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28 October 2014

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You are in: Cornwall > History > Features > Merritt Remembered

Thomas Merritt

Merritt Remembered

People in Cornwall are gearing up to celebrate the life of one of our well known composers from the past. Thomas Merritt became famous for his Christmas carols although his work covers several genres. Hear our report.

Thomas Merritt was born in Illogan near Redruth into a mining family.

One hundred years after his death in 1908, Truro Cathedral will be the setting for a centenary celebration of Merritt's life.

The Thanksgiving service in the cathedral will be held on Sunday 15 June 2008 at 6pm. This is a ticketed service. Call 01872 276 782 for more information.

BBC Radio Cornwall's Naomi Kennedy has been looking back on the life of Thomas Merritt, click on the link below to hear her report:

Merritt was a sickly child from birth and went into the mines as a teenager, but left soon after because of his ill health. Yet his love of music shone through and he was able to continue studying the organ.


Centenary poster

He was the organist and choir master at Chilly Road Methodist Church for 11 years. That chapel no longer exists, but when he decided to leave around 160 families in the local area donated money to buy him a black slate mantel clock, which is still kept in the family today.

Merritt's style of composing is thought to be typical of the day. Canon Michael Warner says it was very much in the West Gallery style

"The name is taken from the fact that music from churches and chapels was led by a band playing music and string instruments, and for convenience they were often placed on the west side of the gallery. This replaced organs which were expensive at the time, and many had been taken out of Churches.

"The sound at the time was earthy, it was of a style that people could easily respond too... Thomas Merritt was the very last of a style of a composer that goes back two or three centuries. It is not nicely clipped at the edges."

Merritt composed oratorios and a coronation march for King Edward VII, plus a march based on the Russian national anthem. Many of these tunes have been lost over the years. 


Sunset in Illogan

"There would have been quite a lot of chapel choirs at the time and they would have wanted something a bit more challenging than a static four part harmony piece," explains Philip Davey, the director of music at Truro Methodist Church.

"Thomas Merritt was very clever in writing a fugal type of style, where one voice starts which is then repeated by another part in the choir. It is a chance to demonstrate choral skill and the abilities which they had."

Merritt's music was not confined to Cornwall. As the miners moved to find work elsewhere, so the music moved.

"Lots came to work at the Hodbarrow mine near Millom in Cumbria when the mines were worked out in the Camborne Redruth area in the 1870s," says Adrian Self, the organist at Catmell Priory in Cumbria.

"There are a lot of Cornish names which live out in Cumbria."

Merritts carols also found their way to Australia, South Africa and America. The composer died in 1908 aged 44.

last updated: 20/05/2008 at 11:11
created: 20/05/2008

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