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The Choir School

The Foundation Charter of 1440 provided for six choristers to sing in the daily services. By 1452 this had been increased to sixteen, all boarders. One of the clerks was responsible for teaching them and they had a special claim for consideration at elections for scholarships to the College. After Henry VI’s death in 1471 their numbers were cut to ten as an economy measure, and during the Commonwealth (1649–1660) they disappeared altogether.

The choir started again at the Restoration (1660), but increasingly its members also sang at St George’s Chapel Windsor and the boys were educated there. Although Eton contributed to the costs, the services at St George’s always took precedence and a choir of charity school children had to be paid to sing on Sunday mornings when the regular choir was busy at St George’s Chapel.

In 1868 the link with St George’s was broken and a professional choir appointed at Eton, but they do not seem to have been very good and at first many services were sung by a voluntary choir of masters and boys.

In 1872 it was decided that the professional choir should consist of ten choristers and six lay clerks, but when new Statutes were drawn up the choir was not formally included as part of the College. The records are very incomplete but we do know that a master was appointed to teach the boys, and that by 1892 they were using the old brewhouse as a schoolroom. They were day boys; proposals for a boarding school were always abandoned because of the cost.

From 1910 the choristers were no longer paid but money was put aside to enable them to go on to further training or apprenticeships after they left the choir. The education and their meals were free.

The school was small, sixteen choristers and twelve probationers, but even with a second master and with help from masters in the (senior) school it became increasingly difficult to provide adequate teaching and facilities. Changes in education policy also made it harder for boys leaving the school at 13 or 14 to transfer to state schools and it was increasingly difficult to attract suitable applicants. By the 1960s the College considered that amalgamation with St George’s School or conversion into a standard preparatory school, either day or boarding, mixing choristers and fee-paying boys, was the only way the school would be viable.

Amalgamation was impracticable and a new boarding school too expensive. A temporary building on Fellows’ Eyot improved the accommodation, and numbers grew slightly but not enough to keep the school going.

When it was announced that it would close in summer 1969 so many boys left that closure was brought forward to 1968. Assistance with fees at other schools was given to the boys left in the school, and the Fellows set up Music Scholarships to raise the standard of music throughout the college.

The Old Choristers’ Association still maintains links with the College and has its annual reunions in College Hall.