Sir Frederick Arthur Gore Ouseley

A Note by Christopher J Robinson CVO CBE, sometime Organist & Director of Music,
St John's College, Cambridge

The Reverend Sir Frederick Ouseley Bt., Precentor of Hereford Cathedral and Professor of Music at Oxford: in itself this designation indicates the status of an aristocratic clergyman, composer and scholar in the mid 19th century.

As a child, Ouseley was musically precocious and his early efforts at composition and improvisation suggested a budding Mozart or Mendelssohn. But music never figured in his formal education and a growing interest in ecclesiastical matters led him to subjugate his musical talents to liturgical ideals. Ordination in 1849 and a successful submission for an Oxford DMus in 1854 were important milestones.

Few of his compositions are now in regular use, but his most enduring memorial was the College of St Michael's at Tenbury which he founded in 1856. His fascination with the Tractarian movement in Oxford provided the initial inspiration for the founding of a spiritual and educational community, whose main task was the singing of the daily offices. He had attempted a similar project during his curacy at St Barnabas Pimlico, but met with vociferous opposition in the shape of the 'no popery' riots and this caused him to seek a calmer venue in the Worcestershire countryside.

Standards in church music were at a very low ebb and the general conduct of the liturgy was often perfunctory. The purpose of St Michael's was to set new standards and to serve as a model in both these respects. Ouseley expended most of his considerable wealth on building and maintaining the College which also housed his priceless library. It survived numerous vicissitudes over a period of 129 years and the library, presided over in due course by such distinguished figures as E.H. Fellowes and Watkins Shaw, provided source material for countless visiting scholars.

By 1985 it became clear, not least to the Charity Commissioners, that the College was no longer solvent owing to an acute shortage of fee-paying pupils. Its inevitable closure was received with sadness and dismay, but it was rightly claimed that Ouseley's dream had to some extent been realised. Though cathedral music continues to be under financial threat its standards are probably higher than they have ever been.

Ouseley's library is now housed at the Bodleian in Oxford and, following the sale of the College, a Trust was set up, the income from which was to be applied 'for the purposes of promoting and maintaining to a high standard the choral services of the Church of England...' Ouseley's vision is therefore still very much alive.

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St Michael's College

The College of St Michael and All Angels, to give Ouseley's foundation its full and proper title, was established in 1856, one of the small number of new parishes created since the Reformation. Ouseley was both the patron and paid for the construction of the church and the connected college buildings. His architect was Henry Woodyer (1816-1896) who made a muscular early Gothic design similar to those of Pugin and of Woodyer's mentor, Butterfield. The church is large, with nave, aisles with four-bay arcades, transepts and a high polygonal apse. Pevsner says that Woodyer's style is primarily recognisable by its use of steeply pitched roofs, steep arches and steep porch entrances and the first of these is given perhaps its most exuberant and exaggerated expression in the vertiginous roof and high narrow dormers of the college buildings.

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The Library

One of the treasures of St Michael's was the music library of which the foundation was Ouseley's own collection. Generally acknowledged to be one of the best in the United Kingdom outside the university and national libraries, it was particularly strong on early and rare treatises on music and included (as might be expected) a very large amount of English church music of any standing. Secular vocal music was well represented with an unusually large and important collection of opera scores. Among the manuscript music was Handel's 'conducting' score of Messiah used at the first performance of the oratorio in 1742.

Part of the library was vested in the trustees outright. Ouseley's own Will directed that, on the dissolution of the College, the remainder should be given to the Bodleian Library. By 1986, there was no way of knowing exactly which books fell into each group and an amicable agreement was reached whereby all the manuscript material passed directly to Oxford and the balance was retained by the trustees - with the proviso that the Bodleian Library might purchase any that it did not possess already at an agreed valuation.

The then trustees divided the remainder of the material (including a small collection of manuscripts purchased after Ouseley's death) between the Bodleian Library and Hereford Cathedral Library where they are on permanent loan. In addition, the trustees have deposited with the latter institution a small collection of registers, records, photographs and ephemera relating to the College. Other items (including a number of paintings) are on loan to the Britten-Pears Library, the Royal School of Church Music, the Royal Academy of Music and St Michael's Church, Tenbury.

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Select Bibliography and Sources

Dictionary of National Biography, (London, various dates)

A History of English Cathedral Music, J S Bumpus (London, 1908)

The History of St Michael's College, Tenbury, edited by M F Alderson and H C Colles (London, 1943)

*Sir Frederick Ouseley and St Michael's, Tenbury, edited by H Watkins Shaw (University of Birmingham for the Trustees of St Michael's College, Tenbury, 1986) ISBN 0 7044 0954 2

Ouseley and his Angels, D Bland (Eton, 2000) ISBN 0 9538 7020 0

Frederick Ouseley, Wikipedia (, various dates)

*Copies of this book may be had of the Clerk, price ₤6.95 to include postage and packing

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