Oxford Welsh Male Voice Choir

Founded in 1928...

Chapter 6: Post War

The return to peace-time conditions in Oxford mirrored the traumatic experiences of society in general struggling to re-orientate its daily life to peaceful ends. The Attlee Government put in hand the social revolution which will provide historians with material for generations to come. The University was filling up with young men returning to academic life after living through the horrors of war. The Cowley factories began the painful process of converting production from armaments to motor cars. The end of the war put an end to the uneasy peace between the management and labour and the development of post-war industrial relations was punctuated by strikes. Lord Nuffield’s autocratic style of management surrendered to the growing power of the unions within his factories.

The Party had its own problems. It welcomed back members from active service and others who had been forced to resign during the war when shift working clashed with rehearsal time. The young men who had settled in Oxford in the late twenties were now approaching middle age and had acquired families and other responsibilities. Some had lost their original enthusiasm for singing, others had developed interests which commanded higher priority. One or two members resigned for health reasons, and sadly a few gaps appeared through death. The resignation of Willie Davies as conductor in 1950, after fourteen years of loyal service, was seen by some as a mortal blow. At the critical time when survival appeared to depend on the recruitment of another generation of singers the almost universal ownership of motor car and television set was revolutionising social habits; young men were no longer prepared to sacrifice time, money and effort in the cause of amateur music-making. Inevitably numbers fell and average age rose - a recipe for disaster.

And yet the Oxford Welsh Glee Singers survive, and have many notable achievements to record during the second half of its fifty years of song. The competitive spirit flourished and in the early nineteen-fifties The Party won the male voice choir competition at the Kingswood, Bristol Eisteddfod three years in succession. In 1952 it combined with The Morris Motors Male Voice Choir to present a Coronation Concert at the Clubhouse in Crescent Road, Cowley. This event was chaired by Reg Bishop, the genial manager of Nuffield Press, and among the soloists was a young violinist, Ralph Holmes, who has since won international acclaim. In 1955 it broadcast twice within 48 hours. On the 30th November, it took part in a Welsh magazine programme recorded for transmission the next day in the B.B.C. Overseas Service. In the course of this programme Haydn Evans, the secretary, broadcast a message to Fred Moss, President, in South Africa, in which he said: "we are bound together in the common love of good music, and the good fellowship which it brings",

Then on the 2nd December they were heard on the B.B.C. Home Service in a 20 minute recital of part songs from their extensive repertoire. They were no strangers to the broadcasting studio, having first broadcast in 1936, and again in 1937, 1938. 1939, 1949 and 1950.

picture of The Party 1937 : Conductor Willie Davies
The Party 1937 : Conductor Willie Davies

In 1956 The Party made its debut on television, as a member of the Oxford team competing in an inter-town knock-out variety competition called "Top Town". The Oxford team was selected after a number of preliminary concerts; at one of these, in Abingdon Corn Exchange, the Oxford Mail reported "the evening was stolen by a group that has recently joined the team the Oxford Welsh Glee Singers, whose unpretentious and unified singing was the most polished performance in the show". Oxford’s opponents were Newport, Mon., and the show went out live from the B.B.C. Manchester studios, at that time housed in a converted chapel. As all the performers were amateurs it is remarkable that the show ever got on the air, the chaos in the studio had to be seen to be believed. Among the Oxford team was the late Alan Course, a man of great wit and talent, whose act consisted of drawing cartoons on the bare backs of young ladies. During rehearsal breaks Alan instructed The Party in his own "Russian" version of Sospan Bach; if this had been in the Oxford programme it would have won every prize in sight. After the show the Oxford team joined with its conquerors from Newport in a night of conviviality which will long be remembered by those who were able to stay the course.

