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Alister Proctor

The Manx Baritone

Proctor, Alister NcNeil, born near Holmer, near Hereford, 10th May 1870; died Hereford 11th October 1942

Father: William, born Douglas 1829; died Feb 15th 1917, Douglas.

Mother: Christian née McNeil, born c. 1825; died 1893.

Wife: Mary Bryce née Andrew, born Edinburgh c. 1870; died Hereford 3rd January 1944.

Children: daughter: Jeanie; sons: Francis Allister; John Andrew; William Simpson; Douglas Yerburgh; Ewan Sinclair.

‘No better exponent of Manx music and manners’.1

Alister Proctor was born near Hereford2 the son of William and Christian Proctor of 29 Castle Street, Douglas. His name is absent from the 1871 and 1881 Isle of Man Census records, but by 1881, aged 10 years, he was a scholar at Elmfield College, Heworth, York, a Primitive Methodist college ‘for the sons of ministers and prosperous laymen’.3 How he came to be born near Hereford is something of a mystery as his father had been established in Douglas as a ‘cordwainer’ - a skilled shoemaker rather than a ‘cobbler’ who traditionally merely repaired shoes - with businesses in Douglas on Prospect Hill, Strand Street and Castle Street, and thus may be said to fit the description ‘prosperous laymen’ in the precepts laid down by Elmfield College.4 William Proctor had left school at the age of twelve, became ‘an ardent Temperance worker’ in his youth, an apprentice shoemaker in Douglas and for seventeen years a postman. He later became a prominent figure in Douglas affairs, took a keen interest in the town’s improvements, filled many public offices and later became a J.P., an Alderman and a Mayor of Douglas.5

     Concerning Alister Proctor’s musical training we know nothing, but it is reasonable to suppose that he was blessed with an excellent singing voice as a boy and received the basics of music theory at Elmfield College. His name first appears in the Isle of Man newspapers in January 1891, after he took part in a ‘popular entertainment’ at the Douglas Gymnasium in aid of the Poor Children’s Free Dinner Fund. That same year his name first appears in an Isle of Man Census record where he is described as a shoemaker residing with his parents at number 37 Castle Street, Douglas. In February the following year he sang a duet - Benedict’s The Moon Hath Raised Her Lamp Above - at the opening of Douglas Athletic Club’s new headquarters in the Victoria Hall, and later that month sang the substantial role of Saul in G. F. Root’s sacred cantata David, The Shepherd Boy, in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, a church he would enjoy a long and significant association with. In April 1893 we get the first critical appraisal of his voice from a review in the Mona’s Herald of a concert in Castletown, where he sang The People Who Walked in Darkness from Handel’s Messiah in a voice characterised by ‘purity of intonation and great clearness of enunciation’.

‘Our local favourite’.

The year 1894 was a typically busy one for the rising Douglas baritone who increasingly deserved ‘his high esteem in Douglas’. In January he took part in the first of the ‘Grand Concerts’ at the Grand Theatre, promoted by Harry Wood and B. Bennett, and was encored after singing Bordesi’s scena David Singing Before Saul; in February he led the Douglas Cantata Society in a performance of David, the Shepherd Boy and again reprised the role of Saul. Llater that month he took part in the first of many Masonic Concerts promoted by the Tynwald Lodge at the Grand Theatre, together with other fellow masons including his colleagues Harry Wood6 and F. C. Poulter.7 In June a children’s choir trained by him took part in the Union Mills Wesleyan Sunday School Anniversary concert; in November he sang at the annual Misses Cannell’s concert where he was voted the best of the soloists in Louis Spohr’s cantata God, Thou Art Great, and delighted the audience with his characterful singing of Chesham’s Soldier Jim and other popular songs. Later that month he was a co-promoter of a Brass Band contest held at the Palace Ballroom and in December he was involved with three musical events: Harry Wood’s Students’ Concert in the Grand Theatre, a Douglas Wesleyan Temperance concert when he sang Handel’s Arm, Arm Ye Brave ‘in magnificent style’, and finally with the Mona Quartet in the Vocal Quartette Class at the Fine Arts and Industrial Guild Music Competition, when his group attained 90 marks out of 99 and were each awarded a medal.

