The Organs of St Peter’s
“Though like an organ now in ruin laid,
Its stops disordered and its frame decayed,
This instrument ere long new tuned shall raise
To God, its builder, notes of endless praise.”
The project to acquire, restore and install it in the church in 2002 was financed entirely by an anonymous benefactor. The total cost of nearly £60,000 represented a huge saving when set against the cost of a comparable new organ at 2001/2002 prices – approximately £185,000+ VAT. In giving thanks for such generosity, we also remember the generosity of previous benefactors who enabled organs to be acquired in 1872 and 1963. The first organ in the church was installed in the west gallery in 1822, “in consequence of the church singers having left off singing”. Neither organ nor gallery remain and nothing is known of this instrument, although a watercolour of 1828 shows a small pipe organ facing east.
In 1872 a new 2 manual and pedal organ of 16 stops was made and installed by Hill & Son for the sum of £310. The cost was met by a local benefactor, Arthur Leveson Gore, and the organ was installed in the south chancel. Photographs show that this location was far from ideal. Viewed from the west, the organ protruded into the chancel and dominated the view of the high altar. It also obstructed the vestry door, reducing the available width to somewhat less than 24 inches. Some of the pipework was located in the tower above the vestry, speaking down the south aisle through a very limited opening. This must have been very difficult for the organist to hear, and much of the sound would have been absorbed by the wood and stone within the tower. Little is known of the fate of this organ, although the Hill, Norman & Beard order book (1946-1949) shows that a proposed 3 manual rebuild, costing £2975, was cancelled (1). (1) Source: National Pipe Organ Register In 1948 an organ was supplied by Comptons. Again, details are sparse, although it seems likely that this was a pipeless instrument. It did not last for long however, and the Rector, Paul Wansey, reported in the late 1950’s that the organ had come to the end of its life. As a consequence of this, a meeting for parishioners to discuss the possibility of installing a pipe organ “at some future date” was held on 9th November 1959. Plans were submitted by three organ builders, and these were considered by Austin Niland (a well-known organ consultant recommended by the Organs Advisory Committee) and Stephen Dykes Bower (the architect, and at that time Surveyor of the Fabric to Westminster Abbey). The plans of N.P. Mander Ltd were thought to be most suitable. At this meeting, it was recognised that the church was not built to house an organ and that the difficulties of where to place one needed considerable thought. An earlier plan, to place an organ across the top of the chancel arch, was overwhelmingly rejected in favour of a plan to place an organ on top of a platform underneath the 1854 archway between the north aisle and the Gresham Chapel The subject clearly generated much debate. A parishioner’s letter of December 1959 states “….We have heard the Rector speaking about the suggested positions for a pipe organ in our lovely church, and I wish to say that I am not alone in being horrified. I realise that there are some people who feel that a real organ would benefit the admittedly poor singing from the congregation, but I personally believe that it would only be a merciful blanket………”. In January 1962 an extensive programme of repair, restoration and redecoration commenced in the church. Funds for a new organ were made available by the Aisher family in memory of Richard Harry Aisher, and the Rector’s Letter of May 1963 records that “After 18 months, the church is free of scaffolding. The enormous task of the repairs is complete……….the organ platform, a great feat of engineering, is complete and we hope the organ will be installed in June”. This turned out to be over-optimistic. Estimates for the building work and the new organ had been revised upwards as follows:
Building works £5,400
Organ case and architect’s fees £1,000 £6,400
This left £2,600 for the organ, sufficient to provide the basis of an instrument, but not enough to pay for the finished article. Work was also interrupted when Noel Mander pointed out that the heating system in the vicinity of the organ needed to be altered, as no consideration had been given to the effects of heat on the organ.
Installation commenced during the autumn of 1963. A façade designed by Stephen Dykes Bower was placed on top of the concrete platform, and nine ranks of pipes (extended to provide 28 speaking stops) were gradually added as funds became available, speaking along the length of the north aisle. A detached console was placed in the Gresham Chapel, below and behind the pipework, and by July 1964, the 2 manual and pedal extension organ was complete. Unfortunately, because all the funds had been spent on the rest of the instrument, the proposal to place another Dykes Bower façade at the back of the instrument was never realised.
