Considering she’s had no formal musical training, Thelma Pulman has had an impressively long career as a church organist.
She has held the role at St Mary’s Walditch for 23 years, having previously played at the Askerswell church of St Michael and All Angels since the late 60s and at Loders Sunday School before that.
Thelma has no plans to retire just yet, but is hoping to find a keyboard player or someone who’s had organ lessons to cover when she’s away, and possibly as her replacement in the fullness of time. If that person is a student at Colfox School – which Thelma herself attended – so much the better.
“Organs vary widely in complexity and each has its own personality,” says Thelma. “Playing an organ is different to playing a piano – it’s more ‘vigorous’ – and you have foot pedals and various stops giving different sounds.”
Thelma (née Record) was born in Loders. Although she didn’t have formal music lessons, her family had a piano at home and she sang in the church choir, at her primary school in the village and at Sunday School. She was also particularly inspired by one teacher, Bruce Critchinson, at her senior school, Colfox. He was head of the English department but a knowledgeable musician and a powerful force in local music. Thelma spent much of her early life immersed in music, so when the Loders Church organist, the late Bill Tillman, asked her if she’d like to try the church organ, she jumped at the chance. He gave her some training and she taught herself to read music before starting to play hymns for the Sunday School in 1965, when she was just 14.
Only a couple of years later Thelma became the organist at Askerswell following the departure of the previous organist, Denise Millar (now Youngs), through ill health. The late Revd Oliver Willmott, who was vicar there as well as at Loders and Dottery, had to ask her twice before she’d agree to take up the post, as she feared she wasn’t good enough. She certainly was, though, and stayed in the post for 30 years – clearly the Revd Willmott had seen that she had the necessary talent.
As Thelma didn’t drive, she relied on the vicar for lifts to Askerwell. When she married in 1974, however, her husband, Geoff, took over as chauffeur.
While playing hymns and psalms at Sunday services, Thelma would often sing, too, which was much appreciated by the congregation. Churchgoer Gill Smith said at the time that “without this help the congregation is frequently left floundering.”
Thelma’s role included playing for special services, weddings and funerals, and she was always happy to learn new pieces where possible. “One wedding couple wanted ‘Send in the Clowns’, which I spent a long time learning,” she says, “but the guests were so rowdy I doubt if anyone heard a note!”
In a 1989 article about Thelma, the Powerstock, Loders and Askerswell parish magazine described the Askerswell organ as “light and designed as if for a lady… a little temperamental, it appreciates her touch [although] it has been known to play up a visiting organist or two.” Hopefully her mastery of this particular instrument quashed her initial doubts about her fitness for the role!
In 1997 Thelma decided an organist position nearer home would suit her better, and she left Askerswell, taking up the post at Walditch the following year at the request of the Revd Maureen Allchin. There were new pieces to be learnt as Maureen introduced more modern services, with contemporary hymns, to complement those from The Book of Common Prayer, although a monthly prayer book service, including sung psalms, continued for some years. Thelma has also particularly enjoyed the village’s occasional flower festival, during which she has played the organ for visitors. She now works with the current Walditch priest, the Revd Ann Ayling, and hopes to continue for a few more years yet.
If you or anyone you know would like to play the organ for services at Walditch, please get in touch via the editor. Perhaps you play the piano and would like to add another string to your musical bow, or maybe you’ve tried the organ, but as Thelma’s own story proves, lack of formal training is no barrier to success!