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St Austell Choral Society

“Where music matters”

The choir was originally formed in the latter part of 1910 as The St Austell Musical Society under its conductor Mr S. D. Collins.

The earliest programme we have is of a concert performed at Stenalees Wesleyan Schoolroom on 23rd May 1917. The work performed was Van Bree’s St Cecilia’s Day and it was repeated the next evening at the Public Rooms, the main venue for the society’s concerts in the early years.

It was a choir of fifty voices with female voices predominating; not surprising in the middle of a war!

By April 1924, when the society performed Judas Maccabaeus, the chorus was seventy voices and by the spring of 1927, there was evidence that the choir was beginning to engage well known soloists when Miss Gwladys Naish, ‘the celebrated coloratura soprano from the British Broadcasting Association Concerts’ was engaged to sing in The Creation.

In March 1938 Mr. C. H. Baker had taken over as conductor. For that year’s performance of Elijah, the programme noted that ‘late buses would leave Duke Street at 10.45 pm for all parts!’ Among the basses was Fernley Lean, who was still singing with the choir in the 1990s.This is the first programme in our possession where the name of St Austell and District Choral Society appears.

Messiah was the first concert after the war, followed by Hiawatha with baritone Frederick Harvey. Among the violins was Alan Tregaskes, who was to play in the orchestra for many years.

In 1951 Mr. Russell Kessell became conductor and his wife Melba was soon the accompanist. About this time St John’s became the regular venue for sacred works and the society has continued to sing at St John’s regularly ever since. During the 1950s the names of the choir ceased to be listed on the programmes, perhaps because there were as many as ninety singers! In 1957 a partnership began with Treviscoe Male Voice Choir to perform carol concerts at St John’s, which became something of an institution with long queues to gain admission.


After Alan Hutt became the conductor in 1961, the repertoire broadened rapidly. A highlight was the society’s first performance of The Dream of Gerontius in March 1966. In subsequent years it was followed by such works as the requiems of Verdi, Brahms, Faure and Mozart. Soloists with national reputations, such as Ranken Bushby and Cynthia Glover delighted our audiences. So too did two local very young men who are now more famous; Stephen Varcoe and John Treleaven. The Cornish Guardian commented that Edith White, a local soprano ‘gave such a spirited and beautiful performance’ in 1962 that she was ‘in no way overshadowed by Mr Ranken Bushby’. Now Edith Kellow, she still sings in the choir and since 2007 has also been our president. The society’s performances were not always perfect, of course. The Cornish Gaurdian’s headline in April 1962 was ‘Temperamental organ almost wrecked St Austell’s Elijah’!

In 1978 Mrs Jean Sales became the society’s president. It is so grateful for her unfailing encouragement and enthusiasm, which has continued into her retirement.

Alan Hutt finally left the society in 1983, but under David Leach the society continued to broaden its repertoire with such works as Poulenc’s Gloria and Holst’s Hymn of Jesus. A highlight was Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony in April 1987, when the orchestra numbered fifty players! In 1985 the second of two concerts with Benjamin Luxon took place at the Cornwall Coliseum.

During the period after 1989, when David Cheetham was with us, the society went on extending its repertoire. This included two great works by Elgar, The Kingdom and The Apostles, as well as Bruckner’s Te Deum and Orff’s Carmina Burana

The society has been blessed with exceptionally good accompanists over the years. Some, like Eunice Tregaskes and Julia Lean, have been accomplished organists as well as pianists. In 1992 the society was delighted when Paul Drayton became its accompanist. In 1998 it gave the first performance of his The Lady of Shallott, with Naomi Johnston and Ken Trenberth as soloists.

From 2002 to 2014 Paul Drayton and Simon Dunbavand were joint musical directors for the choir. In those years the choir performed works ranging from Hildegard of Bingen to John Rutter. A memorable concert at St Petroc’s in Bodmin in April 2005 included Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem and Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man. In 2007 the famous piano duo, David Nettle and Richard Markham, played for us in Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle.

For the last two years Paul Drayton has been the sole musical director. We are extremely fortunate to have such a talented musician to lead us.

It would be untrue, of course, to say the society has always been free of problems. Audiences have often been disappointing and the average age of the society continues to get older. However, while the experience of singing such a wide range of choral works continues to bring joy to those who take part, and, we hope, to our audiences, why should we stop?

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