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Psalms by Thomas Shell

The book of Psalms composed by Thomas Shell

Thomas Shell:

DoB unknown – 1st May 1801. CHILD STAR, COUNTER TENOR, ORCHESTRAL MUSICIAN AND COMPOSER Relation to me: 4 x great grandfather through my father.


MARRIAGE No.1 1789 During this time, Thomas was also developing his skills on the double bass and his voice changed to being a counter tenor. He had to make the transition from being a child star to a serious musician in one of the keenest musical environments there was at the time.

Lunardi hat

Bath Journal 11th May 1789

In private his life was about to change because on Tuesday May 5th 1789 Thomas married Ruth Elizabeth Charmbury at St Mary’s Church (now no longer in existence).

She went by her middle name as is seen by the announcement in the paper. This was clearly considered worthy local news of interest as it is included within a series of other announcements ranging from a few deaths to a huge sturgeon being sold at Bristol market!

Lunardi hat

Concert May 1791

HERSCHEL AND SHELL In the May of 1791, Thomas was involved in another concert and this is the first mention we have of him playing the double bass although he probably played in concerts before this. In the same orchestra was Alexander Herschel, the brother of William and Caroline. All three of the Herschel children possessed a remarkable talent in both music and things mechanical. Although William went on to achieve fame in the world of astronomy, both Caroline and Alexander spent precious hours grinding and polishing lenses and helping their brother in his quest. When William and Caroline moved from Bath, Alexander stayed and made it his home, continuing to play in the theatre orchestra and gaining a reputation as a fine cellist.

One can but speculate about any friendship between Alexander and Thomas, however, Alexander was known to suffer from bouts of depression and although he was twice engaged, he was jilted both times which didn’t help his demeanour! He may have been companionable with Thomas or a silent musical partner.

THE LOYAL PETITIONS During this period two events conspired to give anxiety to England. The first was that George III was suffering from what was called ‘The King’s condition’. This was his ‘madness’ possibly caused by Porphyria. This brought into question his ability to rule. At the same time, there was revolution in France and a question mark over the need for a monarch at all.

Rights of Man

Thomas Paine had published his pamphlet ‘The Rights of Man’ which was considered seditious at the time. What is now considered a classic piece of democracy was considered most dangerous. It quickly became illegal to sell or own a copy.

In Bath, like elsewhere, the leaders of the city were nervous about gatherings of large people in case some sort of discussion about revolution gained ground. In 1792 they created Loyal Associations asking local traders and professionals to sign to show their allegiance to the King. Anybody who refused to sign could very quickly find themselves ostracised and their living compromised.

Rights of Man

Signature on Loyal Petition

It is probably no surprise to see that Thomas signed it. To my mind he was already ensconced within the upper echelons of society through his music making. It would be madness for him to put that into jeopardy and I suspect he may even have upheld the values of the class within which he moved. What is interesting is that a ‘William Shell’ has also signed, just above Thomas. So far I have no evidence this is a relation and there were a number of Shells living in the Bath area during this period. This name is not associated with the Shell family either and often you find names coming down through the family line – as indeed the name Thomas has.

1793 DEATH OF WIFE AND A NEW ONE WITHIN WEEKS In October 1793 Elizabeth died. There are no children recorded for this marriage so it is highly likely she died in childbirth. She was buried in St Mary’s Chapel on 27th October 1793. When the chapel was pulled down in 1875, there is no record of what happened to the gravestones.

marriage

Thomas gets married again

On December 1st 1793, Thomas re-married Hester Wight. The marriage certificate is quite hard to decipher but shows that both bride and husband could write as they have signed their names. I can’t quite read the witnesses – always something to look at as often they were family or significant friends of the couple.

One anomaly is that on the marriage certificate she is referred to as Hester, but elsewhere, she comes out as being Esther. I will go with the marriage certificate which was scribed by educated clerks, however, it is worth bearing this in mind.

The couple went on to have 6 children, 4 of whom survived to adulthood. Their first son Thomas was born in the May/June of the following year, which means that by the time of marriage, Hester was already pregnant. As conception would be at about the time Elizabeth died, this throws up several intriguing thoughts.

It is not uncommon to find throughout family ancestry the same kind of story repeated. Perhaps not this particular scenario, but children born out of wedlock and the couple then going on to marry, and certainly the bride having conceived before marriage took place. With the high mortality rate it was seen as sensible to make sure the woman was able to, at the very least, conceive children to ensure the survival of the family. Marriage was not seen as a love match in those days, although undoubtedly love did blossom. Jane Austen’s novels repeatedly revolve around this very theme.

marriage

In the current St Michael's Church

SIX CHILDREN, FOUR SURVIVORS Thomas Shell junior (no 1) was born in 1794 and christened in Bath Abbey on June 6th, the only child to be christened here. He lived for about 9 months and died in the April of 1795. His burial was on 9th April at St Michael’s Church. The rest of the children were all christened at this church.

