Some notes on the early history of Marlborough Choral Society

The earliest secure reference to the setting up of a Choral Society in Marlborough that I have found dates from March 1863, when ‘a meeting took place on Monday [2nd] in St Peter’s School-room to see what steps should be taken towards the formation of a choral society. It was chaired by Rev. T. W. Dowding.  About 40 names were entered as members, and a committee appointed; The Rev. T.W. Dowding was elected president of the society and Mr J.W. Smith conductor, and R. Merriman Esq., secretary pro tem.’ The committee, prompt as ever, were to hold their first meeting the following Monday evening (Reading Mercury, Saturday 7.3.1863, p. 4).
[There is an advert for The Messiah from 1928 that claims the Society was founded in 1862, but I can find nothing to support this. (North Wilts Herald, 30/11/1928, p.1)]
The Choral Society, (sometimes described as St. Peter’s Choral Society) was duly set up with Mr Whitehead Smith, who was the organist at Marlborough College, as conductor. Unfortunately, his tenure was short-lived as he departed to become the organist at Wimborne Minster in late 1863. He seems to have left the fledgling Society in the lurch, but the choir was determined not to ‘flag’ and two members, one of whom was the Society’s president, Mr. F. Lucy, undertook to conduct the weekly practices through the winter until a new conductor could be found (Wiltshire independent, 21/1/84, p. 2). Eventually, Mr William Samuel Bambridge was appointed in March 1864 (The Musical World, 5/3/1864, p.158).
In fact, Bambridge proved quite a catch for both the College and the Choral Society. Aged just 22 when he came to Marlborough, he remained in the town until his death in 1923. During his 47 years at the College he transformed its musical life particularly developing its choir and orchestra so that it became one of the leading public schools for music. He also seems to have led the Choral Society for most of this time.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              
Bambridge came from an interesting family. His father, also William Samuel, was sent as a missionary to New Zealand and acted as secretary to the newly consecrated bishop there. He was an accomplished flautist and took part in entertaining the missionaries with chamber music. William (Jnr) was born in New Zealand in July 1842, with his brother, George Frederic, arriving in 1844. Following the birth of a third child, William’s mother began to struggle with the rigours of mission life and the family returned to England in 1848. William (Snr) joined William Fox Talbot’s studio and later became Royal Photographer to Queen Victoria. He took many of the royal family’s mourning portraits, following Prince Albert’s death.

W.S. Bambridge, Queen Victoria in mourning, 1862

William Samuel Bambridge, (Jnr) was 6 years old when he arrived in England. Showing musical promise from an early age, he was attached to St George’s Chapel, Windsor as a supernumerary chorister and became the organist at his local parish church when only 10. He went on to study the organ, piano and cello at the Royal Academy of Music before being appointed Professor of Music, Organist and Librarian, at Marlborough College (Morris and Rainbow, Music in Independent Schools, 1990, p. 50). He composed a number of hymn tunes, including one appropriately named Marlborough.
Bambridge was also a fine sportsman. He was a keen cricketer and footballer and was the first captain of the newly formed Marlborough FC in 1871. He wrote a letter to ‘The Field’ about the problems with local rules in football, which contributed to one set of rules being established by the FA in 1877. He was a councillor and became mayor in 1894 and seems to have been a popular and prominent member of the town throughout his life. (Wiltshire Times and Trowbridge Advertiser 27/1/1923, pp. 5, 6)
Bambridge got straight to work with the, now, Marlborough Amateur Choral Society and they gave a concert on Monday 21st June 1864 in St. Peter’s School-room ‘which was well attended’ and ‘proved remarkably attractive.’ It seems ‘Most of the pieces were given with taste and judgement’ and ‘the company which was highly select, showed their appreciation of the performance by most hearty and repeated encores’. (Wiltshire Independent, 23/6/1864, p.3)
An example of MCS’ early charitable fund raising comes from March 1874, when, ‘after covering all expenses incurred by the concert on the 18th inst’ … £3 6s. 0d was handed over to Savernake Cottage Hospital by the committee.’ (Wiltshire Independent 26/3/1874, p.3)
The early years of the Choral Society seem to have been a little insecure as an entry in the wonderfully entitled Lucy’s Local Guide, Marlborough and District Directory, Almanack and Diary for 1897 (p.190) states that the Choral Society had been ‘reinstituted’ in 1877 and ‘re-constructed in 1887, under the management and conductorship of W.S. Bambridge, Mus.B.’ The choir in 1897 consisted of 50 members and the subscription was 3/6 per term, whilst members of choirs were admitted free. Meetings were held in the Parade Schoolroom and Handel’s Messiah was ‘in rehearsal’.
Even so, there are a number of reports of concerts by the Choral Society from the 1880s. Rehearsals for Mendelssohn’s St. Paul began on 10th October 1882 (The North Wilts Herald, 13/10/ 1882, p.5) and it was subsequently performed jointly with Swindon Choral Society on Tuesday 3rd April 1883 in the Corn Exchange, Marlborough (now Waitrose). Sadly, all that rehearsing was not rewarded with a big turn out, as it was reported that ‘in all respects the concert was a success and deserved a much larger audience’ ! (Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, 5/4/1883 p. 7).
Links with Swindon Choral seem to have been strong, no doubt facilitated by the recently opened railway line linking the two towns. In April 1896, members of Marlborough Choral augmented Swindon Choral and the choir totalled 140. The reporter stated that ‘never before in Swindon have a I heard a chorus rendered with more precision…”(Swindon Advertiser and North Wilts Chronicle, 25/4/1896, p. 5)
There were also performances by Marlborough Choral of Handels’ Jephtha in 1885 and Haydn’s Creation in 1889 when a ‘band and chorus of 100 performers was assembled (Swindon Advertiser and North Wilts Chronicle 2/3/1889, p.1).

W.S. Bambridge as a young man and in later life.
Bambridge’s association with Marlborough Choral seems to have been a long and successful one. Concerts under his conductorship continued well into the 20th century and following his death in 1923, the then conductor of the Choral Society, Mr F.J. Hill, applied to the Town Council for permission to erect a tablet to Bambridge in memory of all he had done for the town musically and otherwise.
The Choral Society remained active well into the 1930s (I have not delved into the post-war years!), though Marlborough Choral members were not always as adventurous as now. In July 1933, it warranted reporting that ‘a Latin work, Dvorak’s Stabat Mater, was to be produced next season.’ Apparently, ‘several members were opposed to the idea of singing Latin works’ when the arrangements for the coming season were discussed at the annual meeting of the Society (North Wilts Herald, 28/7/1933, p.11).
Dr Beverley Lyle, 5.1.2022