The Royal Command
November 29th 1895
“What Wonderful Voices They Have”
Queen Victoria, 1895
Treorky Male Choir’s Royal Command Performance at Windsor Castle on Friday, November 29th, 1895 was one of the most momentous to take place in Rhondda and indeed Welsh history. It was the culmination of ten outstanding years of intense preparation, training and evidently musical success. With the enigmatic William Thomas in control, this group of choristers were destined to undertake one of the greatest honours ever bestowed on a Welsh Choir until that date: a private audience with the Queen Empress herself.
Details of the visit to Windsor are well recorded thanks to journalist Mr. T. Davies who worked for the Pontypridd Chronicle and accompanied the Choir on their journey. Davies actually produced a souvenir brochure which was presented to each of the choristers who performed in the concert. The booklet, entitled “Before The Queen – A Souvenir Of Our Visit To Windsor” provides fascinating reading and opens with the grand introduction of, “Magnificent Success of Treorky Choir – Her Majesty Twice sends for Mr. W.M. Thomas – The Duke of Edinburgh enthusiastic – The Journey to Windsor and London – A Concert in the House of Lords – The Return Home – Glorious Reception at Treorky – Special Report By Our Own Correspondent.”
On the previous Thursday evening the Choir held its last rehearsal and a large audience visited the rehearsal room to listen to them. Speeches were given by Rev W. Morris and Deputy Agent of the Ocean Coal Company A.S. Tallis before the Conductor and Secretary reminded choristers on how to behave and said the Queen may stop a performance of an item if she didn’t think it was being performed correctly!
The scene on a densely-populated Treorky train station platform on Friday morning was a lively one with the arrival of a special saloon of coaches of the Great Western Railway Company. The rumours that the Ocean Collieries would close to give the party of young men a send-off had been abandoned, but as they arrived dressed in Sunday best of varying colours from brown, light grey, black and blue, it was obvious there would have been little room. The Conductor was the first to enter the coach, followed by W.P. Thomas of the Ocean Coal Company.
The Conductor was accompanied by piano accompanist Rev W. Morris. Also in the party was Western Mail Journalist Owen Morgan (“Morien”), District Councillor Mr W. Jones and Tom Jones, manager of the Co-Operative Stores.
On the platform of various train stations from Treorky to Cardiff crowds of well wishers came to see the Choir and at Pontypridd the audience of spectators was very large. On reaching Queen Street Station, Cardiff, the composer Dr Joseph Parry boarded the second saloon coach and was greeted with loud cheers from the choristers. The composer said that when he learned three of his compositions had been selected as part of the programme he wrote to W.P. Thomas and asked to be invited. He said he was proud of the opportunity of accompanying the Choir and was certain their singing would bring further honour to“Cymru, Gwlad Y Gan.”
Also at the station, the Australian Welshman Llywelyn Williams, who donated £50 to the expenses of the journey, had the warmest of welcomes. Despite the dull weather, spirits were high and some impromptu singing took place on the train, which was soon stopped for fear of ruining voices. Dr Parry formed his “Royal Orchestra” of a chorister with a tin whistle, another on a mouth organ, a third playing the “bones” on his finger tips and performed “My Grandfather’s Clock”. He warned them not to laugh too much because this could also tire the muscles of the throat. But he still conducted "Aberystwyth" on board!
At Windsor, Mr. W.H. Owen, organiser of accommodation, greeted them along with Mr Mills from the office of the Lord Chamberlain. Choristers split into groups of six to twelve and were sent to their various lodgings only to meet again at half past eight under the shadow of the Jubilee Monument of Her Majesty The Queen. William Thomas, W.P. Thomas, Rev Morris, Dr Parry and Mr Llywelyn Williams stayed at the “Star and Garter”, made famous from Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives Of Windsor.”
