The Toftwood Mystery. A detective story from an impulse buy…

Posted on July 29, 2017

I’ve a bit of a reputation for making impulse buys. Not your typical kind of impulse buys either. By that I mean I don’t walk in to Lidl for bread and a pint of milk and come out with a pair of skis, a ham slicer, 15kg of de-icer salt and a rowing boat. I tend to go for the more obscure stuff. Odd one-off’s that appear in bungled web and auction searches. Rarities that appear on super dodgy looking but actually legit shopping websites that you know will never be that price again if the site admin cops on to it.

I’ve got previous. A penchant for vinyl. And I don’t mean a silly little Beatles 12″ with 14 wrinkles on the left corner and a follicle from Ringo’s ear hair embedded within them. I mean super bizarre, possibly naff yet super wonderful stuff that 99.9% of the global populous wouldn’t give even one nanosecond of thought about snapping up.

I tend to pick up items such as official cameras from the 1980 Olympics. Or an extremely rare Canon Super 8 timer add-on (found on a village classifieds forum in a remote outpost in the French countryside no less). Yes, I am weird. Yes I like weird things. And yes I will write about them all some day.

Yet on March 11, 2017 I made an impulse purchase that proved to have a bit more than a ‘gotta have it’ effect on me. Allow me to explain…

Fijnaarts Jeugdorkest

It all started with a tireless search for demonstration and sound effects vinyl records from the 1950’s and 60’s. You know the kind. The fella that demonstrates in his best queens English “a journey in to stereophonic sound” followed by some cute left/right stereo pans featuring racing cars, crowds cheering and a variety of foley effects and so on.

Tucked away within the confines of one of my search results was a plethora of what can only be described as some of the most utterly wild and fantastic vinyl I’ve ever come across. Judging from the listings, which consisted entirely of demonstration and religion-themed music, this person was either a serious collector, selling these on behalf of someone or ended up with them via a house clearance from some old girl from Deptford.

I picked up not one, not two, but three records from the seller. Yes, I got the stereo demonstration record from 1965 that I was looking for. I am very happy with it in my collection to I might add. However I also picked up a bizarre double LP from Holland entitled Fijnaarts Jeugdorkest and a less enthusiastic release entitled Christ Liveth In Me by the Toftwood Male Voice Choir. I’ve no reasoning behind why I bought those two records. They just appeared quaint. A bit silly. Loveable. Offbeat. Look, I don’t know, I just bought them. You can forget Fijnaarts Jeugdorkest though. We’re going on a journey to Toftwood…

Christ Liveth On The Internetz

A handful of days passed. My little trio of vinyl wonders arrived posthaste. I dutifully unwrapped them. Coveted them. Never played them. Stored them. Thought little more of them.

Fast forward a week or so and for reasons unbeknownst to myself I dug out the Toftwood Male Voice Choir album from storage. I guess more than anything to pop it on a turntable and have a chuckle to a few choice hymns belted out by some earnest chaps whilst I flipped through the sleeve notes.

I never got to put the record on my turntable.

I’d become engrossed in the sleeve notes and the wholesome cover photo. A quick scan of the notes printed on the reverse revealed the names of the choir members, little details about where it was recorded, but curiously not when it was recorded. Then there is that cover photo. Handsome chaps in their Sunday best accompanied by a cheerful pianist in a period floral robe. That curious looking green glass cross and matching pea green curtain combination. The floor tiles reminiscent of any school assembly hall in the 1970’s and 80’s.

toftwood-male-voice-choir-o-love-that-wilt-not-let-me-go-srt-ab

Toftwood Male Voice Choir – Christ Liveth In Me (Sleeve Notes) [SOURCE: 45worlds.com]

At the same time that I was studying the album sleeve, I happened upon an old story from the local paper of my home town. Someone had discovered a similar album recorded by a choir in 1985 and had hoped to reunite one of the members with the album . It was at that exact moment that I decided that I wanted to do the very same thing. I wanted to reunite Christ Liveth In Me with the Toftwood Male Voice Choir. It was not going to be easy.

The Green Green Glass

There were a couple of immediate stumbling blocks in my newly found quest. The most immediate being that the chaps who recorded their magnum opus were of a certain age at the time. What I’m getting at is that there would be a high chance that the majority of the Toftwood Male Voice Choir are no longer with us. This was not aided any by the fact that only the first initial and surname are listed for each of the choir members.

Curiously the only name printed in full was the pianist, Miss Christine Cooper. With a name to hand, and given Miss Cooper appears youthful in the photo (and with the greatest of respect, likely to still be with us), I immediately pinned my hopes on reuniting Miss Cooper with my copy of the record.

Toftwood Methodist Church

Toftwood Methodist Church (Far View) [SOURCE: Google Maps]

Toftwood Methodist Church

Toftwood Methodist Church (Zoom View) [SOURCE: Google Maps]

Sleeve notes aside, I had precious little else to go on. Oddly it was the green stained glass cross in the cover photo that became my first clue. Thus the first stop on my quest was Google Maps. With thanks to Alphabet’s wonderful mapping technology I immediately discovered the church was still standing today. What’s more amazing is that the stained glass window that features so prominently on the album cover is still there! What I can’t quite get over is how grandiose the scene appears in photo, yet it looks so minuscule in real-life.

