr Munns (Sec.) or Mr T Scott (Treas.)’
In 1857, the Ashford Choral Society was founded. There are no references to any public performances during the rest of that year, so it is assumed that it took a little while for the Choral Society to get going. Mr. Munns was Ashford’s postmaster for many years, whilst Mr. Scott was a tailor in the town. By the following May it seems that the Ashford Choral Society was well and truly established, and a ‘Grand Vocal and Instrumental Concert’ was advertised for Thursday 27th May 1858 in which the Society was assisted by eminent professionals, conducted by Mr. R. C. Mansell and lead by Mr. John Matson. The programme consisted of a variety of choral and orchestral pieces, few of which are well known today.
Mr. Matson appears to have been a leading light in Ashford’s music scene. He was born in Canterbury but made his living as a Professor of Music in Ashford. He taught music pupils at his house and was organist at the Parish Church for 43 years. It was on Thursday evenings that Mr Matson went to The Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapel (where the Police Station and Magistrates Court are now) for the Ashford Choral Society rehearsals.
In October 1858, The Ashford and Alfred News printed another notice on behalf of the Ashford Choral Society:
‘The Committee beg to inform their friends that they have now commenced their winter’s course of practice and any person wishing to join can do so on application to the Secretary. Terms 1d 6d per quarter. Vocalists meet at 8 o’clock, Instrumentalists at 9 o’clock.’
In those days transport was not always easy, so it is assumed that members of the Choral Society lived in or near to the town. Several concerts followed during the season of 1858 and the Society with the Band numbered about 70 performers. However, on 10thSeptember 1859, a rather desperate notice appeared in The Ashford and Alfred News:
‘The Committee of Ashford Choral Society beg to announce that a concert will be given by the members at the Assembly Rooms on October 6th for the purpose of liquidating a large debt and earnestly solicit the co-operation of the gentry and inhabitants of Ashford and the neighbourhood.’
At that particular concert, the eminent artist, a Mr. T. Ditton, played the Sax Tuba, and the newspaper reported that his exquisite solo was ‘the gem of the evening’. However, it would appear that the concert did not liquidate the large debt as there is no record of the Choral Society giving any more concerts during the next few years. In September 1865 a notice appeared advertising a Vocal and Instrumental Concert at the Corn Exchange which was to be given by members of the Ashford Choral and Mutual Improvement Society, for the benefit of Mr. Fuller, who had been a musician in Ashford for upward of 37 years. Perhaps the Mutual Improvement Society had taken over the business of the Ashford Choral Society.
On 4th November 1865, the following notice appears in The Kentish Express and Ashford News:
ASHFORD CHORAL SOCIETY
The first Meeting of this Society (conductor Mr Philip Klitz) was held at the Corn Exchange last Thursday evening when about forty members were enrolled.
On Thursday evening, the 9th at a quarter to 8 o’clock the Society will meet to commence practice when all who intend joining are earnestly requested to attend.
Was this a breakaway group from the Mutual Improvement Society starting again under the old name Ashford Choral Society? We don’t know, and there seems no way of finding out. Nor do we know much about Mr Klitz, although investigation suggests that he was an organist and composer.
In February 1868, Dr. George Wilks, a Doctor of Music and a Doctor of Medicine, returned to his birthplace of Ashford and set about re-forming the choir in the Parish Church as well as starting a band of musicians. Dr. Wilks consented to act as Conductor of the Ashford Choral Society in 1891. Under his leadership, the Ashford Choral Society enjoyed halcyon days and one report in The Kentish Express and Ashford News reveals that at one concert ‘the Corn Exchange was filled with a highly delighted audience comprising of the elite of the neighbourhood … altogether some 200 performers, vocal and instrumental, were assembled beneath the conductor’s baton … a more enjoyable concert could not have been desired’. After 15 years of conducting, Dr. Wilks resigned from the Choral Society in 1905. He died in 1919, and a memorial tablet to him can be found in the Parish Church.
After much debate, the Society invited Mr. Fletcher, the conductor of Folkestone Choral Society, to take on Ashford as well. Under Mr. Fletcher’s baton, the Society did not seem quite so robust; no big choral works were undertaken, apart from Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Rather lighter music was chosen. By 1908, the Society’s finances were once again in rather a parlous state, and whist drives were being held to help boost the Society’s funds. By 1910, membership had dropped to 57, and the Society struggled on for a few more years until the outbreak of the First World War, when the Society once again sank into oblivion.
In the 1920s, just a few concerts were performed under a Dr. C. Merrill. In 1926, a concert was postponed because of the General Strike, and it is possible that the severe winter added to the Choral Society’s problems, as the ice was thick enough to skate on Eastwell Park lake, and the Stour was frozen over for several miles. The Choral Society did eventually perform Elijah later that year. By 1932, interest in the Society seems to have waned, and there were several meetings to discuss how the Society should proceed. On the 1st October a sad entry appeared in the local paper which said that ‘due to lack of local support the Choral Society had been disbanded’.
