Church Bands – St Petrock Stow Church Band.

Devon & Cornwall Notes and Queries vol. IX, (January 1916 to January 1917), pp. 161-164.


W.E. Crosse Crosse

Prepared by Michael Steer

The majority of Christian denominations use instruments such as an organ, piano, electronic keyboard, guitar, or other accompaniment, and occasionally by a band or orchestra, to accompany the singing. However, some churches have historically not used instruments, citing their absence from the New Testament. During the last century or so several of these groups have revised this stance. Many of the old Devon churches had galleries and bands, with the instruments played by parishioners. This Note provides information about the ‘glory days’ of the Church Band at St Petrock Stow. The transcript, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.

Note 135. Church Bands - St. Petrock Stow Church Band (IX., p. 124, par. 106; p. 149, par. 121). - A hundred years ago St. Petrock Stow claimed, apparently not without some reason, to possess one of the most capable church bands and choirs in rural North Devon. But, like the history of the Patron Saint himself, the ancient glories of the music performed in the old gallery in St. Petrock's shrine on the hill have to be largely taken on faith. But this much is certain - that while the Rev. John Knight was Rector the music was much above the average. 
Parson Knight was himself no mean player on the bass viol, and he had as choir leader a Mr. John Darke, who lived at Nethertown Farm, and who was a very fine performer on the same instrument. Winter or summer, rain or shine, Farmer Darke would every Friday drive across the old Deer Park which formed part of the demesne of Heanton - now a farmhouse, but once a residence of the family of which Lord Clinton is the head. This ancient manor house was almost entirely destroyed by fire, and the present mansion was later erected upon an eminence across the valley to the east, in the neighbouring parish of Huish. There is, by the way, a very interesting brass in the church here to the memory of Henry, fourth son of George Rolle, Esquire, of Stevenstone, his wife and their family of ten sons and ten daughters. 

Mr. Darke's journey was made with almost clock-work regularity, for on Friday evening the church band and choir assembled for practice ; and to John Darke the standard of the music rendered Sunday by Sunday was quite as important a matter as the ingathering of his corn or the hoeing of his turnips. It is recorded of him that when the band at length went the way of all human contrivances, and a new-fangled harmonium was installed in the church, he sat hidden in the shadows of the Nethertown high pew and wept audibly throughout the service. But John Darke served his generation well, and his son William was a first-rate violinist - indeed, but for an unfortunate weakness, he might have gone far as a musician. The mantle of Elijah, how- ever, fell upon a very capable Elisha in the person of Mr, William Trace. Trace's father was for fifty years the village postmaster, in the days when letters were an expensive luxury, and his son, who succeeded to the office, also held it for a like period. It may be worth noting that his daughter now holds the far more onerous post of sub-post- mistress, and that a son, William, is the present parish clerk. Mr. William Trace had real music in him. He could play the violin and the tenor or bass viol with equal facility, and as he played the air he would sing the bass part of the Psalm or Anthem with accuracy and power. The range and flexibility of his voice (he was able to produce the lower C with fullness and ease) was no less remarkable than the crispness and purity of his touch upon the strings. For fifty years or more Trace was the mainstay of the church band and choir, and for the long period of something like forty years was the leader. In those days a Mr. Winnacott, who was, so report has it, a native of South Zeal, on the north-eastern fringe of Dartmoor, and who died, we believe, at Chawleigh, was a remarkably able teacher and a considerable musical power in North Devon. For many years he was responsible for the training of twenty-one choirs in the district, and of these Petrockstowe held first place in his affections. Every Christmas Day and every Whit Sunday, as these festivals came round, he spent in the parish, were it by any means possible ; and on these days John Luxton? the then parish clerk, would roll forth with especial gusto the time-honoured formula, "Let us zing to the praaze an' glowry o' God," which prefaced the announcement of the piece of sacred music about to be performed. The congregation would then turn and face westwards, but before the harmony burst forth there was a solemn pause. Amid the silence the parish clerk would descend from his seat below the pulpit and make a stately progress to the gallery, bearing with him his insignia of office — to wit, a Book of Common Prayer of considerable bulk and weight. Unkind people used to whisper that the anthem would have sounded no worse had John Luxton remained in the clerk's seat and kept his mouth closed. But such whispers, if he ever heard them, John probably put down merely to "jellisness." Under Winnacott's tuition William Trace made rapid progress ; and more than once was the offer made him of a place in the choir of the Cathedral Church of St. Peter at Exeter. But Trace was a home bird, and steadfastly resisted all the endeavours which were made to lure him away from the remote North Devon village in which he had first seen the light. In the pre-harmonium days attendance at the Friday evening practice was a point of honour with all band and choir members; and, in addition, every Sunday morning Farmer Darke and Mr. Trace might have been heard at the latter's house in the village putting the finishing touches to the music about to be performed in the sanctuary. As far as is remembered there were three clarionet players ; two of them were capable performers, the third was - well, not quite as good. His playing would seem to have been much on the same level as John Luxton's vocal efforts. One of the trio, a gamekeeper, lived in a solitary cottage in the middle of Hartleigh Wood. A portion of the walls of his house still stands, but were it rebuilt it is extremely doubtful whether anyone would now be induced to live there, and one would certainly listen in vain for the sounds of the clarionet issuing Peter Pan-wise from the wood's recesses. Another valued helper was a Mr. Honey, of Holsworthy, an excellent flute-player, who appears to have often contrived to be in the gallery of "Patstowe" Church on a Sunday. It is only a matter of fifty years ago or so that Mrs. Woollcombe, wife of the then Rector, the Rev. Louis Woollcombe (who rebuilt the Rectory and restored the church), first began to play the harmonium. Mr. Trace seems to have loyally accepted the new order of things, since for years he continued to train the choir boys, and he retained his leadership of the choir to the end. He died in 1905 at a good old age, and to the day of his death retained almost unimpaired his powders both of touch and voice. But the memory of the life-work of a man who was in his time something of a notability will, alas, quickly fade and be forgotten. Indeed, already scarce anyone remembers even hearing the old church band ; and we are indebted to Mr. Edwin Trace, a son of Mr. William, for practically the whole of the material for this article. Mr. Edwin has now passed his sixtieth year, though nimble and active as ever, and he lived in the same house as his father without a break until the latter's death, and also, as a lad, sang in the old gallery for a short period before the church band was cast into the limbo of the past. But quite apart from a son's admiration and affection for a very capable father, there is ample evidence to show that Mr. William Trace must have been a man of remarkable musical talent, and that under his lengthy regime the standard of the music produced Sunday by Sunday in the gallery of the old unrestored Church of St. Petrock Stow was admirably maintained. 

                            W. E. Crosse Crosse.