Alfred Higson

This article was first posted in 2008.

Warrington Male Voice Choir Remembers Alfred Higson OBE MA. 

Alfred Higson was conductor of the Warrington Male Voice Choir (then known as the Warrington Male Choral Union) from 1919 to 1959.  This remarkable man not only conducted this choir, but was involved in the successes of others as well.  The following article appears by kind permission of John Newhill of the Sale Chamber Orchestra, and records the life and achievements of one of Britain’s finest musicians.

“Alfred Higson was a remarkable musician.   An almost off-hand, benevolent style of conducting concealed the iron grip of a martinet.   It was this strong sense of discipline which made his choir outstandingly successful in the competitive field.  Wherever British choral singing was properly appreciated, Higson was recognised as a master, a grand seigneur of his art.”

The successes of Sale Rugby Union team in recent years have made the name of Sale known to people throughout Britain.  Fifty or sixty years ago there was a remarkable man who single-handedly achieved the same result, but in a different field.  Starting from a very humble beginning he became well-known in musical circles throughout Britain.  In 1945 it was said of him, “He came into Sale and lit a great lamp and it shines far and near”.

Alfred Higson was born at “Timperley Lodge”, a large house which stood on Manchester Road opposite South Trafford College.  His father, Henry, was gardener to George Smith, a retired silk manufacturer.  Alfred was born on 8th February 1871, probably in one of the cottages in the grounds of the big house.  A year or two before Alfred finished his schooling, his father took another post at “Ash Lea”, a large house on “The Avenue” in Ashton-upon-Mersey. His new employer was Thomas Craven, who owned a factory which made engines and boiler fittings.  Henry was one of the staff, which consisted of 5 servants, a cook, a governess, 2 gardeners and a coachman.  His son now attended the Township School on School Road, in Sale.  

Alfred began to play the organ while attending Broadheath Congregational Sunday School.  He received further musical training from local teachers and at the age of 20 became the conductor of Altrincham Choral Society.  By 1899 he had impressive credentials – ARCO, ARCM, LRAM and ISPM – and was advertising as a teacher of pianoforte, organ and singing.  He also advertised himself as a “baritone vocalist, available for concerts and private functions”.  One of his examiners remarked that if he continued to concentrate on his singing, “he would have the world at his feet”.  However he decided to remain nearer home, as a piano teacher, church organist and choirmaster.  On 2nd April 1902 he married Lizzie Beatrice (“Betty”) Locking at Bowdon Downs Congregational Church.  His bride was a Yorkshire girl whose family had moved from Sheffield to Altrincham.  She was a contralto singer and one wonders whether they met at Altrincham Choral Society.  For nine years they lived at 16, Urban Road, and then they moved to 60, Barkers Lane, where they remained for the rest of their lives. 

A few weeks after the birth of his son Edward, Alfred decided to form a choral society in Sale.  There had been a “Sale Choral Society” (Alfred had been the accompanist), but this had ceased to exist in the early 1900’s.  The first rehearsal of the new “Sale & District Musical Society” was held on the 24th October 1907, and their first concert was given on 5th March 1908.  In this concert Betty sang in a quartet and Alfred sang a duet with another member. Two months later the choir entered the world of competitive choral singing by competing in the Bury Music Festival, where they gained third place.  A series of glittering successes followed over the ensuing years and the choir became well known as possibly the best amateur mixed voice choir in Britain.  In December 1931 the choir were the guests of Sale Town Council at a Social Evening in the Town Hall, where an illuminated address was presented to Alfred Higson.  Four years later the choir was invited to send members down to London to augment the Royal Choral Society in the Silver Jubilee Celebrations for King George V in the Albert Hall.  During the Second World War, competitive singing at music festivals was suspended, and the Sale choir made many broadcasts to cheer up servicemen who were away from home and their loved ones. 

In 1945, the choir competed in the Welsh National Eisteddfod.  They had come first twice before the war and this time they again won first prize.  This was followed by four first prizes and one second in the next five years.  There is an apocryphal story that at this point the Eisteddfodd authorities were so annoyed that Sale won every year, that they decided to restrict the competition to Welsh choirs only.  I have not been able to find proof of this, but it is certainly true that the competition was later restricted to Welsh choirs.  Two years later, in addition to the National Eisteddfod (where they came first), they entered the new Inter­national Eisteddfod at Llangollen and, competing against choirs from a dozen countries, were awarded first prize.  In the first eleven years of the competition they gained 6 first awards and 2 second awards.  Alfred remarked rather wistfully that “this district (Sale) has never exhibited any great tendency to be choral-minded.  People do not come near when we sing; we play all our matches away”.

Alfred Higson was one of three men who were created the first honorary freemen of Sale in 1945; four years later he was awarded the OBE in the New Year’s Honours List and soon after that was awarded an honorary MA at Manchester University.  Sadly his wife Betty died in the August of the following year (1950).  The Sale choir meanwhile gained award after award in Music Festivals.  A photograph in the “Sale Guardian” (18th May 1951) showed Alfred Higson with some of the trophies his choirs had won.  The picture reminds one of Manchester United’s trophy room at Old Trafford, although United undoubtedly have more trophies.  In April 1955 an illuminated Congratulatory Resolution was presented by Sale Council to Alfred at a special function held to mark their appreciation of his successes in international fields of music.

