History of the RSCM

Sir Sydney Nicholson and the School of English Church Music

On the initiative of Sir Sydney Nicholson, then organist of Westminster Abbey, the School of English Church Music (SECM) was inaugurated at a meeting in the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster Abbey held on 6 December 1927, the feast of St Nicolas. It was to consist of a training college for church musicians (the College of St Nicolas), and an association of affiliated churches who committed themselves to attaining high standards.

The School was housed at Buller’s Wood in Chislehurst, Kent. The college opened there in 1929 and continued until closure was forced at the outbreak of war in 1939 when most students were called up for military service. During those first ten years, major choral festivals were held triennially in London (1930 at the Royal Albert Hall, 1933 and 1936 at the Crystal Palace) and the number of affiliated churches rose to 1300 worldwide. Throughout the war Sir Sydney continued his itinerant teaching at diocesan and parish level from a base at St Michael’s College, Tenbury, and then from Leamington Spa.

The Royal School of Church Music 

In 1945, by command of King George VI, the SECM became the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM). Canterbury Cathedral allowed the school to function within the precincts of the cathedral, and the College of St Nicolas re-opened there in January 1946. By 1952 over 3000 churches were affiliated.

Addington Palace

In 1954 the RSCM and the College of St Nicolas moved to Addington Palace near Croydon, the former ‘country residence’ of the Archbishops of Canterbury, with Gerald Knight as Director and the Revd Cyril Taylor as Warden responsible for the RSCM’s educational work.

In 1973 Gerald Knight was succeeded as Director by Lionel Dakers, and he in turn by Harry Bramma in 1989. The College of St Nicolas was closed in 1974, and the RSCM then concentrated on short courses, and on work in the regions with new structures of voluntary committees. The membership increased, with a peak of almost 10,000 affiliates in 1980.

Cleveland Lodge

In 1996 the RSCM moved its administrative centre to Cleveland Lodge, near Dorking in Surrey, the former home of the organist Lady Susi Jeans. A major programme of refurbishment and new building was completed in 2000. Professor John Harper was appointed as Director in 1998.


The RSCM moved its administrative centre to Salisbury in Summer 2006. Its office is located within Sarum College, a Christian ecumenical college in Salisbury’s cathedral close. RSCM Music Direct was relocated to Norwich, where Norwich Books and Music now operate our sales functions. The organ presented to the College of St Nicolas in 1931, is now loaned to St Alkmund’s Church in Shrewsbury, which is also using the RSCM vestments and woven kneelers. The organ made by Peter Collins is now in the chapel of Salisbury Cathedral School. The organ from Susi Jeans’s music room at Cleveland Lodge is now located in the Recital Hall at Birmingham Conservatoire, part of Birmingham City University.

Professor Harper retired as Director of the RSCM at the end of December 2007, and was appointed ‘Emeritus Director’. He continues as RSCM Research Professor at Bangor University and as a Visiting Scholar at Sarum College. Lindsay Gray was Director of the RSCM from May 2008 until September 2012, Andrew Reid was Director from October 2012 until October 2017. Hugh Morris took up the role of Director with the RSCM in August 2018.

The future

The RSCM is seeking to enlarge its ecumenical mission, to serve the needs of its affiliated members and the wider Church, to develop first-class resources, and to continue to train and educate musicians and clergy to make best use of music in worship.

Further reading

Dr John Henderson and Trevor Jarvis, the current Honorary Librarian and Honorary Assistant Librarian of the RSCM, have published a history of the College of St Nicolas during its years at Chislehurst, along with materials from the RSCM archives and a review of the life and achievements of Sir Sydney Nicholson. It is available from RSCM Music Direct here.

The same authors have also published Sir Sydney’s autobiography ‘Musings of a Musician’, accompanied by a wealth of hitherto unpublished photographs and some of Nicholson’s own watercolour paintings. Also available from RSCM Music Direct here.

Watkins Shaw’s fascinating and informative booklet Vocation and Endeavour about Sir Sydney Nicholson and the early years of the Royal School of Church Music is available from RSCM Music Direct here.