In between these more exciting events The Party continued to offer its services for many local causes. Since the war it has averaged about twelve concerts a year, mostly to small intimate audiences who appreciate its style of music making. For the sake of variety The Party interspersed its own contributions with solo items, and the soloists were generally drawn from the ranks; these were the characters who contributed so much to its success, year after year. Morgan Williams, founder member, the perfect chorister, 100% committed, punctual, attentive, loyal, for many years secretary, then chairman until ill-health intervened, guide, counselor and comrade to all his colleagues, including successive conductors. A 1942 press cutting reports a concert at Ruskin College, then in use as a war-time maternity hospital, and concludes "it was here, 14 years ago that Mr. Morgan Williams, now secretary of the choir, presided at meeting at which they were formed". He had a mellow baritone voice which has echoed round halls and chapels in Oxford and district for the best part of 40 years. Despite the tragic loss of his only daughter, he continued to give all to the choir, while his wife demonstrated a similar devotion as conductor of the Cowley Congregational Women's Own Choir. Harry Dunkley, not one of the young Welsh immigrants but an older man who has spent his career with the Oxford City Police, retiring with the rank of constable; a fine figure of a man, taller than average, a stern expression exaggerated by his large moustache, undoubtedly a steadying influence on some of the younger choristers. He was for some years chairman of The Party and on more than one occasion put his hand in his own pocket when funds had run out. Harry died in 1950, mourned by his fellow-choristers; the minutes of the committee held on the 26th September that year contain a moving tribute to his 17 years of service to The Party, ending "Well done thou good and faithful servant". Harold Bull, leader of the first tenor section for many years. As a young man he had touched the fringes of professionalism; in a 1938 programme his credentials are recorded as "Gold Medallist, Madame Paling’s Scholarship, London". He had regrettably not looked after his voice, and in later years had a limited range; but within that range he could produce notes to rival any nightingale. His repertoire too was somewhat limited, but his favourite "There is a lady sweet and kind" always prompted a storm of applause. Harold was dubbed "Clark Gable" because he had Gable’s ears and moustache; but Gable’s gravel voice could not be further removed from Harold’s sweet tenor. Haydn Evans, bass-baritone, with a voice as rustless as the famous iron bridge at Martyr, from whence he came. A great servant of The Party, successively committee member, secretary, chairman. Like a number of his colleagues who spent some years in the press shop at Pressed Steel, his hearing was not perfect and this occasionally affected his intonation, but what a voice - if he had been willing and able to accept the discipline of professional training he would have rivalled Geraint Evans. Now approaching three score years and ten, still able to charm and soothe a critical audience. Tom Jones, the only founder member still active in The Party, another loyal chorister, unambitious but reliable, with a true tenor voice, even at the age of 73. It is doubtful if his more famous name-sake will still be singing at that age. Tom is equally well-known for his performances on Oxford bowling greens. Arthur Hayes, a most loyal servant and for years deputy conductor, while his wife served equally loyally as accompanist. Arthur’s personal contribution to concert programmes was the humorous monologue; although this type of entertainment belongs to another age, before radio and television, his tales were beautifully told, the tension built up with professional skill and aplomb until the pay-off line, never failing to generate spontaneous laughter even among his fellow-choristers who had heard the stories many times before. Walter Davies, a Welshman to his fingertips, who arrived in Oxford by a very different route from the founder members. He came from a poor family background in Barry but a sharp intelligence eventually led him to Harlech College of Adult Education, and then, after a period at the Educational Settlement in Merthyr, he was appointed probation officer at Oxford in 1941. He quickly made contact with his fellow Welsh exiles, and became a much respected and loyal member of The Party, holding the office of Treasurer for many years. Walter will always be remembered for his immaculate dress - pinstripe suit, bow tie and spats even on the most informal occasion, He was a loyal and conscientious second bass occupying pole position - at the right hand end of the front row — throughout his time with The Party. He had to tolerate a certain amount of ribald ragging from some of the younger members because of his calling but he took it in good part, and was greatly missed when he moved to Southend, where he died in 1975.

A further concession to variety in concert programmes was the regular inclusion of lady soloists who not only performed on their own, but frequently joined with a member of The Party in rendering duets. Many followers of The Party will remember Ivy Barratt, Dorothy Hutchinson, Stella Hitchins, Jean Gould and Betty Lawrence. Male voice duets and quartets were also a regular feature; Harold Bull and Haydn Evans would probably make the Guinness Book of Records for their innumerable renderings of "The Two Gendarmes". Occasionally The Party joined with professional artistes; they appeared at Banbury with Sandy McPherson the concert organist and Harvey Allen the operatic baritone. They were invited to broadcast with the George Mitchell Glee Singers from Oxford Town Hall. They have met many of the finest musicians in the country at competitive festivals; adjudicators of the calibre of Herbert Howells, Leslie Woodgate, Bernard Rose, Armstrong Gibbs, Sydney Northcote and Eric Thiman gave them invaluable advice and encouragement.

