PHI CD 220: The Better Land Volume Six Great Boy Sopranos Recorded 1912-1970


[1] That Old-Fashioned Mother of Mine (David / Nicholls) Master Thomas Criddle with organ accomp. by Andrew Fenner. HMV BD.1057 Rec. 4/5/1943
[2] I give thanks for you (Linton / Young) Master Thomas Criddle
with piano accomp. by Andrew Fenner. HMV BD.1074 Rec. 12/1/1944
[3] Rejoice greatly (Handel - Messiah) Master Walter Lawrence with orchestra. Columbia 430 pre-electric recording 18/11/1912
[4] Come unto Him (Handel - Messiah) Master Robert Waddell
with organ accomp. Parlophone E.11477 Rec. 14/5/1950
[5] How beautiful are the feet (Handel - Messiah) Master John Gwilym Griffith with double string quartet & flute accomp. Columbia 5489 Rec. 1929
[6] I know that my Redeemer liveth (Handel - Messiah) Master Mansel Squire
with organ accomp. by Felton Rapley. Decca X.420 Rec. 9/5/1950
[7] Danny Boy (F.E. Weatherly / Old Irish tune Londonderry Air)
Master Desmond Casey - advertised as "The Phenomenal Australian Boy Soprano" with orchestra. Parlophone R.1442 Rec. 1932
[8] Drink to me only with thine eyes (Ben Jonson / traditional English air)
Master John Gwilym Griffith with double string quartet accomp.
Columbia 5489 Rec. 1929
[9] Brother James' Air (Psalm 23 / Marosa by J.L.M. Bain, arr. G. Jacobs)
Masters Michael Lumb & John Evans-Pughe with organ accomp. by Sir Sydney Nicholson. Issued on the Red Label 'School of English Church Music' ROX series190 and recorded in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Holborn, London 4/6/1939
[10] O lovely peace (Handel - Judas Maccabeus) Masters John Evans-Pughe & Michael Lumb and the Choristers of St. Nicholas' College, Chiselhurst, Kent.
Details as track [9]
[11] Song of Songs (Lucas / Moya) Master Frank Bird
with instrumental accomp. Columbia FB.2157 Rec. 1939
[12] Villanelle (The Lark's Song, sung in French) (F. van der Elst / Eva Dell'Acqua) Master Walter Lawrence with orchestra.
Columbia 430 pre-electric recording 23/8/1912
[13] A Tragic Story (Thackeray / Britten) Master Billy Neely with piano accomp. by Havelock Nelson. "Off-air" recording from BBC Children's Hour 8/9/1949 #
[14] Sheep may safely graze (Bach BWV 208: transl. Davis & arr. Kramer)
Master Robin Fairhurst with organ accomp. by Charles Smart.
Decca 45-71069 Rec. 1954
[15] Where'er you walk (Handel - Semele) Master Robin Fairhurst.
Details as track [14]
[16] The Tailor and the Mouse (traditional) Master Robin Fairhurst.
Unaccompanied and announced by himself. Rec. live in concert 1957 #
[17] Ave Maria (sung in English) (Gounod) Master Raymond Kinsey
with organ accomp. Arnold Grier HMV C.2629 Rec. Sept. 1933
[18] Turn Thy face from my sins (Attwood) Master Vernon Carter
with organ accomp. by Frederick Carter.
Rec. in St. Patrick's C. of I. Cathedral, Armagh, 1961 #
[19] Tell me, Lovely Shepherd (E. Moore / W. Boyce -- Solomon)
Master Christopher Robins. Rec. 1952 #
[20] Santa Lucia (Traditional) Master Richard Bonsall
with piano accomp. by Alan Pow. Rec. 1970
[21] Daddy (Mark-Lemon / Behrend) Master Thomas Criddle
with organ accomp. by Andrew Fenner. HMV BD.1057 Rec. 4/5/1943
[22] I shall be there (Bowler / Haydn Wood) Master Thomas Criddle
with piano accomp. by Andrew Fenner. HMV BD.1074 Rec. 18/12/1943
# Denotes recording is issued for the first time
Complied & produced by Martin J. Monkman, Amphion Recordings.
