Musical Methodists of Exmoor

 Carolsingers on 18 December 1976 outside Roadwater Village Hall.

by Glyn Court

Methodism was born in song, and right from the start the followers of John Wesley took pleasure in singing to the praise of God. Even so, they made no hurry to come to Exmoor. In 1744, only six years after the movement was founded, John Wesley rode through on his way from Cornwall to South Wales via Minehead, but little of his teaching took root on Exmoor for another 60 years.

By the 1860s, however, there were chapels and congregations in most villages, from Lynton to Wheddon Cross, while the Bible Christian circuit, Methodist except in name, included Kingsbrompton (now Brompton Regis), Cutcombe, Luckwell Bridge, Timberscombe, Dulverton, Skilgate, Bury, Upton, Gupworthy, Brendon Hill, Luxborough, Roadwater, Withycombe (and later Rodhuish).

Wesley had been an Anglican clergyman, and Methodists venerated him, but they had no time for the ritual and hierarchy of the Established Church or for priests and bishops, and regarded them as contrary to the New Testament. They followed rather the ways of the Dissenting Free churches, the Baptist and Congregational. Their leaders were ministers and local preachers; they used no prayerbook (all prayers were extemporary); Bible readings were chosen by the preacher, the sermon, based on personal experience, was the high point of every service, with a short talk for the children, and as a framework and opportunity for everyone to lift up their voices and hearts they sang four, five or more hymns. And that was really new, for they did not sing the versified psalms as performed by the musicians in the west gallery of the parish church, but the inspiring hymns of Isaac Watts, Philip Doddridge and, most of all, as time went on, a choice of the 6,000 hymns of John’s brother Charles, set to magnificent Georgian tunes such as Thomas Phillips’ ‘Lydia’.

They had no orchestra to lead the singing, unless one of them or the preacher brought a flute or flageolet, and hymnbooks were only for the literate minority; but the preacher would ‘line out’ the verses – that is, he spoke or sang them a line or two at a time and the people would repeat them, so that no one was left out. The method served, it was better for the congregation than being stricken dumb. But the inadequacy stimulated the desire to read, and the chapels responded by teaching the three Rs in the Sunday schools, which were for adults as well as children. Later Methodists took in hymns from all of the main Christian churches, and after 1877 added the gospel songs of the American evangelists Moody and Sankey, such as ‘Shall we gather at the river?’ and (popular on Brendon Hill) ‘Beulah Land’ (‘I look away across the sea, Where mansions are prepared for me’). These were melodious and harmonically simple (sometimes too simple), but they gave Christians cheer and brought into their toil-worn lives the vision of their heavenly home beyond the ‘crystal river that flows by the throne of God’.

Methodists of course celebrated Easter and Christmas, the latter with particular verve, maintaining in some places the old west gallery tunes, but for saints’ days they substituted ‘rallies’, especially on Good Friday or, in later years, August Bank Holiday, when all the congregations would crowd into or round one chapel, say Luckwell Bridge or Kingsbrompton, for an afternoon service, a lavish cream tea provided by the farming families and an evening service chaired by a local dignitary, with an outstanding guest preacher. The tea was introduced by the unique custom of the Sung Grace, when all joined in the beautiful tune ‘Rimington’.

Hymns for harvest were the traditional ones, ‘We plough the fields’, ‘Come, ye thankful people’ and others, but the 1930s introduced the Manx Fishermen’s Hymn ‘Hear us, O Lord, from heaven, thy dwelling-place’. It immediately became a great favourite with its alternate verses for men and women singers and until recent times no harvest was complete without it. Hardly less important were the ‘anniversaries’ of the chapel and the Sunday school, but lack of space precludes them here.

Vale House, Roadwater: the inside of the chapel before modernisation, 1907

But even with the ten hymns of the two services on Sundays they wanted more. For 20 minutes before the evening service they would join in singing favourites chosen individually on the spur of the moment, thus ‘giving everyone a chance’, and this custom is still in vigour in the roadside chapel on Brendon Hill.

