“I feel I must fight for [my music] because I want women to turn their minds to big and difficult jobs, not just to go on hugging the shore, afraid to put out to sea.” – Dame Ethel Smyth

This year has shown us just how important the creative industries are. Art, music, theatre, and film all have the power to heal, entertain, and above all, make us feel good. Our wonderful heritage volunteers, Rosemary and Richard, have examined Woking’s history as a creative hub for classical musicians – from the distinctive figures who have performed in the town to its societies, choirs, and operatic groups - many of which continue to thrive today.

The Woking Orchestral Society was formed in 1896 by a group of local musicians. It gave its first concert on 28 April 1897 at the Public Hall, where passing trains disturbed the performance. Shortly after came the first sign of a choral society in an initiative from E.H. Maxwell, owner of a music shop in The Broadway, who placed an advert in the ‘Woking News and Mail’ for singers in 1897. By 1899, the two societies had combined to form Woking Musical Society. However, the Woking Choral Society, founded in 1900, eventually became its own entity in the 1940s. It continues to flourish today, with 90 auditioned singers undertaking an ambitious and extensive repertoire.

The orchestral side of Woking Musical Society had a more difficult time and was re-formed in 1943, changing its name to Woking Symphony Orchestra in 1972. Ralph Vaughan Williams was its first president, followed by Sir Colin Davis. The Orchestra now gives three evening concerts and a family concert each year. Roy Stratford has been the conductor since 1984.

Into the emerging scene of the early 20th Century came Dame Ethel Smyth, with whom the Musical Society began a long association; she conducted part of her opera ‘The Wreckers’ and remained patron until her death. She was a well-established composer and conductor when she moved from Frimley to Woking in 1910. While in Woking, she became a militant suffragette, teaching Mrs Pankhurst to throw stones at windows, refusing to complete her 1911 census form, and was imprisoned in Holloway Prison for breaking windows.  She composed the suffragette anthem ‘The March of the Women’ along with six operas, a mass and numerous other works, much influenced by her early training in Frankfurt. She died in Woking, aged 86, in 1944 and her ashes are scattered in woodland near Woking Golf Club.

Dame Ethel Smyth

Woking Concert Society was founded in 1923 as Woking Music Club and until its closure in 2017, engaged many famous performers including Dame Myra Hess, Kathleen Ferrier, Artur Rubinstein, Gerald Moore, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Dame Janet Baker, Julian Bream, Radu Lupu, and the Amadeus String Quartet. 

The Woking Music Festival was founded by Nancy Leigh in 1926 and is now one of the largest competitive music festivals in Surrey, with 2,000 people of all ages participating. It is held annually in November, and the Woking Young Musician of the Year competition is held the following February, with performers from the main festival invited to participate. A cup designed by Omar Ramsden, one of the leading silver designers of his generation, was presented by Sir Laurence Halsey (Sheriff of Surrey in 1935) to Woking Music Festival in 1934 to be awarded to the winning mixed voice choir.

The Halsey Cup

The Epworth Choir was founded by Walter Deakin in 1958 to give and receive enjoyment through music while raising money for various charities. He conducted the choir for 23 years and the patron of the choir was Les Reed, a friend, and neighbour of Walter Deakin’s, who had been associated with the choir since the early 1970s. The choir’s choice of music ranges from major choral works sung in Guildford Cathedral to popular music and carols in Woking.

Woking Amateur Operatic Society can date its origins to the 1920s, but it folded in the 1930s for want of a venue. It was re-established in 1972 and after performances in several venues now has its regular home in the Rhoda McGaw Theatre, where it normally produces two shows a year.

Knaphill and St Johns Operatic Group (KASJOG) began as an adult education evening class at The Winston Churchill School, St Johns, in 1968. The first production was Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘Trial by Jury’, and since then Gilbert and Sullivan productions have alternated with light opera. In 1994, KASJOG separated from adult education, and became a registered charity, moving its productions to The Rhoda McGaw Theatre.

And finally, Woking’s own impresario - Harold Fielding, known as “the Cameron Mackintosh of his time” was born in Woking in December 1916 and was still living with his parents in Maybury Road in 1945. He started in entertainment as a boy violinist but later got stage fright and turned to promote concerts and then musicals, his greatest hit being ‘Charlie Girl’ in 1965. The last of the old-school impresarios and the leading producer of stage musicals from the 1950s-1980s, Harold Fielding worked with many of the big names of the time including Ginger Rogers, Tommy Steele, Danny Kaye, and Frank Sinatra. A small man in stature, Harold had a constant smile and boundless energy and described himself as ‘a good marketeer’. Harold died in 2003 aged 86.

Classical music continues to be made and performed in schools and churches and while public concerts and live rehearsals may have been put on hold this year, this hasn’t stopped some musicians performing ‘virtually’ via social media, Zoom, and other live streaming platforms.

Have you seen any of the shows put on by these societies or choirs? Or are you a classical musician/opera singer in the making?

For more fascinating blog posts on Woking’s history – or some fun ideas for staying creative, please visit our blog.