The Parish Church and other places of worship continued to have their choirs, and there was still a group of enthusiastic singers in the town. Only two years later, on 5th October 1934 a notice appeared in The Kentish Express and Ashford News giving details of the Choral Society practices. Once again, the Society was embarking on a period of growth, both in numbers and in the quality of its performances.
Paul Steinitz, who had become a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists at the age of 21, came to the Ashford School for Girls in 1934 to take up a teaching post. He also took on the job of Parish Church organist and choirmaster. Dr. Steinitz may have only stayed with the Society for eight years, but during this short time he raised the standard to new heights. Dr. Steinitz’s great love was the music of Bach, and in 1936, the Society performed the St Matthew Passion augmented by the Parish Church Choir, the Choir of the County School for Girls (as it then was known; now Highworth Grammar), and the Ashford Male Voice Choir. The orchestra was very modest but comprised professional players; Dr Steinitz would not compromise the quality of his work.
In 1938, there was a Royal Command Performance at the Royal Albert Hall; an invitation was sent to Ashford inviting the Choral Society to send four representatives to take part in the performance on 25th May, Empire Day, in the presence of the King and Queen. 939 marked the beginning of the Second World War. Dr. Steinitz was a conscientious objector and pacifist, so he was directed to agricultural work, but he continued to run the Choral Society through thick and thin. The War took its toll, but the Society was fortunate in having several loyal benefactors. The Headley family, who over a long period has supported the Society in numerous ways as singers, players, committee members and officers, patrons and chairmen, were particularly helpful during the war years. Dr. Steinitz last concert with the Society was Handel’s Messiah in December 1942. During his leadership the Society had grown both in numbers and musical ability; when he left (to become principal lecturer in music at Goldsmith’s College, and to go on to found the London Bach Society and write several books), there were no fewer than 116 members.
May 1945 brought the longed-for VE day and the Choral Society sang Merrie England under the baton of Miss N. Horsfield, the music mistress at the Ashford County Grammar School for Girls (as the County School had become following the Education Act 1944). During the next few years, the Choral Society struggled on with low numbers and several different conductors. In January 1952, Miss Mary Mitchell, then Head of Music at the County School, received a deputation from the Choral Society committee asking if she would take over the conductorship. She agreed, and thereafter began several good years under her thorough teaching and infectious enthusiasm. Under her leadership, the Society rehearsed at the Grammar School, and major works were performed in the Parish Church, usually accompanied by the organ. In 1961, Miss Mitchell had to lay down her baton because of poor health, and the 80 members of the Society declared that ‘words will not ably express the love and admiration we have for her’.
Mr. David Spackman now joined the Society as conductor and in his two years instituted some important changes. He used an orchestra once again to accompany Easter concerts, and more radically suggested that the Society should set about having a moveable platform built that would fit over the pew in the Parish Church in order that the Society could be better seen and heard by the audience. Mr Spackman also suggested that the Society should do some carol singing to raise funds for both the cost of the staging and another charity. The cost of the staging was paid off long ago, and the staging itself no longer exists, but to this day, the Choral Society raises funds during an annual round of carol singing and has raised many thousands of pounds for various charities over the years.
In 1964, Mr. St. John Gadsden, organist and choirmaster of the Parish Church, arrived as conductor of the Society and rehearsals moved to The Boys’ Grammar School. Member numbers continued to increase as the Society sang more adventurous works. To the Society’s surprise, John Gadsden rather suddenly and unexpectedly left the district in the middle of the 1969/70 season, and a new conductor was appointed: Mark Deller, who had recently come to live in Wye. His father, the renowned counter-tenor, Alfred Deller, lived at Kennington and was well-known in the area. Mark was keen to work with a large choir, and Ashford Choral Society gave him that opportunity. As a professional musician, he found the Society’s finances woefully inadequate, and so set about putting them on a more business-like footing. Ticket prices and subscriptions were raised. He also wished to employ an orchestra for both the November and Easter concerts. Costs spiralled, but Mark said that ‘money should not be of prime importance’. His optimism paid off, membership increased, and by 1977 the Ashford Choral Society was the second largest in Kent with 138 members.
In 1978, the Choral Society joined forces with a French choir to sing Handel’s Alexander’s Feast in Paris. A few weeks later, the French choir joined the Choral Society in Ashford for a return visit. By the end of the 1970s, there were 148 members of the Society and a waiting list for new members. The Choral Society inspires great loyalty. One gifted accompanist, the late Mr. Ted Solly, played for the Society’s rehearsals for over 40 years.
Dr. Deller has continued to maintain and indeed improve standards set by his illustrious forebears. He has greatly enlarged the Society’s repertoire and every Tuesday night inspires the Society to sing. However much the face of Ashford changes, and the lives of its inhabitants alter, we believe that the Ashford Choral Society will continue to play its part in the town and give pleasure to performer and listener alike for another 150 years.
Adapted by permission from The Life and Times of Ashford Choral Society by Eunice Smith