A Disgraceful Affair
|Should services in
church be read - or sung? If you had lived in Little Stonham in 1872, you
could well have thought that the entire issue of the rights of man hung in
the balance on this one question. The Reverend Barlee knew at least one
thing for certain, and he took pains to make it plain to everyone. He, and
he alone, had the authority to decide. But he was unable to make up his
mind. And it is here that the other awkward character in the plot has to
be introduced: Harvey.
Edgar Harvey was a rumbustuous young labourer, known and liked by everyone in the village, full of life, full of himself, and in particular, full of an apparently inaccurate conception of the quality of his own voice, which he felt obliged to spill into the ears of every bird, animal and man for miles around. . . . He had been born to serve music and, in particular, to sing. When he came into the fields in the morning, he sang: the rooks scattered into a ragged squawking crowd out of the trees; the finches shot out of the hedges. As he worked away on his cart, he sang: and the horse stood by in a stunned condition, or jogged slowly and doggedly on in sheer resignation. In the firelit parlour of the pub at night, it was Harvey's voice, with those of his bosom palls John Tupplin and Berry, that led the singing. Harvey loved everything musical, especially his own voice, and there is no doubt he had a strong following in the village. How far the idea was official nobody ever seemed to know - indeed it was thought by some (including Mr Barlee) that an earlier church-warden had sacked him from this "post" - but it had certainly come to be taken for granted that Harvey was the choirmaster. When his voice rang out over the polished pews in the bare Little Stonham Church, the congregation warmed to his enthusiasm. It was, at least, undeniable evidence of life - and of life warmly enjoyed. Everybody in the congregation, except that is, the Reverend Barlee, Mrs Barlee and a new young lady who had begun to play the organ, Miss Smith.
Mrs Barlee found Harvey very vulgar. His voice might well have been a foghorn as far as she was concerned. She wilted when it sounded. She and Miss Smith were the musicians in the church - those with a knowledge of music - and she and Miss Smith would decide what music was played or sung, and the form of the singing. She gradually insisted on ousting Harvey and his choir from the singing gallery and having there instead, on occasion, a small company of children. Whether in rehearsal or in performance, Harvey and his voice now had no place at all. He had been edged out of things, and into a condition of smarting frustration. It was the same with Miss Smith, too, She resented his presence in the organ-loft. Who was he to tell her about music? To choose the pieces? And besides that, he was too free, uncontrolled and clumsy altogether - a rough rude labouring type.
But if the Reverend Barlee was not certain about whether the services should be read or sung, Edgar Harvey was. Whatever a new, interfering, upstart of a parson from Framlingham might think about it, he, Harvey, was going to sing. . . . One day in August 1872, in all the mounting bitterness of feeling, all the gossip of vacillating indecision, a juncture came.
The Reverend Barlee took his wife and family away for a long holiday - an event which none of the parishioners minded . . . and while the cat was away the mice decided to play. For six whole weeks they sang their heads off - hymns and chants alike - glorious! All the time the services were sung. All the time, the services were enjoyed. Harvey came into his own. His voice roared out in full liberty. The stained glass windows shook and rattled with it. Warm eyes and hearts caught its enthusiasm.
When, six weeks later, on a Sunday, the Reverend Barlee drove back into the village, he heard what to others was a glad sound, but to him was an anathema. At once, this decided him. His mind was made up, irrevocably. Harvey should not have his own way. From now on, services should not be sung, but read! In the week or two that followed, matters came to a head. Miss Smith and Mrs Barlee flatly refused to play the organ when Harvey came anywhere near. Barlee himself had one more talk with Harvey to make things plain. And finally Mrs Barlee even locked the organ, and sometimes the loft to the organ and singing gallery. From then on, whenever Harvey was anywhere in sight, only the harmonium could be used.
Music was silenced at Little Stonham. Ecclesiastical authority had clamped down . . . Eventually, on 6th October 1872, the crisis arrived. The afternoon service began - and took a strange course.
