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Outdoor community hymn singing at Houghton Feast, Houghton-le-Spring

Houghton-le-Spring Community Hymn Singing

A commemorative booklet celebrating the outdoor Community Hymn Singing at Houghton Feast, featuring a collection of vintage photos showing hundreds of faces from the thousands who sang in the Broadway.

With a foreword by John Mawston and welcome from Peter Brett, Houghton's Rector 1972 - 1983.

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Community Hymn Singing outdoors with crowds of thousands

Houghton Feast is truly an ancient festival and has its foundations over 800 years ago with Michaelmas, the dedication day of St Michael & All Angels Church. Many unwittingly regale tales of the Feast’s foundation being with Bernard Gilpin’s safe return to Houghton after his arrest for heresy, but the Feast predates Rector Gilpin’s arrival at Houghton.

The festival has taken many forms over the years, with each guise ensuring the continuation of the event. Horse racing was the main attraction in the early 1800s.

The fairgrounds, which arrived in the 1880s, became a popular feature, so much so that they occupied several sites across Houghton, including the Market Place and Lake grounds. The Victorian Feast had strayed from the path of the Church; the usual Sunday sermons took place, of course, but the 1885 St Michael’s Parish Magazine considered the Feast to be a “sad sight”. Dr Alfred Norman, Rector of Burnmoor and later Rector of Houghton, preached in the Church on St Michael’s Day and urged the congregation to “keep themselves undefiled during the Feast” and to help others do so!

The Feast became an annual excuse for the town’s many miners to let their hair down, take a day off work, and spend the week’s wages in one of Houghton’s dozens of public houses.

The Great Depression of the 1930s saw an end to much of the debauchery, when the mine owners ceased to recognise the Feast as a local holiday in 1938. A year later, the outbreak of World War II felled the horse racing at Houghton Racecourse and greatly curtailed all the fun of the fair (lighting and transport restrictions meant that the fairground could not attend during the War years).

Thought to be the first outdoor Community Hymn Singing at Houghton Feast 1949

The dark clouds over the Feast were only lifted when in 1948 Reverend Oswald Noel Gwilliam arrived in the Parish as Houghton’s new Rector. Rector Gwilliam saw the Feast as “the symbolic centre of Houghton’s community and family life” and placed a greater emphasis on the Church’s role. In 1949, he proposed that the choir venture outside to sing after evensong on Feast Sunday. Loudspeakers relayed the singing to the assembled crowd and the buses had difficulty in getting through! Each year the outdoor hymn singing grew in stature and soon thousands were attending; the Broadway was choc-a-bloc with the good folk of Houghton partaking in a spot of singing. Rector Gwilliam’s influence continued - in 1967 he teamed up with the Rotary Club, Round Table, local Chamber of Trade, Houghton Urban District Council and other community groups to start the revival of Houghton Feast. The Feast Steering Committee was formed and the festival was billed as ‘new style 1967’!

Canon Oswald Noel Gwilliam, Rector, in the centre at the 1957 Houghton Feast Community Hymn Singing

Sadly, the dark clouds returned, quite literally in 1982, when the extreme wind and rain proved too much for Houghton’s hymn singers. The event moved indoors and has remained there ever since.

Houghton Feast Community Hymn Singing 2003 inside St Michael & All Angels Church

2009 marked the sixtieth anniversary since the outdoor hymn singing was established. It was a good opportunity to acknowledge Rector Gwilliam’s uniting of the ecclesiastical and secular Feasts, and the best place to do that was in Church on Feast Sunday night, hymnbook at the ready.

If you have memories or photos to share, or copies of past Houghton Feast programmes which you would like to donate, please get in touch by email.


Article and research by Paul Lanagan, local historian

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