200-year-old fishermen's choir needs new voices to remain on song

WHEN methodists first came to Filey in the early 1800s, they found a town full of “swearing, gambling, drunkenness, cock-fighting, fishing on Sunday and other heinous crimes” - and were pelted with dried skate wings when they tried to preach in the streets.

Francis Appleby, pictured at his home at Newby, Scarborough. Picture by Simon Hulme
Francis Appleby, pictured at his home at Newby, Scarborough. Picture by Simon Hulme

But just a couple of decades later, in 1823, a preacher from Pocklington, John Oxtoby, had more luck, and began converting townsfolk - including its fishermen, who formed a choir that spread the Gospel word across Yorkshire and the north.

And almost two centuries on, that tradition continues. But with just 17 members, all in advancing years and one at 90 years of age, there’s a real danger that without fresh blood the song of the sea will soon go quiet.

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While performing has been understandably put on hold for the time being, ordinarily the choir meets weekly and can perform up to 50 times a year in churches, village halls and concert venues across Yorkshire.

Chairman and organist of the choir, Francis Appleby, himself a retired fisherman, said: “We need new members especially younger ones because nearly all the present singers are elderly - one still going strong at 90. We particularly need tenor and lead voices.”

While at one time, members of Filey Fishermen’s Choir will have all worked on its cobles, the boats that work out of the town, now seafearing is not a prerequisite of choir membership - although there are still a couple of members who fish.

Many of the 17-strong choir are men who have retired to Filey from South and West Yorkshire after spending holidays in the resort with their families over the years.

When Mr Appleby, 74, of Newby, joined the choir in 1975, there were almost 30 members. Four years ago, the Yorkshire Post reported that numbers had dropped as low as nine.

Although numbers aren’t quite as bad now, holidays and family commitments mean some practises see just a handful turn up.

“Even if just two or three are missing, it leaves a big gap,” said Mr Appleby.

The purpose of the choir has remained much as it always was - spreading the gospel via a church service, with songs picked from a repertoire of close to 200 hymns.

“The preaching comes through the singing,” Mr Appleby said. “The words are a lot more meaningful, I think, than some of the modern hymns. Last year, at one service in Cumbria, the chapel was bursting at the seams.

“We practise every Saturday and it’s a way of life for us.”

The choir meet at Filey Methodist Church, and has raised money for several local charities and church restoration projects.

Once numbers are up, they hope to raise money to fund a new CD of the choir’s songs.

The last album was recorded in the 1990s, and the CDs are very popular with the congregations where they perform, often selling out.

“We may not be professional singers, but we believe in what we are singing and it comes from the heart,” Mr Appleby said. “We’ve really missed performing this year.”

The choir has even graced television screens, appearing on Gareth Malone’s BBC series, Last Choir Standing in 2008.

With many members in their 70s and beyond, they are currently on an enforced break - only the second time they have been forced temporarily quiet, the first being during the Second World War.

For information on joining, visit thefileyfishermenschoir.co.uk