In 1871 some members of Kendal Christian and Literary and the Working Men’s Institutes conceived the idea of an Industrial Exhibition to be held in the newly opened School of Science and Art on New Road.
One of the fund raising ideas was to hold a Choral concert. A group of 60 singers ( and 7 boys) was assembled by W.B. Armstrong, the organist at the Parish Church and W. Smallwood, the organist at St. Thomas’ Church. A Harmonium was lent by the Freemasons and the Practices took place in the Lecture Hall of The School.
The chosen work was Handel’s Messiah and the first public concert took place on December 21st. As there was no concert hall in Kendal at this time the Wool warehouse of Whitwell, Busher & Co was cleared and used for the occasion. The local orchestra of 24 players was lead by John Braithwaite. This concert was a success and made a profit of £50.
As a result the organisers decided to give another performance six months later, in aid of prizes for the Exhibition. The work chosen this time was Handel’s Judas Maccabeus and as there were more expenses the profit was only £15.
Both concerts of the previous year had proved a success and as the choir numbers had grown to 70 it was decided to continue. In September 1872 a meeting was held, under the Chairmanship of W.B.Armstrong and an independent Choral Society became established. The first three concerts were given in the Albert Buildings, which was part of the large wool warehouse of Whitwell, Busher & Co.
The acoustics were poor and the building needed quite a considerable amount of expense and preparation to transform it into a suitable venue for concerts. As a result the committee moved the next concerts to the National School. Apart from Mozart’s ‘Twelfth Mass’ and two other short pieces all the works performed in these early days were by Handel.
In 1880 Kendal became the proud owner of a much needed new concert hall. St George’s Hall was built by a private Company and held an audience of 1,200.
The choir, which now numbering 136, sang at the opening Concert on April 5th. This concert lasted for 3 hours and was described by the Gazette as being of excessive length. It comprised most of the Messiah and items by the orchestra and the four soloists, who included Mary Wakefield. It was reported that many of the audience could not see and they spent the evening shivering in the draughts, which whistled through the passageways.
After this concert the works performed by the society became more varied and occasionally the Choir had the help of the Kendal Amateur Orchestra and a few of the best soloists in the country, such as Muriel Brunskill and Walter Widdop were engaged as principals.
In 1886 Mary Wakefield held her 2nd Competitive Choir Festival in Kendal. This was initially intended as a festival for Village Choirs, and it was not until the rules were changed to include town choirs that Kendal Choral Society began to take part.
The first conductors, Mr Smallwood and Mr Armstrong were in charge until 1899 when J. Smallwood Winder, nephew of Mr Smallwood, was appointed. He was the organist of St. Thomas’ Church, Kendal.
Early Presidents were well known Kendal businessmen, including Colin Somervell (for 25 years up to 1911) and F.W.Crewdson. The Subscribers List from 1910 included the names of the Wakefields, Mosers, Croppers, Willinks and many other families still connected with the musical life of the area.
In 1934 the choir numbered around 70 and still conducted by its longstanding conductor, J. S. Winder, gave what the Gazette described as its best concert in the 68 given by ‘this worthy organisation’. The reporter praised the high musical standard of the choir.
A local girl, Irene Walker, was the soprano soloist and the reporter commented on her ‘natural style’ which should be copied by all amateur singers and then the days of ‘Wobble’ would definitely be numbered.
During the 1939-45 war the choir struggled to continue. In October 1939 it was decided that practices should be open to non-members in order to make as big a choir as possible. It was stated in the choir minutes that ‘ the teachers evacuated with pupils from Tyneside would be particularly welcome’. Obviously this did not work, as by November, it was decided that a full concert would not be given that season.
An Open night was arranged instead at St. Thomas’ Mission Hall on the 12th March. This would be a social evening with an hour of music with proceeds going to the hospital. This sort of concert became the pattern for ‘the duration’.
Mr Winder retired as conductor in 1945 and died in 1948. A commemorative plaque was placed in recognition of his contribution in the St George’s Mission Hall, where the society rehearsed.
In September 1946 Jim Noble, then a very young reporter on the Gazette, was appointed Conductor and undertook the task of re-building the choir after the war. Choir practices were now being held in Strammongate School on Tuesday evenings. Mr Nobles’ second concert was Elgar’s ‘Music Makers’. Even though the choir numbered 72, only 47 regularly attended the practices. There were only 5 tenors and 7 basses.
By 1949 the new Greenside choir was also meeting on Tuesdays and Jim Noble said that he would ‘sever his connection’ with the choir unless more men were found. He introduced a different type of concert in the Town Hall with lighter music in association with the Kendal Light Orchestra. In 1950 he complained of too much chatting and not enough attention being paid to the conductor and again threatened to resign. A special meeting was held to look into ways of increasing the strength of the society. Concern was expressed that the Kendal Operatic Society was flourishing but the Choral Society was ‘in the doldrums’.
In 1952 the committee noted their dissatisfaction with the attendance at practices and in September Jim Noble resigned on the minuted grounds of ‘his poor eyesight’. (He continued to be involved with music in Kendal for very many years to follow!!)
Christopher Regan from Sedbergh School was appointed the new conductor. His first concert was the Music Makers. He inspired the Choir with fresh enthusiasm and the numbers situation seemed to improve but tenors were still needed. Mr Regan found the travel from Sedbergh difficult so a rota had to be arranged to pick him up for rehearsals. He preferred to perform one oratorio instead of various smaller works, so a performance of ‘Elijah’ was planned for March 1955. Owing to changed arrangements at Sedbergh School he resigned at the end of the season and was later to become a Professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
Eric Wetherell was appointed conductor for the next two years. By now the choir had 60 members and at the Annual meeting in the Parish Church vestry he was thanked for his inspiring leadership.
Between 1957-1964 John Nourse was conductor, followed by Geoffrey Cordingly until 1967
In 1967, Daphne Lester, the Music Mistress at Kendal High School and the first female conductor, took over for the next very successful 22 years.
In 1971 the Choir celebrated its centenary season with a Messiah in December: a commissioned work, ‘Five Mediaeval Lyrics’ by the young composer, David Lord, Bach’s St Matthew Passion with other societies in April and a display at Kendal High School.
In 1983 Local schoolmaster and graduate of The Royal Manchester College of Music, Michael Critchlow became the Accompanist, a post he continues to hold with distinction at the time of writing, some 32 years later!
Alan Gardner, Head of Music at Dallam School and son of a former Editor of the Westmorland Gazette became the 10th conductor in 1989.
He was largely responsible for the twinning with the French choir Toutes Aures; which spanned 10 highly successful years, with concerts in France and England and many lasting friendships being formed along the way. To read more about this Click HERE
He retired from the post of Musical Director in May 2015.
Duncan Lloyd became conductor in May 2015.
The choir, generated in a ‘spirit of helpfulness’, in 1871-2 now (in 2015) numbers some 60 members and continues to delight its audience in Kendal and the surrounding area with a wide variety of Concerts. Notes by Janet Thompson, with thanks to Cumbria Archives and Kendal Library.