Survivors & Exiles

Historic British organs as cultural heritage

Dominic Gwynn


  The organ at St Nicholas in Stanford on Avon, Northamptonshire, which dates from around 1630

Those of us who love historic classical organs look with envy to continental Europe, where organs of all sizes survive from the 17th and 18th centuries, including some with substantial remains from the 16th century. The same is not true of the UK, for a variety of reasons. The first is the weakness of the tradition for organs and organ music in British church music after the Reformation. British organs were never large, and were perhaps not invested with the same local or civic pride accorded to the large organs of northern Europe. After the Reformation it was even questionable whether organs would survive in our church music. Had Queen Elizabeth herself not enjoyed organs in her own chapel and promoted them elsewhere, organs might have disappeared from England and Wales (not to mention Ireland), just as they were absent from Scotland until the later 19th century.

When organs once again became a crucial part of church music in the first half of the 19th century, their revival coincided with a religious revival and with industrial and commercial revolutions. By 1900, almost every church and many chapels had an organ of some sort. But at the same time as thousands of new organs were being built, the existing stock was being altered to accommodate changes of taste and use. Churches with old organs either modernised them or got rid of them, often by selling the organ on to less wealthy churches and chapels which then started the process of alteration themselves.

Liturgical reforms also encouraged aspiring churchwardens and reforming clergy to move the existing organs out of their galleries (which were then removed) and into a purpose-built chamber on the north side of the chancel. The case was often destroyed or mutilated to fit the space. The organ was usually increased in size and the desire for more emphatically differentiated sounds meant that space had to be found for a swell organ (for softer, more religiously affecting sounds), a larger great organ with louder diapasons and reeds, and a pedal organ with deeper sounds and larger pipes. To accommodate the larger organs, the layout had to be changed and more wind provided, so the mechanism was usually altered, too.

These trends were extended as 20th century technology opened up fresh possibilities. Increasingly kaleidoscopic changes in tone colours were provided by pneumatic and then electric actions to keys and stops, and finally by the wonders of the digital world. The second half of the 20th century has also seen a wonderful expansion in the repertoire of music for the organ, both backwards, historically, and outwards, geographically, across the continent. The tone colours required by the various schools of composition have been injected into the stop lists of existing and new organs.

The results have not always been for the better, however, at least not so far as the instruments are concerned. Most of our historic classical organs have been lost entirely, although many survive in part. Some have no more than a case and a few pipes, but are still described as though they survive intact. With an increasing range of musical possibility has come a temptation for every organist to tamper with the organ in their church, encouraging incremental alterations with each clean, overhaul or restoration project.

The insidious effects on the historic British organ stimulated the foundation of the British Institute of Organ Studies in 1976, dedicated to saving what remained and encouraging appreciation of our historic organs. In the past 14 years the process has been aided by the Heritage Lottery Fund and a start has been made on the revival of our classical organ heritage.

The earliest surviving British organs in the UK are chamber organs, that is: organs made for a secular context. The organ was an essential component of much domestic music making, both sacred and secular, and hundreds must have been produced in the 17th century. About 40 survive as complete organs. In these, the original organ is recognisable even if it has been subject to some alteration. There are also a number of collections of pipes, or parts incorporated into later organs. They survive partly because they were made in such large numbers in the first place, but also because the fortunes of the families and their organs varied. The organs were as likely to survive in some forgotten part of a house or stable, or brought into use for a musical child, as dispensed with or destroyed.

  Thomas Parker’s organ at Great Packington in Warwickshire

The oldest working organ in Britain is the chest organ at Knole House in Kent, a house with plenty of space for forgotten objects. As with most historic house organs, it went through periods of neglect and restoration. The case, soundboard and the oldest pipes presumably date from around 1600. All the pipes are made of oak and the oldest pipes, or at least the style in which they are made, may date from the 16th century. The organ received its latest lease of life at the beginning of the 20th century when it became the organ of the Sackville family chapel.

