Visit to Westminster Abbey

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the presentation of the steam engine nameplate “Westminster Abbey” by the choirboys of St Augustine’s to the choirboys of the Abbey on March 5th 1965.

On Thursday 5th March, a small group from St Augustine’s left Swindon station to travel to Westminster Abbey to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the presentation of the steam engine plate “Westminster Abbey” to the choirboys there.  There was much press involved in 1965, but this time round it was a quieter affair.  The Abbey is a Royal Peculiar, meaning it is out of the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Canterbury and any diocese, and the Dean answers to the Sovereign – in effect the Queen’s parish church!

The day had been well planned in advanced, and we were greeted by our guide for the afternoon, Richard Smerdon, as soon as we entered the Abbey precincts.  First stop was to visit the Choir School to see the nameplate in situ above the main staircase just inside the main door – so it is seen regularly by the boys and visitors to the school.  We were greeted by the headmaster, Jonathan Milton, who was very enthusiastic about our visit and was delighted to hear a bit more about how the name plate came to be there.  After 10 minutes or so and a few photos of the group in front of the plate, it was off for part two of the afternoon, a guided tour of the Abbey itself.

Naturally, there was just too much to see, but Richard our guide managed to show us the best bits of the Abbey, starting with the Coronation Chair (recently preserved), and the grave of the unknown soldier, where we had time to pause and reflect.

We then made our way through the nave and under the choir screen (very much the same route the Duchess of Cambridge took when she arrived for her wedding).  On the way, it was difficult not to step on the graves of such famous names as Isaac Newton, Henry Purcell and many others.  We saw the famous Cosmati pavement in front of the high altar, which had been restored recently.

Then came one of the highlights of our day – a visit to the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor, to which very few people get to visit, and our timing was perfect as we took part in prayers at the shrine which lasted about 10 minutes – a wonderful experience and very moving spiritually.  It felt special being at the heart of the very reason why the Abbey is there, surrounded by several Kings and Queens.

After visiting the magnificent Henry VII Chapel with its beautiful ceiling and the banners of the Knights of the Order of the Bath, we headed to Poet’s Corner, to the Chapter House (the original home of Parliament) and through the Cloisters.

At 4pm, we met with the Dean of Westminster, the Very Revd Dr John Hall who welcomed us into the Deanery to see two splendid rooms – the Jericho Parlour and the beautiful Jerusalem Chamber – in which the crown jewels are kept guarded overnight before a coronation, Henry VI died, Henry V became King and the bible was first translated into English.  These two rooms are not open to the public, so it was a privilege to see them.

We ended our time at the Abbey with Evensong sung by the world famous Abbey Choir – we had reserve seating in the very front row (just opposite where the Queen normally sits when she is at the Abbey).  The music was wonderful, accompanied by a wonderful view of the length of the Abbey, and the south transept with its rose window.  There were around 600 people at Evensong (quite regular!), and after we followed most of those out, the Dean said farewell to us at the Great West door, where we began our journey home.  What stood out throughout the day was that we felt like VIPs – every member of staff knew who we were and why were there, and were most friendly throughout the day.

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Articles from our April 1965 Parish Magazine

St Augustine’s Review – April 1965  – Mr West at Westminster

Most readers of the magazine will have read accounts in the Swindon newspapers of the presentation by our choirmaster and choirboys of the engine nameplate “Westminster Abbey” to the choirboys of Westminster Abbey.  They have brought us into the news and we congratulate them on their efforts.  For once (!) we were on the front page – the London newspapers as well as the Swindon ones finding our goings-on worth considerable mention.  Even the BBC (West of England) wrote to express regret that other heavy commitments prevented “Points West” from including the visit as an item.

St Augustine’s Review – April 1965  “Westminster Abbey”

“Six foot of snow won’t stop us – we’re going”.  So said Peter Jenvey amid applause.  So it was, at Paddington Station, we heard “by the right, quick march – and straight on for the underground”.  The bearers carried themselves well, indeed the whole operation was done with military precision.  To have borne the burden on two poles, (and it was a large sized nameplate), through London to Westminster Abbey, was no small feat, by four boys.  I was very proud of them, and they were proud of their charge too.

Enough has been written in the London and local press, but I must add that our boys, thirteen in all, were proper film stars for a day, and they just about enjoyed it.  They went to town alright.  About twenty press and cameras were there.

The Dean of Westminster himself presided.  Also present were the Head of Westminster Choir School, the Precentor, the Organist, and of course the choirboys of both the Abbey and St Augustine’s.  After apologising for the absence of Mr John Betjeman (in Cornwall), I gave a resume of the work involved, and said that how I felt it was only proper for the nameplate to reach ‘home’, in Westminster Abbey Choir School.  After all the GWR had used the name to great advantage for fifty years or more.  Our spokesman for the boys – Steven Cowley – then said in his handing over speech – “ex GWR engine 5089”.  From the Choirboys of St Augustine’s Swindon – ‘the home of the Castles’ – to the Choirboys of Westminster Abbey, March 5, 1965”.  That is the inscription around the plate.

The boys continued their visit by receiving an on the spot history lesson, when they were given VIP treatment in the presence of the remains of King Henry V, Queen Elizabeth I and many monarchs of the past.  Then one final treat.  Evensong, sung by a choir that really knew its job.  Our boys rose to it well.  Their behaviour was impeccable.  With a full outfit of choir-caps, they really looked the part.

The precentor has since written “What a happy occasions it was for us on Friday last.  We are most grateful for the nameplate, and hope the occasion will remain a treasured memory for the boys”.

I must mention Alan Royal, for his unfailing efforts in the preparation of the nameplate.

Clayton West

p.s. ‘Castle’ nameplates are fetching anything from £50 to £100 each. (£885 to £1,770 in today’s money)