Many people in West Sussex know of the Sharpthorne Carol Party, which isn’t surprising as this highly popular institution is currently celebrating their 93rd anniversary. The choir, who are currently booking private parties this Christmas will be raising funds for St Catherine’s Hospice and the Melanoma Fund. This is their story:
“Ron and Doris Comber, whose family were Comber and Son (builders who still trade in Sharpthorne) organised a party of carol singers each Christmas to collect donations for local good causes, by traveling around the local area on a lorry bed with a piano strapped to the back. I was in the St. Margaret’s Church choir one Sunday morning when Ron Comber came in to ask if anybody would like to sing with their carol party, as several adult members had lost their voices from tonsillitis.
He assured us we would only be singing the well-known carols, so we all agreed to go along. A few weeks before Christmas we all got together and practised at Ron’s home, fine tuning our voices and having lots of fun. This was the start of an annual event that has continued until the present day.
One of the early members, Harry Martin, always came with his collecting tin, which he did from 1932-1988. He was a popular and well known local character and was welcomed in the homes we visited and people enjoyed his sense of humour and local stories. He had been the chauffeur at Courtlands and later, petrol pump attendant at Sharpthorne Garage. (I have a photo of him with his tin at Chiddinglye when Earl Limerick gave a speech and presentation on his retirement.)The Reverend Michael and Sheila Allen called Harry ‘The Top Tin Rattler’.
One of Doreen’s first memories was singing at Dalingridge Place, which was very grand. “We all assembled in the hall around a big iron stove and when we were settled, the family magically appeared from the dining room. Lady Margaret Duckworth would lead the family in, and she and her three sons, their wives and guests were all in full evening dress. Lady Margaret always wore black with a lot of jewellery, and her daughters-in-law also wore a lot of jewellery and looked very grand. To us teenagers it was quite an impressive occasion!
Every year we went to the Furze family at Old House, where some of their family were visiting from America for Christmas. After we had sung, Mrs Pam Furze would play the piano and her grandchildren would sing to us, which gave us a break. In those days we sang to seven or eight houses per evening and also sang outside when requested, such as for Mrs Daw at the Vineyard.
Lord and Lady Kindersley at Plawhatch Hall invited us to sing every year and once or twice on the same evening as the Forest Row Band and Lifeboat Choir. So, more than once the band would be leaving as we arrived, which caused quite a bit of amusement and friendly rivalry.
Houses on fire!
The choir also had a few evenings when things didn’t go quite to plan. As they were driving up Horsted Lane from Ravenswood to Kixes there was a lot of black smoke ahead and they arrived at Kixes they found a fire engine and the oast house on fire! When they enquired whether they still wanted the choir to sing, Lady Wilkinson replied in a very calm voice “Do come in, we are having a problem with the oast, but we would still like you to sing.”
The show must go on!
Another memorable evening was held at Wickenden Manor when the choir were due to sing for the Astor family. They were short of transport that evening, so someone offered the use of his builder’s truck. As they descended down the steep drive, Harry Martin who was our driver, shouted “I think the brakes have failed”. Half way down the hill he turned the truck into a pile of brick rubble and the choir were very lucky to get out ,shaken but unharmed. Doreen recalls ‘Although the truck was in bits, we still joined the rest of the group to sing. ‘The show must go on’, as the saying goes.
Hair on fire
At an event in Hoathly Hill to sing for Robert Clarke’s family, there was a power cut and the whole house was thrown in darkness. A box of candles was produced and the choir did its best in the circumstances to see the music sheets. The worst was yet to come! “Suddenly there was a smell of burning hair. The tenor standing behind me was leaning forward to concentrate on his music and the flame of his candle was singeing my hair! The conductor, Tim Denby who lived at Tanyard, realised what was happening, before I did, and beckoned me to move forward, I was blown out, and we continued to sing!”
One of the more unusual carol singing calls, was the night the choir tried to sing at Snegg’s Hill. As the choir drove up to the house it was well lit up on all four floors. They started to sing and it became very apparent they were not welcome, as starting with the ground floor, one by one the lights went out on each floor until the house was in complete darkness.
For a number of years we sang in St. Margaret’s Church as people were arriving for the Midnight Service on Christmas Eve. We also recorded a cassette in the church in October 1995 in memory of Steve Comber. Pearl Knight was the conductor at that time and arranged the recording.
Our last venue every Christmas Eve was to Gravetye Manor. The guests came from the dining room to sit in the hall where we stood by the huge Christmas tree to sing to them. Mr Peter Herbert, the owner, then took us to a member’s room where we ate more mince pies and were served drinks. He always gave a speech of appreciation, along with a few of his memories of Carol Party visits over the years.”
The count up
After the last performance on Christmas Eve the tradition was to have the ‘Count-up’. The money collected was tipped from the collecting tins, and the final total was announced. Back in the 1940’s and 50’s we felt pleased to have collected £30-40. Now the average total is in the thousands.”
Today the choir is still in high demand. Word of mouth has ensured their bookings, which still include private parties are constant. Michele Luck-Jacques continues as conductor and prepares the musical programme for the year, ensuring she has a well-balanced choir.
If you wish to raise money for a local charity cause and experience a truly traditional experience, why not book the choir for a private booking? They are available in the East Grinstead or Forest Row area between the 12th and 22nd December, please email Julia at firstname.lastname@example.org.