Choir sang for King and Queen

Harry Shepley, conductor of Halifax Magrigal Society.
Harry Shepley, conductor of Halifax Magrigal Society.

I recently attended a very fine concert by Halifax Chamber Choir at All Souls’ Church.

Until 1989 the choir was known as the Halifax Madrigal Society and this year marks the centenary of the society’s singing before King George V and Queen Mary at Windsor Castle.

In 1911, 1912 and 1913 the Halifax Madrigal Society won first prize in its section at the Blackpool Festival, outperforming many of the finest small choirs in the country.

This triple achievement was brought to the notice of King George V and he requested that the choir should appear at Windsor in November to sing before the Royal Family and their Austrian Imperial guests, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, of Austria, and his wife Sophie, whose murder at Sarajevo, Bosnia, the following year contributed to the outbreak of World War I.

A programme had to be submitted immediately and the society’s president, Thomas Washington Benson, a worsted spinner and mill owner, was summoned to Windsor to make the arrangements.

The choir selected consisted of 89 voices: 27 sopranos, 20 altos, 18 tenors and 24 basses. On the morning of November 21 1913 they travelled by train to London and, after a brief rest at the Imperial Hotel, Russell Square, they journeyed to Windsor.

Carriages conveyed the party to the castle and by 9.30 the choir members were ushered into the magnificent Waterloo Chamber. The Royal party and their guests entered 30 minutes later.

The performance lasted an hour and included two items by Bruch, part-songs by Debussy, Cargoes by Balfour Gardiner, and Annie Laurie.

Elgar’s setting of the national anthem concluded the recital, following which Benson and Shepley were presented to the King and Queen, who expressed their great satisfaction with the concert.

A splendid feast was served to the choir before they were conveyed to Windsor station, where a crowd cheered them as they departed.

Before boarding their train the choir gave a splendid performance on the platform of Bruch’s On Jordan’s Banks and at midnight the special train left for London.

The following day the choir visited Westminster Abbey and other London sights before returning to Halifax, where choir members said they had enjoyed a time to be remembered for the rest of their lives.

The choir’s conductor was Harry Shepley, a carpet designer at Dean Clough, who in 1895 had been appointed conductor of the West End Glee Union, a male-voice group, which met originally at the West Hill Hotel, Halifax.

Under his leadership the group won many prizes but in 1899 about 30 members formed the Halifax Madrigal Society, with Shepley in charge.

The choir gave its first concert in 1899, a performance of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Soon the choir was in great demand, performing across the north of England. Shepley left Dean Clough and devoted his life to music, training both choirs and soloists.

Locally the society held one or two concerts a year. In 1909 the singers entered the Blackpool Musical Festival, carrying off third prize in their section.

In 1911, 1912 and 1913 they carried off the first prize, the Parkinson Challenge Shield. On the third occasion one judge, Michael Balling, the German-born conductor of the Halle Orchestra, said: “I did not believe it was possible to get an effect with the human voice like that which we have just heard.”

In 1912 the society also competed at an international festival in Paris, winning third prize, and sang for the French president. The following year the choir sang for the King and Queen at Windsor.

In 1923 the society became the first choir to perform at a Henry Wood promenade concert.

They hosted many famous singers at concerts in Halifax, including Roland Hayes, the black America tenor, Walter Widdop,the famous Norland-born tenor, and baritone Roy Harrison, who trained Kathleen Ferrier.

The Courier described Harry Shepley as “the most successful trainer of mixed voice choirs in the West Riding of Yorkshire”. He died in 1942, aged 74.

In 1989 the Halifax Madrigal Society was renamed Halifax Chamber Choir and 10 years later, for its centenary concert, the choir appropriately chose to perform Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast once again.