In 1839, the Treaty of London was drawn up and signed by the Kingdoms of The Netherlands and Belgium in recognition of and guarantee for the neutrality and independence of Belgium. Within a week of the outbreak of World War I in July 1914, the German Army launched its initial attacks on Belgium as a means of getting through to France, King Albert I of Belgium having rejected the German Emperor Wilhelm II’s ultimatum of 2nd August 1914 demanding free passage of German troops across Belgian territory. It was this invasion and its violation of the Treaty that contributed to bringing Britain into the War as it was a guarantor to the Treaty.
There was considerable support for the Belgian nation and, following an offer of hospitality in September 1914 by the British Government to victims of the War, a good number of its citizens found refuge by escaping across the Channel to Britain and staying in towns and cities all over the country, each area being coordinated by a local Belgian Refugees Committee. One such committee was set up in Wimbledon and part of its role was to raise funds to support the influx of Belgians. The Treasurer of the Wimbledon Committee was Richardson Evans, a deeply committed conservationist who played a large part in expanding the boundaries of and establishing the large extent of land that is now Wimbledon Common and the impetus behind the creation of what is now the Wimbledon Society. The playing fields adjacent to Wimbledon Common are also named after him.
It was proposed to hold a Salutation to the Belgian Flag ceremony on Wimbledon Common on Saturday 17th October 1914 in the presence of The Duke & Duchess of Vendome (Princess Henriette of Belgium). Dr. G. Coleman Young, a Professor of Music, composer and arranger, was asked to organise a large choir and conduct the music for the ceremony. Reports would suggest that thousands of people attended the event and that the choir included “1500 children from the public elementary schools of Wimbledon and Merton”. The music listed as having been performed was:
- A Salute to the Belgian Flag (music: arr. Coleman Young)
- Belgian National Anthem
- French National Anthem
- Russian National Anthem
- Japanese National Anthem
- To the Heroes of the Defence (music: Coleman Young)
- British National Anthem
All the national anthems were sung in English. News of the event even reached Australia where the Sydney Morning Herald included a report in its edition of 19th October as seen on the right. The Western Australian, in its report, had a sub-title of “An Interesting Ceremony”.
As a follow-up to this, a concert was also planned for a month later, Monday 16th November, to celebrate the birthday of King Albert of Belgium.
The concert took place in the Baths Hall in Latimer Road, Wimbledon but without the presence of the Duchess of Vendome as she had returned to Belgium to “visit Belgian soldiers in the field”. The opening work was a Prelude by Louis Spohr, played by the Wandsworth Borough Brass Band, and this was followed by the choir singing Beethoven’s Creation Hymn. After this came a trio of ladies to sing “Lift thine eyes” from Mendelssohn’s Elijah followed by the choir with “He that shall endure to the end shall be saved” from the same work. The rest of Part I was made up of a hymn by George Martin and music by Bach and Handel finishing with Zadok The Priest. How ironic that, the hymn aside, the whole of the first half consisted of music by composers of German origin.
Once more Coleman Young was at the helm as conductor, some of the music in the second half being his own compositions. He clearly sensed a mood within the assembled singers that there was a desire to maintain the choral momentum gained over the previous couple of months. Richardson Evans was also of a similar mind in establishing a musical society and even proposed naming the group the Belgium Flag Chorus. Fortunately sense prevailed.
Notices about the intention of setting up the Choral Society were printed and distributed to thousands of homes in the area with the opening line:
A large number of those who formed the Choir … have expressed their desire to maintain their organisation on a permanent basis as a Society for the performance at intervals of important musical works.
The first rehearsal was set for Monday 30th November in St George’s Hall, Wimbledon, with the proposed subscription rates of the princely sums of 5/- (25p) per annum for ordinary members and 2/6 (12.5p) for those already members of other existing Societies. The working title of the Society was set provisionally to 1914 Choral Society for Wimbledon and District, subsequently amended to Wimbledon 1914 Choral Society at a committee (the ‘Council’) meeting in February the following year.
Dr Coleman Young was appointed the Society’s first Musical Director, Mr Theodore W Luling its first Chairman (later to become Chairman and President of London’s Moorfields Eye Hospital) and Richardson Evans became its first President.
Even at that early stage there was the concept of also setting up a List of Subscribers, not so much for singing but for reserving seats at future concerts. The forerunner of the Friends of the Choir
which operates today.
To defray the cost of the performances, annual subscriptions are invited of not less than ten shillings which will entitle the subscriber to a reserved place (transferable) for each of the two concerts of the season. The remaining reserved places will be available for non-subscribers on payment of seven shillings and sixpence, and there will be unreserved places at half-a-crown and a shilling.
The first concert took place on Monday 22nd March 1915 in the Baths Hall and the first work performed was Dvorak’s Stabat Mater. The evening even made a profit of £5 10s which was donated to the Belgian Refugees Fund. The next concert in November of that year included CHH Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens with the composer as a guest of honour amongst the audience.
In 1916 the Society suspended any further activity until the end of the War as more and more members were being called up for service or other activities. However, everything was restarted during 1919 and the first post-war concert was on Thursday 29th April 1920, featuring Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha. The Society has continued to grow and gone from strength to strength ever since.