Amphion Recordings gratefully acknowledges the help of the following people in the preparation of this album: Frederick Appleby, Martin Carson, and Colin Brownlee, who have provided records; Edward Reid Power, who has written the Foreword and given invaluable editorial advice; Roger Beardsley, for the restoration of Billy Neely's disc. Grateful acknowledgement is also made to all the featured artistes, in whose honour this album is produced.
Stephen Beet has researched and compiled the discs and has been responsible for the writing and compilation of this booklet. He would add especial thanks to Martin Monkman, the far-sighted proprietor of Amphion Recordings, who had the faith to undertake this project in 1998.

This selection has perhaps been the most difficult of the series, so great has been the response to our appeal for suitable material. As mentioned by my publisher, no fewer than ten 'new boys' are featured on this album - an achievement in itself - and would that it were possible to acquaint you with details of every artiste featured. But, unfortunately, there is a dearth of information on boys such as Mansel Squire, Desmond Casey, Frank Bird and John Gwilym Griffith. Other newcomers are better documented: Robin Fairhurst and Richard Bonsall need no introduction, and Master Robert Waddell - an old friend and 'rival' of Billy Neely - is delighted to have been included; and we are delighted to include him!
The majority of our boys featured were 'professional' artistes, making records for the major companies, but we are able to include remarkable recordings made by Vernon Carter and Chris Robins. Vernon represents the many cathedral choristers whose voices have been lost forever. It is fortuitous that his beautiful 'cathedral tones' were captured by his father, Frederick, on his Ferrograph. What an example to set before today's 'enlightened' choir trainers! Chris Robins' voice sounds as if it could have been recorded yesterday: it is almost as though he were standing in the room with us! He represents those thousands of boy sopranos who sang in countless choirs and entered for the many music festivals up and down the country - boys whose voices have been lost forever - while Chris's voice remains, preserved for our education and delight!
Thomas Criddle was born in Edmonton, London in March 1928. His singing career really began when, at the age of fourteen, he won first prize in a talent competition at the Granada Empire Cinema, Edmonton. The organist, Andrew Fenner, happened to be playing and, two weeks later, Sydney Bernstein, the manager of the Granada cinema chain, came to see Criddle's father with a view to engaging the boy to sing between the films. He earned on average £30 per performance for his concert and Vaudeville work. In 1943, he signed a contract with HMV and recorded several times at the Abbey Road Studios, always with his accompanist and manager, Andrew Fenner.
Thomas's recordings of Bowler-Haydn Wood's I shall be there, and Linton and Young's I give thanks for you, were made when he was almost sixteen and his voice had taken on a richer quality: "I was told by several well-known lady sopranos," Thomas says, "that they wished they could hit the top notes with the same ease and accuracy that I could in those days"!

In October 1943, Andrew Fenner wrote to Arthur Wynn at the BBC to tell him that Thomas, who was now fifteen, was 'reliable and widely experienced' and suggested an audition. This was successful and Thomas was engaged to appear in the radio programme Happidrome in January of the following year. More broadcasts followed and his fee was raised from five to eight guineas for an appearance with Albert Sandler and his orchestra in Palm Court Hotel. After this his manager felt that Thomas should be given the chance of singing more serious music, and asked for such engagements. However, the BBC Music Department had lately discovered Master Derek Barsham, whose style they preferred. Unfortunately they did not tell Mr. Fenner that; writing instead that they thought the boy's voice was breaking, and that it would be wise not to plan future broadcasts. Fenner was not happy about this and wrote personally to the Director General asking for an interview, and telling him that 'the reasons given for the withholding of bookings do not satisfy me at all and are contrary to the truth.' As a result, Thomas was given another audition in June but this was not deemed satisfactory. Despite this rejection, Fenner wisely fought on and Thomas was offered more broadcasts later that year. These were highly successful and he went on to appear in several more programmes during the course of 1945.
Thomas recalls: "I was called up for National Service when I was eighteen, but I was still giving concerts. Although my speaking voice had long since broken, my singing voice lasted until I was twenty-two. I even sang soprano at the training barracks and on occasions the sergeant would shout: 'Criddle! Go home and fetch your records!' I think my voice was eventually finished off by a combination of gin and cigarettes!"
