Music has been constant’ Eric Gosney
David Callaghan talks to Eric Gosney, who’s been a member of Swanage St Mary’s church choir since 1932
Published in May ’15
Since he joined the choir of St Mary’s Church in Swanage, Eric Gosney has lived under 17 British Prime Minsters and four monarchs – remarkably also the same number of organists that have served the church. Now, 83 years later, he’s one of Britain’s longest serving choristers, if not the longest.
‘Well my father said I started to sing in my push chair so by the time I was eight years old I thought I’d better join the choir and here I am, still singing every Sunday,’ says the spritely 91-year-old.
And it’s not only on a Sunday that Eric stretches his vocal chords. ‘Come spring I’m out six nights a week singing. Mondays is Purbeck Village Quire, Tuesdays the Belvedere Singers and Wednesdays I’m rehearsing with Swanage Musical Theatre – they get some of us oldies in to sit in the orchestra pit and sing. Then on Thursdays there’s Purbeck Arts Club Choir, Fridays we have choir practice at St Mary’s, Saturday is my day off and there are two services on a Sunday.
‘Of course, when I started we sang at three services – the 9.30 Eucharist in the side chapel, Matins at 11.00 and Evensong at 6.30 – and had to go to Sunday School in the afternoon. It didn’t leave much time for mischief although the butt of many of our pranks was the verger, Mr Vaughan.’
Other than a four-year stint in the RAF from 1943 to 1947, Eric has lived in Swanage all his life. He used to take tours of St Mary’s where he would point out the font over which he was christened, the chancel steps on which he knelt when he was confirmed, the altar before which he was married and the stalls in which he has sung since 1932.
‘I shall no doubt be buried from there as well,’ he smiles.
There are tales to tell about all his choirmasters, including present incumbent Simon Lole, a former director of music at Salisbury Cathedral and a regular conductor on the BBC’s Songs of Praise. Eric says they’re lucky to have such a talented leader, but measures Simon’s real success in the numbers of young people he has brought to the choir.
‘He’s got a good few coming along now. They’re not always that good at attending, but that’s often down to the parents I reckon. Still, we’re doing well to have them at all.’
Simon isn’t the first St Mary’s choirmaster to have a connection with the BBC. In 1936 Eric was one of three St Mary’s choristers selected by the then organist Edwin Farwell to join two boys from Forres School, where Farwell was a teacher, to take part in a radio production of Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree.
‘Oh, that was very exciting – three boys from Swanage at the BBC, I think we were probably quite boastful about it afterwards. We were part of the Mellstock Quire and travelled to the studio in Bristol by coach with some local amateurs who took some of the smaller parts. We were in one studio. The principals, including three of the original Hardy Players, were in another next door. Florence Hardy was there and we met her, she was quite impressed I think.’
Although Eric gained a special place in the Swanage Grammar School entrance examinations he was unable to sit the following year after the rules were changed so he left Mount Scar School at the age of 14 and got an office job with George Hardy the family building company, to which he returned after the war.
‘During the war I was posted to southern Rhodesia for pilot training. Having passed my flying exams on single engined aircraft I went on to the twin engine Airspeed Oxford, but soon after soloing I did a ground loop, just running into a circle at the end of the runway. There was no damage to the plane or me, but I think they decided they had all the pilots they needed for the duration!
‘I was demobbed in 1947 and went back to Swanage, got married and started a family, but then I parted company with Hardys after a few years. They were a family firm and they needed jobs for the family and that was that.’
So at the age of 36 Eric sought a new direction – as a teacher. He took O-levels, including Latin ‘which was a bit of a deterrent’, followed by A-levels and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Open University and embarked on his second career with characteristic vigour. He was headmaster at Bere Regis School for 11 years from 1971 before taking over as head at St Mark’s First School at Herston where he retired in 1988.
As chairman of Purbeck Arts Club he reinstated Swanage Town Band after 33 years, was made a Paul Harris Fellow by the Rotary Club for this and his work with children and founded the Metrognomes recorder group.
A member of the William Barnes Society, Eric regularly gives public readings and also writes his own poems – the Society of Dorset Men published one in its 2015 Dorset Yearbook.
When BBC Radio 4 heard about Eric’s service in the choir he was asked to sing something over the phone and chose a few bars of a carol he’d written to the theme music from Last of the Summer Wine.
‘I’d written the carol some years earlier and contacted Ronnie Hazelhurst the composer who liked what I’d done and got his publisher to send me the middle section that is seldom heard in case I wanted to write some words for that, but I never followed it up.’
Fittingly, as Eric celebrated his ninetieth birthday last year, his friends presented him with ‘Old Lad of Swanage Town’, a song written by David Kemp to music by the 18th century composer James Hook. Unprompted Eric sings it for me, reading the melody as he goes. His voice is steady, clear and perfectly pitched for his privileged one-man audience.
‘I’ve been very fortunate in that my voice has held all this time. I’ve had a varied life, but throughout it all music has been constant. It has opened so many doors to me and brought me in contact with some wonderful people and places. It really is a joy.’ ◗