Chapel Charity, Highlight Of The Year

During my formative years on Mow Cop just before the middle of the last century, the beginning of summer ushered in a series of Charity Sundays. Once March winds and April showers had hopefully given way to more settled weather, the Methodist chapels in the area began to hold their annual Charities, marked by special services featuring musical items from the Sunday School children supported by the chapel choir.  Visiting preachers were invited to deliver dramatic inspiring sermons.  Such attractions drew large congregations who gave generously to the collection boxes.  This was important for the chapels as they relied to some extent on charitable donations to ensure their continuance as places of worship.  The funds received an extra boost from the door-to-door collections that had taken place the previous week.

There were five Methodist chapels between Kent Green and Mow Cop, so a chapel charity seemed to be taking place within striking distance on most Sundays in May and June.  At that time of year they felt like celebrations of the coming of summer, and were part of the pattern of village life.  It was a time to wear new clothes and arrange to meet old friends.  A few connoisseurs made a point of going along to all the charities, comparing the efforts of one chapel with those of another.  Real devotees could widen the field by taking a short bus ride to Rookery chapel, or even walking down to Hall Green on a really nice day. Everyone looked forward to the Charity and for many, especially the children, it was a day to remember.

Preparations began several weeks beforehand.  The Sunday school members attended rehearsals to learn the music that had been selected.  It always consisted of a number of straightforward items with verses that could be allocated to soloists, and a chorus when everyone joined in, coming to the rescue of any nervous songsters.  Tonic-solfa was a popular method of learning the notes (as admirably demonstrated by the von Trapp family in “Sound of Music.”) A conductor was there to direct operations with his baton, which one of my friends christened his “lah-te-doh-doh” stick. The adult choir came along to join forces with the children in a more elaborate piece known as the “Choral March.”  This was always a stirring composition in the nature of a call to arms against the forces of evil.  It had a part for everyone, from the venerable basses of the choir down to the mere striplings of the Sunday school.  The Choral March was a traditional item on the programme at every charity – the highlight of the evening service.

The final build-up began the week before. Early on a Sunday morning the sound of tuneful hymn-singing would fill the air as a chapel choir set out on a tour of the neighbourhood, stopping at strategic points to sing a few verses while senior representatives called at each house to exchange pleasantries and ask for a donation, details of which were meticulously recorded in a notebook.  A printed sheet, listing the previous year’s contributors was handed over before they moved on to the next port of call. This leaflet made interesting reading over the Sunday dinner.

On the morning of Charity Sunday the children walked round the village in an orderly group.  It was usual to have a new coat and new shoes, which meant that one or two were limping home afterwards.  New shoes always rubbed in those days.  For little girls straw bonnets trimmed with flowers were an extra fashion statement.  This was just the prelude to the main event, which involved changing into a white ‘charity frock’ to go on the ‘stage’ in the chapel at the afternoon and evening services.  Tiered rows of seats surrounded by an elegant balustrade were constructed in front of the choir to accommodate the Sunday school children.  Facing the congregation head-on and at close quarters, there was no hiding place – no room for shrinking violets - and naturally more popular with girls than boys.  To sing a solo required nerves of steel.  The older girls on the top row could rise to the occasion, but among the lower echelons there were sometimes a few anxious moments.  It was not unusual for a tiny tot, unable to cope with being on show, to be lifted off the stage to the embarrassment of its mother.  Others, who could not stop fidgeting, spent a lot of time polishing the balustrade surrounding the stage.  Active little boys could be a problem when they started digging each other in the ribs, and had to be glared at severely by the chapel superintendent.  A chapel charity had a certain amount of entertainment value from the children.  A rousing sermon from the visiting preacher was an added bonus.

Taking part in, or simply attending a chapel charity could be an immensely satisfying way of spending Sunday.  Towards the end of the evening service with the sun slanting in through the chapel windows there was a unique atmosphere of contentment.  As the Choral March reached a triumphant conclusion the whole congregation looked forward to raising the roof in the closing hymn - invariably one of the thrilling tuneful blockbusters that are a Methodist speciality. Anyone who has sung “Oh, for a thousand tongues to sing,” to the tune “Lyngham” will know what I’m talking about.

Afterwards the congregation would assemble in groups in the road outside the chapel, reluctant to go home and chatting happily to long-lost acquaintances while the children, still in their finery, darted around in high spirits.

The Charity season lasted a bit longer during the late 1940s because St. Luke’s church began to hold a similar event on the first Sunday in July. They called it “Childrens’ Day.”  There were special services and appropriate music from the Sunday school and choir.  It was of a more restrained character than that of the Methodists – no Choral Marches, although “Onward Christian Soldiers” was sung on the  “Procession of Witness” that took place before Evensong.  Various church organisations such as Boy Scouts and Mothers’ Union gathered round their banners and followed the robed choristers down the hill to Mount Pleasant, where they stopped two or three times to sing a hymn and say a short prayer before returning to the church for the final service.  Some onlookers, overcome by curiosity, would follow the procession back up the hill and join the congregation already assembled.  After a few years the short- lived tradition died out, but I think that St. Luke’s Childrens’ Day succeeded in breaking down a few barriers that undoubtedly existed between the chapels and the Anglican Church on Mow Cop.

For me, this has been a trip down Memory Lane.  The last time I went to a charity must have been around 1950 and I understand that they no longer take place on the same scale, but writing about them has brought back pleasant memories of times past.