Today's date: Sunday June 24, 2018
column width padding column width padding

The Wellington Advertiser Masthead Logo

We Cover The County...
40,251 Audited Circulation

WEEKLY POLL   |   Community News   |   EQUINE   |   Schools & Buses

column width padding column width padding

Thorning Revisited

by Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015

Elora has long tradition of choral, instrumental music

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.


With a record-breaking year for the Elora Festival, and the appointment of Noel Edison as director of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, 1997 was a notable year for music in Elora.

During Edison’s 20 years in Elora, and with his creation of the Elora Festival Singers, Elora has gained a reputation for choral music unrivalled by any other town of its size.

This is not a new path for Elora. It is one of the coincidences of our local history that serious vocal music has a tradition in Elora of more than 140 years.

The diminutive figure of Margaret Geddes Gilkison dominated the early musical history of Elora. She was the daughter of Andrew Geddes, the Crown Land agent, and she married David Gilkison, eldest son of the founder of Elora.

No details of her education or musical training seem to have survived, but she was accomplished at both the keyboard and as a vocalist.

The Geddes family was closely associated with the founding of St. John’s Church, but David and Margaret Gilkison moved to Toronto before the first St. John’s was built. David worked in the registrar’s office at the University of Toronto, and Margaret worked with the choir at St. James Church, and occasionally played the organ there.

She had not severed her connections completely with Elora. She returned a number of times through the 1840s to direct the choir at St. John’s, sometimes bringing with her a couple of the choir members from St. James. She also gave recitals. Her visits and inspiration aroused interest in vocal music in the village.

David Gilkison died in 1851. For a couple of years Margaret and her daughters Maggie and Frances returned to Elora to live with her father, Andrew Geddes. Three years later Margaret married M.M. Derry. It is something of a challenge to trace her movements after this time. At various times the Derrys were in Toronto; upstate New York; Newark, New Jersey; and Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Margaret’s daughter Maggie inherited her mother’s musical ability, and while in her teens assisted her mother in giving music lessons. Around 1856 or 1857 Maggie returned to Elora. Within months she married Rev. C.E. Thomson, the newly ordained 25-year-old minister who replaced John Smithurst as the rector of St. John’s.

Mrs. Thomson turned her attention to the choir at St. John’s, and she helped to organize the Elora Choral Society. This group, which drew from the St. John’s Choir, her private students, and from musical residents, offered concerts beginning in 1858.

For one concert in June 1859 Margaret Derry returned to Elora to play the piano as accompaniment for the choir. John Bain, the pugnacious proprietor of the Commercial Hotel, played violin on several pieces. This concert drew more than 150, an impressive audience in a village of less than 1,000 population. John Smith of the Elora Observer commented that “as vocalists the choir has few equals in Canada.”

Though not active every year, the Elora Choral Society existed in one form or another for more than 25 years. The membership drew very largely from the St. John’s congregation, and there is little doubt that Rev. C.E. Thomson and his wife Maggie held it together.

Membership in the Choral Society cost $1.50 in the 1860s, more than a day’s wages for most workers. The society brought in a Mr. Kerrison from Guelph as director. In the days before the railway this involved frequent overnight trips for him. Typically, the Elora Choral Society practiced weekly from November to May each season, and gave two concerts annually.

A fresh generation of vocalists and performers appeared in the 1870s, instructed by Mrs. Thomson and Mary Newman, daughter of Elora banker Walter Newman. The concerts of the 1870s, often advertised as by “the pupils of Miss Newman,” featured the Scottish and sentimental songs that became popular in the latter part of the 19th century.

Choral music in Elora suffered a setback in 1877, when Rev. C.E. Thomson and his wife Maggie left Elora for All Saints in Hamilton. No one in Elora had either the zeal or ability to instruct others in vocal techniques. Both the Elora Choral Society and St. John’s Choir fell on hard times.

While serious vocal music declined in popularity, instrumental music rose in esteem. The Elora Philharmonic Society took to the stage in the 1880s with regular concerts of orchestral music. The bulk of the orchestra consisted of local amateurs, with a sprinkling of better musicians from Guelph and elsewhere. This highbrow music seldom filled the old Armoury Hall (now the Elora LCBO), but there was a consistent and enthusiastic audience for it.

The Elora Choral Society rose from the ashes in 1909. This time the inspiration came from W.M. Clarke, the choir director of Knox Church. The emphasis on music in this congregation shifted dramatically over 25 years. In the 1880s there had been opposition to the installation of an organ in the church. Most Knox members at that time believed that hymns should be sung plainly and without accompaniment.

