Like nearly all village churches in England in the 18th century, Henfield had a band of musickers or minstrels playing in a gallery at the west end of the church. These bands lingered on until the middle of the 19th century. This style of music is known as ‘West Gallery’.

According to Mr Arthur Hodges, Parish Clerk from 1856 – 1889, the Henfield band consisted of a fiddle, flute, clarionet, 2 cornets, cello often known as the ‘grandmother fiddle’ and a trombone. The flute was played by Obadiah Hall (School master) who also played an oboe, the clarionet was played by William Hughes.

The trombone was played by John Pennicott, the local Henfield barber, who was a renowned musician who had played in a church band in Amberley, he also played the clarionet. He was to be seen regularly walking from Henfield church across the common to Woodmancote church.
On one occasion there was a misunderstanding between the band and the vicar, and the band came to the church but refused to play. The vicar called out in the service, ‘are you going to play?’ and John Pennicott replied ‘No’. The vicar then said that he would not preach and ended the service. He marched out of the church and the band followed him home jeering, shouting and playing ‘rough music’.

The members of the church band did exert a power of sorts as can be seen above, and it was not unknown for the choir to sing one hymn and the band steadfastly playing the tune of another!

On one occasion the band at Amberley, under the direction of John Pennicott went out on strike and the vicar called on all the pubs in the village to refuse to serve any band member. In retaliation, the band got up at midnight and whitewashed all the windows of the vicarage from top to bottom.

Eventually churches were able to purchase an organ, often a barrel organ, as was the case in Henfield, which meant that tunes of hymns and psalms could be played in exactly the same way each time. The Henfield barrel organ dates from 1832, which also ended the life of the church band; the first organist was James Bailey, the local clockmaker. The west gallery was removed in 1870.

A poem written in 1880 sums up the feelings;
‘And when our instrumental choir gave way to organ sound
Which eight and forty years ago was brought from Oxford town
He was the organist who first that monstrous box did play
And part of which remains in church and has been since that day’.
Sussex West Gallery music has been revived over the last few decades by ‘Shepherds Arise’ who sing traditional Sussex carols over the Christmas period. They have recreated a church band with a serpent, recorder, flute, bassoon, fiddle, concertina and clarinet. Also readings and a mummers play. Programmes for Shepherds Arise carols will be available in the museum as soon as they are printed.

Steve Robotham, Assistant Curator, Henfield Museum
Image © Henfield Museum
Taken from the November 2017 edition of The Parish Magazine.

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