St Michael’s church today is one that was rebuilt after the church Thomas would have known was knocked down in 1835. Again, with that destruction, any gravestones for the Shell family were not preserved.

Bath skyline

St Michael's Church dominates the Bath skyline

Thomas Shell junior (no 2) was christened at St Michael’s on 27th September 1795. He was also a musician and went on to have 3 children.

Christopher Shell was christened on 26th September 1797. He too was a musician who married and had 3 children and is my 3 x great grandfather. What I know of his life and legacy is a separate page. Click here to go to his page.

Ann Shell was christened on 13th January 1799 but died in October of the same year and buried on 29th October at St Michael’s church.

Ann Wight Shell was baptised on 21st September 1800. She does not seem to have married and in 1871, at the age of 71, she was a lodger in Eastbourne living off an annuity.

Eliza Shell was baptised at St Michael’s on 16th December 1801 and married David Long in the same church on 22nd October 1826.

1797 THEATRE ROYAL AND THREE CHOIRS FESTIVAL By now, Thomas was part of the theatre band/orchestra and these same players made up many instrumental groups around Bath, sometimes playing in the Pump Rooms and for the Garden concerts.

The Three Choirs Festival

The Three Choirs Festival

These players also had the opportunity to make up the orchestra for the Three Choirs Festival, which in 1797 took place in Worcester Cathedral. Even today, this is a good 1.5 hours by motorway between the two cities. Travelling then, with a double bass, must have been quite a challenge and not for the faint hearted!

The festival began on Tuesday 5th September and various performances, many containing music by Handel with the obligatory annual performance of Messiah taking place on the Thursday morning.

Masonic Hall

The Masonic Hall was formally the Theatre Royal

Masonic Hall

Inside the Masonic Hall

Masonic Hall

The old stage area in the Masonic Hall

One of the named vocal performers is Cooke and it is reasonable to suggest this is the same man who was a childhood star with Thomas and with whom he shared many a concert.

The Theatre Royal in Bath was in Old Orchard Street and it is still possible to tour this venue, although it is now a masonic hall.

The stage was very limited and there is no backstage, literally just a corridor. Here you can see the pillars of the stage and a faint line around the wall through the plaster where the galleried boxes used to be. People were crammed into the space below and with the only ventilation being a small grill in the ceiling, it is not difficult to imagine a hot, steamy, noisy and smelly environment! Where the steps up to the stage now are, is where the orchestral players would be.

The system for hanging scenery

The system for hanging scenery is still there!

Remarkably, the old system for hanging scenery still exists and the heavy painted canvases was hauled in through the window and positioned across the width of the passage and would stay there for the entire run of performances.

The theatre was only the second in the country to receive royal status, giving it a great deal of kudos. Sarah Siddons, the actress, began her career here during Thomas’s time and she returned to the theatre in 1799 to give a sell-out performance. Maybe Thomas formed part of the audience which thronged to see her on that day? Another famous visitor to Bath was Nelson in 1797 and given his vanity and need for public recognition, it is not a giant leap to think he may well have attended a performance in which Thomas was involved, either here or in the Vauxhall Gardens.

The cheese shop at 31 Walcot St

The cheese shop at 31 Walcot St

WALCOT STREET We know that when he died, Thomas was living at 31 Walcot Street (now a specialist cheese shop)and the family may already have been living there by the time their next son, Christopher, was born in 1797. (He would become my 3 x great grandfather).

By the end of the 18th Century, Bath was pretty much as we see it today. The next significant developments for Thomas were the opening of Grosvenor Gardens to the north of the city and Sydney Gardens at the far end of Great Pulteney Street over the bridge. All this affected the popularity of the Spring Gardens and they closed in 1798.

The Holbourne Museumt

The Holbourne Museum

The Sydney Hotel

The Sydney Hotel

Bath Journal 3rd Sept 1798

Bath Journal 3rd Sept 1798

Sydney Gardens were accessed through the Sydney Hotel, the present day Holbourne Museum, and with the surrounding gardens and the canal walks, this became the most popular venue, with guests able to order food and have it delivered to their tables, while the musicians played on the balcony or later around the gardens.

The last concert of the season in 1798 shows Thomas and his compatriots singing for a very crowded evening of entertainment including significant fireworks, all described in great detail, plus the latest craze which was a mechanical puppet show called Fantoccini which had come over from Italy.