The position of the organ console in the Gresham Chapel was a challenging one for the organist. It was difficult for the organist to hear the organ, and more difficult still to hear the organ, congregation and choir together. Worse still, it was almost impossible to hear the organ above a church full of singers. Consequently it did not lead or inspire singing, and singers in the chancel would frequently lag behind those in the north aisle. By late 2000, the organ was in a bad state of repair, and the decision was taken to replace it.
In December 2000, the Ministry of Defence advertised the imminent disposal of the organ of St Mark’s Garrison Church, Shorncliffe Barracks, Folkestone. Built for the MOD in 1976 by Hill, Norman & Beard, it had lain silent following the decommissioning of St Mark’s in the late 1990’s. On 6th January 2001, Graham Powell and Gavin Barrett visited Shorncliffe and, despite the freezing conditions in the church, were able to play the instrument and assess its suitability for our needs. The vast interior of the church had been stripped of all fixtures and fittings, apart from the organ itself. The organ, consisting of 2 manuals and pedals and 20 speaking stops, had not been played or tuned for at least two years, and was badly out of tune. Despite this, Graham and Gavin were impressed by the quality of what they saw and heard. Even though the organ was 25 years old, it was in very good condition and showed hardly any signs of wear. Most importantly, it appeared to be an ideal replacement for the old Mander organ.
The next three months saw a period of intense activity, during which a comprehensive report was produced by organ consultant Ian Bell and the viability of transferring the organ to Limpsfield was thoroughly investigated. As in 1960, much thought was given to the positioning of the instrument, and following advice from the Diocesan Advisory Committee and others, it was finally accepted that the east end of the Gresham Chapel was to be the preferred position. Although the Clayton and Bellstained glass at the east end of the Gresham Chapel would be obscured, the siting of the organ would still allow viewing of the glass by walking around to the rear of the instrument. After an anxious wait, a sealed bid made on behalf of the church was accepted by the MOD on 30th March 2001.
In May 2001, the firm of Peter Collins Ltd provided a competitive estimate for the work of dismantling the Shorncliffe organ, transferring it into storage, restoring it and installing it at Limpsfield. They were subsequently awarded the contract, and in June 2001 the Shorncliffe organ was dismantled and transferred to their workshops in Melton Mowbray.
The Mander organ was removed from St Peter’s in March 2002 by the firm of F.H. Browne and Sons. After this, all services in the church were accompanied by an electronic organ kindly loaned by Gavin Barrett. Happily, F.H. Browne & Sons were able to use various parts of the old Mander organ in other instruments. The noted Dykes Bower façade has been installed at St Andrew’s, Deal; the console is now in use at St Leonard, Wallingford; and the 16’/8’ Trumpet unit and Swell mixture have been incorporated into the organ at St John the Baptist, Barham. During the following months the opportunity was taken to remove all traces of the organ platform from the Gresham Chapel arch – a huge engineering task – and to completely restore and redecorate the church interior. At the same time in Melton Mowbray, the “new” organ was gradually restored and modernised. The manual and pedal actions were replaced, and on the Great organ, a Clarion 4’ was replaced with a new Sesquialtera 12.17, and a Bourdon 16’ and a tremulant were added. On the Swell organ, a Cromorne 8’ was replaced with a new Hautboy 8’, and the Mixture 22-26-29 was recast as 15-19-22. A new solid state capture system with eight levels of memory was added, and the number of pistons was increased to six per division. In addition, six general pistons were provided. The pedal towers were reversed to allow the organ to fit beneath the roof of the Gresham Chapel. The dull zinc case pipes in the pedal towers and in the centre front of the casework were replaced with bright spotted metal pipes, and a cymbelstern consisting of six untuned bells and a revolving star was generously donated by Gavin and Sue Barrett in memory of their parents, Don and Norah Barrett and Thomas and Phyllis Littlehales. Installation of the new organ at St Peter’s commenced on 15 November 2002. The organ was dedicated on the evening of 7 December 2002 by the Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Rev Tom Butler. In its new home, the organ speaks with a wonderful clarity and vigour. It is capable of the gentlest accompaniment, or of effectively leading a church full of singers. It also excels in the authentic performance of a wide range of schools of organ music, particularly that of the Baroque period. It has attracted praise from a number of leading players, and recitals are given on it in May, July and September each year. It is an exceptional instrument of which we are justifiably proud. GP.