100 Year Celebration

The first recorded mention of Radcliffe Male Voice Choir is an expenditure sheet beginning
on 5 December 1921.The initial outlay being Rent of Room – five shillings (25p). Obviously,
this year, 2021, was to have been our choir’s glorious Centenary with all manner of grand
concerts and splendid events to celebrate 100 years of song. That this momentous Centenary was not celebrated as it should have been will be no surprise
to anyone. Covid restrictions and ‘lockdowns’ meant that Radcliffe Male Voice Choir was
unable to render a concert during most of 2020 and only now, mid August 2021, have we met
again for our first face-to-face rehearsal. We are rehearsing for a couple of regular Christmas
concerts and of course our Centenary will be acknowledged at these but will not be the
celebrations we would have liked.
There are not many choirs who can claim such a record. In a bundle of mere historical facts
here set down, hopefully truly, is represented – scarcely fully, for that would be nigh
impossible – a taste of the past of this iconic choir.
At that first general meeting, held in the local Co-operative Hall’s Club Room, 39 members
were present and it was decided, amongst other decisions, to appoint a President and three
names were given who would be interviewed at some future date. Quaintly, the minutes end:
‘This closed the meeting after which supper was served.’ (Signed) RT Jones
Throughout its 100 years existence the choir has had many highs and lows. Winners on
several occasions of the Blackpool Festival, St Annes, Huddersfield and other prestigious
choir competitions, to near extinction when only the Committee were turning up for
rehearsals.
The choir had a reputation for its renown in reputable competitive events and won many cups,
shields and rose bowls.
Radcliffe MVC’s success led to a change in the rules for male voice choir competitions. Up
to 1935 all male voice choirs competed in the same class regardless of the number of voices.
When our choir won at the Blackpool Festival that year with 36 choristers and beat choirs
with 60 or 70 singers, classes were introduced for different-sized choirs.
In those days, the choir rehearsed twice a week and sometimes three when preparing for
competitions.
During the Second World War many of the men joined the forces but the choir was kept
going by the older members. A minute in the records shows a five shilling (25p) gift from the
choir to each man serving in the forces.
One of the ‘legends’ of the choir is an impromptu concert during the blitz on Manchester in
the Second World War when the choir was returning to Radcliffe after a concert. As they
waited on Victoria Station for the electric train the air-raid siren sounded which meant no
trains until the ‘all clear’ was heard. Others rushed for the shelters but the conductor stood
upon a beer crate, raised his arms and, gathering the choir said, ‘Right, lads, Comrades in
Arms’.
On several occasions the choir has been recorded and has been on radio; in 1949 the choir
made four recordings for the BBC one of which was transmitted to the Commonwealth.
In 1974 the choir cut half an LP record with Radcliffe Borough Band on the other side. The
year1978 saw the choir appearing in the BBC TV programme ‘A Grand Sing’.
Over the years the choir has enjoyed joining with other choirs for Massed Choir concerts.
From 150 voices at Tameside Theatre to 1,000 voices in the Gmex Centre, Manchester which
is the old Central Station now a huge exhibition venue. Our favourites, though, were the 500
voices Massed Male Voice Choir concerts each November given at the Free Trade Hall,
Manchester (now a hotel) under the baton of the late Arthur D Bellis (CWS MVC) in aid of
the Lancashire Organ Trust with Nigel Ogden (Radio 2) at the keyboard of the mighty
Wurlitzer organ, previously sited in the Gaumont Theatre, Manchester.
For our 60th anniversary it was decided to ask renowned local singer and song-writer Peter
Skellern to arrange a piece for the choir. This he did, rehearsing it himself with us, and into
our repertoire came The Rolling English Road; words by G K Chesterton, tune composed and
arranged for TTBB by Peter Skellern especially for Radcliffe Male Voice Choir. This came
about because Peter’s father, Jack Skellern, worked with the choir’s MD, Keith Heywood.
Some older members of the choir remember listening to the choir in concerts when we were
youngsters and also recall that long-time Chairman, Eli Bleakley, kept the choir and us kids
supplied with his delicious home-made treacle toffee. It was generally supposed that it was so
good because Eli lived in the end house of a row immediately next to Radcliffe Gas Works.
Our longest serving member, Brian Taylor, joined in 1976. He is not our oldest chorister by
any means. He was in the Operatic Society at Radcliffe Congregational Church (now URC)
when Keith Heywood was MD for a few shows there and recruited Brian. Our choir has
rehearsed in the school rooms there since 1938.
As well as winning Festivals and competitions in the past the choir, to this day, gives concerts
in aid of many societies, churches, charities, good causes and for its own benefit. A change
came to the type of songs we sang when MD Keith Heywood found that arrangements for
lighter songs were being published. The choir now has a wide range of types of song in its
extensive library and a good varied programme is always enjoyed by our audiences. ‘I like
there to be something for everyone in our concerts,’ said Keith Heywood. His concerts were
varied by including a double quartet drawn from the choir who sang a couple of items which
were different from the usual repertoire. He also introduced audience-participation items and
a lot of fun and laughter was engendered in our audiences by these.
Considering the choir’s longevity there have only been five conductors in all that time. The
first was Hewart Critchley followed by James Savin in 1934 then James Kenyon Dove. Keith
Heywood took over for one concert in 1965 and remarkably was still there 54 years later;
resigning only in 2019 due to family health issues. The current MD is Catherine Hilton, until
Keith’s resignation our accompanist. Catherine’s enthusiasm and sterling leadership during
lockdown when she kept the choir together via ‘Zoom’ rehearsals has meant that the choir is
looking forward to our two Christmas concerts and into the future with other concerts being
planned. There is a feeling of a bright future as getting back to face-to-face rehearsals has
made the lads realise that we can still sing and sing well. Another era of male voice singing
by Radcliffe Male Voice Choir is just beginning.
Rob Peters