by Ross Parish
I was only relating how it had been many years since I have heard a group of carol singers at the doorstep. Whilst it is true that carol singing is still a common custom, often done across the advent period, in churches; schools, market squares it is rarely down in the streets and doorsteps, Beeston still upholds the custom. Also whilst many carol services sing the nationwide familiar carols, in some parts of the country the carols are local variants, South Yorkshire being a stronghold.
Oddly, Beeston a small town now part of the Nottingham conurbation has its own tradition of unique carols said to have been passed down from generation to generation from Yorkshire weavers who settled here in the 1800s. The Beeston Chilwell road Methodist carol choir have continued the tradition since 1870, at first as a male only choir and then after First World War including women.
Despite being part of the so-called Yorkshire carol tradition, recent research has revealed the carols to originate from Leicestershire, Derbyshire as well as Yorkshire. Indeed, one of these carols, ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’, is the most local being written by William Matthews a Nottingham composer in c.1820. Originally they would probably only sing on Christmas Eve, done through the night as a Bill Spray recalls in the 1900s from an article on the custom:
“They didn’t start to 8 o’clock and they went on to 2 in the morning. I used to go with my father and my brother and sister who were both older. Mother stayed at home and finished off the Christmas baking. Some of the singing was done in the streets, but in the main it was at the big houses, of which there were very many in Beeston at the time. We usually sang at least two carols at every place we visited. After midnight we would probably do no more knocking on doors, but one of our members would go out the next morning to the houses which we hadn’t collected. One feature was that immediately after midnight we always sang Christian’s Awake. We always finished in Beeston square and always sang an anthem. The words were from the Book of Isaah Behold the Virgin shall conceive and bear a son…there were about 20 or 30 of us.”
It is interesting that in later years the proclamation of the Gospel was more important than collecting money, today perhaps there has been a reversal, where money is collected for charity. In the days of Bill Spray the money collected was for themselves noting:
“My father and grandfather belonged to a carol choir in Beeston called the Combined Choir and they used to go out mainly to the large houses and they collected for themselves…In those days wages were very, very low. There was no paid holiday. So when Christmas was coming they knew they would lose. They would have a short week for Christmas week. And so they used to go out and collect their poor wages and compensate for the lack of any wage over the Christmas period.”
Interestingly, despite the black out, the carollers continued during World War II although they did make note of the locations of all the air raid shelters. Again as in the World War I, the male section was reduced but older men were utilized to ‘balance the harmonies’.
Hark..mine’s a pint!
One of the main fixtures of the carol season is their singing in a local pub, currently the Crown. This may seem an unusual place for a carol service, but despite a few bemused looks and it was only a very few, the idea appeared to be a popular one. I arrived there with one minute to go to the starting time and with a whisper around about the choice of carol, the pub erupted in song. An incredible melodic sound filled the pub as the majority of people there joined in. Fundamental to this performance was the choir master who sat central to the group and like a conductor of a grand orchestra was fully enraptured by the experience and his arms flailed about with great gusto. At the start of each carol, he produced a rough piece of paper with the running order and a harmonica to set the pitch and sending the message around often like a strange code with special words being used for the arrangements. In some cases the names were very cryptic, but the carols would be well known if he tunes not, as I explain below. The group were a mix of different ages and voices. One main said he was a new comer and then related he had been in the group since the 1990s such perhaps is the strength of the choir’s continuity. With some announcements came comments such as Palmer’s Street anthem for popular carols relating the fact that every household would want this to be song down the street. Indeed as mentioned earlier the choir’s main focus is still to travel the streets. I was informed that the singing in pubs was a fairly recent invention, starting only a few years since in another pub, the Hop-pole, as a warmer alternative to the street walks.
A local remix
“Although many of the carols of today were sung in the past for example Hark the Herald Angels sing and While Shepherds watched different tunes were used.
Nothing is new. Modern popular music often steals older baselines or instrumental tracks, fuse new songs onto them, and make new tracks, others re-arrange popular songs in a remix fashion. This in a way describes many of the well known carols song by the choir. On paper we all know ‘Whilst Shepherds watch’ or ‘Hark the Herald angels’ but in the dulcet voices of the choir local variants were song. Like some obscure Northern soul track, such carols are not called by their well known name but terms such as Liverpool or in this case Cranbrook, named after the Canterbury author of the tune. In the case of ‘While shepherds..”, it is sung more enjoyably, to the tune of the well known ‘Ilkley Moor bar tat’, although it was this popular folk tune which stole the carol’s tune not vice versa. There are at least six versions of this carol by this carol, prompting one listening to comment that’s not the proper tune and miss the unique nature of the custom. Interestingly, of these carols, as the Chilwell Road Methodist website notes, were only transcribed as late as between 1976 and 1980 by a Bert and Andrew Taylor stating, before hand they were learnt by heart from generation to generation:
“In order to preserve for posterity the traditional tunes and harmonies sung by the Choir …, we have now set down rationalised versions.”
What makes such local variants an enjoyable experience is the use of the Gallery style of singing, named after where the songs were song in the church and often thought to be a bit too earthy and rough around the edges for church. In these carols different parts of the choir, particularly the men and women took different sections of the carol to an anthemic result. Immersed in the centre of this wall of sound this made the performances unforgettable.
Keeping them on the streets
The website also notes that by the late 1980s, a regular pattern had been established. The Carol Choir visited local Care and Nursing Homes on Sunday afternoons during December, sang one Saturday lunchtime in Beeston Square or High Road, and then spent three evenings (including Christmas Eve) singing around the streets, covering an area between Wollaton Road, Beeston, and Grove Avenue, Chilwell. I had planned to join the choir again for one of their street walks but sadly the weather and previous engagements prevented me…assuming the choir went out during the horrendous weather! Hopefully another year I’ll manage it.
If you are interested in folk customs and holy wells take a look at Ross Parish’s blogs where you will find more information: