Ballaugh Heritage Trust

Treisht Eiraght Valley Ny Loghey

A Sound Revival

The move from the Old Church at the Cronk to the new church in the early part of the 19th century produced major and obvious changes to the parishioners. Some, however, are less obvious to modern historians but must have caused considerable comment at the time.

Anyone familiar with the Old Church today will have noticed that the hymns are played on a small harmonium, an instrument that was relatively affordable, produced an organ-like sound, had a pump operated by the keyboard player, and that took up very little space. It was also portable and eminently suitable for use in Sunday Schools. Developed in France during the early 19th century (which explains why the organ stops are in French), it was originally intended for domestic use.

When the move was made to the outskirts of the village, Robert Taubman, who had been the organist, took over the role at the New Church. According to Miss Beatrice Kneen, writing in the Antiquarian Proceedings of 1926, the whole Taubman family was musical, and said to be the proud owners of the first piano in the parish. Robert had originally played the bass fiddle and afterwards the ‘seraphine’, a name often used to describe the new-fangled harmonium. It is this reference to the ‘bass fiddle’ which gives us a valuable clue to what sort of music would have been used every Sunday.

The move coincided with big changes in worship. Up to the 1830s, music was provided by local musicians, who would play for local dances and socials, perhaps join in with performances with choral societies, then with the church band on Sundays. There was no set instrumental combination for the band, which could include fiddles, cellos, flutes, clarinets (usually known as ‘clarionets’) and serpents, found in both military and church bands.

A serpent player (Photograph by Fenella Bazin)

A serpent player (Photograph by Fenella Bazin)


Followers of the Oxford Movement advocated a return to what they believed was more appropriate, drawing their inspiration from medieval times. Followers encouraged the introduction of robed choirs, separated from the congregations by rood screens. St Olave’s Church in Ramsey is a good example of this style. Hymn-books were gradually introduced, standardizing (and eventually impoverishing) the repertoire, which began to conform to national standards, rather than developing local idioms. Nowadays, for instance, we nearly all sing the words of ‘While shepherds watched their flocks’ to the tune ‘Winchester Old’, dating back to the 1590s. The Methodists tend to opt for ‘Lydia’, a much livelier tune. But at one time, hundreds of different melodies would have been found right across the British Isles. Some have survived and are being revived. We have several versions here on the Island. Did you know that the tune of ‘Ilkley Moor’ was originally composed by Thomas Clark of Canterbury for the hymn?

So the music used in the Old Church would have been much more local, accompanied latterly by the harmonium but before that by musicians like Robert Taubman playing instruments such as the bass fiddle, probably a type of cello. In the south of the Island, the tradition lasted well into the 20th century, with Tom Taggart playing his bass fiddle at Kerrowkeil Chapel, and commemorated by Cecil McFee in a splendid poem.

Hymns would be ‘raised’ by the parish clerk, whose appointment depended on him having a good singing voice. He would ‘line out’ the hymn, echoed by the congregation, line by line, so that every hymn would take twice the time to sing. They tended to be sung much slower too, so a hymn might take five minutes or more to complete. Probably because of this, some singers started to add twiddly bits to the tune, adding their own variations and changing the character of the melody. This tradition still survives today in the Isle of Lewis, where singers produce an extraordinary effect when singing metrical psalms in Gaelic. Although hymn-raising is no longer heard in church, it survives in cruinnaght and eisteddfod competitions.

There were choirs, though not robed and not always well behaved. Thomas Hardy described his early memories of such a choir in his novel Under the Greenwood Tree, which deals with this exact period of transition, from instrumental accompaniment to the introduction of harmoniums, played, in his story, by the splendidly named Miss Fancy Day. The singers would be called on for special services, particularly at Christmas. Anthems would often be composed by the choirmaster. Many remained in local use only, but others were published and became popular with a wider public. We have a wealth of these in the Island. Peripatetic singing masters would visit a parish to train a choir, staying anything from a few weeks or months, or even years. Master William Shepherd was a Cumbrian choirmaster who had a huge influence on Manx choirs in the early 1800s, leaving behind him a treasury of manuscript books, now brought to life again by musicologists and performed by choirs such as we have in Ballaugh.

The style is generally known as ‘West Gallery’, as that is where the choir would have sung from. The congregation might well have turned round to watch them during the anthem, bringing down on their heads the wrath of the clergy, and probably giving rise to the term ‘facing the music’.

A modern ‘West Gallery’ choir, singing in Malew Church
A modern ‘West Gallery’ choir, singing in Malew Church

Most of the music manuscript books in the Island have been found in the south, round the Castletown and Colby areas, mainly as a result of Shepherd’s work. It is believed, however, that he also trained choirs in the northern parishes, and I am longing for someone to find traces of his work. The books were handwritten, the lines ruled with a five-pointed pen, with the music copied out by the choirmaster on the right-hand page. The left-hand page was left blank for the owner to add the words. Sometimes these were dutifully completed, other times left blank, perhaps because of semi-literacy or because the singer had memorized the words. As paper was quite expensive, people often used spaces left in the manuscripts. Some of the examples from Colby contain sketches of people of boats, or have personal comments, or school exercises.

There are now scores of choirs in the UK, North America and Australia performing this music, and many enthusiasts searching through archives and church cupboards. Some exciting items have been unearthed, including several here on the Island. John Wesley would have heard West Gallery music when he came here at the end of the 18th century, and wrote in his diary that he was greatly impressed with the singing of Manx congregations, noting that he ‘was agreeably surprised’. He had not heard better singing at Bristol or Lincoln. ‘Both men and women have admirable voices; and they sing with good judgement. Who would have expected this in the Isle of Man?’


His comments show that there was a good standard of music making here, comparable with that in major cities in England. So it is not surprising to find that the surviving manuscripts show that we also had a wide variety and high standard of repertoire available to the church choirs. With the disintegration of the tradition in parish churches in the mid-nineteenth century, musicians either moved into Methodist churches, or decamped to the local pub, where the singing continued. South Yorkshire is still a centre for this tradition, where it can be heard in the weeks leading up to Christmas, attracting large crowds, singing carols specific to local areas. They live up their titles too; ‘Hail, smiling morn’, ‘Drop hark’, and ‘Sweet chiming bells’ are all joyous songs that deserve to be better known.

Fenella Bazin

 Ballaugh QuireSome of the members of Ballaugh Quire, in a photograph which was featured in the 20th anniversary of the West Gallery Music Association’s publication ‘Let our joys be known’. Some 30 choirs from as far afield as Cornwall and Northumberland meet regularly or occasionally to explore the music enjoyed by church musicians in the days before the Oxford Movement introduced Victorian anthems and surplices. Over nearly 30 years, Ballaugh Quire has performed items, some written by Manx composers. Most of this energetic and heartfelt music had been forgotten for 200 years but is now being restored to regular use.

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