A Short History of the Cardiff Male Choir (Formerly the Canton Male Voice Choir)
Founded in 1898, Cardiff Male choir is one of the oldest choirs in South Wales. We sing a wide variety of songs, including; Welsh hymns and arias, Jazz classics and gospel numbers, songs from the shows, sentimental songs and ballads, choruses from the great operas, traditional songs from Way Back When, and even the odd latest hit!
The latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century was a time when people provided their own entertainment. During this time there was a great deal of musical activity in Cardiff.
The city was the host to the National Eisteddfod in 1899. A special work, “Jesus of Nazareth”, which is hardly ever performed nowadays, was commissioned from Joseph Parry for the occasion. Several choirs were formed at this time to take part in the forthcoming eisteddfod of which one was the Canton Male Voice Choir founded in 1898. Canton comes from the name St. Canna’s Town (in Welsh Treganna). Canna was a 6th century female saint after whom Pontcanna is also named.
The choir is one of the oldest in Wales. It has survived the changing economic fortunes and social attitudes of the years. During its lifetime the choir has travelled many thousands of miles to entertain the public and has given well over 2500 concerts. It has sung in halls, churches, theatres, cinemas, the streets and even a farmyard. Sons and nephews followed fathers and uncles in to the choir to continue the family tradition. Choristers from many trades and professions look upon each other as members of an extended family. We have in our choir choristers who are life members. This is an honour bestowed on a chorister when he has served 25 years in the choir. A beautiful sound is made when words and music are blended together in choral singing. Men who have had no previous knowledge of music or singing are taught to produce this sound for the benefit of those in need. This sets apart male choirs from many other choirs and choral societies and it is a practice and tradition we are proud to continue.
It all began at the end of the reign of Queen Victoria when a group of men met in a back room of the “Old Barley Mow”, later renamed “The Exchange”, a public house in Cowbridge Road. The choir’s second season was just getting under way in the autumn of 1899 when the Boer War broke out. At the beginning of the 20th century, perhaps in keeping with the strong temperance feelings of the time the choir moved to the Y.M.C.A. Building in Wellington Street. Of the early years little detail has survived.
After the upheavals of World War 1 which claimed the lives of many choristers, the choir, under the baton of Mr. W. Napier, started on the path of re-establishing itself. In the 1920’s, with a numerical strength in the 90’s the choir was augmented by members of the old “Cambrian” choir. It was from this time until the late 1940’s that the Memorial Hall, Cowbridge Road became the headquarters although the Primitive Methodist Chapel in Severn Road was also used for extra rehearsals.
The conductor’s baton was taken over by Mr. N. W. Harper of Llandaff. The choir was affected little by the industrial crisis of the early 20’s and so when the first post-war annual concert was held on 8th December 1920 almost 1000 tickets were sold. So great was the demand to hear the choir sing that the 1921 concert was held on two nights, the choir performing to full houses on both nights.
The choir’s success brought recognition from the organisers of musical events in the city. The choir appeared at the Empire in 1922 and later at the Olympia. In February 1923 there started a long association with the well remembered Park Hall concerts.
A note for the gourmets follows. A dinner held at the Queens Hotel on 31st March 1922 to celebrate the choir’s success cost 3/6d (17½p) per head for four courses.
The choir was in great demand in all parts of Cardiff at this time but success was not confined entirely to the concert platform. Competition work also brought success at Bridgend, Blackwood and other places in south Wales. At the end of the decade, however, the crest of the wave had gone. Under a new conductor, Mr. J. Archie Parker, it was revived for a time, but then came the 1930’s.
The 1930’s proved to be a period of great change for the choir, bringing a succession of conductors and accompanists. There were peaks of fortune with wins at eisteddfodau, but looming over the choir, like every other organization, was the Great Depression. During this time the choir sang for the unemployed in Cardiff, a number of the members being unemployed themselves.
As work became available in other parts of the country, many had to resign their membership because they were leaving Cardiff to find employment elsewhere. Numerically the choir’s numbers fell by 50%.
1937 saw the re-awakening of fortunes. Once again Mr. Archie Parker became conductor. Bookings came once more from the Park Hall and the old Hippodrome in Westgate Street. Tentative arrangements were made for the revival of the annual concert.
This proved to be very successful and so did the one the following year, 1939. August 1939 saw the committee making arrangements for the “third” annual concert to be held in March 1940, a concert that was never to take place as WW II had started in September 1939.
Although the younger members of the choir departed to serve king and country the older “boys” kept the name and tradition of the Canton Male Voice going during those dark days. They did not go through this period without loss. During one of the air raids on Cardiff the entire music stock, piano and a lot of the early records were destroyed by fire. However, the recompense from the War Damage Commission helped the choir survive financially.
