We do not know how early a formal choir might have been established at Holy Trinity. Monks in monasteries certainly sang as choirs from mediaeval times. Illustrations of the time show not only adult monks, but also young boys forming part of such a group.
The type of traditional male robed choir associated in the public eye and media with parish churches predominated from the eighteenth century. Holy Trinity’s was in operation then, as we know that the choir sang before Victorian times in the West gallery, as was common practice at that time.
The Victorians took the opportunity to move their choirs to the chancel to conform to the practice in cathedrals and the feeling that they should be more visible to the congregation.
Norman Evans, in his history of the church (1987) makes the following comment about the choir stalls installed in the nineteenth century with wood purchased from Worcester Cathedral:
“The Victorians thought it proper that the choir should be moved from its obscure situation in its West Nave gallery and be placed in more prominent and worthy surroundings in the Chancel, and the acquisition of the Jacobean and Caroline oak gave them the opportunity to carry this out.” (Evans, p. 17)
Apparently the floor was raised 36cms to achieve this and the stalls formerly used by the Cathedral canons were altered for the Holy Trinity choristers.
Since the re-ordering of 2016, the Choir has been able to sing from different parts of the church as occasion demands.
A booklet has been written in 2017 about different aspects of the music at Holy Trinity which gives more detail. This can be purchased in the church.
Some images of the choir over the years. From top left to bottom right: 1947, 1947, 1957, 1960s, 1996, 2011, 2015, 2016, 2017
The robed choir continues to lead worship to this day, both on Sundays and for other services.
However, other styles of accompaniment to worship have been used since the 1980s, notably melody instruments as well as the organ (see below).
A grand piano was purchased in 2001 which is also used in worship and for concerts in church.
Traditionally a Director of Music, usually also an organist, has led the choir since at least the eighteenth century. The longest-serving and probably most well-known of these in recent times was Harold Gray (1903-1991) who was in post for 50 years to 1981.
He was an accomplished musician in a number of spheres, conductor of several choral societies including Birmingham Choral Union for 20 years until 1975, a teacher and also, for many years, an associate conductor of the CBSO.
The first mention of an organ at the church is in reference to Bishop Vesey, installing the first organ (in some sources ‘a pair of organs’) in 1530.
The national pipe organ register of the British Institute of Organ Studies notes the following:
- In the 1530s Bishop Vesey “gave an organ to be installed in the South Chapel”
- 1829—organ by Henry Bryceson
- 1864—organ by Gray and Davison. This was removed in 1899 to the church of St Peter, Irthlingborough, Northants.
- 1906—installation of “a Hope-Jones electric organ”. [actually 1901]
- 1950—installation by Hill, Norman and Beard of a pipe organ built into the tower having 512 speaking pipes on the Great organ and 398 on the Swell. Pedal—5 x 16ft stops. A chancel organ of 464 pipes was also fitted to help with the acoustic from one end of the church to the other.
The chancel organ was removed prior to re-ordering in 2015. The console was made mobile and moved to the body of the church so that the old choir library (south chapel) could become the new choir vestry.
The tower organ was removed in January 2018 and replaced with a digital organ by Allen to enable opening up of the tower for Phase 2 of the re-ordering programme of the church. This has exposed a stained glass window in the West end and a portion of Bateman’s painted ceiling previously only visible from amongst the organ electrical and pipe work.
The first photograph below is the 1901 organ, given to the church by former choir member Maud Roper and taken in 1949 (just before the last pipe organ was installed). This shows its position in the former South Chapel.
The next picture shows the pipes of the 1950 organ. The final picture is the console of the Allen organ installed in 2018.
Richard Holbeche, a diarist of Sutton Coldfield in the 1860s, gives the only early comment about organ-playing:
“The organist Mr Lampert plays flourishes on the organ as curly as a pig’s tail.”
Dr. John Alcock
The story of one organist at Holy Trinity of the eighteenth century is quite well documented. John Alcock (1715-1806) was a pupil of John Stanley at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, and received his Doctor of Music from Oxford University in 1766. He wrote a semi-autobiographical novel in 1771 called The Life Of Miss Fanny Brown, under a pen name of ‘John Piper’ (no doubt the surname alluded to an organ ‘piper’).