     By 1895 Alister Proctor was well integrated into the cultural life of Douglas and furthermore had been received into the St. Trinian’s Masonic Lodge. On 19th January he married Mary Bryce Andrew at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church where he was described as the ‘precentor’ or choir master. An action in the High Court of Justice at this time suggests that Alister Proctor was still occupied in the family business at this time: ‘Executions against Thomas James Dixon for goods ‘sold and delivered’: Wm Proctor £3 4s 1d; Alister Proctor 15s 1d.  Later that year an ‘Execution without prejudice’ was granted.

     He continued to appear regularly at Harry Wood’s Students’ Concerts and Sunday Sacred Concerts, the Misses Cannell’s concerts, the Guild concerts, and increasingly at the gatherings of Manx Societies in Liverpool and Manchester, where he was invariably ‘warmly greeted’, particularly when he introduced such popular songs as Weiss’s The Village Blacksmith and The Manx Wedding, ‘in a broad Manx brogue’, which frequently ‘brought the house down’. One can imagine him relishing this fine Manx song which refers to many other well-loved Manx songs in the text, and speaks of such characters as Karran the cornet, ‘oul’ Archie Cuckoo, the Castletown fiddler’, Phillie the Desert and Tommy the Mate. He naturally included in his repertoire many well-loved arias, songs and ballads from popular Victorian operas and operettas such as Wallace’s Maritana and the Mikado, which ‘he rendered in his own irreproachable style’. On one occasion in 1896 at a Misses Cannell’s concert, he introduced that tour-de-force of the lieder repertoire, Schubert’s The Erl King. In December 1895 he sang a version of the Manx tune The Good Old Way for Harry Wood, who wrote it down and later used it in his Manx Airs. This version differs from the familiar version in Manx National Songs in having both 2/4 and 3/4 measures, ‘and was popular from the days when John Butcher, the travelling Primitive Methodist preacher (or ‘ranter’), was on the Island in the 1820s.

     He continued to appear at many concerts associated with civic events both large and small, such as the dinner at the Douglas Bay Hotel in September 1896 on the completion of the Upper Douglas Cable Tramway. There were also the annual Church Bazaars at St Andrew’s and St Matthew’s where he was frequently referred to as ‘our local favourite’ who ‘set the ball rolling with a couple of well-rendered songs’. In December 1897 he was best man at the wedding of his colleague J. P. Callow, the manager of the Derby Castle.

Chester’s gain, but Douglas’ loss.

There is little doubt that Alister Proctor was possessed of a strong voice of professional quality, in quite a different league to most of his local contemporaries, and if he had chosen a different path and studied with a renowned singing teacher, he could have enjoyed a successful career as a concert artiste. From reviews we can deduce that his was a voice with a distinctive baritonal timbre, allied to excellent diction; that he was versatile and innovative in his choice of repertoire - Manx songs, popular ballads, sacred songs, arias and songs from the world of operetta - and characterised his songs very effectively. Few other local singers of his generation were so welcome in Douglas as his appearance at a concert guaranteed ‘a good song, well sung’.

     In July 1899 Alister Proctor was appointed as a lay clerk - a professional singer at an Anglican cathedral employed to assist with the cathedral music - at Chester Cathedral by Dr. Bridge, the cathedral organist.8 In October he was presented with a gold purse, a gold watch and a meerschaum pipe on behalf of the congregation of St. Andrew’s Church. He was never again permanently resident on the Island, but frequently visited Douglas to take part in a variety of musical events, and the Isle of Man newspapers continued to follow his career with interest. In January 1900 he appeared as a solo singer at a memorial service in connection with the Duke of Westminster in the cathedral. His singing of John Goss’s Brother, Thou Art Gone Before Us displayed ‘marked feeling and requisite pathos’. In April he was back in Douglas as a guest artiste in one of Harry Wood’s winter concerts at the Palace, and delighted the audience with A Manx Wedding. In August 1901 he was present at Loch Promenade Church, Douglas, to witness the visit of the Reverend T. H. Hunt, and ‘delighted his friends with a solo’.