BATH HARMONIC SOCIETY Meanwhile, Thomas became a founding member of the Bath Harmonic Society which was set up by Dr Harington after he abandoned the Catch Club. Membership was restricted to the nobility and gentry and professional singers. From the start, the company rules were strict and their first rule stated

‘This Society is established for the promotion of harmony…in order to preserve which, no political discussion shall be suffered to take place, nor shall any indecent song or sentiment be permitted to be sung or spoken on any account’

Bath Herald 8th Dec 1798

Bath Herald 8th Dec 1798

Members of the club included the Prince Regent himself and Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, who would later become Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The Harmonic Society

Thomas is mentioned twice, once as an apology.

The society employed 8 professional singers of which one was Thomas, singing counter tenor. A review of a particularly successful evening is written up in the Bath Herald.

Things seemed to have reached a pinnacle when in the March of 1800, a complaint appeared in the newspaper that Thomas had been missed out of the review of Ladies’ Night – a very popular evening which had taken place in the Lower Assembly Rooms with 435 tickets being printed up and allegedly sold.

Thomas certainly lived through some interesting times and in the May of 1800, King George IIIrd survived two assassination attempts in one day, the first being in the morning when he inspected his troops and the second in the evening when he went to the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. James Hadfield had decided to take a pot shot at the King in his box. He missed and the King went to the front of the box and looked around at the audience beneath, earning him much needed cudos! The play went ahead and at the end Richard Sheridan and the company sang the national anthem with an extra verse that Sheridan himself had penned while the rest of the play continued.

From every latent foe
From the assassin’s blow
God save the King
O’re Him thine arm extend
For Britain’s sake, defend,
Our father, King and friend
God save the King!

Gala at the Sydney Gardens

Gala at the Sydney Gardens June 4th 1800

Benefit concert

Benefit concert for Thomas, June 10th 1800

Bath Chronicle 26th June 1800

Bath Chronicle 26th June 1800

Bath Chronicle 24th July 1800

Bath Chronicle 24th July 1800

Bath Chronicle 7th Aug 1800

Bath Chronicle 7th Aug 1800

Bath Chronicle 14th Aug 1800

Bath Chronicle 14th Aug 1800

The public took this to its heart and within weeks, performances were enhanced either by the singing of the National Anthem with this added verse, or as here, recitation of an Ode to celebrate his lucky escape.

FUTURE STARS JUNE 10TH 1800 On June 10th, Thomas had his own benefit concert which took place at the new Grosvenor Gardens site. Thomas was busy in this concert and along with performing and possibly helping organise it, he sells tickets from the house in Walcot Street. Note that in this concert, the extra verse of the national anthem is being sung!

Lucy Anderson by Richard James Lane

Lucy Anderson by Richard James Lane

In this concert, James Windsor in on the pianoforte and playing double bass next to Thomas is John Philpot. James played the piano for the Harmonic Society and was a very fine pianist, and also a distant cousin to the Philpots. He was to end up teaching Lucy, the daughter of John Philpot, who in turn would have a glittering career under her married name of Lucy Anderson and went on to teach Queen Victoria and her children piano.

It should be noted however that at this time, she was not yet 3 years old! It is an intriguing possibility that Thomas and John chatted about their offspring and if they were showing any musical leanings!.

SUMMER 1800 During the summer season Thomas was busy playing and singing in concerts at Sydney Gardens, one being for the Friendly Society which had masonic implications. Viotti was a regular visitor to Bath and it looks like he played his own violin concerto with Seine (a well known pianist) accompanying him. There is also music by Corelli and Thomas sings a duet from Solomon by William Boyce.

On 18th August, Thomas put on another concert at Grosvenor Gardens and invites the public to attend to celebrate the birthday of the Duke of York, Prince Frederick. There are compositions by Haydn, Rauzzini and Pleyel with comic songs and catches and glees.

FINAL MENTION The last concert of the season and the last time we hear of Thomas was on 9th September 1800 back at Sydney Gardens.

The entrance to the Laura Chapel

The entrance to the Laura Chapel still survives.

By now, Thomas and Hester had buried two young children and had two boys who survived, Thomas and Christopher. In the September, a healthy little girl, Ann Wight Shell, was born. Their growing family will have required some more income. Once the Bath season closed down, musicians had to turn to other sources of money, like teaching and composition. Thankfully for us, Thomas did precisely that.

LAURA CHAPEL The chapel had been built in 1795 in Henrietta Street, just over Pulteney Bridge, for the residents of the new area of Bath. It was named after the daughter of Sir Willam Pulteney and was run by the reverend Dr, Francis Randolph. The chapel seated 1,000 and Dr Randolph was frequently found giving a thunderous sermon in the pulpit.

