Barnstaple was home to Victorian star

HE was a top-selling musical artist of his era, a Victorian-day Elton John if you will. Victorian church composer Caleb Simper racked up an astonishing five million sales of his sheet music in the late 1800s and 1900s and was the so-called superstar of t

HE was a top-selling musical artist of his era, a Victorian-day Elton John if you will.

Victorian church composer Caleb Simper racked up an astonishing five million sales of his sheet music in the late 1800s and 1900s and was the so-called "superstar of the church music business".

It is a little-lauded fact that the popular composer, organist and choirmaster wrote much of his best-known works in Barnstaple. But a church in the town with strong connections to the man is set to celebrate his music with a special concert next month.

St John the Baptist Church in Newport is holding the evening of Caleb Simper's music as part of the church's 180th anniversary celebrations.


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The Reverend Paul Niemiec, who became the vicar at the church last December, said he was shocked to discover such an "unlikely" connection to his church.

"You really don't expect to discover such an exciting connection at your church," he said.

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"In the early 19th century, this guy was a multi-million selling artist - the equivalent to one of today's rock stars.

"He was a local parish church organist but people loved, sang and played his music all over the world - and still do."

According to records, Simper was born in Wiltshire in 1856, but moved to Barnstaple in the early 1890s and worked from his home in Taw Vale Parade.

He played the organ at St John the Baptist Church, Newport, where he later became a choirmaster at the church.

Described by some who knew him as a "strict, but a jolly choirmaster", Simper moved to a house in Ashleigh Road at around the turn of the century, where he continued composing until at least the 1920s and lived until his death in 1942. While there, he wrote many of his best-known pieces including The Nativity of Christ, hymns that are still sung in churches around the world today.

Simper had an enormous amount of contemporary success, writing more than 200 organ pieces that were aimed at small parish choirs and unskilled organists due to their unsophisticated and popular nature.

In a pamphlet published by Devon County Council in 1992, biographer Christopher Turner said Simper's church music filled a "genuine need" during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods.

"His church music was much-loved by the enormous number of people who sang, played and listened to it."

The concert will take place in the church on July 26 at 6.30pm. It will mark the end of a three-day flower festival being held as part of the church's 180th anniversary celebrations.

A quiz night in the church hall is also being organised to mark the milestone on Friday, July 19 at 7.30pm. On Saturday 20, there will be summer fair from 2pm, while on Sunday 21, the church is holding a celebration service from 9.30am.

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