The fantastic Portsmouth choir celebrating 70 years of glee

Promoted by Milton Glee Club

It is a cold winter night and the rain pitter-patters on the roof tops as the lyrics to Moonlight Serenade ring out across the churchyard of St James, Milton. 

‘I stand at your gate and the song that I sing is of moonlight.
I stand and I wait for the touch of your hand in the June night. The roses are sighing a moonlight serenade.’

Musical director Andrew Cleary, front, with the Milton Glee Club

Musical director Andrew Cleary, front, with the Milton Glee Club

It’s 1973 and inside an old Nissen hut a group of people are gathered together to share their love of singing.

The singers are the Milton Glee Club, and shortly afterwards John Bowkett, now 90, joined them. 

Forty-five years on, John is now the longest-serving member of the club, which is in its 70th year with a thriving membership of more than 100. 

The great-grandfather, a former coal miner and Royal Marine, says: ‘I love it more every year. Music is in my veins. I’ve got crotchets in my blood.

Milton Glee Club - The 1954 Portsmouth Music Festival Winners

Milton Glee Club - The 1954 Portsmouth Music Festival Winners

‘It began when I dropped my late daughter off to Girl Guides which was held in the Nissen huts. I was standing outside in the rain when I heard a choir singing Moonlight Serenade by Glenn Miller. I was transfixed. It was absolutely gorgeous.

‘The next day I saw my neighbour, who was a member, and said: “It sounded wonderful”. And he suggested I join. And 45 years later, here I am.

‘The thing I enjoy most is the singing. There’s no-one in the choir from the days when I joined. People have left, died, got thrown out due to artistic differences! But I love music. I never get fed up with it.

‘My favourite song is You’ll Never Walk Alone from the musical Carousel.

Milton Glee Club in 1951

Milton Glee Club in 1951

‘It’s a community, I live for it. After my wife died I met another lady. Sadly she has now got dementia, so I have virtually lost her too. So this helps me enormously.

‘I couldn’t have kept going without it. It’s my reason for living. It makes me feel so good to be here.’

Don’t be mistaken in thinking Milton Glee Club is made up of older people though – the youngest member is 14 and she’s just as enthusiastic as John. 

Alicia Briers-Gray joined just after her 13th birthday, having pestered her aunt, Angela Gray, for years to be able to join her in the choir. 

Linda Taylor, Marion Young, Ruth Murray, Anne Hooper and Lesley Lynton of Milton Glee Club

Linda Taylor, Marion Young, Ruth Murray, Anne Hooper and Lesley Lynton of Milton Glee Club

‘The older people are really nice’ says Alicia. ‘They mother me and they’re really kind. They have made me and Angela deputy music librarians, which is a big responsibility.

‘I get to learn lots of different songs that I’ve never heard before. We sing everything from Disney to latin. I don’t find it daunting to learn, it’s fun to learn a new language.’

Back in the 1970s, if you were a reporter on The News it was part of your job to report on the huge concerts put on by the choir at Portsmouth Guildhall. 

They were usually sell-outs, a part of the fabric of Portsmouth life.

The front rows were always reserved for the great and the good, with fans paying yearly subscriptions for the best seats.

Now just two concerts are held a year, but they’re hotly anticipated and show off the choir’s wide repertoire.

It's less formal than other choirs but just as good, so audiences can expect everything from The Moody Blues’ Nights in White Satin to Vivaldi’s Gloria

Rehearsals are every Friday in St James’ Church hall, Milton, from 7.30pm until 9.30pm.

Week in, week out more than 100 dedicated singers turn up ready for action and the energy and warmth in the room is palpable.

For the first few minutes the singers greet each other and chat about their week before they are called upon by musical director Andrew Cleary to sit in their groups. 

They are split into tenor, bass, alto and soprano and their vocal warm-up, Get Me To The Church On Time from My Fair Lady, sounds sensational.

Each group is so large they have a representative who sits on the committee which runs the choir. 

Andrew, a former director of music at Portsmouth Grammar School, says: ‘The thing with this group is they are totally Portsmouth. I’ve worked with other choirs in the area but there is nothing that quite ticks all the boxes like this does.

‘They are all just so down to earth. They are such a fun group to work with and very talented. You can see that sense of enjoyment when they sing. They come along because they want to.

‘You do have to juggle a lot of strong personalities, but it works because they all have one purpose – and that’s to sing. They way they turn up every Friday night when most people want to be at home putting their feet up or at the pub is tremendous.’

New members are always welcome and there are no auditions – Andrew believes everyone can sing. ‘If you can talk you can sing, that’s the bottom line’, he says with a smile.

Bob Minnell is the chairman of Milton Glee Club and it’s his job to ensure all four sections are working harmoniously. 

He deals with the administrative side of the choir.

‘I’ve spent 27 years of Friday nights with the Glee Club’, says Bob. 

‘The atmosphere here is great. Other choirs have a much more serious repertoire but we’re more of a show choir. We do much lighter stuff.

‘Yes, members have their trials and tribulations but we help each other through it. We’re a very close-knit group and we always rally round. It’s escapism for people. They really miss it if they can’t come for a few weeks.

‘We have a break over the summer and that’s when you realise what a big part of your life it is.’

For more information, go to miltongleeclub.org.

Watch the choir perform at their spectacular Christmas show

For many years Milton Glee Club held three concerts a year, but that has now been reduced to just two big, spectacular shows.  

In addition to this, they give regular concerts at smaller locations for many charities.

The next big show is the Christmas concert at Portsmouth Guildhall, which will round off a year of celebrations marking 70 years of the choir. 

It takes place on Sunday, December 16 at 3pm and the singers will be accompanied by the Royal Marines Association Concert Band. 

The programme has not been revealed yet, but the choir has a diverse and lively repertoire, from grand opera to West End hits, pop and even rock. 

Tickets are available from Portsmouth Guildhall or via ticketmaster.co.uk, starting from £8. 

Seventy years of glee club 

Milton Glee Club began in October 1948 under the leadership of Stanley Mortimore.

Eight people met at that first rehearsal and shortly afterwards it was registered as a charity. The choir has continued to raise money for good causes ever since. 

It started with a group of singers drawn mainly from St James’ Church, Milton, and has grown to a membership of 100.

Stanley was instrumental in the building of a partnership with Bolinger Mannergesangverein Choir in Germany – one that still exists today, with trips to each country for performances.  

Stanley stayed with the Glee Club until his death in 1986.

Brian North became the next musical director and the choir went from strength to strength.

His association with the Milton Glee Club began in 1975 when he joined as a singer with his wife, Mary. 

There have been many memorable occasions throughout the years, including performing at the Royal Albert Hall, the Royal Festival Hall, the cathedrals of Portsmouth and Chichester, on the huge stage on Southsea Common for the D-Day commemorations and many times at Portsmouth Guildhall. 

Since his retirement from the choir in 2017, Brian has been appointed life vice-president. 

Andrew Cleary, who is head of music at Cams Hill School, Fareham, took over in February. 

Over the years the choir has forged a close relationship with the Royal Marines bands and orchestras, The Hampshire Police Band and the London Show Orchestra.