Obituary Miles Amherst

Miles returned to Blundell’s, where he had been a pupil in Petergate (1944-49), and joined the Staff briefly (1968-69), enlivening the Common Room with his eccentricities and living in Old Blundell’s. He found Tom Clough as Housemaster of Petergate, they had known each other as family friends since the age of five, and made use of him to graze his donkey ‘Ovin’ on the Petergate patch. Ovin escaped and found a taste for saddles from the Westlake bikes! Later, when Tom was Headmaster of a Prep School in Berkshire, Miles would request cast off desks and books for his new enterprise. Much more recently, in July 2013, the Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum has been heard performing at Beaminster Festival in Dorset.

by Jackie Clough


MILES AMHERST, who died on 11 May, aged 82, was a man with a vision. He was about 21 when he first saw Tewkesbury Abbey on a glorious April day, and was much moved by its magnificence and atmosphere of holiness. He also recognised that the building had the most splendid acoustic for choral music, and at once was taken with the idea that, one day, he should start a choir school to provide a choir of men and boys to sing daily evensong in that lovely place.

After Selwyn College, Cambridge, where he read for a general science degree, Miles went into teaching, and coupled his school posts with singing alto in several first-class choirs. He taught for years at King's School, Ely, and later in Devon, but eventually returned to Ely. He discovered the error of returning to old haunts, however, and thought seriously of opening a preparatory school in East Anglia. One of the canons wisely advised against this, and suggested that he should go back to his old dream of starting a choir school in Tewkesbury.

This came to fruition in 1973, when the premises of the former Tewkesbury High School for Girls came on the market. As they were just opposite the Abbey, they were ideally placed, and the right size. Crucially, Canon Cosmo Pouncey, the Vicar of Tewkesbury, was keen on the idea, as was Michael Peterson, the Abbey organist, and they both became ardent supporters of the enterprise.

Peterson shouldered the responsibility of training the choristers, as he was already responsible for the Abbey choir of men and boys, who continued to sing the Sunday services. The new Abbey School choir sang their first evensong on 8 May 1974, and the school quickly grew to its target size of 70 boys. Staff were recruited who could sing the lower parts - Amherst was the Cantoris alto - and so the fledgling choral foundation got under way.

Amherst was a thoroughly old-school, larger-than-life character, with enormous passion, single-mindedness, and drive. The atmosphere in the school was lively, encouraging, and enthusiastic, and academic results were excellent. He also recruited like-minded talented teachers, and gave them scope to develop their own style. Consequently, the staff as well as the children loved him, even though he occasionally drove them all mad.

He became a well-known figure in the town, re-founding the Tewkesbury Town Band, and supplying many of its instruments himself. He also served for a period as churchwarden of the Abbey.

Miles carried all before him with his boundless enthusiasm, generosity, and vigorous "can do" attitude. The choir thrived, gaining a great reputation with regular broadcasts, recordings, concerts, and tours to places as far afield as the United States, Venice, Belgium, Germany, and Russia.

Miles retired as headmaster at Christmas 1990, but remained as chairman of the governors - where a meeting was never allowed to last longer than an hour - and the choral-scholarship trustees.

Succeeding headmasters continued his work very successfully, but, sadly, the school succumbed to falling rolls, and a national demographic decline in the available number of primary-aged children, and had to close on 14 July 2006.

Nevertheless, thanks to the intervention of a sympathetic Cheltenham headmaster, the strong support of a new Vicar of Tewkesbury, and a determined director of the choir, the choristers were transferred to Dean Close Preparatory School in Cheltenham, and, sporting their new title of Schola Cantorum of Tewkesbury Abbey and Dean Close School, continue to sing four choral evensongs a week in the Abbey.

So Miles Amherst's musical vision lives on in all its splendour, as the choir that he founded still sings weekday services in the wonderful building that was at once his inspiration and one of the great loves of his life.

by Dr Roy Massey
Posted on 24th May 2013 on the website of the Church Times