1957 marked the 50th Anniversary of the founding of Sale & District Musical Society.  In April Alfred was interviewed on television by Cliff Michelmore in the programme “Tonight”. 

He remarked that “there isn’t the same enthusiasm in choral singing as there was then” (referring to 1907).  The anniversary was celebrated by a series of concerts and musical evenings.  The souvenir programme of events mentions that to date the choir had entered over 220 competitions under Mr. Higson and had gained nearly 150 first prizes.  The “Sale & Stretford Guardian” pointed out that, in 54 competitions since the war, the choir had been placed first 42 times.  Some of Sale’s main rivals in competitions in the north of England (Blackburn Music Society, Fylde Musical Society, and Huddersfield Vocal Union) came to Sale to join in the celebrations.  This time it could not be said that “People do not come near us when we sing” – the choir sang to full houses.  Finally, in November, the choir gave a recital in Westminster Abbey, with a celebratory dinner afterwards.

So far I have described Alfred Higson’s successes with the Sale & District Musical Society.  What makes him even more remarkable is that for most of his life he conducted four other choirs each week and with two of them he was nearly as successful as he was with Sale.  In addition to this he played the organ every Sunday.  He was organist at Sale Wesley Methodist Church and then, from 1930, at Bowdon Downs Congregational Church for 37 years.  One of the four other choirs was the choir at Bowdon Downs; this choir was of course non-competitive.  He was also conductor of the Manchester C.W.S.  Male Voice Choir for 41 years.  The other two choirs were the Earlestown Orpheus Ladies’ Choir (which he conducted for 30 years), and the Warrington Male Choral Union (which he conducted from from 1919 to 1959).  These two choirs often entered competitions at the same time as the Sale choir, and, while exact details are not to hand, we know he won many awards with them.

For example, the Warrington choir (now the Warrington Male Voice Choir) won both classes A and B at the 1923 Blackpool Festival – the first choir to do so.  His successes with the choir over the years were gained in spite of the fact that many of the men worked shifts, thus affecting their attendance at rehearsals.  He never drove, so at first he used to cycle to Warrington, but later went there (and to Earlestown) by bus or train.  J.S.Philips, who attended Alfred’s first rehearsal with the Warrington choir in October 1919, wrote later: 

“Those who were privileged to attend the first rehearsal with Mr Higson in Thewlis Street School at once realised that they were in the presence of a genius, and, with the passing of time, they were to discover that genius was girt about with wonderful personality, and a breastplate of supreme tact and patience.” 

In 1944 Alfred was given a Civic Reception by the Mayor of Warrington, in view of the honours he and his choir had brought to the town.  A measure of his talent is that in 1947 he became the only conductor to have won top prize in three separate classes at a Welsh National Eisteddfod – Sale won the mixed voice class, and Earlestown won the ladies’ choir class (Warrington had won the male voice class before the war).   This surely marked him as the best choral trainer in Britain.  Both Earlestown Ladies and Sale won their classes in the International Eisteddfod of 1948; these international successes made Alfred Higson one of the best choral trainers in the world. 

In 1959 the Sale choir came first again in the International Eisteddfod at Llangollen, under their 88-year old conductor.  He was already beginning to take life more easily – his eyesight was failing.  He had resigned as organist in Bowdon in 1957 and had recently resigned from all his other choirs except Sale.  In the following year, at the age of 89, he lay down his baton (figuratively speaking – he never used a baton to conduct) and handed over his beloved Sale choir to his son, Ted.  “The Old Man” (as the members of all his choirs affectionately called him) died in February 1961, six days after his ninetieth birthday.

As his funeral cortege passed in front of Sale Town Hall, the mayor, the town clerk and eight members of the council stood on the Town Hall steps as a token of respect.  The funeral service was held at Bowdon Downs Congregational Church, and the minister remarked that even in his eighties Alfred Higson was always there at the organ for morning service, even after a very late return from some music festival the night before.  

A few days after Alfred’s death, J.H.C. Fenter, a former member of Sale & District Musical Society, wrote a letter to the “Manchester Guardian”, saying: 

“No one who has sung under Alfred Higson will ever forget that tall, slightly stooping but commanding figure, the bushy walrus moustache, the quiet but authoritative north country voice and the firm but genial and tactful dictatorship with which he ruled the choir.   I do not think that Alfred Higson ever had any difficulty in finding enough singers for his choir;  it was an honour to be chosen by him as having the necessary qualifications.”  

The art critic of the “Daily Telegraph” wrote in his obituary of Alfred Higson:  

“Alfred Higson was a remarkable musician.   An almost off-hand, benevolent style of conducting concealed the iron grip of a martinet.   It was this strong sense of discipline which made his choir outstandingly successful in the competitive field.  Wherever British choral singing was properly appreciated, Higson was recognised as a master, a grand seigneur of his art.”

I would like to record my thanks to Michael Wright of Sale Choral Society for giving me valuable information and especially to Barrie Johnson, Chairman of Warrington Male Voice Choir, for sending me much information, including the photograph of Alfred Higson and the quotations.

This article was first published on the previous website in 2008.