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The Rev. John Deffray, Rector of Old Romney

by Helen Mitcham

Nobody knows exactly how the West Gallery choir tradition started, but it is quite possible that the first choir to be established was by the Rev. John Deffray.

His Early Life

Deffray was a Huguenot born in 1661, the only surviving son of a doctor, Jean Deffray. He and his parents left France a few months before Louis XIV revoked of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, thereby removing the right of Protestants to practise their faith. Fortunately, a diary of his survives. Although it is not nearly as detailed as others of the period like Pepys’ or John Evelyn’s, containing mainly his sermon notes, he does reveal some personal information. He states that he was born in Tours, France, educated at the academy of Saumur (the principal Protestant university), and landed at Dover in March 1685. He then spent some time in London improving his English and working as a private tutor to the son of a Dr Clench, a most exceptional child whom Evelyn and Pepys examined when he was eleven, both being amazed at the breadth and depth of his understanding. This incident is related in Evelyn’s diary, where he also tells us that the boy’s tutor had been a Frenchman. So we can see that Deffray was a gifted teacher, imparting the broad and liberal education he had received at Saumur, so different from the English universities of the time. Defray was able to get his French MA accepted at Oxford, and around this time he converted to Anglicanism, attending the French Savoy church where the service was in French, as there was happily already a French translation of the Book of Common prayer for the use of the Channel Islands and Calais. It was close to the Savoy Chapel, and it was there that he heard the preaching of Dr Anthony Horneck which inspired many young men to form a Religious Society which met weekly with him for instruction, mutual encouragement and prayer, and were permitted to sing a psalm, though music does not seem to have been given any prominence.

Old Romney

St.Clement, Old Romney
His experience in teaching and the Religious Society equipped John Deffray for the next and longest stage of his life. He was ordained in 1687 and became Rector of Old Romney in 1690. In 1701 a letter from him was published in Josiah Woodward’s An Account of the Rise and Progress of the Religious societies in the City of London, in which he describes how, when he first came to the parish, he found the people
    very ignorant and irreligious, the Place of divine worship indecently kept and the public Service neither understood nor attended, the Ministration of the Lord’s Supper was supported only by the piety of Three or Four Communicants and the divine ordinance of singing psalms almost laid aside…

    I was so of the opinion that the setting up of such a Religious Society as I had known in the City of London would be very proper [but there was] no competent disposition towards it. [So] at first I began to teach Three or Four youths the skill of singing psalms orderly and according to rules.

This led to other young men wanting to join, and a Religious Society was set up, which led to a “general reviving of Piety” so that:

    To the joy of all pious souls, our Shepherds, Ploughmen and other labourers at their work perfume the air with the melodious singing of Psalms to the Praise of the great Creator, redeemer and Sanctifier of Men.

Like most of the incumbents of the tiny insalubrious Marsh parishes, Deffray lived in New Romney, then the largest town in the area. Here he would have been able to disseminate his ideas, and Religious Societies were established in several other parishes including New Romney, Ashford and Lydd.

The Music

In 1703, The Christian’s Daily Manual of Prayer and Praises was published, the title page bearing the recommendation "for the use of Religious Societies and Pious Families". As was normal practice for a gentleman, Deffray’s name does not appear, though it is clear from SPCK records that he did in fact compile this collection of prayers, psalms and hymns, as well as a later one, The Christian’s Sacrifice of Praises, in 1724. Many of the tunes come from Playford’s Whole Book of Psalms, with some emendations, a few are French, and some may well have been composed by Deffray himself. He was evidently a competent musician as his diary mentions the purchase of a spinet, and his will refers to violins and a collection of printed music.

Saumur from
Psalm 51: Saumurs tune from
The Christian’s Sacrifice of Praises

The End of his Life

John Deffray's Gravestone in St.Clement, Old Romney
John Deffray's Graveslab
in St.Clement, Old Romney
John Deffray died in 1738 and is buried in the chancel of Old Romney church under a magnificent tombstone bearing his French coat-of-arms. His funeral is described in the diary of Thomas Miller, a member of the New Romney religious Society and formerly master of their school. The six pall-bearers were all ministers, and the sermon was preached by Robert Payne, Rector of Saltwood, to whom Deffray left "my father’s Calmet’s dictionary in three volumes", in his will. He was survived by his Huguenot wife Margaret, whom he had married in 1692, though the union was childless.

His Influences

It is not yet known how long the Religious Societies continued to perform their original roles of religious study, teaching children and leading congregational singing or whether any of them developed into a Society of Psalm Singers, as the West Gallery choirs used to be known. However, in 1757, soon after being appointed parish clerk of Lydd, where there had been a Religious Society, John Hill published A New Book of Psalmody. As parish clerks of the period were often barely literate and unmusical, it is tempting to conclude that Lydd was keen to continue Deffray’s plan by encouraging this talented composer, so the title of his book may be significant, but as yet no evidence has been found.

Perhaps more significant is the fact that Samuel Wesley, father of John and Charles, read Deffray’s letter in Woodward’s book and was inspired to set up a Religious Society in Epworth in 1702, with considerable success. John Wesley himself started one in Savannah, Georgia in 1736, and another in Fetter Lane in 1738. Although more evidence is needed, it is surely not impossible that Deffray’s idea engendered the hugely important role that music was to play in the later development of Methodism.

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