     In December 1901 there appeared a series of banner announcements in the local newspapers: ‘Alister Proctor is Coming!’ and in January 1902 he was the principal guest artiste at the Wanderer’s Association Football Club Music Festival at the Grand Theatre, together with a Pupil Teachers’ Choir numbering fifty local singers and his cousin May Proctor,9 another highly respected local singer. He was hailed as ‘Manxland’s greatest baritone’, and among the songs he sang was the old drawing room ballad Bid Me to Love accompanied by the violin obbligato of Harry Wood. As the local newspapers put it: ‘he was once again in his own place amongst his own people (and) he let himself go . . . he should be justly proud of his voice, but the Island is prouder still’.

     In February 1902 he took the title role in Harry Wood’s pantomime King Gobnegaey with the consent of the Dean of Chester Cathedral, and in April he once again took part in a Misses Cannell’s concert at the Gaiety Theatre. He was back in Douglas in August to sing at one of Professor Wood’s pictorial Concerts at the Grand Theatre, and in November he sang Gounod’s popular sacred song Nazareth at a concert at St. Matthew’s Church at which both Harry Wood and his soon-to-be famous younger brother Haydn also appeared. That same month he was granted a complimentary (‘benefit’) concert at the Chester Music Hall in recognition of his charity work in the town. Master Haydn Wood was a guest artiste and played a number of virtuoso violin pieces.

For the next three years he appeared several times in Douglas, principally at the Misses Cannell’s concerts and Professor Wood’s Pictorial concerts. In 1905 ‘the Manx baritone’, now principal baritone at Chester Cathedral, appeared with the Lay Clerks of the Cathedral at the 10th annual Liverpool Manx Society gathering where he sang the ever popular The Manx Wedding, ‘finely rendered, with a purity of tone . . . his style having wonderfully improved of late’. In April that year he was the co-organiser of a ‘Big Concert’ at the Gaiety Theatre where he witnessed, no doubt with considerable pride, the debut professional engagement of his cousin May Proctor.

 ‘A fine voice and presence’.

In June 1906 he was appointed solo baritone at Hereford Cathedral in the face of considerable competition from 195 other candidates. We learn little of his career for the next few years but in August 1912 he was back in Douglas and took part in the second Great Wagner Concert at the Villa Marina, together with Herr Simon Wurm’s Imperial Viennese Orchestra, who had just been engaged there as the resident band. He appeared again in the Villa Marina Gardens in August 1913 with the Comus (male voice) Quartette in a selection of part-songs and madrigals described as ‘a musical treat so charming as to be beyond praise’.

     On the eve of war in August 1914 he was once again in Douglas at the newly-styled Villa Marina Kursaal - a short-lived name that soon disappeared after World War I had been declared - and his ‘beautiful baritone voice received a fine reception’. Before that fateful year was out his father, William, now long retired, was reported to have a son, and five grandsons, in the army or about to be, for incredibly Alister Proctor, at the age of forty-four, had enlisted in the Army Reserve (Special reservists) of Kitchener’s New Army as a Private in the 6th King’s Shropshire Light Infantry Labour Corps.10  We hear of him briefly in 1915, whilst undergoing training in Camberley, at the Central Hotel there where he took part in a concert in aid of the Indian Soldiers’ Comfort Fund. ‘The possessor of one of the most magnificent voices ever heard here he delighted the audience with the singing of ‘Toreador’ (possibly the famous aria from Bizet’s Carmen), Do you remember long ago and Maud V. White’s King Charles . . . ‘a splendid voice that showed him to be in full control of his notes’ lauded the Camberley News. He was briefly on leave in Douglas in 1917, but we learn next-to-nothing of his wartime experiences from the local newspapers.

