Sometime in October 1984, after the reordering of the Minster Church, Axminster, when several pews were removed from the body of the church, providing a large central area suitable for hosting concerts, Heather Lee, herself a professionally trained soprano, conceived the notion of organising a “Come and Sing Messiah”, in celebration of the tercentenary of Handel's birth, and she also started and ran the Minster church's lunchtime concerts. Through her professional contacts and friends, she secured for the concert, four soloists with international reputations they were - Jean Buck (soprano), Julia Joynt (mezzo-soprano, Roy Hewlett tenor, all from London - and Roger Stalman, a Bass of great renown. They all
waved their performance fees. Roger Stalman also brought along his own accompaniment in The New English Elizabethan Chamber Orchestra of which he was the musical director, he later became ADCS’s president and lived locally in Hawkchurch. In several weeks prior to the performance a group of about sixteen local singers met after Sunday Lunch, to rehearse the work, so at least on the performance day, there was a small core of people who could be relied on to hold the work together. Ruth Martin, later to become the Rev Barrie Swift's wife, accompanied on the organ. On the morning of Sat 23rd February 1985, concert day - The Minster opened its doors to invited singers, the response was exceptional, one singer even cycling from Exeter. The guest singers joined the small choir, soloists and accompanying orchestra to take their last rehearsal in preparation for the afternoon concert. The audience packed the Minster to capacity, there was little worry with Health and Safety measures in those days, and extra chairs filled the aisles and even the sanctuary. People came from a wide area to both sing and listen, the singers paying £1 and the audience, by programme, £2. How times change! This performance of Handel's Messiah was the first in the West Country. BBC Radio Devon recorded the event, interviewed the organisers, soloists and anyone else of interest, and also returned for a follow up session from which they broadcast two programmes on the foundation of the society. The concert was a huge success and it was hoped that this event would prove to be the beginning of a fully-fledged choral society.
The original group of rehearsed singers met along with other interested voices, and formed the Axminster and District Choral Society, appointing the Rev Barrie Swift as president and John Banner, a local dentist as chairman. Shortly after the society’s formation John Baldwin, the newly appointed organist at the Minster, was succeeded by Roger Stalman as MD, who took the society forward, and firmly established its roots. Roger Stalman, after some years as MD retired and became ADCS’s President. Malcolm Matthews became the next MD. Leslie Baker took over in the Autumn of 2001 and ran both Axminster and Seaton Choirs, retiring in the Spring of 2004. During his term of office, Leslie Baker conducted several well-known choral works including a very memorable, St. John Passion, with the combined choirs of Axminster and Seaton, singing the Evangelist himself from the "podium” In the Spring of 2004, Dr Francis Burroughes Took over from Leslie Baker as MD. Two performances of significance come to mind, both, under Dr Francis Burroughes Music Directorship. The first was Haydn's "The Creation" in April 2005 when ADCS gave a very spirited performance, much helped by professional soloists, one of whom, tenor Hugh Hetherington, a lay clerk from Salisbury Cathedral, stood in at the last moment. To quote from the Midweek Herald's account, " He added to the drama with an operatic style as Archangel Uriel". There was much laughter. In November of the same year, the society, needed to augment their coffers and decided to perform “The Messiah” twice, once in the usual Saturday evening slot and then again on the following Sunday afternoon. The Saturday performance was excellent, but by the time of the Sunday performance, signs of fatigue crept in. However, the large income it engendered significantly swelled the societies funds. Dr Francis Burroughes had quite an effect on the Choral Society when he mobilised the society into recruiting new members. He also "bullied" us into pushing up ticket sales, which laid a good financial foundation for the notable success of the choir. He also included choral works little heard in the West Country, and stretched the choir, attempting difficult and exacting music seldom performed.
On his retirement he was elected vice president. Our accompanist, Charles Slade, filled the vacant position and stretched the choir's ability even further and summed up his approach to rehearsals and concerts:
Sing with a smile: Or at least arrive each week with a smile of musical anticipation and leave with a smile of musical satisfaction and sense of achievement;
Don’t let the notes get in the way of the music: A good performance is much more than singing correct notes and correct rhythms;
Sing without fear: Music must have life, energy and spirit and if we worry about being wrong, we lose the confidence to be right! Owing to the untimely demise of Charles Slade, the new Rector, The Reverend John Streeting had to step in as temporary Music Director until Judy Martin took up the post with Peter Parshall as our accompanying pianist, both carrying on our fine traditions and enhancing the choir with their combined genius. Judy has now taken a teaching position at a school in Winchester. Judy is still allied to our society as Associate Music Director and still conducts some of our concerts. Peter Parshall now holds the baton with Peter Lea-Cox as our accompanist, working his inimitable magic on the keyboard. Recently, Andrew Millington, formerly director of music at Exeter Cathedral, has become our honorary president and his knowledge, help and support is much appreciated. In the intervening years the society has grown to around 80 members. We now produce four performances a year, as well as workshops and “Come and Sing” specials. We have a full orchestra of chosen musicians for at least two of the annual events.