The Age of Reform – Music of the Great Victorians at St Paul’s

Music at St Paul’s (as in every English Cathedral) has seen dramatic change through the centuries. The nineteenth century saw significant developments which continue to benefit the choir to this day, largely brought about by Sir John Stainer.

Victorian St Paul's

A day in the life of a chorister in 1836 looked like this: Up at 7.30am (8am in winter) and choir practice before breakfast (milk, bread, and butter). Mattins at 9.45am, and music and singing practice from 11am to 2pm. On one morning of the week, six boys were given an Italian lesson, paid for by Miss Maria Hackett. Dinner was at 3pm (meat, vegetables and half a pint of beer). Evensong was at 3.15, and after a break the boys had lessons from 5.30 to 8pm. Supper was bread, butter and beer and bedtime was 9pm – or as late as midnight if it was an oratorio evening.

St Pauls Roof

By 1845 the choir boys were being temporarily boarded in the Chapter House with a singing master, a grammar master and a matron. But in 1848 boarding arrangements had been abandoned, and by the next year the eight choristers and four probationers received annual allowances, attended day school, and on leaving school received £30 to provide training for future employment.

One of the boys to benefit from the more enlightened regime was John Stainer, who laid the foundations for the choir we enjoy today. His predecessor as Organist, John Goss, was responsible for the music at the funeral of the Duke of Wellington in 1852.


Stainer was appointed Organist in 1872 at the age of 33, and immediately enlarged the choir by increasing the number of choristers to thirty with ten probationers, and increasing the number of Vicars Choral also. This expansion in numbers was desperately needed after the removal of the choir screen (against Wren’s wishes) which had previously cut the ‘music’ area off from the rest of the Cathedral.

Choir Screen

The repertory of the choir was also enlarged and included Mendelssohn’s ‘St Paul’ and J.S. Bach’s ‘St Matthew Passion’ (performed this year on Thursday 26th March at 6.30pm). This was achieved in one year. Such was the driving leadership of Stainer that, by his retirement in 1888 (due to loss of sight), standards had been set which are still an inspiration today. Stainer wrote his best known work, ‘The Crucifixion’, a year before retirement.

Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee

The century closed with the famous Diamond Jubilee Service for Queen Victoria outside the Cathedral. The present Cathedral Choir had the great privilege of singing for the Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 2012, and continues to lead the nation in services of State significance in addition to its daily routine of music and prayer.

The Cathedral Choir in concert (2)

Based on ‘The Choir of St Paul’s: The first popular profile of a great Cathedral choir, its musicians, and its heritage’.


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