The Rich History of Forwoods: Serving UK Musicians Since 1946

These days, Forwoods is one of the leading music retailers in the United Kingdom, but it could all have been snuffed out in an instant before our first shop had been open a year.

Canterbury-born tenor Reginald ‘Reggie’ Forwood studied in London with Sydney Coltham, before embarking on a professional career across the south east of England. The Whitstable Times carried a notice of ‘The First Public Appearance in Canterbury of Reginald Forwood, Tenor’ at the Regal Cinema in June 1934, with Reginald Renison at the organ.

During the 1930s Reggie broadcast with the BBC National Choir, and with an imaginatively named quartet, ‘The Four Singers’, with Miss Nellie White of Bromley, Miss Joyce Gayford of Redhill and Mr Frank Keyte of Rochester Cathedral.

A review of a performance for Fareham Philharmonic Society in 1936 reports that Reggie ‘sang the popular solo “Take a pair of sparkling eyes” in a manner which delighted the audience’, which is pleasing to note.

At around the same time, a young soprano with a voice of ‘exceptional sweetness and purity’ (Faversham News, 29 May 1937) was embarking on her own professional career. May Bartlett appeared as a soloist in venues including Winchester Cathedral, St George’s Chapel Windsor, and the Queen’s Hall in London. In 1938 she sang under the baton of Sir Adrian Boult at the 33rd Petersfield Musical Festival. The three-day Festival programme also included the famous harpist Sidonie Goossens and soprano Joan Cross, who would later create the role of Ellen Orford in the 1945 premiere of Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, as well as Elizabeth I in Gloriana, Mrs Grose in the Turn of the Screw, and other soprano leads for the same composer.

In true operatic style, at some stage May the soprano and Reggie the tenor met and fell in love. They were married on 29 May 1941.

Only fifteen miles from the English Channel, Canterbury was virtually a frontline city during the Second World War (1939-45). Exactly a year after the Forwoods’ wedding, in May and June 1942, it was targeted by the German Luftwaffe in what became known as the Baedeker raids, apparently ordered by Adolf Hitler in direct retaliation for the RAF bombing of Lübeck and other historic German towns. The Corn Exchange and City Market were destroyed, along with churches and schools.

In extraordinary acts of bravery, as the German bombers approached over Whitstable, a team of volunteer fire-watchers headed for the roof of the city’s most famous building, Canterbury Cathedral, and as the incendiary devices fell, they threw them from the roof into the precincts below, thus saving the mother church of the Anglican Communion from destruction.

With the city still reeling from the terror and devastation of this Blitz, and no doubt fearful of more attacks to come, Reggie and May Forwood welcomed their daughter Julia into the world in August 1942. Happily, all three survived to celebrate VE Day and look forward to brighter times ahead.

Reggie and May decided to make Canterbury their permanent home. Reggie was appointed as a tenor lay-clerk at the cathedral, where he shared the choir stalls with, among others, the renowned counter-tenor Alfred Deller – another who would go on to work closely with Britten.

Clearly, the stipend of a cathedral singer was not sufficient to sustain a young family, and the Forwoods needed to supplement their income somehow. Taking advantage of what we can only assume were very reasonable rents in the still heavily war-ravaged Canterbury, in April 1946 Reggie took some space in the front of an old baker’s shop in Palace Street, a row of buildings forming the western perimeter of the cathedral precincts, and began selling sheet music.

Only a few months later, in December 1946, whilst returning from London, where he had been to buy stock for his shop, Reggie suffered a fractured skull when his car collided with a lorry at Dartford in north Kent. Mercifully, he went on to make a full recovery and his fledgling business somehow managed to survive, but it could all have been very different.

As the Palace Street shop began to grow, Reggie and May threw themselves into the musical life of Canterbury and the surrounding area. Reggie became conductor of the Herne Bay Arpeggios Choir, a post he held until 1964. May became a highly respected singing teacher, giving lessons above the shop, no doubt accompanied by the ringing of tills from downstairs. Not to be outdone, she also became a choral conductor, leading the Canterbury Ladies Choir until the mid-1970s.

One former Saturday girl recalls working at the shop in those days, “The shop was very chaotic in Reggie's time as he was far more interested in telling fabulous stories than actually selling stuff! No good putting anything down for a moment as it would instantly get covered up or put back in the wrong folder. And with no computers we had to rely on his encyclopedic memory when ordering things in.”

Nevertheless, Reggie and May clearly managed to create a special environment in the Palace Street shop. They improved footfall by selling tickets for classical music concerts, and every serious musician visiting or living in Canterbury would call including some very famous composers and conductors.

A customer wrote to us in 2019, “I was at school right behind the shop in the late 1960s - I remember it very well as a musical Aladdin's cave where anything we needed could be found - eventually, but with great charm on Mr Forwood's part.”

Stephen Yarrow, the current owner of Forwoods, writes, “When I began working in the Palace Street shop in 1986, Mr Forwood was still working three mornings a week. Well, I say ‘working’, but my abiding memory of him is with his arms open wide, greeting an old friend who has just walked in the door, whereupon we would lose him for the next thirty minutes while they had a good old catch up. Mr Forwood was the absolute embodiment of charm, the very model of an English gentleman and respected by all who knew him. How fortunate we are that he survived his close encounter with a truck and went on to build a fine business. Our challenge today is to meet the demands of running a business in the twenty-first century, whilst continuing to offer a Reggie-style arms-wide welcome to customers old and new.”

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