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  • Writer's pictureErin

History - Women of St Paul's Cathedral Part 3. Maria Hackett, the Choristers' Friend.

My third blog post on the women of St Paul's Cathedral is on Maria Hackett (1783-1874), a Victorian reformer, whose relentless campaigning led to the improvement of the lives of the young choristers, not just in St Pauls, but across the country.

She was a remarkable women who devoted much of her time, as well as her money, to improving the living and educational conditions of the boy choristers in cathedrals and religious institutions across the country. And down in the crypt, tucked away, is small memorial plaque remembering Maria, who died at an impressive 91 years of age.

Her interest started when she enrolled her orphaned cousin Henry Wintle as a chorister at St Paul's Cathedral, and she wasn't happy with what the boys were getting out of it. As well as poor living conditions, education and support, the choristers were regularly hired out to perform at concerts, dinners and other events with the profits going straight into the pocket of their singing master. What's more, the boys were left to find their own way home, well after dark, wandering the streets of London.

I bet Maria was seen as a bit of a meddler, but she took it upon herself to study documents in the collection of the Cathedral and the British Museum, to determine the responsibilities were towards the choristers.

In 1811, she sent her findings to the Bishop of London, but he didn't seem particularly interested, neither did the other cathedral figures whom she wrote to. In one of her letters, she described how many of the children lived quite some distance from the Cathedral, and it sounds as though they were very much left to their own devices. On top of this, she goes on to describe, that whilst making their way over to the cathedral unaccompanied, they often got into the habit of "loitering".

It seems as though Maria wasn't one to step down and in 1813, with the help from her uncle and two half-brothers, started legal proceedings against the Dean and Chapter of St Paul's! Sadly they were later abandoned due to the cost, but it did lead to some of the funds which should have been going to the choir to be reinstated. Her letters and some replies survive, and it's a shame that she was ignored time and time again, with many prominent figures of the cathedral not wanting to hear anything more on the matter.

But she wouldn't back down. She even went and tried to have the choristers admitted to St Paul's School situated in the cathedral grounds. Failing that, she tried to find another space for the boys, but to no avail. Later, with the issue of a new Almoner with a higher wage, some of the younger choir boys were given accommodation with him as well as an improved education. But the distance from St Paul's meant a long walk their and back whatever the weather (it was situated in Charing Cross) and it didn't satisfy Maria.

Throughout the rest of her life she maintained a close involvement with the choristers at St Paul's Cathedral, visiting the young boys regularly and buying them gifts (to try and take their minds off the corporal punishment they were said to receive). She later extended her research into other choral foundations across the country, making sure she had time to visit the institutions every three years. She took a personal interest in getting to the know the boys individually, providing them with a book and a shilling each on each of her visits. No wonder she was such a popular woman with them!

She soon became known as the Choristers' Friend, and her work was much, and still is, appreciated. At the age of 90, Maria was shown the new St Paul's choir school in Carter Lane, and I do hope she took some credit for this, as it was due to her unstoppable efforts that such improvements were finally made.

Her funeral at Highgate Cemetery was attended by the choir of St Paul's Cathedral, and in 1877 a memorial plaque was erected, paid for by choristers up and down the country.

I've previous written about two other women of St Paul's Cathedral if you would like to read! Just click on their names below.

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Heard in London


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