Under Clarke, music at Knox came to the fore. His revived Elora Choral Society offered several concerts during the 1908-09 season. The vocalists consisted of the better members of his own choir, supplemented with members of the other local choirs. In February 1910 he staged the cantata Joseph, featuring soloists from Toronto. This performance filled the Armoury Hall.

Knox Church continued to dominate vocal music in Elora through the 1920s under Clarke’s successor, H.M. Paton. He organized the Elora Senior and Junior Choir, which gave occasional performances of popular and sentimental music at the Armoury Hall. These programs often combined instrumental music and recitations.

More serious music was offered by the choir of Knox Church, usually during the Christmas and Easter seasons. Paton continued the tradition of bringing in featured soloists for these performances.

There is no direct historical line from Margaret Geddes Gilkison to Prof. Clarke and H.M. Paton and on to the early 1980s, when Noel Edison and the Elora Festival Singers revived choral music in Elora.

It is therefore remarkable that Elora has been able to provide both vocalists and an audience for choral music over such a long period of time.

Those readers who listen to classical music are likely to hear selections from the St. John’s Choir recordings on the radio frequently.

We should all feel pride that they are continuing Elora’s tradition of vocal music.

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on Nov. 26, 1997.


Vol 50 Issue 31


Tell Us What You Think

Login to submit a comment

Comments appearing on this website are the opinion of the comment writer and do not represent the opinion of the Wellington Advertiser. Comments that attack other individuals or are offensive, unsubstantiated or otherwise inappropriate will be removed. You must register or log in in order to post a comment. For more information, read our detailed Comment Policy and Guidelines.




Wellington North Guide 2018-2019


Barrie Hopkins
Barrie Hopkins
Barrie Hopkins
Barrie Hopkins
Bruce Whitestone
Ray Wiseman
Ray Wiseman
Ray Wiseman
Stephen Thorning
Stephen Thorning

Recent Columns

Bits and Pieces

  • Signature bonnet
  • Digital pantomime
  • Connect the dots
  • Generation gap
  • Little things
  • Tylenol kick
  • This Little Piggy
  • Nature's best
  • Canada's Business

  • The decline of civility
  • Irrational exuberance II
  • Speak up
  • An enduring register
  • A government assessment after one year in office
  • Gauge signals
  • Unpatriotic
  • Inevitable
  • Comment from Ottawa

  • The Syria question
  • Reflecting on 2016
  • Open, transparent combat mission?
  • Bad for businesses
  • Have your voice heard on electoral reform
  • Open and transparent?
  • Assisted dying
  • Leadership bid
  • Life-wise

  • Retirement
  • Canadas scarcity of calamity
  • Often we mirror our parents
  • Putting up with put-downs
  • A tale of two landlords
  • A letter from the campsite
  • Two shades of black
  • Precious memories
  • Queen's Park Report

  • Back to work
  • Merry Christmas
  • Remembering them
  • High-cost hydro
  • Six important issues
  • Emancipation Day
  • Great Lakes
  • Happy Canada Day
  • Special to the Advertiser

  • Death of JFK changed the world
  • Split Decision

  • Axing the Green Ontario Fund
  • Voting tabulators
  • Voting: local candidate or party leader?
  • Alert Ready emergency alerts
  • Public holiday pay
  • Municipal ATV bylaws
  • Minimum wage earner tax cut
  • Storytelling methods
  • Staying Connected

  • It’s all about staying connected.
  • Stray Casts

  • Final lines: Its been great
  • Thorning Revisited

  • A lost landmark of Fergus: the Groves Block
  • Arthur man turned down job as Ontario premier
  • News from Maryborough Township in 1851 and 1876
  • Maryborough mob defended ‘helpless’ widow against eviction
  • Richard Boyle built 10 bridges in Nichol Township
  • Bridge builder Richard Boyle had an inventive mind
  • Oldtimers claim Elora town crier could be heard in Fergus
  • News from the Mapleton area from 1879 and 1954
  • Valuing Our History

  • Hustonville founded, thrived, vanished in 20 years
  • Lack of railway siding frustrated Fergus’ James Gow
  • Fergus mill made oat flour for Cheerios, other brands
  • Railway passenger service waxed and waned over the 1900s
  • Tanner’s woolen mill in Mount Forest burned twice in a year
  • Elora principal George Edgcumbe ended his career in disgrace
  • Peter Perry a memorable principal of Fergus High School
  • Fire gutted Fergus building owned by Robert Kerr in 1931
  • WriteOut of Her Mind

  • The proposal
  • Teamwork
  • Privilege
  • Comic relief
  • Lucky kid
  • Royal pain
  • Mother’s Day my way
  • The short answer
  • column width padding column width padding column width padding

    The Wellington Advertiser





    Digital Publications


    Twitter Logo

    Free Press News Network Logo