The School Hymnbook

Hymn singing, like membership of a choir, provides a sense of community. Hymns are sung regularly at St Paul’s and with as much vivacity as ever, while successive hymn books give a glimpse into school history.

The original volume (1905) was entitled Prayers and Hymns; morning assembly was then called ‘Prayers’ and this book was prefaced with daily prayers and collects for special occasions.  Jewish pupils did not attend these assemblies. A plate adorned the flyleaf and each one was signed ‘Frances R Gray’. The 1905 publication was not peculiar to St Paul’s, since it was derived from the public schools’ HMC compilation, but in the 1920s the school issued its own collection, published by Oxford University Press.  The original book did, however, include Frances Gray’s Thy Name alone, O Lord, to a setting by Winifred Chapman (replaced in later books with music by the Georgian composer Henry Carey). Enclosed, too, was St Patrick’s I bind unto myself this day, so beloved by Miss Gray that it became, in her time, an unofficial school hymn. The obvious parallel now is Holst’s ‘I Vow to Thee’.  Rather curiously, Miss Gray’s closing words to The Vision (1909) were  then added as the second school hymn, while her composition  In Faith and Knowledge’ was called ‘the School Song’. It became a tradition to sing all three, or at least both school hymns, at the beginning and end of each term, a custom which lapsed in the 1990s.

During the 1980s, St Paul’s adopted the New English Hymnal  with (as a somewhat awkward makeshift) the school hymns and Song, the Gardner carols and various other items pasted in the endpapers. In 1997 St Paul’s reverted to its own hymnbook. This printed Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata  of  1927 as ‘Found in Old Saint Paul’s Church, Baltimore: Dated 1692’, a slip which was corrected in the revised edition of 2002. Having two versions simultaneously led, for years, to an assembly ritual, thus: ‘number 23 in the old hymn book, number 26 in the new…’.  In 2011 and at Clarissa Farr’s initiative, we received a new edition. The hymns are now prefaced simply with a prayer by Colet, another one by Erasmus and the paternoster. Our collection includes  the setting to ‘Oh Lord, graciously hear us’ by Heidi Pegler, head of Singing from 1998, and a new school hymn, with words by Hilary Davies, sometime head of Modern Languages and Mark Wilderspin, who after seven years at Brook Green is now Director of Music at our counterpart in Barnes. Everyone will have favourites; I appreciate the historical depth of the book, with poetry from Bianco da Siena or the Scots Psalter of 1650 amongst familiar English names such as Herbert, Blake and Christina Rossetti.

Our illustration comes from the 1929 edition which the owner, Dr Frances Wyatt, adorned with five coloured ink illuminations and had bound in leather; an archive treasure indeed.

Dr Howard Bailes