Many Methodists took hymns and their singing into their daily lives. One afternoon, when taking a walk near East Hawkwell, I heard music coming from the farm and recognised it as the favourite hymn, ‘And can it be’, to the tune ‘Sagina’, played as a duet; and the players turned out to be Mr Wilfred Norman and his wife. The old gentleman so loved his music that he had bought a pair of key bugles – like small trumpets – on which they played tunefully and with growing enjoyment. He was also the curator of some of the old Cutcombe Christmas music, including the wassail song ‘We singers make bold’, and a unique setting of ‘There were shepherds abiding in the fields’. Another such enthusiast, William Court, cordwainer of Roadwater and local preacher, would cheer himself and his white pony on the long journeys home by singing hymns and songs stored in his retentive memory years before.

But if one man typified this devotion to music it must surely be Thomas Slade, not least for the delight he took in Christmas and the pleasure he gave by keeping alive the tuneful carols of earlier days. Born in 1831 and one of ten children, Tom started with nothing but an inborn love of music; but his father saved enough to apprentice him to a blacksmith, and in due course Tom set up as a smith himself. But all the time music sang in his head, and one morning, with a few sovereigns in his pocket, he walked the 20 up-and-down miles to Taunton, bought a bass viol (‘the queen of instruments,’ he said), strapped it on his back, walked the 20 miles home again and then, to show that he was not an idler, put in a couple of hours in the smithy before retiring to bed.

This must have been in the mid-1850s when the iron ore mining was beginning to bring a little prosperity to the neighbourhood, and with prosperity a little leisure for enjoyment. With Tom to lead, the old Christmas tradition of the ‘waits’ was maintained long after it had ceased elsewhere; and as a spur for Tom and his men, some of the Cornish miners on Brendon Hill had brought carol tunes unknown in Somerset, notably a splendid tune for ‘While shepherds watched’.

This carolling came at a price, however, as Tom had a vein of sternness derived from the hard times of his boyhood and he kept a firm hand on his musicians. As Christmas approached he rehearsed them, and on Christmas Eve, just before midnight, they would come with their instruments to Tom’s door and into his ‘parlour’ for cordials and cakes to build them up for the long, cold round. (In folk memory there were no rainy or misty or thoroughly wretched Christmas Eves!)

Then they would set out up the street. Friendly talk and a chuckle made pleasant harmony in the night, but as they neared the first stop, Tom would caution them with such words as, “Quiet now, friends. Number Six: ‘Mortals awake!’ Take your places , but not a sound till I give the cue.” For he knew how precious a part of music is a well-prepared silence, and the sleepers should not be awakened by idle chatter but by a noble harmony, ‘a concourse of sweet sounds”’ As William Dewy phrased it, “Keep from making a great scuffle, but go gently, so as to strike up all of a sudden, like spirits.” And so, with the choir forming a semi-circle, Tom would beat four, the players would sound the major chord, and in a stentorian voice he would announce: “Mortals, awake! Rejoice and sing/The gloaries of your Heavenly King”.

The band would strike up, and then, if fortune favoured them, the lady of the house would invite them in for cider and cake and perhaps a half-sovereign to be shared round. Now on to the next farm, and on again through the starry silence until at three in the morning they returned to the village to play in Christmas Day with another carol, such as ‘Angels from the realms of glory’ or ‘Behold! once more the day is come’; and “what more entrancing,” wrote Lewis Court, who heard it every year as a boy, “than to be awakened by the strains of Christmas music stealing in upon one through the silence of the night, or on the clean air of a frosty morning! – the deep, full tones of the bass viol, the celestial notes of the clarinet, the suave, appealing plaint of the flute, and the blend of good human voices.”

In the morning the musicians played again in the gallery of the chapel (the village had no Anglican church), but after Old Christmas Day, 6 January, carolling ceased until Christmas came round again, for Tom, and many like him, held that everything had its due season, and a carol out of its proper time was an overturning of the universal order that he could not abide.

He died on Boxing Day 1907 and the tradition of the ‘waits’ faded away. His village and others of Exmoor still had their musicians, but the old rustic instruments had fallen out of favour, and as for the singers, rural depopulation carried them off. But in a few places – Cutcombe, Exford, Winsford, Roadwater and Odcombe in South Somerset – the manuscripts survived with some memories of the tradition, and the spread of the West Gallery movement in many counties since its inception in 1991 has given the old carols a resurgence that no one a hundred years ago could ever have foreseen.

For the fully illustrated version of this article see Issue 53, winter 2010.

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