It seems scarcely credible that our featured recordings of Master Walter Lawrence are nigh on one hundred years old! He was one of the first boy sopranos ever to commit his voice to wax. The US Columbia catalogue for 1915 announced that "for the first time in the annals of the recording art, the perfect voice of a boy soprano has been adequately recorded. Approaching the celestial as nearly perhaps as anything mortal can is the voice of Walter Lawrence, soloist of All Angels' Church, New York City. In its mingling of angelic purity and true musical beauty the singing of this child passes the bounds of ordinary criticism and remains an example of tonal perfection and an auditory delight."
The World newspaper (New York) on Easter Day (23 March) 1913 featured an article and full-page photograph of Lawrence: the following is an extract from 'The Boy with an Angel's Voice':
'The vast congregation listens with bated breath. Every ear is strained to catch the sound of the angelic voice, every eye is watchful for a glimpse of the face of the singer. There he is - the boy who is singing that wonderful Easter anthem. Can you see him standing there against that background of Easter Lilies, with that shaft of glorious sunlight streaming over him like a veritable audience from heaven? The boy is Walter Lawrence. Every Easter for four years he has stood in that fragrant bower of earthly lilies and lifted the thoughts of his hearers heavenwards by the sound of his voice. Every Easter for four years, those large, wistful brown eyes have been raised as though in contemplation of the angels, just as they are raised today. Observe the soft curling hair falling in gentle rings about his temples, the delicate grace of the hands that hold the book. The picture is almost too perfect. The beautiful cadences of that Easter anthem seem almost unreal in their loveliness. What wonder that many refer to him as the greatest boy soprano in America?'
The recording of Brother James' Air by the choristers of St. Nicholas' College Chislehurst, Kent, has been one of the most requested records on the present album. The College was opened in Chislehurst in 1929 by Sir Sydney Nicholson and comprised a training college for church musicians (the College of St Nicolas), and an association of affiliated churches. Nicholson had bought a large property which comprised two substantial buildings, Buller's Wood and Hyde's Wood. The College itself was housed at Buller's Wood and a choir of ten boys, under Nicholson's personal supervision, occupied the latter building. George Saintsbury was one of the first adult students, another being Sir David Willcocks. "The College," George tells us, "was a splendid place and Sydney was such a charismatic man that we soon got to love him dearly. The boys were drawn from all over the country, although a few were local and one of the first boys lived next door!"
The choir was run along Collegiate lines: there were just ten boys, and they had, by today's standards, a hard routine. But they were very happy. They were up early. The first service of the day was at 7 a.m. in chapel. After that they had breakfast, cleaned their rooms, and went to the local Bickley Hall Prep School for lessons. On Saturdays they sang full cathedral Matins and, every Friday, unaccompanied Litany and a hymn. There was no formal High Table as such but, instead, a long table on one side of the dining room; where the boys, together with with Harry Barnes, their Vocal Trainer and Choirmaster, sat in regal splendour, wearing their gowns. George cannot now recall the names of many of the boys shown in the photograph, with the exception of Ian Dolan and a boy named Mottensen, who is pictured wearing spectacles. Tom Evans-Pughe joined in the mid thirties and confirmed that it is his elder brother, John, who features as soloist on Brother James' Air, made in 1939 - John singing the second verse and Michael Lumb the first. The remaining verses are sung by the whole choir, although people often mistake them for solos as the ensemble is so closely knit. At the outbreak of the war, the College closed and the boys were evacuated to the nearest cathedral school to their home towns. Nicholson went on to St. Michael's College, Tenbury, as organist and choirmaster.
The Province of Ulster has produced several notable boy sopranos but none so acclaimed as Billy Neely, who was born in Belfast in 1935. As a small child he was placed under the tutelage of Miss Nan Shaw, a respected Belfast singing teacher. In 1946, Billy auditioned and was accepted for the choir of St. Anne's Cathedral, Belfast and he came under the influence of the formidable but much respected choirmaster, Captain C. J. Brennan, who had been in charge of the music at the Cathedral since 1904. When Billy was 13 he became one of the Cathedral choir's leading soloists and around this time became a pupil of the renowned vocal trainer Arthur Martin. With his help, and that of Havelock Nelson of the BBC, he was commissioned in 1948 to take part in Children's Hour broadcasts in the Northern Ireland Home Service.
