A brief history of Ulverston Choral Society

Ulverston Choral Society was founded in 1844 although there is very little evidence to back this up other than a copy of the poster which appeared in the Centenary programme which announced that the First Public Concert would take place in the National School on Thursday 15th August 1844. There is no indication of what the concert programme was.

There are many gaps in the records over the years. In fact the first minute available is for a General Meeting held on 2nd October 1887 and which in fact reveals not much more other than those present. There are no minutes available for the years 1844-1887, 1910- 1922, 1936 – 1944, 1946-1963. Some of the information has been gleaned from Newspaper cuttings. A picture does emerge that re-emphasises that well used phrase “what’s new? ”.

The one thing that is consistent is that the Society has always had a financial problem and main concerts inevitably run at a loss. Conductors have continually been restrained from spending money on orchestras. From time to time too there have been the problems of attendances at rehearsals.

Although the Society generally has remained strong there have been “periods of gloom”. In 1896 there was a proposal for the Society to lapse for a session due to lack of numbers. However that was overruled. A similar position was also reached in 1933.

Some idea of the past can be had from this extract from a report in the Press on Oct.1907

“ The Ulverston Choral Society, one of the oldest and most useful local institutions, has had what may not inaccurately be described as a chequered existence, but thanks to the loyalty of some of its founders, who have stuck firmly to it through its ever varying fortunes, and the infusion into the management within recent years of some vigorous young blood, the Society has triumphantly emerged from its trials, and is now apparently on as sound and healthy basis as ever it was in the palmiest days. The Annual concerts have so often been a pecuniary failure, however excellent and enjoyable they may have been in a musical and artistic sense.”

From a number of references it appears that the original charter stated that the Society would present an annual Celebrity concert in the spring and other lighter events for their own funds. Rehearsals took place all the year round although the summer sessions were not well supported. The usual format was a concert in November with works like “Merrie England” or miscellaneous items and later on in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s concert versions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas were given. In December it was customary to present part 1 of Messiah and some carols.

Due to changes in the Inland Revenue rules in 1977, the Society had to change its status and register as a charity to be exempt from paying tax. Resulting from this the constitution was amended and the obligation to have Celebrity concerts was discontinued.

For the celebrity concerts most of the works chosen were the oratorios such as Creation, Samson, Hymn of Praise, Judas Maccabeus etc with the all time favourite being Elijah which appears to have been performed more frequently than the others. Surprisingly a full version of Messiah was not given often, in fact there was a gap of 31 years between performances.

The soloists for the celebrity concerts were nationally known singers from round the country and were frequent radio performers. Names like John Lawrenson, Heddle Nash, John Cameron, Owen Brannigan to name but a few. The Orchestras were comprised of a few local instrumentalists and usually augmented by members of the Halle Orchestra.

On most occasions the Society was joined by other choral societies and numbers were up to 150 singers and orchestra.

Over the years the Society has collaborated with a number of other Societies, some of them for many years. Amongst those Societies have been Barrow Choral Society, Barrow Madrigal Society, Grange and District Choral Society, Lancaster Choral Society and in more recent years Windermere Choral Society.

In 1990 the Society joined forces for the first time with Sedbergh School and together with St. Annes School (Windermere) and Kendal South Choir performed “The Dream of Gerontius” At Kendal and on another occasion joined with Sedbergh Choral Society and Seburgh School to perform Belshazzar’s Feast and Faure Requiem at both Kendal and Ripon Cathedral.

In recent years the repertoire has become more extensive and many great works have been tackled by composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Britten, Faure, Finzi, Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Mozart Rutter, Tippett, Vivaldi, etc.

The Society has been fortunate in having had Musical Directors with very high standards, some of them with long years of service (one for 37 years) and they in turn have been ably assisted by very talented accompanists.

During a period of over 20 years up until 1974 the main concerts were conducted by a Guest Conductor, Mr Herbert Horrocks who was County Music advisor for Further Education (for a number of years the society was run as a night school under the auspices of Further Education).

These concerts were mainly those held jointly with other Choirs, which had all been prepared by their own Musical Directors.

For approximately the last 50 years the Society has been trained and led by the following:

Musical Directors

Merle Davidson 1954-1974
Reginald Griffiths 1975-1988
Christopher Tinker 1988-1996
Bill Thomson 1996-1999
Charles Edmondson 1999-2000
Heather Paynes 2000 to present


Barry Cope 1950-1972
Aileen Welch 1972-1979
Colin Dean 1979-2002
Brian Paynes 2003 to present

In Heather and Brian Paynes we have a formidable team and are confident that the highest standards will be maintained.

There is a very long history of excellence as it was reported in the local press on many occasions that whatever concert being reported on, it was the “best ever”!!

In preparing these Brief notes from the records available I am also indebted to Alison Emery for use of her presentation which she did for her Music “A” levels in 1994.

Ron Preston