Dr Randolph

Dr Randolph

Frances, Lady Jersey from NPG

Frances, Lady Jersey from NPG

Caroline of Brunswick

Caroline of Brunswick 1795

DR RANDOLPH’S UNFORTUNATE INCIDENT – A MAJOR SCANDAL It was while he was chaplain to the Duke of York that an unfortunate incident took place bringing notoriety to the Reverend Doctor. In 1795 he was entrusted with some letters from the Princess of Wales, Caroline of Brunswick, to her family in Germany. Prevented from going, Dr Randolph put the letters in a coach and sent them from London back to the Princess at Brighton. Unfortunately the letters got lost on this journey. The press believed that Lady Frances Jersey, whom Caroline detested, and who was, at that time the lover of the Prince of Wales and a malicious and spiteful woman, had intercepted the letters and made known the contents, many of which were some rather free reflections on Queen Charlotte herself. Randolph had to publish his full version of the account leading to much amusement in the press and public.

Cover Plate for the Twenty Psalms

Cover Plate for the Twenty Psalms

Dedication to the Congregation

Dedication to the Congregation

The Opening and Closing Hymns

The Opening and Closing Hymns were more substantial

One of the Psalms

One of the Psalms

TWENTY NEW PSALMS None of this prevented Randolph and his work at the Laura Chapel, indeed it might have swelled the ranks of the congregation. It is unclear whether Thomas was involved with the chapel as choir master or whether he was just commissioned to write the psalms but in 1801, Thomas published 20 new psalms and Dr Randolph ordered 100 copies.

The settings were of texts by Nahum Tate, best known for his libretto to Dido and Aeneas by Purcell. The compositions show that the congregation must have had some skill in singing, but presumably there was a chapel choir to help and there are some duet options within the pieces for soloists, possibly Thomas himself.

Janet discovered this edition held at the British Library and there is another one at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

The music shows that it was registered at Stationer’s Hall in London in order to protect copyright. This was relatively new for music although had been around since about 1710 for the written word. It did mean that anybody entering their work had to provide a complimentary copy to the hall and it is thanks to this that we can see Thomas’s work today.

For a Christmas concert in December 2016, Christopher Goldsack took the best of the psalms and, searching for a suitable carol to fit the metre, alighted on While Shepherds watched their flocks by night. Coincidentally he realised this text was also penned by Nahum Tate. He recorded his Promenade Project Choir singing it – quite possibly the first time the music of Thomas Shell has been heard in public for 200 years.

List of subscribers

List of subscibers

Page 2 of the list of subscribers

Page 2 of the list of subscribers

John Wilberforce

John Wilberforce

John Wilberforce's listing

John Wilberforce listing

SUBSCRIBERS In order to afford to publish, composers would have to attract subscribers to order advanced copies and in the back of the British Library edition, the list of those of Thomas for this work and the number of copies ‘purchased’ is included.

James Windsor and John Philpot have both subscribed as have the Cantelos and Mr Cook; several members of the gentry, various music shops and one Honourable Mr William Wilberforce who ordered 2 copies. In 2017 I contacted the current family and although they had not seen this music, they were interested in the information.

Wilberforce had connections in Bath as he met and married his wife Barbara in the city. They married at St Swithin’s Church, Walcot which was where Thomas’s son, Christopher was to be married. A notable omission to the list is that of Rauzzini.

In total there were 215 subscribers who paid 1/6 per copy. Non subscribers paid 4 shillings and even without taking those into account, Thomas did very well out of the venture.

317 copies were sold in advance giving him the equivalent of £28. In those days £1 = £100 today meaning he earned well over £2,000.

APRIL 1801 DEATH Thomas was buried at St. Michael’s Church on May 1st 1801. Young Thomas was 5, Christopher had just turned 4 and Ann was 1 year old. Hester was to have one more daughter, Eliza, born in the December of that year, but they may not even have known yet that she was pregnant.

Record of Thomas's death

Record of Thomas's death

His age at death is not known but my guess is that he must only have been in his 30s. He was clearly a man who found a way to make a living in that over musically subscribed city and he had acquaintances in high society through his musical abilities. He rubbed shoulders with some of the great singers and musicians of the day and left a legacy in his compositions and his 4 children, two of whom stayed in the musical traditions that Thomas had set up and one of whom also composed music.

But his legacy stretches further down the centuries of course with singing. One of his 4 X great grandsons has a natural counter tenor voice which although not used professionally, has had the quality to have been, a 2 X great granddaughter took up singing professionally; his 2 X great grandson sang in a close harmony group; 2 of his 4 X great granddaughters sing professionally and the musical gene continues to be played out. Thank you Thomas!

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