Musical History of St Luke's Church

In the chancel of St. Luke's Church, Duston there is a unique collection of painted figures depicting old church musicians of long ago. They are chancel corbels (stone brackets set in the corner between wall and roof) and research tells us that they have been there since the chancel was erected in the fourteenth century. There are four corbels at St Luke’s:

  • Man seated on the ground playing a harp.
  • Man beating a pair of kettledrums.
  • Woman issuing from the church and playing the bagpipes.
  • Fiddler.
We are unsure of when musicians began to play these instruments in church; however one stringed instrument, similar to the viol, is known to date from the twelfth century. (A viol is any from a family of stringed instruments, consisting of a fretted fingerboard, a body like that of a violin but having a flat back and six strings, played with a curved bow. They are held between the knees when played and have a quiet penetrating tone.)

The numbers of musicians playing in village churches varied, but we can get some idea of the music played at St Luke’s from the record books of two hundred years ago. Here are some of the items related to expenditure on music in the late eighteenth century:

  • 1788. Payment for six cases (these would be viol cases).
  • 1808. Eight shillings for a tune book.
  • 1809. Money paid to the singing master (choir master) for a large quantity of candles for singing practice.
  • 1810 - 1852. There could have been quite an orchestra here during this period, judging from the expenditure on musical items - for instance: a bass and bow (four pounds and ten shillings); a bag for a viol; money for binding five tune books; two strings for a bass viol.
The music was made up of songs, psalms and hymns, often written by the musicians themselves. Villages were often supplied by pedlars of violin strings, rosin, music paper, etc. In a number of village churches music galleries can still be seen: a good example being Harlestone church, where high up on the east end, accessible only by the tower, is a small music gallery. In Duston the musicians must have played under the bell tower after the bell ropes were hoisted.

Thomas Hardy's book Under the Greenwood Treedescribes the musicians struggling round the villages with their instruments on a bitter Christmas night, so cold that the keys of the clarinets and the strings of the viols froze in the icy wind. Boys carried the candle lanterns and held up the music for them, and they would all arrive home at about 2am from visits to outlying farms.

When Duston church underwent a major restoration in 1866, a harmonium was purchased by-Reverend Banton, and his family placed the lovely brass lectern in the chancel. The chancel was completely restored by Earl Cowper, who inherited the estate from Lady Palmerstone, and oak choir pews were installed, together with new altar rails, and the floor was re-laid with Minton tiles.

Fred Golby

See Also

For more about the history of Duston, see Fred's bookA History of Old Duston & Old St James.

For more about the history of St Luke's, see Tour of St Luke's Church.



Go to top