At the statue tickets were distributed to the choristers and the men met at the gate of King John’s Tower for the start of the concert at a quarter to ten. A black tie was presented to each chorister for uniformity’s sake. Some brief instructions were given before they marched four abreast "with military precision" through the Castle, before reaching the entrance of St George’s Hall. The grand entrance hall and staircases thrilled and dumbfounded the singers who were told by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office that the entrance was only used for state occasions such as the Emperor of Russia’s visit to the Queen. They deposited their coats and hats in the Royal Cloakroom.
Inside St George Hall, a magnificently decorated room used for investing Knights of the Garter, the men saw a platform had been erected where the Monarch usually sat to knight the great and the good. The choristers took their places shortly after nine o’clock and were ranged in tiers. Mr Thomas took his stand a little to the right of centre so that he didn’t obstruct the Queen’s view of the Choir.
The first dignitary to enter the room was Lord Edward Pelham Clinton, the Controller of the Queen’s household, to ensure everything was prepared. Lady Biddulph made her entrance with a group of ladies and gentlemen and after the clock struck ten the Queen emerged, walking stick in hand and with the other hand she leaned on her Indian attendant, who wore a crimson costume and fez cap.
Once the Queen came in sight the Choir struck up “God Save The Queen”. With the Queen were her daughter Princess Beatrice and her husband, Prince Henriech of Battenburg; the Marquis and Marchioness of Lorne (Princess Louise, fourth daughter of the Queen); Lord Edward Pelham Clinton, the Earl of Pembroke; The Hon. Alexander Yorke and others.
Also in attendance were Dean Eliot of Windsor; Sir Walter Biggs, the Queen’s Private Secretary; Sir Fleetwood Edwards, secretary to the Privy Purse; Sir James Reid, the Queen’s physician; Mr Muther, the Queen’s German Libarian; Sir Walter Parret, the Queen’s organist; Lady Biddulph, Major Leggs and Sir John O’Neill K.C.B., V.C.
The Queen as usual wore a widow’s fall, “while her snow white hair seemed almost like an aureole around her majestic head.” When the audience of about sixty people took their seats, Her Majesty halted the concert and complained that the lights in the hall were not sufficient.
“I cannot see them very well,” she complained. Eager attendants went for hand lamps and when they weren’t positioned correctly she quickly added, “I want to see their faces”.
Mr Thomas bowed to the Queen and turned to the Choir to wield his baton for the first item on the programme, “Druid’s Chorus” by Dr Joseph Parry and although the Choir were nervous, Her Majesty started the cheering and applause by clapping her fan on the programme. The first of the Welsh hymns, “Aberystwyth” again by Dr Parry, received a subdued response before a rendering of “The Tyrol”. The men, gaining confidence, saw the music become grand in its volume and tone and towards the end the Queen asked Lord Clinton to call the Conductor to come to her.
A Newspaper Sketch of the Concert:
“Your singing is beautiful and the training is exceedingly good. What refined voices they have,” she said.
“Thank you, Your Majesty”, replied the Conductor.
“Are they all miners?” she asked.
“Yes, your majesty, all except a few trades people who are connected with the colliery district.”
“Well,” added the Queen, “What wonderful voices you have.”
“Thank you, your Majesty,” he said before turning back to the Choir.
Next came the rendering of “Gotha”, a hymn tune composed by the late Prince Albert and set to Welsh words. It received profound and respectful silence as became the memory of the widowed Queen’s “beloved Albert.” Dr Parry’s “Pilgrim’s Chorus” was next, with a solo performance by Gabriel Williams, receiving one of the best applauses of the entire evening. The last item on the programme was “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” with solos by Tom Thomas, Ap Rhys and William Todd Jones.
