The search for our lost boys began over twenty-five years ago when I first had the idea of one day compiling a disc of famous boy sopranos. But it was not until last year that the project really bore fruit with the discovery of the boys featured on the Better Land Volumes One and Two. The haunting voice of Kenneth Purves, recorded so long ago on the Broadcast Label, remained a mystery until earlier this year when Douglas Carrington,
the former editor of The Organ and Everson Whittle contacted me to say that they had both visited Ken Purves shortly before he died in 1986. The story is quite remarkable. Even more remarkable is the fact that the unique test pressing made for HMV in November 1927 turned up on a market stall in Preston in 1959 and was spotted by record collector, Colin Charnley, who kindly agreed to its inclusion on this CD. Just think how easily this unique disc of the highest quality could have been lost or destroyed!
We are also fortunate in being able to present Kenneth Purves’ story in his own words. Shortly before his death and nearly blind from diabetes, which had first attacked him at the age of twelve, he wrote down a comprehensive account of his career in a letter to Everson Whittle, dated 6th February 1985. Here it is:
‘I was born in New Longton, near Preston on December 1st December 1911. My father, John Purves, was a master tailor in Fishergate. He had a choir in his charge from the age of sixteen until he was sixty, and at one time, before my birth, I understand he conducted a massed choir at a performance in The Crystal Palace. My mother had a beautiful soprano voice (a soloist) and my father was a bass. They did a lot of choral work in Preston before my time - singing under the very competent baton of Sir Henry Wood.
‘You will understand that I was born to sing. Every Friday night, my parents had a Glee Party at their house in New Longton. And when I arrived at 4.45 am on 1st December 1911 the Glee Party still arrived in the evening and performed in the drawing room below my parents’ bedroom; so I had an early introduction.
‘Just before my eleventh birthday my parents decided I should be given singing lessons and I started training in Longton, the next village to New Longton, under Mr Tom Wright. In December 1923 -about two weeks after my twelfth birthday - I made my first public appearance, and a couple of weeks later I sang Come unto me and I know that my redeemer liveth in the performance of Messiah by the choir of the Primitive Methodist Chapel in New Longton. My mother sang the recitatives and Rejoice and, of course, my father conducted. The next year, I sang all the soprano solos in Messiah and my mother stood down.
‘In October 1925, at the age of thirteen, I made my first appearance at the Blackpool Musical Festival in the Open Boy Soprano Class and also in the Boy Chorister Class. I gained a 1st and a 2nd. I repeated this in 1926 and again in 1927. I think this may be a record as boys’ voices do not usually last long enough and in good enough shape to attain this. I did not enter in 1928 as it was expected my voice would have broken. I went along to listen and as it happens I was singing better than ever, and the standard of the competition was lower.
‘I had, by that time, been very much in demand and was booked up for many weekends to travel as far south as Watford and as far north as Ashington and all over Lancashire, Durham and Yorkshire with an Evangelist called Tom Holland. We would travel on a Saturday and our programme would include Saturday night concert, Sunday morning service, including a solo each from two or three of us. Sunday afternoon Sacred Concert, Sunday Evening Service followed by a Sacred Concert. Monday afternoon, a visit to a local works to give a concert and a Grand Concert on the Monday night before travelling home overnight, or on the Tuesday. One of my more popular visits, repeated many times, was to Whitehaven, but they were all wonderful times: Tunstall in the Potteries, where we had over two thousand people at each performance in the Methodist Church, for example. At Roker, we had a marquee on the sands and packed over two thousand people in for every appearance. Great Days!
‘After my appearance at Blackpool Festival in 1927, I became very well known through broadcasts from the Manchester Station, and this helped to spread my name. I remember in 1927 at Blackpool after I had ‘sung off’ in the evening in the Opera House, I was approached and booked to sing at a concert in Liverpool, in St George’s Hall as a soloist with a choir behind me of six hundred boys. I will never forget the ten seconds or so of dead silence as I finished, before the burst of applause!
‘My parents were very friendly with a Mr. Homewood who was advertising manager for HMV and he used all the persuasion he could muster to get his firm to take me up commercially, but they had already recorded Ernest Lough whose solos were “coming on nicely” and they were convinced that this was a ‘one off’ and that there would be no demand for anything similar. They were prepared to do a single-sided 12” record for me at my expense, and this I had done. I recorded it -Hear ye, Israel - in a studio in the firm's offices in London (Queen’s Hall) when I stopped off overnight on my way home to Preston from an engagement in Swindon. The accompanist was a lady provided by HMV. At the end of the record she forgot that we were still running and looked across and whispered “Well Done!” This recording was the fourth time in rapid succession, getting the timing right. I think that the Vocaleon Gramophone Company then contacted me and offered to record me on the new 7” Broadcast records, and I signed up with them. I remember well receiving the music for one suggested piece just before leaving home in the morning to travel to London on the 9.13 Fylde Coast Express - a very fast train in those days - 3 hours 37 minutes to Euston. I learnt this piece (Come Holy Ghost) in the train on the way down. The recordings for Broadcast were made in the Stoll Theatre in Kingsway including I waited for the Lord, a duet with James Dugan. The organist was the Organist and Choirmaster from Eton College Chapel, and the chorus was composed of a selected eight voices (adult) engaged professionally by the company. The last quantity of total sales for Hear my Prayer was 339,000.
'There were no royalties in those days - I was paid thirty pounds and given a portable gramophone.’
Kenneth Purves became a Military Robe Maker and until his death in August 1986 lived in Swanage, Dorset. His son, Peter is a well-known BBC presenter who will be remembered by many of a certain generation as Steven Taylor, one of Dr. Who’s early assistants, and, of course, as the presenter of Blue Peter.
Copyright © 2000-2001 by Stephen Beet