In March 1949, Billy took first place at the Blackpool Festival, and in May he won the boys' solo class at Glasgow. In second place came Master Robert Waddell, a member of the Kirkintilloch Junior Choir, who is also featured on this album. The press reported that, after the event, "the two boys congratulated each other, picked up their coats and cases and hurried to catch the night boat to Belfast," where they both took part in services at the Shankill Road Mission, the following day.
Billy was sponsored by the great Northern Ireland tenor James Johnston who, in 1950, took him all over the Province and to London fulfilling singing engagements. Johnston was contracted to HMV and arranged test recordings for Billy at Abbey Road Studios. It was there that Billy was introduced to the accompanist Gerald Moore who in turn introduced him to the great singers, Victoria de los Angeles and Elena Gerhardt.
At sessions at the HMV studios in Abbey Road, he recorded the series of songs featured on our albums. However, his interpretation of Britten's A Tragic Story, was recorded 'live' during one of Billy's many broadcasts in the Northern Ireland Children's Hour. It has been especially restored for this album by Roger Beardsley, and is featured here for the first time since its broadcast in 1949.
Following the restoration of the Temple Church in 1954, Dr. George Thalben-Ball undertook the task of reintroducing boys into the choir and, in the following year, the choir was re-established, the first Head Boy being Robin Fairhurst who, at the age of fourteen, was a singer of considerable experience. He was born in London in 1941. At the Temple he made a great impression as a soloist and remained Head Boy until his voice broke at the age of sixteen. The two solo titles featured, Sheep may safely graze and Handel's Where'er you walk, made in the Kingsway Hall with Charles Smart at the organ, were amongst the first 45rpm records to be issued. The recording of The Tailor and the Mouse was captured at a live concert when Robin was sixteen.
Vernon Carter was born in 1945. His father, Frederick, was Organist of St. Patrick's Church of Ireland Cathedral, Armagh, and it was there that Vernon became a chorister. He became a celebrated soloist, making several broadcasts with the choir and in the Children's Hour. This recording of Thomas Attwood's Turn not thy face from my sins was made in 1961, just before his voice broke at the age of seventeen. His father is at the organ.
Christopher Robins was born in 1936 and from the age of three years was wont to sing around the family home. When he was eight years old he was sent for lessons, and joined the local church choir in Baildon. He later transferred to Bradford Cathedral, where, under the guidance of Dr. Charles Hooper and his deputy Kathleen Rhodes, his talent blossomed. Christopher had lessons with Robert Naylor of Bradford, and entered various music festivals during the late forties and early fifties. These competitions were popular in the North of England, and enabled him to gain confidence in solo singing. "The Grammar School at that time did not really agree with my attendance at these events, when 'time-off' was needed," Christopher recalls. "However, within school, my singing and choir work were always encouraged by the one music master for a school of a thousand boys".
This experience and training resulted in his winning a number of festival competitions in 1952. One of these, The Huddersfield Boys' Open Event, featured the Boyce song, Tell me, Lovely Shepherd, in an arrangement by Poston. The recording was taken later that same year at a local studio, with the sound 'cut' directly into a metal disk, in one take. The session benefited from the piano accompaniment of Norman Constantine, a local Bradford pianist. "My voice broke later that year," Christopher writes. 'In all the years since then, singing has been a great part of my life -- albeit having to manage on just an 'average' tenor voice".
Raymond Kinsey was born in Bradford in 1920 and was just twelve when he made his first record. Christopher Stone remarked in the Daily Express that "we have here a boy who may well enrich the record library with singing that has never been equalled for effortless art." Unfortunately Raymond's voice broke when he was just thirteen, and the record featured on this Album was one of his last. It was made in September 1933. As a boy soprano his virtually untrained voice was all the more remarkable in that it was possessed by one so young. As a twelve-year-old he had sung with the expression and control of a boy in his late teens.
Richard Bonsall was New Zealand's leading boy soprano. He began his career with the New Zealand Boys' Choir, and continued with the Belmont Singers, Auckland. He won many awards and took part in radio and television broadcasts during the late 1960's. His many stage roles included Amahl in Amahl and the Night Visitors, in which he is pictured here in costume. Tadpole Music recently released Encore, a stunning compilation of his best recordings. We are pleased to include, by permission of the copyright holders, Richard's fine recording of Santa Lucia, which was not part of the above compilation. Copies of Encore are available at a special price to patrons of The Better Land CD albums, and may be obtained by emailing
© Stephen R Beet, February 2007