The congregation was large and attentive. Mr Barlow ended the reading of the first lesson quite normally. Quite normally he asked his flock to stand and say the Magnificat, and quite normally he began to read it:
But he had not gone very far when an awful and unbelievable sound jarred on his ears. How could it be possible? He stopped reading, his eyes rising in sheer disbelief and growing fury to the singing gallery which faced the pulpit. And there, standing at the very front, were Harvey, John Topplin, Berry and two other young men - singing the Magnificat lustily and full-bloodedly. Their voices filled the church with:
Mr Barlee flung out an arm towards them, as though issuing a command from on high. "Stop! Silence! Silence, I say!" But the male chorus went on . . .
Barlee thumped the pulpit, and, seeing the local constable, P C Cook, in the pews below, called out to him "Constable Cook! Remove those men from this church. Remove that man Harvey from that gallery!
Constable Clark, undecided and ill at ease . . . indicated Mr Edwards [a church-warden] who was sitting nearby, but Mrs Edwards put her hand out and restrained her husband from having anything to do with it, as the singers rounded off their performance in warm enjoyable tones . . .
"Well, Reverend . . ." said P C Cook, "I, er, don't know. I think that's Mr Edward's job, that is . . that's the church-warden who should . . "
"P C Cook," thundered Mr Barlee . . .
"I command you! Take those men out of this place of worship. Take them into custody! I . . . " Barlee kicked open the pulpit door with a loud bang and walked down the aisle. "Come with me!"
Mrs Barlee stretched an unavailing arm from her pew in an effort to stop him. "Restrain yourself, Willie, don't get so excited."
sang Harvey and his cronies, looking down on the scene as Barlee stalked down the aisle to argue with P C Cook. And then the congregation began in ones and twos, and then closely crowding on each others' heels, out of the church.
"I tell you, Constable Cook," cried Barlee, in a passion, "there is no church-warden here - not Mr Edwards or anyone else. I tell you, I insist, it is my responsibility alone. Now, please, do as I authorise you. Be a good man - remove those men! This instant! They are breaking the law. I will not have my services wrecked in this manner!"
P C Cook turned miserably away, glancing up at the singers as he made his way to the door of the organ loft and they in turn smiled down on him as the music continued. . .
They went on, uninterruptedly, as Cook came into the gallery and tried to remonstrate with them.
He persisted for a while, trying to argue with them, but then turned to look down at Mr Barlee, shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head helplessly.
By this time Barlee had been joined by his wife and Miss Smith - all of them standing immediately under the singing gallery and the five young men. Barlee was beside himself with rage.
"I will take them to court, I will! Such disgrace! Such behaviour! We shall see who is in authority here!"
He waved his fist, turned on his heel, and stormed out of the church, then along the path and out of the churchyard gate, through little knots of people who were standing about in agitated conversation. Meanwhile, the Magnificat was sung to its resounding conclusion to an empty church.
That, or something like that, is what happened on that October afternoon.
Three weeks later, Harvey was summonsed to Needham Market police court and charged with 'having on 6 October, maliciously and contemptuously, entered a certain church established by law, situated at Little Stonham, wherein a congregation of Protestants assembled, and did disquiet and disturb the said congregation by singing loudly during the divine service.
It then went to the Ipswich Quarter Sessions with an article and three letters to the Ipswich Chronicle in January 1873.
Harvey was well known in the village and there were people who, as school children, remember him just before the First World War. they remember him simply as "Old Edgar" and some as "Spring-heeled Jack" because of his splay-footed gait. He was "scrog-footed" as they say in Suffolk. They remember him as a tramp-like figure, walking along the roadside wearing a tall hat, a labouring type, who - as they put it - tapping their temples with the tips of their fingers - "had it up there", often out of work but always neatly dressed and they remember him going from cottage door to cottage door in the village, alone, at Christmas time, singing carols and - they are all agreed about this - with an awful voice! We know, too, that during the 1930's some Suffolk folk songs were taken down here from a man who almost knew Harvey.
The voice that breathed o'er Little Stonham, and brought something like fire and brimstone in its train, did, do something to keep music alive.
Ronald Fletcher, In A Country Church, Batsford, London: 1978.