‘A soldier-singer in fine voice’

In August 1919 he appeared at a Sunday Concert at the Villa Marina and was described as ‘at his best . . . having achieved considerable renown’ in Frederick Keel’s poignant Tomorrow (written whilst the composer was a prisoner of war), John Ireland’s Sea Fever, W. Wand Higgs’ Follow me ‘ome and Edward German’s rousing Glorious Devon. Encores were demanded and he sang King Charles and Sanderson’s Cobblin’, which no doubt brought back family memories. Throughout he sang ‘with great characterisation . . . and really let himself go’. In 1925 he took part in a series of services in connection with the Centenary of St. Andrew’s Church, where he was once the choir master, and was greeted as ‘. . . a famous Manx singer whose voice is all too rarely heard in his native town’. The following year he was amongst the 3,000 spectators at the Children’s Festival at the Guild, and in November 1926 he was the adjudicator at Yn Cruinnacht and sang a new song, The Riders, with words by ‘Cushag’ and music by the Manx composer J. E. Quayle. ‘A thoroughly Manx production with poet, composer and singer being of our own stock’ enthused one local newspaper. His last two appearances in Douglas took place in 1934, at a Sunday Service at Cunningham’s Holiday Camp, and in 1935, when he was amongst the guests at a ‘Homecomers’ reunion at the Villa Marina hosted by Richard Cain and his wife. Kelly’s Directory (Hereford Commercial) of 1938 marks a final faint trace of his long career:

Alister Proctor’s Male Voice Choir. Rehearsals at the Imperial Hotel. Widemarsh Street.

Alister Proctor, Lay Clerk, Hereford Condrine’, died on 11th October 1942 aged seventy-two years, at his home, ‘Ellan Vannin’, 21, Moor Park Road, Hereford.

Maurice Powell, February, 2019.

Notes

1.       Isle of Man Times 11.1.1902.

2.       Army Service Record.

3.       W. H. Balgarnie, later the inspiration for James Hilton’s Mr Chips, taught there during the 1880s.

4.       The business employed three men, four girls and three boys according to the 1881 Isle of Man census. At a meeting of the shareholders the Manx Boot and Shoe Company in December 1898, both Alderman William Proctor and Alister Proctor strongly advocated the investment of ‘a little money’ in the Company in order to secure employment for 50-100 people. The setting up of such small businesses ‘was vital to avoid ‘’all eggs in one basket’’ with the visitor industry’. Even at this date, Alister Proctor seems to have been working for the family business as a commercial traveller working on commission.

5.       William Proctor retired from his shoemaking business in 1892 and built a small villa, ‘Westbrook’, near Quarterbridge. After the death of his wife in 1893 he moved to number 35 Derby Square. His recollections of ‘Old Douglas’ before the rise of the tourist industry make fascinating reading. See Isle of Man Times 10.1902.

6.       The Musical Director at the Derby Castle and later the overall Musical Director of the Palace & Derby Castle Company. See Maurice Powell, Manxland’s King of Music, the life and times of Harry Wood, Lily Publications, 2018.

7.       See Maurice Powell, Frederick Charles Poulter, manxmusic.com/biographies.

8.       According to the England Census of 1901 Alister Proctor and his wife resided at number 1 Brassey Street, Chester, together with a son, three daughters, his mother-in-law and a domestic servant.

9.       May Eleanor Proctor was trained by Alister Proctor and Sir Charles Santley, the great Victorian baritone, and at the Royal Academy of Music. She was a Gold medallist at the 1905 Guild Music Competition.

10.   Army Reserve (Special Reservists) one-year service no. 7528, Labour Corps. He had previously been a member of the Isle of Man Volunteers. (See Isle of Man Times, 15.4.38 for a photograph of Alister Proctor and others in their Manx Volunteer uniforms.) After training in Camberley, Surrey, he was made up to Lance Corporal, and was sent to France in July 1915. He was demobbed in February 1919 and received his Victory Medal in April 1920.

11.   His estate was noted as £2962 2s 9d.

 

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