On the initiative of Sir Sydney Nicholson, then organist of Westminster Abbey, the School of English Church Music (SECM) was inaugurated at a meeting in the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster Abbey held on 6 December 1927, the feast of St Nicolas. It was to consist of a training college for church musicians (the College of St Nicolas), and an association of affiliated churches who committed themselves to attaining high standards.
The School was housed at Buller’s Wood in Chislehurst, Kent. The college opened there in 1929 and continued until closure was forced at the outbreak of war in 1939 when most students were called up for military service. During those first ten years major choral festivals were held triennially in London (1930 at the Royal Albert Hall, 1933 and 1936 at the Crystal Palace) and the number of affiliated churches rose to 1300 worldwide. Throughout the war Sir Sydney continued his itinerant teaching at diocesan and parish level from a base at St Michael’s College, Tenbury, and then from Leamington Spa.
In 1945, by command of King George VI, the SECM became the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM). Canterbury Cathedral allowed the school to function within the precincts of the cathedral, and the College of St Nicolas re-opened there in January 1946. By 1952 over 3000 churches were affiliated.
In 1954 the RSCM and the College of St Nicolas moved to Addington Palace near Croydon, the former ‘country residence’ of the Archbishops of Canterbury, with Gerald Knight as Director and the Revd Cyril Taylor as Warden responsible for the RSCM’s educational work.
In 1973 Gerald Knight was succeeded as Director by Lionel Dakers, and he in turn by Harry Bramma in 1989. The College of St Nicolas was closed in 1974, and the RSCM then concentrated on short courses, and on work in the regions with new structures of voluntary committees. The membership increased, with a peak of almost 10,000 affiliates in 1980.
In 1996 the RSCM moved its administrative centre to Cleveland Lodge, near Dorking in Surrey, the former home of the organist Lady Susi Jeans. A major programme of refurbishment and new building was completed in 2000. Professor John Harper was appointed as Director in 1998.
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The RSCM moved its administrative centre to Salisbury in Summer 2006. Its office is located within Sarum College, a Christian ecumenical college in Salisbury’s cathedral close. RSCM Music Direct was relocated to Norwich, where Norwich Books and Music now operate our sales functions. The organ presented to the College of St Nicolas in 1931, is now loaned to St Alkmund’s Church in Shrewsbury, which is also using the RSCM vestments and woven kneelers. The organ made by Peter Collins is now in the chapel of Salisbury Cathedral School. The organ from Susi Jeans’s music room at Cleveland Lodge is now located in the Recital Hall at Birmingham Conservatoire, part of Birmingham City University.
Professor Harper retired as Director of the RSCM at the end of December 2007, and was appointed ‘Emeritus Director’. He continues as RSCM Research Professor at Bangor University and as a Visiting Scholar at Sarum College. Lindsay Gray was Director of the RSCM from May 2008 until September 2012, and Andrew Reid took up the post in October 2012.
The RSCM is seeking to enlarge its ecumenical mission, to serve the needs of its affiliated members and the wider Church, to develop first-class resources, and to continue to train and educate musicians and clergy to make best use of music in worship. It is engaged in the processes of establishing effective national RSCM bodies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and USA, and of strengthening its regional infrastructure in the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
Dr John Henderson and Trevor Jarvis, the current Honorary Librarian and Honorary Assistant Librarian of the RSCM, have published a history of the College of St Nicolas during its years at Chislehurst, along with materials from the RSCM archives and a review of the life and achievements of Sir Sydney Nicholson. It is available from RSCM Music Direct here.
The same authors have also published Sir Sydney’s autobiography ‘Musings of a Musician’, accompanied by a wealth of hitherto unpublished photographs and some of Nicholson’s own watercolour paintings. Also available from RSCM Music Direct here.
John and Trevor will shortly publish a further work on the history of the RSCM while based at Addington Palace – due autumn/winter 2015.
Watkins Shaw’s fascinating and informative booklet Vocation and Endeavour about Sir Sydney Nicholson and the early years of the Royal School of Church Music is available from RSCM Music Direct here.
On 25 September 2013, on a lovely autumn day, 70 people gathered from as far away as California at Addington Palace for a reunion of RSCM choristers and students. Speakers at the lunch included RSCM Director Andrew Reid, who presented a stirring vision for the RSCM of the future; Brian Weller, Chorister from 1955 to 1961; Martin How, who was on the RSCM staff for all but the first year that we were in Addington Palace; and Harvey Cousins, 1955 to 1958, who made a presentation to Martin of a handmade box and pen, and a vinyl recording of the choristers.
Peter Hood, one of the reunion organisers, commented: “It all started over lunch on Martin How’s 81st birthday, on 3 April 2012. Three of his Grandads, as he calls us (Colin Creed, Tony Clarke and I), took him out to lunch at The White Bear, a much favoured hostelry not too far from Addington Palace. We drew up the initial list of former choristers and the idea of the reunion was born. Later on, Peter Grover (another Grandad) came on board, and he helped a great deal with locating missing choristers using social networking sites. Dick Gilbert kindly offered to set up and manage the Flickr site, which he has edited, cropped and enhanced to achieve the wonderful album that also contains over 50 pictures from the reunion.”
Archive images from Addington Palace
Archive images of the choir and staff
Video footage of RSCM choristers and Scouts in the 1960s
Photos of 2013 reunion
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