Wandsworth School began as a day school based in Wandsworth High Street in 1895. The move to the Sutherland Grove site took place in 1927 when the red-brick ‘Old Building’ was completed.
In 1931, Mr. H. Raymond King was appointed Headmaster and he was to serve the school in this capacity until his retirement in 1963. During the Second World War, the school was evacuated to Woking and education continued there. In the years following the war, the music department was run on a part-time basis by a geography teacher, Jack Keyte, and a part-time visiting organist, Dr. Joseph Wardle, who ran the orchestra. There was, indeed, a choir in those days which performed at the normal school functions.
During the early 1950’s, a major decision was taken that was to radically affect Wandsworth School. It was to become one of the first state-run ‘comprehensive’ schools, catering for a large number of boys from all ability ranges. A new set of buildings was to be erected on the large playing field area between the ‘Old Building’ and Sutherland Grove. In preparation for this, more staff and facilities would be needed. A full-time Director of Music was required and on 5th November 1954, Russell Burgess began teaching at Wandsworth School, in Room N.
It is worth reflecting here on Russell’s recollection of events at the time of his appointment – “It is probable that, of the many people who applied in 1954 for the post of Director of Music, I was the only one who knew nothing before the interview of the school’s eventual expansion, or even what a comprehensive school was.”
The new buildings were completed in 1956 and the school could now cater for an intake each September of 360 first years, grouped into twelve forms. At its maximum size, the school had 2000 pupils.
Russell Burgess had the ability and enthusiasm to communicate with young people. Even the non-musical were drawn to him, impressed by his knowledge and love of cricket. He was a qualified MCC coach. The choir grew both in number and quality and began performing outside the school in such venues as local hospitals and the Danish Church in Regents Park. At this time, 1962, Russell was joined by Ian Cobb, an ‘Old Boy’ of the school, who was to give invaluable assistance in the Music Department, both as a teacher and instrumentalist for over ten years.
There were also other teachers who gave part-time help on a regular basis.
In 1963, Mr.H.Raymond King retired and was succeeded by Mr.A.E.Howard, whose eleven years at Wandsworth will always be remembered for his total support and tireless enthusiasm for the Music Department and the choir in particular.
By the mid 1960’s, the choir had reached such a standard that the trebles and altos were invited to take part in a performance of Carl Orff’s ‘Carmina Burana’ with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus at the Royal Festival Hall. That date, in June 1965, was the beginning of the truly public performances by the Wandsworth School Choir. The boys were heard in a performance of Britten’s ‘Spring Symphony’ by the composer’s life-long friend, Peter Pears. This resulted in an invitation to perform at the Holland Festival in Amsterdam in July 1967. A deep lasting friendship developed between Benjamin Britten and “my favourite choir at my favourite school“, as he once described the school in a telegram. Indeed, in 1969, he dedicated ‘A Children’s Crusade’ to the Choir and Russell Burgess. This complex work, scored for boys’ voices, keyboards and a vast array of percussion instruments, was given its first performance at the 50th Anniversary Service of the Save the Children Fund in St. Paul’s Cathedral in June 1969. Britten became the choir’s first patron and the association lasted until the composer’s death in 1976.
Glyn Harvey, October 1986