Unfortunately many did not return at the end of hostilities the membership of the choir falling to 15. Still under the baton of Mr. Parker the choir soon expanded and the membership very soon reached 57. Mr. Archie Parker continued until 1947 when Mr. A Dearing took over. He was followed in 1949 by Mr. A. Davey. This was to be a short period of office for in 1950 the baton passed to the choir’s accompanist, Mr. Morwood Davies, an association which was to be enjoyed for 17 years. During this period many changes took place in the presentations of the choir. The music became lighter and more varied. Great work was done by the choir in supporting many charities. With Canton in the name it was a surprise to audiences that the choir came from Cardiff, so in the early 1950’s a move was made to change the name of the choir to the Cardiff Male Voice Choir. This was defeated when put to the vote. However, a compromise was reached and thereafter the choir became known as “The Canton (Cardiff) Male Voice Choir”. The 50’s also brought the association of well known celebrities with the choir – namely Miss Margaret Lockwood and Mr. Sandy McPherson. Mr. McPherson was, many years later, aided the choir when his help was sought in the publication of music.
The 50’s was a sad time for the choir in that in 1954 we lost our sole surviving founder member, Mr. James Hosgood. It also brought to an end an association of 25 years with our president, Mr. J. E. Hamlett who sadly passed away. Our new president was Mr. J. J. Hennessey. This was now a time of widening horizons. Concerts have been given in many places outside the city.
With coming of the 60’s concert performances for charities continued and there was a re-awakening of interest in competition work. During the past few years some success has come our way in this field. In 1967 the conductor’s baton was taken up by Mr. George Niblett, who had been the choir’s accompanist. At the annual concert in 1969 the choir changed its name to the Cardiff Male Choir. The choir had a successful tour to Ireland. At the hotel where the choir stayed there were jugs of what the members thought was water placed on the bar. The whiskey drinkers topped up their glasses from these jugs and soon found that they were becoming relaxed very quickly. It was only after a few days that they found out they were topping up the drinks with pocheen, a potent illicitly-made alcohol!
1972 saw Mr. Samuel Davies appointed the conductor. Originally from Ystradgynlais, Sam was an interesting character with only one tooth in the centre of his upper gum. The name “Sam central eating” comes to mind. Whilst still with the choir he accepted the post of conductor with the male choir in Ystradgynlais. During the early part of 1975 the committee accepted Sam’s resignation. He had offered it on a number of occasions when differences arose and it was felt that enough was enough.
In 1975 the choir supported the formation once again of the Welsh Association of Male Choirs, one of our members, Mr. J. A. Poole, becoming its president a few years later. The association’s aim was to represent male choirs when dealing with problems arising from eisteddfodau and other competitions, eventually the south Wales branch organising a choir of the year competition itself. Its hard work during the first two years after its formation culminated in staging a 1000 male voice festival at the Albert Hall, London.
There was a great demand for member choirs to sing at the festival and it was oversubscribed. Therefore, lots were drawn to decide which choirs were to perform at the first concert in 1978. Once the required number of choristers had been reached, the names of two reserve choirs were drawn out of the hat. Llantrisant choir was drawn as first reserve and Cardiff as second reserve. Eventually, two choirs dropped out and the reserve choirs were asked to sing. Thus for the first time the choir had its first opportunity to sing at the Albert Hall. This is like a football team getting a chance to play at Wembley.
But to return to 1975, after the resignation of Mr. Davies Mr. E James Smith, who had conducted the Rumney British Legion Choir for many years, stepped into the breech until a permanent appointment could be made. As Jim was not able to be a permanent conductor it was his intention not to make any drastic changes but the standard of singing had deteriorated to such a point that Jim was forced to do some serious retraining of the choir. He conducted the choir for the next four concerts and by May Mr. Brian C. Hicks was appointed conductor.
Brian was a young man, lived locally and was an accomplished church organist at St Catherine’s Church, Canton. However the choir did not progress under his tuition. Whilst with the choir Brian became conductor of the Cardiff Ladies Choir. He even
proposed combining to form a mixed choir and was keen on the choirs doing joint concerts. Choir members were becoming dissatisfied. And after holding a Special general meeting he offered his resignation, but was happy to continue until a replacement was found. After a discussion with the chairman, by then Mr. J. Callow, it was agreed his resignation would take immediate effect. The following day the chairman had been invited to travel to a concert in Worcester with the Aber Valley Male Choir. On the journey back he was asked who the conductor of his choir was. He replied that unfortunately as from the previous evening the choir had no conductor. The person who had posed the question was a member and the deputy conductor of the Aber Valley choir, Mr. Jeff Matthews, who immediately on hearing the plight of the choir offered his help. A few days later, the chairman and accompanist, Mrs. Kath Probert went to see Jeff and it was agreed he would conduct the choir temporarily. Unknown to anyone, Jeff resigned from the Aber Valley choir so that there would be no conflict of interest.