The sale of country houses can give these small organs an adventurous life. An important organ of 1630 survives at St Luke’s, Smithfield, in Virginia, the oldest church in the eastern United States, where it has been for the past 50 years. It was acquired from a collector of historic keyboard instruments, Captain Lane of Snaresbrook, one of a number of enthusiasts who have helped to ensure the survival of some interesting old organs. It has spent most of its life with the family who purchased it in 1630, the Lestranges of Hunstanton Hall in Norfolk. They were a musical family who built themselves a music room on an island in the middle of a pond, with a resident musician, a collection of music and a set of viols. The organ (and indeed the house itself) was not used continuously, but the organ was restored and brought back into use in the middle of the 18th century and again a hundred years later. It was still playable in the 20th century, when P G Wodehouse stayed with his cousin Bernard Lestrange, and made the music room on its island part of the story ‘Jeeves and the Impending Doom’.

Country house organs continued to be very popular amongst the nobility and gentry of the Georgian period. Of the thousands that must have been built, many survive, often in their original homes, and a few of them remain completely unaltered. The survivors may number around 400, although the dispersal of many from their original homes to private ownership elsewhere makes it difficult to estimate.

One spectacular example to have survived is the 1690s organ at Adlington Hall in Cheshire, which is so little altered that it provides the model for modern reconstructions and restoration projects. This organ may be in a domestic setting but it is laid out like a small church organ. Another example on a similar scale was made by Thomas Parker for Gopsall Hall in Leicestershire, the home of Charles Jennens, the librettist for Handel’s Messiah. It was made after 1749, when Handel wrote a letter making recommendations that included his preferred builder. After Jennens died, the organ went to Great Packington in Warwickshire, first to the hall and then in the 1790s to the estate church, where it survives in an almost unaltered condition. The latter move was a fortuitous one: Gopsall Hall was later demolished.

  16th century soundboard discovered at Wetheringsett, Suffolk

House organs remained popular throughout the Victorian period, but with changing musical tastes many Georgian chamber organs were relegated from the country house to the local church. In many of these churches, at least in the smaller and more remote ones, the basis of the organ survives. However, they are only rarely to be found unaltered as attempts were often made to make the organ as ecclesiastical as possible. These chamber organs have sometimes found their way onto the market for antique musical instruments or into public collections.

Far fewer church organs survive from before 1850. Where they do, poverty has been the main preserver. Occasionally, changes in fashion and religious observance can help to preserve organs, although they usually have a destructive effect. In 1977 a soundboard dating from around 1540 was found during conversion work in a Suffolk farm house, the pipe holes perhaps serving as ventilation for a dairy, or perhaps having a superstitious purpose as a sacred object believed to protect the livestock from evil sprites. Its discovery has stimulated the design and manufacture of two copies (details can be found on the website of The Royal College of Organists) and it can be seen in the Musical Instrument Museum of the Royal College of Music in South Kensington.

Another early organ to survive is that at St Nicholas in Stanford on Avon, Northamptonshire, although it survives as an archaeological site rather than as a working organ. This is the chair organ to a double organ which dates from around 1630 and was built by Thomas and Robert Dallam for Magdalen College, Oxford. A university college with a choral foundation would naturally keep pace with the current fashion, and Magdalen was no exception. This organ was replaced with a new one in 1736, and further reconstructions and replacements were made by the college fairly frequently thereafter. The local squire at Stanford, Sir Thomas Cave, acquired the chair organ and had it rebuilt for his local church, where it remained, presumably in increasingly dilapidated condition, eventually losing its inside pipework. The other part of this double organ, the great organ, survives at Tewkesbury Abbey, its appearance altered, its pipework much altered and its mechanism replaced. Nonetheless, like the 1540s soundboard, it is all that survives from a fertile period in our musical history, and one hopes that a reconstruction will be made from these parts as well.