Sticking with the church as my font for clues, I dug up more information from their official web site. It was at this point I decided to get the ball rolling and try to make a bit of contact. I fired off an email in the hopes of receiving some sort of response but alas to this day I have yet to hear from them. At the same time I happened upon a lovely photo album of the church and its grounds. One of the photos featured a collection of commemorative and remembrance plates. I scanned the names looking for anything that might match a member of the Toftwood gang. Still nothing.

Shop Local

My attention turned to two further names that appeared on the sleeve notes. Cyril Jolly, a local author who had provided a short blurb/critique piece. This lead to discovering an interesting book on Amazon, oh and another dead end. The second name was that of the photographer, Ron Newell. I managed to uncover an article about Mr. Newell but then immediately ran in to yet another dead end as Mr. Newell’s business is no longer around. The only other interesting tidbit I discovered was a wedding photo Mr. Newell took in 1969. Notice the framing similarities between the Toftwood photo and the wedding photo? Alright, maybe it’s just me then.

Ron Newell Wedding Photography 1969

Ron Newell Wedding Photography 1969 [SOURCE: Hoe & Worthing Archive)

I was now fast running out of possible leads with what limited resources I had available to me. I don’t care how far-reaching and privacy-unfriendly you say the Internet is, when you have as little information to go on as I did with this the Internet becomes a troublesome and difficult place to extract plentiful and relative information.

I dug around the national archives to see if I could unearth anything about the choir or the Whitehouse Recording Studio. Information wasn’t immediately pouring from such a vast treasure trove of historical data. Though I did manage to uncover a local radio recording from Toftwood in November 1983 that features an interview with Colin Aldiss, a man who was planning on screening Raiders Of The Lost Ark in his 30 seat home cinema. Impressive!

Nightmare On Wax

Alphabet came up trumps again for locating the possible site of where the magic happened. Whitehouse Recording Studio. Today, what was home to some of the finest recording kit on the planet, is now a garage and workshop. Interestingly the building is still white, which is a nice coincidence.

Whitehouse Recording Studios, Dereham

Whitehouse Recording Studio, Dereham. [SOURCE: Google Maps]

Further digging revealed that the label the choir were signed to, SRT, was also home to early releases from the likes of Def Leppard, and sadly to a lesser extent Skrewdriver. I also discovered that the album was likely to have been recorded in 1979 or early 1980 thanks to a very helpful thread about the SRT numbering system and history over at Discogs.

All Good Things…

So that was it. All possible leads I had were now exhausted. I should mention that with a very quick search entry in Google I did find an entry about one choir member, Mr. Kenny Austin. However I felt it inappropriate to approach a chap in his twilight years with the news I’d come in to possession of a recording he made nearly 40 years ago. With regards to Mr. Austin I decided to leave it there, though should you be reading this, please get in touch!

What of Miss. Christine Cooper? Well, the answer had more or less been staring me in the face from the outset. It appeared I’d completed overlooked that her name (I assume) had been mentioned as a member of the choir in the 1985 album I had read about. Go ahead, have a look at it again. Now look at the album photo and see if you can find her (or someone who looks very similar I should add). See?

It was at this point that I focused my search around Cromer and Dereham. It would not be long before I found whom I believe to be Miss. Cooper alive and well today. I did reach out to Miss. Cooper via a contact form on a choir website and did receive a response from the person looking after the email account saying that they have passed on my message however I have not received any further update. That is totally fine.

To spare any unwanted embarrassment I’ve decided not to publish the last piece of information I gathered. I don’t want this to be some sort of bizarre stalking exercise, or for some idiot to read this and feel it a good idea to hurl abuse and so on and so forth.

I did read that (and assuming it is the real Miss. Christine Cooper that I found) she had unfortunately been unwell for a number of years but that she still loves to play music and sing, which is great to know. I just hope that one day I can provide you all with a bit of closure on this case. What started life as a bit of a giggle from an impulse buy has lead me down this path uncovering more information than I would have ever thought possible from just a bunch of loose sleeve notes on an obscure record.

I still haven’t played the record. I don’t think I want to either. A part of me feels a little spooked out by what I might hear. However I would really love to get a bit more backstory on the recording, how many copies it sold (to date I’ve seen 2 copies, including the one I bought, for sale on eBay and that’s it.) Perhaps the backstory is not as wholesome as the album cover may make out? Maybe there is more to be told? I did make contact again with the eBay seller who told me the record collection belonged to his father who was from Dereham. Alas his father passed away so if there was any story to be had with him, he has taken it with him to his grave.

For now, it would appear that the Toftwood story is set to be a mystery that will unfortunately remain unsolved…

NOTE: The feature image of the album cover is my own scan.