It started in Sunderland 70 years ago – but look at this society now!

Congratulations go out to a Sunderland society which has been going strong for 70 years – and you can join in the celebrations.

By Chris Cordner
Wednesday, 20 March, 2019, 12:26
Bishopwearmouth Choral Society in full flow.

This year sees the 70th anniversary of the first concert given by Bishopwearmouth Choral Society.

Look out for details of an anniversary event at the bottom of the page.

Aidan Oliver and the choir.

In the meantime, spokesman Vera Vincent shared details on a group which boasts so much history.

Sunderland was still recovering from the ravages of the Second World War when the Bishopwearmouth Choral Society became a reality.

It was in December 1948 that it was launched by the Rector of Bishopwearmouth Parish Church (now Sunderland Minster), Reverend J F Richardson.

And as Wearside coped with the grip of rationing Reverend Richardson proposed the idea of a society performing wonderful music to the church’s organist and choirmaster, Clifford Hartley.

Clifford Hartley, the organist and choirmaster who led the way in 1949.

The plan was to perform major choral works, with three concerts a year.

After an informal meeting in the choir vestry, the society became reality with the men of the church’s own choir and the Senior Girls’ Choir from Bede Girls Grammar School – where Hartley was music master – forming the core of the new set-up.

But it wasn’t just the two groups which contributed. Members of the public could also join as long as they passed an audition.

And in another regulation, officials stipulated that everyone must undergo a voice test, and they must attend 50 percent of the rehearsals if they wanted to appear in a concert.

Isobel Baillie who performed at the inaugural society event.

The same rules are still in place today though the regular attendance guideline has gone up to 75 per cent.

So in 1948, Bishopwearmouth Choral Society began with a subscription fee to join.

Moneys raised would go towards buying or hiring music scores, paying professional singers and staging the performances.

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Adult members paid two shillings and sixpence per concert and junior members were charged sixpence.

The societys new logo.

By January 1949, rehearsals were under way for that historic first performance. Hartley was appointed chairman and choir master and a temporary committee was installed to oversee their inaugural project.

Vera told us: “As music scores were difficult to obtain at short notice in 1949, it was decided that 40 copies of the chosen music for their performance would be hired from the publishers at an agreed cost of £2 10 shillings, plus postage.

“After several weeks of rehearsals, the Society was ready to make its debut.”

And then it was time to take to the stage. On Thursday, March 31, 1949, in Bishopwearmouth Church, Haydn’s ‘The Creation’ became the first piece to be performed.

Guest performers included the famous Scottish soprano Isobel Baillie, Cecil Lackey (tenor, from Durham Cathedral), Radley Copper (bass) and organist Conrad Eden, also from Durham Cathedral.

Vera added: “This was quite a prestigious line-up for a newly formed, post-war Choral Society performing in bomb-damaged Sunderland.

“To commemorate the anniversary of that first concert 70 years ago, the present-day Choral Society has designed a brand new logo to mark the occasion and will also give a reprise of their debut performance at the end of this month.”

The society has turned to Aidan Oliver, (director of music at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster) to help prepare for the new show.

He held a workshop with the society and its musical director David Murray, accompanied by their regular on the piano, Eileen Bown.

Vera said: “Aidan’s input was well-received by everyone who took part and it is hoped the extra training and insight he provided will be reflected in the forthcoming performance.”

Once again, the sounds of Haydn’s ‘Creation will fill Sunderland Minster, this time on Saturday, March 30, at 7.30pm.

The soloists include soprano Laurie Ashworth who has performed for the BBC Proms. She will appear alongside Spanish tenor Jorge Navarro Colorado and bass baritone Timothy Dickinson who have both appeared at Glyndebourne.

Tickets are available from and cost £14/£8 plus a booking fee of £1.40.