picture of The Party 1954: conductor Richard Bedwin
The Party 1954: conductor Richard Bedwin

In the course of its fifty-year history the choir has had ten conductors, and pride of place must go to Willie Davies, conductor for fourteen years from 1936. Willie was the archetypal Welsh choral trainer — small, neat, dark, bright eyes, intense expression, utterly absorbed and dedicated in performance. Born and bred to choral music in Ferndale, Rhondda, he was conductor of the Ferndale Ladies Choir and deputy conductor of Pendyrno Male Voice Choir. He lost his job when the Ferndale colliery closed down, and decided to follow some of his friends to Oxford, where he was soon appointed conductor of The Party, even before he found work. For his appearance as conductor at the 6th Annual Concert in Oxford Town Hall a dress suit was hired for him, paid out of choir funds. Through the members’ connections at Pressed Steel Willie eventually found a job there. He did not enjoy the best of health, his lungs being affected by silicosis, but he was a dedicated and respected choral trainer. He has been accused of being a pot-hunter - more interested in competitive festivals than the run-of-the-mill charity concert; but Willie knew that in competition a choir will achieve a standard of performance way above the average and just occasionally he inspired that perfect performance which is the goal of any conductor.

Mr Bernard Maliphant, the present secretary of The Party, has gathered together a catalogue of 250 pieces of music, all of which have been in The Party’s repertoire at one time or another. Some much-loved pieces have been in the repertoire for half a century, some for only a short time. Some were learned for a competition and then quietly buried away in the choir library. A few were rehearsed but never included in a public performance. Every type of music suited to male voices is represented in the catalogue - Welsh folk songs and hymns, English part-songs, negro spirituals, sea shanties, operatic choruses, sentimental ballads, carols, comedy numbers, and competitive pieces, often written for the occasion by contemporary composers. This enormous repertoire provided the opportunity for extensive and exciting programme planning, but examination of concert programmes reveals a lack of imagination and a safety first approach. A 1931 programme includes a Welsh piece "Y Delyn Aur" a stirring chorus "Comrades in Arms", and the Soldiers’ Chorus from "Faust".

These three pieces reappear at regular internals throughout the next forty years. Nothing wrong with that, the members will say, our public still enjoy them. Programmes sometimes had to be selected with particular care, to suit the occasion; for instance at a concert to mark the formation of the Oxford & District Welsh Society in 1954 the programme was made up almost exclusively of Welsh music, with Welsh words laboriously learned. The choice of music was not always entirely appropriate. At a concert performance in Oxford Prison on a Sunday afternoon in 1953 the programme included the popular ballad "Bless this House". The choir was left in no doubt as to the popularity of this piece, when the words of the second verse rang out - "Bless these walls both firm and stout, keeping want and trouble out ...". Another example of spontaneous humour occurred when The Party were booked to give a concert in the village hall at Wootton, Oxon. In accordance with standard drill the coach went round Headington and Cowley calling at pre-determined pick-up points one of which was the the Swan Inn at Cowley. While waiting for members to arrive Jack Evans, already on board, left the coach and went into the Swan to buy cigarettes. The coach moved off without him, and his absence was not noted until The Party had formed up on the platform in the village hall, by which time it was too late to go back and find him. The choir proceeded to sing through its programme, and as the conductor lifted his baton to begin the final item, Jack walked onto the platform, and without batting an eyelid took up his place next to brother Haydn in the front row of the first basses. The title of the last item was "The Happy Wanderer". The leg-pulling on the return trip was merciless, but Jack took it in good heart and explained that it was by no means easy to thumb a lift from Cowley, Oxford, to Wootton, Oxon, on a dark wet Saturday night, particularly when wearing evening dress. He is an extremely versatile character, his versatility was recorded for posterity in 1961 when he was included in the list of officers as "librarian, registrar, tape recorder and electrical adviser".

Conductor, Richard Bedwyn

Counting the goats (Welsh folk song)... arr. Caradog Roberts

The Herald... Elgar

The Silent Land... Leslie Woodgate

Music when soft voices die... Edward Balrstow

Peter, go ring dem bells... arr. Granville Rantock

Bushes and briars... arr. Vaughan Williams

When evening’s twilight... John Hatton

Fain would I change that note... Vaughan Williams

(A typical broadcast programme – B.B.C. Home Service 25 November 1955)

Chapter 7