Having lived close to the Dorset border for more than twenty years, one is inclined to take an interest in the works of Thomas Hardy. For me the ‘Mellstock Quire’ going their Christmas rounds is a memorable image, and even better is the same cast of characters who appear in a short story, leading the singing in church, then falling asleep during the sermon, and waking up to find themselves playing a dance-tune instead of the final hymn, being thrown out of church for ever by the squire, and replaced by a barrel organ. It is funny and poignant, with scarcely any of the accustomed Hardyesque melancholy.
So it was a pleasure to find references in a book of Twyning churchwardens’ accounts which hint at similar activities of Gloucestershire local musicians. (Twyning, for anyone who has not had the pleasure of exploring the area, is where the M50 joins the M5 near Strensham services, and you can glimpse its riverside pub from the motorway – briefly.) The first entry, in October 1785, is a payment of 3s. for three bassoon reeds, and similar small amounts were paid for reeds almost every year until 1821. Occasionally we are told the names of the suppliers, Maurice Tayler and Samuel Nash in 1812, E Tayler in 1821. According to Hardy, such consumables were supplied by itinerant pedlars, and I have not tracked down these names in local sources. In 1797 and 1798 the instrument is described as the ‘Church Bassoon’ and by 1809 it was in serious trouble, as ‘Pd Mr Lloyd a bill for repairing bassoon £2 18s. 6d.’ It still was not quite right, as in 1814 a further 1s. 6d. was laid out for mending the crook of the bassoon.
There was also an oboe, and this too needed a supply of reeds. The ‘hautboy’ is mentioned in 1786, and the two instruments together are described by 1799 as the ‘church musick’. Like the bassoon the oboe must have been in crisis by 1809, as the following year the churchwardens forked out a guinea for ‘a new hautboy’, and (wearied perhaps by the noise the old one made) purchased its operator an instruction book from Mr Lloyd. It was still in use in 1821, the last occasion that reeds were purchased. The supplier, ‘Mr Lloyd’, could have been Omwell Lloyd (d. 1811), a Tewkesbury mercer who had held most important local offices in the town; although repairing a bassoon was perhaps not something even this most capable gentleman undertook personally.
Around this time several developments occurred. In 1818 £2 10s. was laid out for psalm books purchased of Mr Bennett (doubtless James Bennett, the Tewkesbury printer, bookseller and historian). And in December 1819 the singers were paid £2 15s. ‘in lieu of collecting from house to house’. In two earlier years the churchwardens had bought candles for the singers (for their nocturnal carol-singing, one assumes), but for most years 1819–32 they were paid a lump sum, apparently to dissuade them from ‘going the rounds’. We are reminded of Mr Shiner, Hardy’s hungover churchwarden, who swore at the quire for waking him up with a carol early on Christmas morning. In 1830 and 1832 the payment was made specifically for the singers’ feast, so presumably this was how in earlier years the collection had been spent.
And what of the instrumentalists? No more reeds were purchased for them after 1821, and it may be significant that on three successive Sundays in May and June 1823 there was ‘disorderly conduct’ in the church, after which eight individuals were named and shamed at a meeting. Was this the musicians’ last stand, after which – as in Hardy – they were thrown out of their west gallery? One might think so, as the following year new pins for hats were fixed in the gallery (suggesting that it was being used by the congregation instead), and then in 1830 the gallery itself was enlarged with seventy additional seats. But the bassoon at least lived on. In 1831 Mr Pearce was paid £2 2s. 6d. for repairing it. After that the accounts become scrappy and summary, and for two decades church music disappears from its pages. The final blow is not struck until 1852: ‘Pd Hancock for fixing organ’.
 T. Hardy, Life’s Little Ironies and A Changed Man (1977 edn.), 172-5.
 GA, P343a CW 2/1.
 Preface to 1896 and later editions of Under the Greenwood Tree.
 T. Hardy, Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), ch.5.