The Cheltenham Parish Discipline Project – by Louis Gilman & James Knight


As the Cheltenham Parish Discipline Project celebrates its 400th year this summer, Cheltenham residents will be flocking to a series of events organised by BBC radio 4 designed to commemorate this ancient institution. I’ve got here with me in the studio the Reverend Peter Summers – member of the Cheltenham Parish council and self-confessed amateur historian. Hello, Peter!

Hi, Susan!

If we could start, Peter, by giving listeners who may not have heard of the Cheltenham Parish Discipline Project, a brief introduction. 

Well! Er … where to start? (laughs) The original project was started here in Cheltenham, some think as early as the middle of the 1450’s and it originally began as a way of re-educating younger, wayward members of the parish. You know, someone would inform the vicar that a son or daughter or friend of the family had ‘strayed from the path’. This would typically be something that we now might consider relatively minor – keeping the company of members of the opposite sex, staying out too late, drinking, etcetera.

The vicar would then set a date and ask members of the parish to herd a group of these wayward children into the church, where they would undergo various forms of correction. This ceremony would have been presided over by a figure known as ‘the goodgrace’. This wasn’t an actual person per se, but more of a title bestowed upon a senior member of the parish who was particularly known for their moral uprightness. This person would then proceed to psychologically unsettle the children who had been gathered by reciting a range of catechistic phrases and by violently hitting together metal objects to produce harsh and discordant sounds.

This was only really the first incarnation of this tradition, wasn’t it?

Oh, yes.  What the Cheltenham Parish Discipline Project eventually became was something quite extraordinary. (Begins to murmur in reverie) Pot in the face… pot in the face…

Right, well, Peter – am I right in saying that arguably the most pivotal point in CPDP history was the advent of clockwork and steam hydraulics?

Actually Susan, though the first signs of what it was to become came in on the back of these breakthroughs, I would say that much more important to its gradual development was Death Metal and House Music in the 80s and 90s, characterised by the project’s unconventional time signatures and quite frankly face-melting tonal sequences. Need I mention the legendary name of the Reverend Archibald Swain?

(Laughs) of course!

You know the more astute among the music community would think it a sin to refer to Grandmaster Flash as the originator of hip-hop sampling. The silverback bellow, the Cheltenham Parish crow loop, the pot-and-pan break – such innovation! And all of Swain’s original analogue recordings can be heard fragmentally in all dance music today. The man invented magnetic tape, for goodness’ sake! Of course, he’d never get officially credited – but we know, the more astute of us…

I’ve heard the John Lennon story.

Yes, yes! Well, I, for one, believe entirely that all of what we know as popular music can be traced right back to the Cheltenham Parish Discipline Project. Essentially, all of music is deeply rooted in punishment and fear.

So the machinery – let’s talk about the development of the machinery. The Goodgrace became what many historians see as the very first automaton, didn’t it?

Absolutely, as early as the late fifteenth century the Goodgrace was a clockwork Vicar. The latest incarnation of the Goodgrace in the 1980s, before animal rights activists finally shut the Cheltenham Parish Discipline Project down, consisted of a tailor’s mannequin, a Japanese theatrical ‘Noh’ mask, and seven astonishingly mobile assault limbs. The pots and pans, of course, were merely decorative by that point – nobody was actually struck in the ceremonial enactments that took place in the eighties; it’s a shame when tradition is bastardised isn’t it?

Hmm, I’m actually not entirely with you there Peter. It is still thought of by many as a damaging remnant of a once-dominant theocracy.

Aw, pish!

(Laughs nervously) Okay, moving on –

Regardless of its chequered history, the Project has been at last recognised internationally for its technological innovation. Really, this was live sampling almost six hundred years before the electronic music revolution of the eighties, wasn’t it? Can you tell us about some of those innovative designs?

Yes. Among the most famous of these sound – ‘installations’ I suppose we would call them nowadays – was the widely recognisable ‘crow loop’, which consisted of a closed system of brightly coloured extendable flags and caches of seeds on the spire of the church, which were controlled from the array that that was put in place on the organists plinth. The ‘mixer’ would have pulled a cord which quickly unfurled these flags, causing the crows to fly from the roof to produce a range of tonal effects in time with the rest of the ensemble.

A second innovation was the use of captive animals – traditionally a Silver-back gorilla and a wolf-hound. The silverback was always housed in a resonant chamber in the crypt, and from the mixer’s control array, they were able to turn on sluice gates that doused the animal in freezing water, causing it to bellow in a deeply unsettling manner, amplified to tens of times it’s normal volume. The wolf-hound was caged in the churchyard, and a flap was opened in the church wall, usually containing a shank of lamb or beef. When the hound saw this, he would howl mournfully, and yet another astonishing tonal effect was produced.

 It was in the eighties that this practice came under scrutiny from animal rights activists, didn’t it?

Yes. The AFL (animal liberation front) was involved in years of bitter legal disputes with the Parish, and actually attempted to gain support for boycotting all popular music that contained Parish samples. Needless to say, the boycott was unrealistic – supporters of the AFL would have had to essentially boycott all current musical genres, but in the legal battle they proved victorious, and the court ruled that some of the Project’s most innovative and traditional structures be disassembled in 1985. The automated incarnation of the Goodgrace was allowed to be kept by the Parish for another ten years, until it came under scrutiny from NSPCC supporters, who deemed the practice ‘morally reprehensible and emotionally damaging’ and it was sadly de-commissioned in 1995.

Even after the demise of the project, it still lingered in the public imagination though, didn’t it?

Absolutely! It became a kind of mecca for electronic artists in the late nineties. Many people visited in order to gain some kind of insight into the techniques and practices that made the project’s distinctive sound so enduring. Its symbolic status as some kind of musical Mecca endured, and indeed grew, long after the project’s termination. We see it referenced time and again in the popular culture of the period – the front cover of an unreleased single by Blur clearly depicts a flight of birds from a church spire, and Paul Simon’s Goodbye, Cheltenham Parish became the anthem of the project’s diehard supporters.

Thank you so much for your time, Peter. We end the program now, with a sound-bite from the 1996 documentary, Cheltenham Parish – the legacy and the controversy.