Chapter 3: The Party
It is not difficult to visualise a group of young and lonely Welshmen, some unemployed, living in digs, with little to occupy mind or body, drifting to the nearest pub, to drown their loneliness and disappointments in Morrell’s beer. Nor is it difficult to imagine that, after a few drinks, one or two would begin quietly singing some of the melodies learned in their homes and chapels. The next evening a few more lonely men would be there, and join in the singing. Thus was the Party born, at the Cape of Good Hope, a Morrell’s pub on the Plain, just on the Cowley side of Magdalen Bridge. Little did they realise that fifty years later The Party would still be flourishing.
The Party was first an octet, but it quickly grew and adopted the name of Cowley Male Voice Choir. The needs of these young men were noted by Frank Gray, Liberal M.P. for Oxford, and by a number of prominent citizens of Cowley. In particular, members of Cowley Congregational Church, led by their minister, the Reverend Whatley White, encouraged the singers to pursue their music-making and invited them to rehearse on the Church premises. A Mr.Taylor loaned them £1 to buy music; this is recorded in the very first set of accounts as having been loaned on 21 January 1929 and repaid on 29 May of the same year. (The first income and expenditure account covers the period to 4th June 1929; the total income was £5. 13s. 6d, raised entirely from members’ subscriptions, and expenditure totals £3. 4s. 3d - on music and postage).
Mr.Hardacre, conductor of the Cowley Congregational choir led the Welshmen for a few rehearsals, until they appointed their own conductor; he was at that time personnel manager at Pressed Steel, where many of the singers found work for the first time. Another well-known Oxford citizen, Alderman Fred Moss, gave them encouragement and financial support, eventually becoming President and continuing his association with The Party for many years, even after he had moved to Durban, South Africa. He was a native of Merthyr Tydfil, and therefore fully aware of the appalling conditions in the mining valleys. It was his company which built the Florence Park Estate, and whatever criticisms may be levelled at the quality of the building, this development met a critical need at a time when the rapidly-expanding motor industry at Cowley demanded homes for its workers. On the back cover of a 1931 concert programme Mr. Moss advertised new houses in Rymer’s Lane, Cowley, for sale freehold from £675.
In the late nineteen-twenties Morris Motors was able to satisfy its labour needs from local sources. The Pressed Steel Company was looking for a different kind of worker. The giant presses, imported from America, demanded large numbers of unskilled and semi-skilled workers and this demand was met by the influx of unemployed from South Wales and elsewhere. Hence most of The Party found work for themselves, and subsequently for friends and relatives, at Pressed Steel. The company pioneered the piece-work method of payment which has led to endless argument ever since, but at the time it appeared to hold the key to increased productivity. Some members of The Party were prominent in the early struggles for trade union recognition, when working conditions were appalling, and men could be called out to work at any hour of the day or night.
The bitterness which the young Welshmen brought with them from their homes inevitably boiled over on occasions; one member of The Party spent a night in the cells after a particularly stormy meeting. These early struggles at Cowley probably explain why The Party never accepted any form of sponsorship from the company; they feared that it would weaken their negotiating powers in an industrial dispute. However, relations between management and workers gradually improved and many of the company’s directors supported The Party as Vice-Presidents. But it has continued to guard its independence with fierce pride; perhaps this explains why it has survived.
In 1931 The Party changed its name to Oxford Welsh Prize Glee Singers. The "Prize" appears to have been dropped soon thereafter, and Oxford Welsh Glee Singers it has remained ever since, despite attempts by non-Welsh members to change it. This is hardly surprising when one reads the attendance register, bearing such names as Tom Bevan, Haydn Evans, Morgan Williams, Mel Davis, Tom Jones, Billo Roberts, Howell Thomas, Gwyn Lloyd, Wynn Jones, and, for fourteen years as conductor, Willie Davies. Despite its name, The Party had no glees in its repertoire, and sang very little Welsh music to Welsh words - few of the young men from the valleys could speak their native tongue. The first printed constitution dated 1935 states that the annual subscription is six shillings, payable in two half-yearly instalments.