After a few months trial period the appointment of Jeff as conductor was made permanent by a general meeting of the choir. By October Mr. Poole, now Organising Secretary noted in his record of concerts “Quite good improvement showing”. One problem facing Jeff as conductor was the commitment of the choir to appear in the Association of Male Choirs festival of male voices at the Albert Hall, London in April 1978. For that occasion the choir had to learn 12 new pieces of music, a hard task. When asked if the choir should pull out of this concert Jeff said that it should not.
Under the constitution the choir was empowered to practice twice a week, Wednesday and Friday. It was normal for the choir to practice once a week on a Friday and before important engagements extra rehearsals were arranged for the number of Wednesdays deemed necessary. Jeff stated that if the choir would practice twice a week the new music could be learnt. It was agreed to do this and the choir was successful in attaining its goal of learning 12 new pieces. Before going to perform at the Albert Hall under the baton of Owain Arwel Hughes, a series of 500 voice concerts were held in south Wales. The choirs were split into an east choir of 500 and a west choir of 500.
Two concerts were given by the east choirs at Cwmbran, one on 19th November 1977 conducted by John Haydn Davies of Treorchy fame and on the following evening conducted by Owain Arwel Hughes. A week later Owain was to conduct the west choirs in a 500 voice concert in the Brangwyn Hall, Swansea. He took a rehearsal of the west choirs on the Tuesday evening before the concert and was bitterly disappointed at the standard of the singing. After the rehearsal he informed the committee of the association that unless the west choir could be strengthened by choirs who knew their work he would cancel the concert. He asked that the Cardiff and Cwmbran choirs be asked to see if they were available. This was proof indeed that the choir had worked hard and learned their music.
Jeff, who was still in his thirties, brought a new enthusiasm to the choir. His maxim was “A busy choir is a happy choir”. The committee worked hard to promote the choir and to get concerts. Letters were written to all the local authorities within a hundred miles of Cardiff to ask them or any of their employees connected with a good cause if they would like the choir to give a concert to raise money for their charity or organisation. This proved successful and concerts were given at Bristol, Chard, Taunton, Dorchester, Temple Cloud, Clutton, Downend, Weston-super-Mare, Ledbury, Chard, Bishops Castle, Birmingham, Pershore and many other towns and villages.
The choir were often asked back sometimes and often to nearby villages and towns. The number of engagements reached on average 2 per month, one in or near Cardiff and another coach trip away. The membership reached 72 in this period. Jeff decided a city choir was not to his taste and resigned to take over the baton of the Ystradowen Male Choir. Ystradowen is a small village near Aberfan in the Taff Valley.
Sian Carlin followed Jeff as conductor from 1983 to 1987. They were to get married eventually. They wore Cardiff rugby shirts and blue jeans to the wedding, Sian carrying a pineapple instead of flowers! She was allergic to flowers and a pineapple is a fertility symbol in the Caribbean.
1987 was an eventful year. Our president Mr. J. J. Hennessey had resigned and on 30th September 1987 Mr. Christopher Brain had agreed to become our President. But more importantly, in January 1988 John Tunley was appointed our conductor. From 1958 until 1983 he was conductor of the Beaufort Male Choir, Beaufort being just outside Ebbw Vale. During this time he became known as one of the premier conductors of male choirs in Wales.
He was highly respected musically in the eastern valleys of Wales, as much as John Haydn Davies who reformed the Treorchy Male choir after World War II. One of John’s first duties was to take the choir to Birkeroed near Copenhagen in Denmark.
Later the same year the Novello Singers, a male choir of the highest standard, decided to disband 10 of their members joining our choir. At the annual concert given at the Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre the number of choristers was 52.
On 29th November 1989 baritone member Charles Butler celebrated 60 years as a member and went on to sing for a few more years. 1990 was the year the choir went to Holland as part of a choir of 1000 Welsh male voices. Conducted by Wendy Halden of Cor Meibion Gwalia, London, the combined choir performed with a choir of 1000 Dutch male voices.
Two concerts were given, one in the Hague and one in Apeldoorn. It was a major task to move the Welsh choirs around Holland and the occasion was filmed and a documentary made and shown by S4C.
