I was eleven-and-a-half years old when I sang at King George VI’s funeral. For a boy of that age, it’s hard to describe the atmosphere in those surroundings, the amazing buildings with all the banners. The image that stays with me is of the coffin, in the central aisle of the choir, and how at the end of the service it was slowly lowered down into the floor below – I hadn’t been expecting that to happen so suddenly: there was an sinking feeling as it went into the ground. It made a huge impression on me, as you might imagine. It was awe inspiring.
There were only about 70 boys at St George’s School Windsor Castle when I was there, of whom about 24 were choristers. My father was a minor canon at the chapel so we actually lived in the castle precinct – the view looking out of the window on to the chapel was beautiful, we didn’t realise how lucky we were as children at the time.
I think there were 11 services every week – which was quite something – we used to have to troop 100 steps up a hill to the chapel to rehearse. You’d be amazed how much we had to sing in these sorts of choirs and there’s no way you could rehearse every single piece, so we developed sight-reading skills to carry us through it. We certainly had to concentrate!
The day of the funeral was just another day at school, it has to be said – we sang at events like this often. We sang at the annual Garter service, including the one at which Winston Churchill was made a Knight of the Garter, and that was incredible because he was standing right in front of the choir; and when Queen Mary died in 1953 we sang at a very similar service to King George’s.
And for the Queen’s Coronation, we travelled to sing with other choirs up at Westminster Abbey. Looking back I realise what a privilege it was to be at the school during that period of time.
What was unusual about King George VI’s service was that we were standing by the altar, because they wanted to pack as many people as they could into the stalls, and I remember singing The Lord is My Shepherd and taking it all very seriously – we were a pretty serious lot, actually.
We sensed the gravity of the occasion from everyone else around us and it was an emotional day in the end, the beauty and harmony of the music can really get to you. Being part of that school and those services did instil a strong sense of duty in me and I reckon I have carried that for the rest of my life.
Music has remained a huge part of my life – I became an organist, I read music at university, I taught music and worked in music publishing and I have conducted choirs as well as singing in them. I met my wife in the late 70s when she joined a choir that I was directing and we both still sing – it’s our main activity.
I am a royalist – I could hardly be otherwise – and this past week has brought back a lot of memories. We would have liked to travel from St Albans to London to join the queue but at 82 it’s not sensible, but I have watched the services on television and imagined how those boys singing must be feeling, and the nerves they will have ahead of the Queen’s funeral on Monday.
I still have the Order of Service from that day and remember the stories in the national newspapers afterwards. One or two had photos of us in the background there and I was very cross with one which described the boys in the choir and mentioned “the inevitable redhead with freckles”. It could only have been me!
as told to Sarah Carson