Walter Pickford was born 1894 into a family of organists going back several generations, so it is probably not too surprising that by the time he was 10, he was playing the organ for Sunday services at the Union Street Chapel, Hyde. He died in 1975. In the intervening years he served in the Lancashire Regiment during the first world and was wounded in France. Once recovered he was put in charge of a POW camp.
In May 1918 he married his childhood sweetheart, Elsa Beard, and they had three children …Steven, Jean and Helen. At the end of the war he returned to his former employment with ICI in the leather cloth division. In 1931 he was promoted to a post in London and chose to commute from Benfleet where he successfully applied for the vacant organist and choirmaster’s post at St Mary’s parish church. The organ had been rebuilt and enlarged by Harrison and Harrison of Durham to a specification by Sir Sydney Nicholson. It was not a large organ, but what attracted Walter was the beautiful tonal quality.
The vicar at the time was the Rev. Ralph Gardener and the two became firm friends. Walter introduced the modern chants for the psalms and treated the congregation to many new anthems from the choir and the occasional recital with his daughter on the violin.
The hand-bells of Benfleet were regularly played in the local pubs at Christmas and we believe any money donated went to St Mary’s Church. Helen Stewart (nee Pickford) remembers that two families provided the core of the hand-bell ringing group – the Matsons and the Pickfords. Helen, because of her age (14) had to get special permission to enter the pubs. Walter Pickford, who was the church organist, was keen to extend the group’s repertoire and set to work to compose some arrangements specific to hand-bells…..mostly carols or folk songs in six part harmony. Six ringers , twelve hand-bells. Helen believes that these have never been published and that these arrangements are unique to Benfleet. They have now been reproduced on the site courtesy of Helen.
During the second world war Walter joined the ARPs, but continued to commute to London. His work with ICI saw him touring aircraft factories to demonstrate applying adhesive and cloth to the wings of Spitfires and other aircraft. In 1951 he retired as organist and continued to live at Hill End, which in 1933, when it was built, was the last (going downhill) house in St Mary’s Road. At that time the plot was surrounded by fields and looked out onto a row of elms which housed a rookery. Walter died in 1975.