He was organist at the following places:
- St Andrew’s, Plymouth 1737–1741
- St Laurence’s, Reading 1741–1750
- Lichfield Cathedral 1750–1761
- Holy Trinity, Sutton Coldfield 1761–1786
- St Editha’s, Tamworth 1766–1790
This list belies difficulties at Lichfield, which led to his appointment at Holy Trinity and also St Editha’s.
Dr Alcock’s story at Sutton is told in part in William Kirkpatrick Riland Bedford’s history of his family’s living as Rectors at Holy Trinity. This deals with the appointment of Alcock together with the installation of a new organ and all the building works that took place in the church at that time (1760).
Norman Evans, historian of our church, wrote about all of this in 1975 in response to an enquiry from a researcher called Peter Marr. Evans published this in Vol 6 of the proceedings of Sutton Coldfield Local History Research Group. Marr subsequently wrote an article for the Musical Times in 1977, as follows:
John Alcock and Fanny Brown
Author(s): Peter Marr
Source: The Musical Times, Vol. 118, No. 1608 (Feb., 1977), pp. 118-120
Published by: Musical Times Publications Ltd.
There is now information about John Alcock’s time at Lichfield Cathedral, where he appears not to have endeared himself to his musical or ecclesiastical colleagues. A petition against him was made by the “Subchanter and Vicars Choral” of the Cathedral in 1758, and this clearly led to his removal from his post and move to Sutton.
Riland Bedford documents Alcock’s complaints about his pay at Holy Trinity (including the large discrepancy in comparison with the pay of the organist at Lichfield Cathedral!).
It would appear that the full story was not known generally until much later although it may have been that Holy Trinity paymasters of the 1760s were well aware of the situation and determined a rate of pay that seemed adequate recompense (or maybe that they thought they could ‘get away with’). It is unlikely that a parish church would have paid the same rate as a Cathedral anyway.
John Alcock is remembered for a number of compositions many of which are available today, particularly choral works but also some organ music.
Further information and references are on Wikipedia.
The Hope-Jones organ
The organ installed in the early twentieth century is the subject of reminiscences of one Harold Osborne who lived at The Knoll, one of the houses close to the church and who subsequently, while working at the Birmingham branch of the National Provincial bank lived in Sutton and regularly played this organ. His writings in retirement have been published together with a number of his photographs, by his grandson Geoff Howell, and it has been a wonderful find to read more fully about different aspects of both the church and town.
The book is entitled ‘An Armchair and the Pipe of Peace’, published by Bannister Publications in 2017, and is available to purchase in the usual way.
Other sections of the book are mentioned elsewhere on these pages, but the page about our organ and photograph of the manual are unique references not known before, we think, in the town’s archives.
Geoff Howell captions this picture in the book as follows:
“The Robert Hope-Jones organ console at Holy Trinity Parish Church, Sutton Coldfield, around 1910. The plate to the left of the console shows that the organ was by then in the care of Norman & Beard Ltd. The notorious black ‘Stop Switch’ in the middle and the compound composition keys above each manual were typical of Hope-Jones organs.”
In a letter recommending an overhaul of the bells in 1971, the Rector at the time, Canon Alaric Rose, wrote:
“Since at least 1552 there has been a peal of bells to ring to the Glory of God and to call the faithful to worship at the ancient Parish Church of Sutton Coldfield.”
The overhaul, completed in 1973, was originally tendered some years before under a different Rector, and it appears it took some time for the money to be found to achieve it. There were also complications removing the bells for repair as the organ was underneath!
The church is blessed to have a full octave (i.e. 8 bells representing the 8 notes of the major scale), as many churches have fewer than this.
Bishop Vesey increased the number of bells to five, four of which came from Canwell Priory which had been demolished.
The six new bells of 1784, which cost 100 guineas, were not satisfactory and were re-cast in 1795.
The bells of 1884 replaced these, and also at this point the old clock in the tower was removed. The earlier bells had rung the hours, but by this time it was noted that an accurate external clock was now in place at Sutton Town Hall, so the church one was no longer required.
A number of memorial plaques are under the tower in church commemorating specific peals of bells to celebrate church and state occasions.
The bells are still rung for Sunday morning service and for weddings and other occasions by arrangement.
Image: record of a special peal by bell-ringers at St Martin’s-in-the-Bullring in 1929 to celebrate the new screen installed in front of the Vesey Chapel in memory of Canon Barnard and his wife.
A useful website listing the history of Holy Trinity’s bells and the detailed specification of the current bells is called Church Bells of Warwickshire.