Just as the Choir was about to conclude with “God Save The Queen”, Prince Henry of Battenburg, by direction of the Queen, went forward and remarked the singing was a grand success and Her Majesty would like another chorus. When Mr Thomas asked what chorus she would like, he was told, “Oh, you can select any piece you like.” The Conductor suggested “The Destruction of Gaza” which was effectively sung and the Queen cheered loudly, “Beautiful! Beautiful!” and sent the Duke of Saxe-Coburg to the Conductor to request “Y Delyn Aur”. The Duke and his sister Princess Louise showed great enthusiasm for the performance as he kept beat with the item himself. Once again the Royal Messenger fetched the Conductor and bowing courteously he stood before the Sovereign. Her Majesty asked about the author of “Destruction of Gaza”.
“Is he a Welshman?” she asked.
“No, I am sorry to say,” said the Conductor, “he is a Frenchman”.
The Queen laughed and the ladies of the court joined in. She asked if the Choir were going to sing “God Save the Queen” in Welsh.
“No your Majesty, we always in Wales sing it in English.”
There was another burst of laughter. The Duke of Saxe-Coburg requested “Aberyswyth” was repeated before “God Save The Queen” was performed.
As the Queen, Princess Beatrice and the Duke of Saxe Coburg filed out of the room they congratulated the Choir with “Oh how lovely,” and similar remarks.
It was explained to the Choir by the Royal Organist, Sir Walter Parret, that it was seldom the programme was ever lengthened in such a concert and the applause from the Royal Family was the loudest he had heard. The choristers, filled with pride and a sense of triumph, stood and bowed their heads to each of the Royal Party.
The Choir was entertained with supper at the Royal Audience Room in the Castle before departing to their hotels. Later that night the journalist T. Davies telegrammed the newspaper office with the news, “The boys behaved like gentlemen and sang like angels.”
The remainder of the weekend in London was filled with fun and laughter as they settled into new lodgings in the city and set off on the Saturday morning for visits to the National Galley, The Houses Of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, London Bridge, Tower Bridge, The Tower of London and Billingsgate. On visiting the House of Lords they saw Her Majesty’s throne and sang “God Save the Queen” before an inspector asked them to halt the proceedings for it was “against the rules.” They journeyed to the Royal Exchange to collect newspapers from Wales giving full accounts of the concert and W.P. Thomas also telegraphed Countess of Dunraven to inform her of the total success of the night.
On the Sunday they visited the Castle Street Chapel and performed magnificently in the service. They visited Crystal Palace, Madame Tussaud’s and London Zoo on the Monday before returning to Wales on Tuesday afternoon from Paddington Station, arriving in Cardiff shortly after seven o’clock in the evening. The Choir sang “Men of Harlech” on the platform at Pontypridd before journeying through the valley rain to Treorchy. It was there that they were greeted by a “sea of upturned faces”, loud cheers, applause and even the sound of the Cwmpark Brass Band performing “Y Delyn Aur”, to welcome the musical heroes home.
A host of dignitaries were there to greet them on the platform and a “monster procession” escorted the Choir through the crowded main streets, led by torch-bearers and the brass bands. Many people arrived by brakes, hundreds were on foot as they were quickly joined by the Pentre Volunteer Band, the Ton Temperance Brass Band and the Cwmpark Drum and Fife Band.
The streets were lined thickly with people. Noddfa Chapel and the majority of the leading shops were decorated in a grand array of colours, with the motto“They Behaved Like Gentlemen And Sang Like Angels” emblazoned on the front of buildings. Flags and streamers were placed across High Street and Bute Street as the procession was led to the Cardiff Arms, down Dumfries Street and back to Treorchy Square amid a crush of thousands of people.
“God Save The Queen” was sung by the Choir on the square before the procession continued to Pentre where more speeches were heard. William Thomas stood at the base of a lamp pillar in the centre of the square and the Choir performed “Men of Harlech” followed by “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” amid the rapturous applause of thousands of well-wishers. It was a glorious chapter indeed in the history of the Rhondda and of Wales.
(c) Copyright Dean Powell
The list of choristers who performed at Windsor are:
D. H. Davies
W. Todd Jones
Tom J. Thomas
G. P. Williams
G. Ichel Thomas