Oxford Welsh Male Voice Choir

Founded in 1928...

Chapter 4: Pre War

The Party quickly made its name in Oxford and district, receiving much favourable press publicity. As early as 1933 a photograph of the choir appeared in the Oxford Mail, accompanied by an account of its victory in an Eisteddfod at Swindon, (The Oxford Mail cost one old penny in those days). In the early thirties an amateur choir could fill the Town Hall; for many years The Party held its annual concert there - this was before the days of universal car ownership and before the commercial development of the television set. On these notable occasions The Party was supported by eminent soloists, and programmes of those annual concerts make nostalgic reading for music-lovers -"Madame Jennie Ellis (London) Royal Premier Soprano, 13 times winner National Eisteddfod of Wales; Emlyn Burns (Nantyffyllon) Tenor, 9 times winner National Eisteddfod of Wales, B.B.C. Artiste, Gold Medallist; Hywel Emlyn Jones (Swansea) Baritone, 6 times winner National Eisteddfod of Wales, B.B.C. Artiste." The fees paid to these artistes were infinitesimal by modern standards, and were the subject of earnest and lengthy debate at committee meetings. The concerts were chaired by a prominent Welsh personality from City or University, supported by the Mayor, and were reported at length in the local press. The last Annual Concert took place in 1939 at St. James’ Hall, Cowley, and was not re-instated after the war, no doubt because of changing public tastes and habits.

Welsh choral traditions were firmly rooted in the founder members, They met for rehearsal twice weekly, and during the run-up to an important concert or competition extra rehearsals were called. A high percentage of attendance was expected, and the minute books record members being reprimanded and even dismissed for failing to achieve the required level of attendance. The 1935 constitution laid down that members had to attend two-thirds of all rehearsals in order to qualify themselves to take part in a concert. The committee was also extremely active and conscientious, in the early years meeting twice monthly, and the well-attended Annual General Meeting was held in October each year.

The competitive tradition was prominent in pre-war years, and The Party competed in eisteddfods and music festivals in many towns. One of it finest achievements in this field came in 1938. when it entered for the first time the Welsh National Eisteddfod, held that year in Cardiff. The Welsh National included a class for exile choirs and The Party, under Willie Davies came second to the Hammersmith Welsh Male Voice Choir. The following year The Party again excelled itself in winning first prize at the Northampton Festival. The adjudicator Armstrong Gibbs was moved to say that it was one of the finest male voice choirs that he had ever heard; he had not heard notes more correctly sung in all his career. There is nothing like competition to bring out the best in a choir. Coach journeys to and from competitive festivals were occasions of great fellowship, often the singing would continue non-stop on the return journey, particularly if The Party was bringing back a trophy. All the joys of communal music-making were there - the comradeship, the jokes, the laughter, the leg-pulling, the beer and smoke, and the singing. Competitive singing engaged only a portion of The Party’s time and talents, Its main activity was the presentation of popular choral music to any organisation planning a fund-raising event, or just wanting an evening’s entertainment. Churches, chapels, schools, colleges, old peoples’ homes, hospitals, scout halls, sports clubs, workingmen’s club, Y.M.C.A., Salvation Army, Red Cross, Oxford Prison - the list is endless. Concerts were not confined to Oxford City; in prewar years concerts were given in Abingdon, Banbury, Bibury, Burford, Faringdon, Kidlington, Newbury, Thame, Shipton, Witney, Woodstock, and probably many more not recorded in the scrap books. Audiences were often small, sometimes a mere handful, but this never detracted from the rewards and satisfaction of both performers and listeners. Frequently the audience would be invited to join in the singing of the popular numbers.

In those days a concert by an amateur male voice choir was news. Concerts were fully reported in the local papers, often with a degree of musical criticism reserved today for professional performances. a well-balanced, flexible and pleasant-toned team though breath intakes were a little obtrusive here and there, crisp attack and release and a ready capacity to convey the spirit of the music were conspicuous virtues". One memorable performance was a concert in aid of the 1934 Gresford Colliery Disaster Fund, an event which inevitably moved the hearts of many members whose fathers and grandfathers had worked in the mines. The minute books sadly record the tale of concert receipts being misappropriated but eventually recovered and paid over to the Disaster Fund. A similar moving occasion was a concert in 1939 in aid of the Mayor of Oxford’s Distress Fund for Risca; star performer on this occasion was the late Sir Walford Davis, Master of the King’s Music, who played piano duets with Sir Hugh Allen, and spoke of the Welshmen’s "dynamic pursuit of making music".

The progress of The Party was noted in the press "back home" from time to time. The Merthyr Express reported in 1937 that •the Oxford Welsh Glee Singers, 27 of its 28 members South Waleians, included Tom Jones of Merthyr, Haydn Evans of Pendarren, and Evan Jones of Dowlais. Tom and Haydn are still singing members. Another South Wales paper reported under the headline "Rhondda Conductor Honoured" the story of Willie Davies’ achievements at Ferdale, and then in Oxford where he was appointed conductor of The Party soon after his arrival; this report was prompted by a broadcast on the Western Region of the B.B.C. An even lengthier re~o~t describes in some detail The Party’s success at the 1938 Welsh National Eisteddfod under the baton of "an old Ferndalian".

In pre-war days it was customary for the printing of concert programmes to be partly financed by selling advertising space to local firms. Mention has already been made of Alderman Moss’ building company; other firms who advertised in the thirties and are still in business today include Messrs Acotts of High Street, and Hall the Printer then in Queen Street. Advertisers who have since disappeared from the Oxford scene are F Cape & Co., of St. Ebbes and Wards House Furnishers of Park End Street. Some well-known buildings where The Party performed have also disappeared, including the original Cowley Workers Social Club, Tyndale Hall in Cowley Road, now the site of the Ministry of Social Security offices, and the Electra Cinema in Queen Street. Mention should also be made of the Village House, a lodging house which flourished fifty years ago on the corner of Between Towns Road, opposite the Swan. This was the first port of call for many of the young Welshmen on their arrival at Cowley; there they found rest and refreshment, and news of relatives and friends who had preceded them on the great trek.

The growth of the car factories at Cowley during the thirties enabled most of the Welsh exiles to find work there, and they began to put down roots, becoming engaged, marrying, raising families, buying Mr. Moss’ houses on the Florence Park Estate, some bringing relatives up from South Wales to live with them. Relatives and girl friends joined in the life of the choir, supporting them at concerts and competitions, even turning up to listen and criticise at rehearsals. The strong family units of the South Wales mining communities were re-established in Oxford, east of Magdalen Bridge; by the outbreak of war the men who had emigrated from the valleys on foot and on bicycle a decade earlier had been accepted into the community and were making their own unique contribution to the social and cultural life of the City.

picture of 'The Party' 1933 from the history of the oxford welsh male voice choir
'The Party' 1933: conductor T.S.Gregory. The civic dignitaries are Alderman C.H.Brown, Mayor, and
Alderman F.E.Moss, Vice-President and later President of 'The Party'.

 

Chapter 5