The standard of the singing of our choir improved greatly under John’s baton. The choir knew that it had reached the standard of perfection expected by one of the best conductors in Wales at the time when John took the choir, not to the Albert or St David’s Hall but to Ebbw Vale, his home town.
We knew then that we had made great progress as he would not allow his reputation to be sullied by conducting an inferior choir in front of many friends and acquaintances in his home town. Then unfortunately, a considerable number of choir members, including the then chairman, Colin Heard died. The heart of the choir had been taken away. John had taken three years to train the choir and as he was travelling from Ebbw Vale twice a week felt he could not start over again. So he asked the choir to find a new conductor but kindly agreed to continue until a new one was appointed.
Thus, in May 1991 Mr. W. J. (Billy) Cooper became our conductor. He had been conductor with the Cardiff Athletic Club Male Voice Choir and was appointed at a special general meeting at which a number of our then members sang his praises and recommended him without reservation.
However, the association proved to be short lived and in December at another special general meeting the members asked him to leave the choir. He agreed to meet our existing commitments for the remainder of that year and left us after a concert in Conway Road Methodist Church on 18th December
Choir member, Jack Sully, one of the former members of the Novello Singers who had joined when John Tunley was conductor, took over the baton until a new conductor could be appointed. He agreed to take up the position as long as was necessary because care needed to be taken in choosing somebody who would be more suitable for the choir. Jack has been our deputy conductor until quite recently, during which time he has composed a number of notable pieces for the choir.
We performed his very emotive “Ballad of Dick Penderyn” at our centenary concert when some of the audiences were moved to tears because of the emotions aroused by the piece. In 2008 Jack was made a life member in recognition of his hard work for the choir.
Meuryn Hughes, a young talented musician, composer and conductor was appointed in1992 but had to resign in 1993 because of pressure of other work. He kept in touch with choir through the chairman resulting in the chairman becoming his stepfather. Who says the history of male choir is not romantic. In 1992 and 1993 the choir joined in the two memorable World Choir concerts held at the National Stadium. On both occasions nearly 10,000 choristers participated. The sound produced under the baton of Owain Arwel Hughes was unforgettable on both occasions.
Frank Jones then followed as conductor until he resigned in 2000 when Meuryn Hughes with the help of Shirley Anne James acted jointly as musical directors until Elwyn Davies was appointed in 2001. His stay was brief, however, and in January 2002 the choir appointed David Bebbington , again a young and talented musician as conductor. Once again the pressures of his professional career forced him to resign in January 2002.
During David’s time with the choir we were conducted a number of times by Guy Harbottle. Thus, on David’s resignation Guy was appointed. He proved to be on inspiration to the choir being a trained singer, vocal coach and a talented pianist and organist. We were very lucky as he arranged a number of songs especially for our choir. This added a new dimension to our repertoire. Guy brought new enthusiasm to the choir which attracted a number of new and younger choristers.
In June 2008 he took the choir to France, to Nantes Cardiff’s twin city. A concert was held with Ensemble Vocal de la Houssiniere, a mixed choir, at the church saint Martin de Chantenay. The following day the choir to part in a choral festival taking place in the Chateau of the Dukes of Brittany. The weekend was a great success and gave the French a chance to hear the traditional sound of a male choir which is not heard often in France.
In 2010, Guy felt it was time to step down as Musical Director of the choir to spend more time with his family. Auditions were held for a new conductor and in September 2010, Emma Height was appointed the new Musical Director of Cardiff Male Choir. Emma hopes to continue the good work that Guy has brought to the choir over the last 7 years. She is a trained singer with an enthusiasm for music of all genres. She loves the camaraderie of singing and hopes the choir will too as she takes on the leadership of the choir.
The choir is now 110 years old, and over this time legends have been handed down through the times. One of the most colourful stories recounts the time when police had to be called to control the large crowd that had gathered outside the Barley Mow to listen to the rehearsal. They did not have far to come as the old red stone Glamorgan County Divisional Police Headquarters were situated opposite.
Of course, in those days, few had radios and television was unknown. Another relates to the choir registrar who on 1st September 1939 exhorted choir members to attend regularly. He disappeared for 6 years and his remarks on his return in 1945 were, “As I was saying, regular attendance………” On one occasion the choir performed in Cardiff prison and it is claimed that it sang “Bless this House”.
(I would like to pay tribute to the late Mr. J. Poole and the late Mr. S. R. Gronnow. Both of whom were members of the choir for many years and who researched and collected the information prior to 1998.)
6th November 2008
Amended November 2010.