Old Cornwall Christmas Traditions
Cornish Carols - A Tradition For The World
A mere forty-six years was the life-span of Thomas Merritt; who lived in an age when disease and hardships in the Cornish tin and copper mines made old men of youths, and the Biblical 'three score years and ten' was a fiction to all but the lucky few.
The son of an Illogan miner, Merritt was a natural musician who developed his musical abilities with the aid of only six months tuition before the age of eighteen. He had no patron to aid his genius; his home background was one of consistent poverty.
Education (at Pool Board School) ceased for him at the age of eleven, when his father died. Jobs at Cam Brea mine and Tolvaddon tin streams seemed to be destining the young Thomas to the grinding life of a mine-worker; but physical frailty and ill-health soon dictated otherwise. Before he was twenty he was beginning to earn a meagre living as a music teacher. As organist of Chili Road Chapel, and later at Fore Street Methodist Church (both at Illogan Highway, Redruth) he made his mark amongst the many dedicated musicians of the district.
By candlelight in his cottage he began to compose; and the music poured forth - oratorios, anthems, a sacred cantata, carols and hymns. Soon in the mines, on the surface and underground, his vigorous and joyful music swelled; the dark, dingy world of the underground levels, the warm, consoling atmosphere of the inns, and the fervent, religious air of the chapels, rang and resounded with his stirring compositions, When Cornish mining declined the men, migrating in masses from the Redruth area, took his tunes across the world, and today they can be heard in such far-scattered places as Grass Valley, California, the Rand, South Africa, and the Yorke Peninsula, South Australia.
Merritt was also talented as a conductor. He often directed choirs performing his own compositions. For brass and silver bands, the first love of many a Comishman, he wrote several works, including a well-known march for the Coronation of Edward VI1 in 1902. Today from the barren, mine-scarred landscape of Camborne-Redruth the music of Merritt continues to swell, attracting new devotees each year.
Of all the music, however, his carols are best known and loved. They have been reprinted many times; and still the demand for them grows.
Gentle and modest Methodist that he was, Thomas Merritt attracted the attention of well-known contemporary composer Malcolm Arnold; who expressed his 'enormous admiration for a man who was able to overcome such wretched material circumstances, and give us some of the most vigorous and joyous music it has been my privilege to hear.' In 1968, on the 60th anniversary of Merritt's death, Dr. Arnold conducted a memorial concert in Truro Cathedral; massed choirs and bands gave an emotive tribute (unforgettable to those present) to the Cornish miners musicians, performing a number of his anthems and carols.
In the churchyard at Illogan can be seen a memorial in white marble, with these words on it:-
In loving Memory of Thomas Merritt Who died April 17th 1908 aged 46 years. The languishing head is at rest, Its thinking and aching are o'er; This quiet immoveable breast Is heaved by affliction no more.
And on the wall of Fore Street Chapel, Illogan Highway, is a 50th anniversary plaque 'erected by Camborne-Redruth U.D.C. to commemorate with pride and gratitude the late Thomas Merritt of this parish; once organist in this chapel and composer of Christmas carols sung by Cornish men and women the world over'.
Chili Road chapel is no more; a thousand monuments of the last great mining generation are now destroyed or decaying; but the notes of Thomas Merritt's music, rising to a climax each Christmas, continue to enshrine the ancient Christian and Celtic spirit of Cornwall.
Federation of Old Cornwall Societies
The Federation of Old Cornwall Societies is a Registered Charity No. 247283
George P Web Design