  The organ at St Botolph, Aldgate, made by the celebrated organ builder Renatus Harris

Generally speaking, the areas which were poor enough to retain their old organs were not wealthy enough to have bought them in the first place. The exception is the East End of London, which provided fashionable suburbs for wealthy Londoners in the 17th and 18th centuries, but from about 1850 turned into industrialised slums. There is also a surprising number of historic organs in the City churches. In the 50 years after the Great Fire in 1666, about half of the rebuilt churches acquired new organs, and although some were replaced and most were altered in Victorian times, a number retained their essential visual and tonal character. The churches themselves remained relatively unaffected by the tides of Victorian liturgical reform, and many kept their galleries, and retained the organs in their original positions.

At St Botolph, Aldgate, on the eastern edge of the City of London and with a parish partly outside the bounds, an organ survives which could be called the oldest surviving British church organ. The organ was made in about 1704 by Renatus Harris, one of the two celebrated organ builders of the second half of the 17th century. It had been altered in the late Victorian period, but the casework survived, the soundboards and most of the pipes, including mixtures and reeds (trumpet and bassoon), standing in their original positions. The organ’s survival owed something to the poverty of the parish, or perhaps the use of its resources for its poor population, and to the religious conservatism of City churches noted by Charles Dickens in The Uncommercial Traveller.

The earliest church organ to survive more or less intact (although awaiting restoration) is in the church at Thaxted in Essex, originally built by Henry Lincoln for St John’s, Bedford Row, in 1821, although parts, some substantial, survive from many organs before that date. The next British organ to survive more or less intact is the organ built by J C Bishop in 1829 for St James’s, Bermondsey, where it remains in its original situation in the largest of the Waterloo churches. The organ was one of the largest and most up-to-date of its time, with the first pedal organ having separate stops. The only alteration was to the keys, to accommodate a change in key compass, but some of the pipes had also been stolen. In 1829 Bermondsey was still a desirable place to live, although its desirability was quickly affected by the arrival of the railways and accompanying industrialisation, including food processing and leather tanning, which saw an influx of poorer residents to the area. Bermondsey did not have the funds to alter its church or its organ. The church almost suffered demolition in the 1960s, but thanks to a succession of enthusiasts and well-wishers it survived to the time of the Heritage Lottery Fund, which paid for its restoration in 2002.

  Benjamin Flight’s 1854 organ in the cathedral of Santiago, Chile

Even before the 1850s, organs from Britain were being exported around the world, and they survive in some surprising places, usually where a period of prosperity has been short-lived. British organ historians became very excited when they discovered that examples of the early 17th century style of British organ had survived in Brittany. These are the only complete ones to have survived, and they have now been restored. These organs were built by the Dallam family during the English Civil War and the Commonwealth between 1642 and 1660, and thereafter during a period of commercial prosperity. They were preserved by Brittany’s relative lack of prosperity after 1700, and today they are the only organs on which we can hear the music of the great 17th century English composers with something like the sounds the composers would have expected.

Another unexpected survival is the organ built by Benjamin Flight in 1854 for the cathedral in Santiago, Chile. It was probably the last organ to be built in Britain to which one could attach the label ‘classical’, still with the long keyboard compasses of the Georgian organ and traditional choruses. It is a large organ with all the sounds and effects that one would have expected from an early 19th century organ like that at St James’s, Bermondsey. It was built from the profits of local commerce, which also provided Santiago with some organs by the best builders from France and Germany.

The French and German governments have provided the resources to restore organs from their countries. If the British government were to do the same for the Flight organ, which is more or less unplayable, it would signal our willingness to celebrate our cultural heritage abroad while showing, at home, that the organ occupies an important place in that heritage.



This article is reproduced from Historic Churches, 2008


DOMINIC GWYNN is a director of Martin Goetze and Dominic Gwynn. Since 1980, the company has been making new organs in the classical British style as well as restoring historic organs. The company also carries out archaeological surveys and publishes research relating to historic British organs.

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