Curious Questions: What is it like to sing at a royal coronation in Westminster Abbey?

The choristers at the Coronation are now in their eighties, but recall vividly the day they sang for The Queen, as Andrew Green discovers.

February 6, 1952. Young Malcolm Tanner was playing football at his Bristol school. ‘In the far distance,’ he recalls, ‘a teacher was making his way slowly towards us. He had words with our games master, who then came over and said: “Sorry boys, we’ve got to go in. The King’s died.” I have to say we were very annoyed at having to stop playing.’

At Westminster Abbey Choir School, James Wilkinson was in a Latin lesson when ‘we noticed the flag on Victoria Tower in the Palace of Westminster was at half mast. Then the headmaster informed us the King had died. My first reaction was one of excitement that there’d be new postage stamps and coins to collect.’

David Driscoll attended the King’s lying-in-state, making the pilgrimage to Westminster Hall together with fellow choristers from St Paul’s Cathedral. ‘I remember the solemn sight of soldiers stationed around the catafalque, heads bowed — and the silence. Extraordinary, with so many members of the public filing through.’

May 1953: The choirboys of Westminster Abbey rehearsing for the forthcoming coronation service of Queen Elizabeth II. (Photo by Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty Images)

Each of these then choristers was to sing at the 1953 coronation, together with about 180 other boys, some selected from cathedral, chapel and church choirs that were affiliated to the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM), including Mr Tanner and Dennis Whitehead, then at St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh. Mr Whitehead still treasures his letter of invitation. ‘My parents were over the moon.’

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News of selection often turned choristers into local celebrities, but Graham Neal’s good tidings had to be kept under wraps. ‘My mother couldn’t wait to tell the world, but it all had to be very hush-hush,’ relates the member of All Saints Church, Eastleigh, Hampshire. ‘I was at an age when my voice might have broken by the time of the coronation. What an anti-climax that would have been!’

RSCM-sponsored choristers had four weeks of rehearsals at the organisation’s Addington Palace HQ near Croydon, a month remembered for the intensity of the training, but also the array of sports that filled leisure time. Stanley Roocroft, from Blackburn Cathedral, recalls: ‘There was a golf course adjoining and a few of us older boys did caddying for some loose change. Word got back and we were sternly told it had to stop.’

May 14, 1953 – Choirboys rehearse for Coronation: Thirty-two boys are rehearsing the music for the coronation, at Addington Palace, Croydon. Twenty of the boys were chosen by the Royal School of Music from amongst its 3000 member choirs all over the country, and the other twelve were choristers from six cathedrals. Credit: Alamy

At last, the full choral forces — some 400 voices — gathered for final rehearsals, firstly at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, then in the Abbey itself with full orchestra. The director of music, Abbey organist and choirmaster, Sir William McKie, insisted on ‘each musician bearing a card onto which were stuck stamps proving attendance at every rehearsal,’ explains David Reeve, from a school chapel choir in Norwich. ‘If you lost this card, you risked being sent home in disgrace.’

David’s card proving attendance at Coronation rehearsals.

For Abbey chorister David Overton, it was his first sight of the building’s interior for months. ‘Normally, the building held 2,000. The banks of seating erected raised that to 8,000. It was exciting to see the Abbey transformed. And what a sound the musical forces now made! Spine-tingling!’

The full dress rehearsal brought further visual excitement. ‘The cameras filming the coronation needed additional light from powerful lamps — the Abbey was flooded with it,’ recalls Mr Wilkinson. ‘The colours of things such as robes, jewels and the nave carpet simply glowed.’

Afterwards, Field Marshal Montgomery lunched with the boys. ‘We had salad,’ Mr Wilkinson remembers, ‘and as Monty put his fork into a tomato it split and showered his ceremonial robes with juice and pips. A horrible hush descended, but he just looked at us and said: “See that, boys? Burst like a bomb!”’

A letter to David Reeve from March 1953, inviting the lucky chorister to sing at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on June 2 of that year. Courtesy of David Reeve.

It was an early start on June 2 for those who were travelling in from Addington Palace. ‘We were stirred at 4am by the Archdeacon of Maidstone calling out, “Wake up, boys. This is the day!”,’ Mr Roocroft recalls. The journey into London that damp morning landed the RSCM boys at Victoria, leaving a half-mile walk. Mr Neal describes: ‘The crowds were so thick on the pavements that we had to be conducted in a crocodile along the road, which was lined with flags, bunting, policemen and the armed services. You could see members of the public coming to and making cups of tea on Primus stoves.’

By 8.30am, the coronation choir was in place high up in the temporary seating. The long wait began. Attention soon turned to the packed lunches stowed in cassock pockets. Ham sandwiches and apples were polished off quickly. What to do with the apple cores? Drop them down the hollow scaffolding poles.

People-watching was the main pastime as the minutes crawled past. No tales of chorister transgressions, it seems, but a female singer from the Commonwealth and Dominions was reprimanded for getting out a morning paper. ‘I could make out Clement Attlee,’ remembers Mr Tanner. ‘I saw him give his wife a Horlicks tablet.

‘Winston Churchill entered wearing the robes of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. I’ve never seen anyone walk with such a roll and not fall over.’ And no one could forget Queen Salote of Tonga. ‘Big smile, colourful dress — a huge, flamboyant presence,’ is Mr Neal’s recollection. ‘She contrasted markedly with the rather dour Mr Nehru.’ Lord Wallace of Saltaire, then an Abbey chorister, recalls another light moment: ‘There came the sound of shuffling and people sprang to their feet. Who should appear, however, but women in overalls bearing carpet sweepers. Cue laughter, and we all sat down again.’

Dr William McKie, the Australian born organist of Westminster Abbey, rehearses the Abbey choirboys for the 6th June 1953 coronation service of Queen Elizabeth II. (Photo by Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty Images)

At last came The Queen’s appearance, greeted by Hubert Parry’s imperious anthem, I was glad. ‘The orchestral introduction gets you going, creates such tension,’ observes Mr Reeve. ‘Then at last, the opening phrase. Absolutely glorious!’ ‘I was so overcome that for a few seconds I couldn’t get the notes out,’ Mr Whitehead admits. ‘We were to keep our eyes absolutely glued to the conductor, of course,’ reports Mr Roocroft. ‘But we all had a sneak look at The Queen. Her appearance was just wonderful.’

At home, choristers’ parents were glued to new-fangled television sets, the coronation having prompted a massive boost in sales to a previously sceptical public. Viewers’ rights were soon being asserted. ‘My father actually rang up the BBC to complain that there were no shots of the choir,’ says Mr Wilkinson. ‘It was explained to him that there were only four cameras and none of them could be trained on the choir.’

The youngest of the choirboys, Henry Roger Dormer, of Armagh, Northern Ireland. Credit: Alamy

Some choristers were in a better position than others to witness the climactic moment. ‘What surprised me,’ says Mr Wilkinson, ‘was that the Archbishop of Canterbury raised the crown so high above The Queen’s head before lowering it really slowly. Then came the shouts from the whole congregation of “God Save The Queen, Long Live The Queen, God Save The Queen”. I’d been expecting a great roar like a football crowd, with spontaneous cheering, but it started hesitantly and ended up as a rather polite unison.’

‘Children back then weren’t brought up to express their feelings,’ observes Mr Reeve, thoughtfully. ‘Listening to my recording brings back all the memories and somehow makes me more emotional than I felt at the time.’

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