The Organ

(From the programme for the  Inaugural Recital, Sept. 14th 1977)
It must have been about 100 years ago [ca.1875] that the then Congregational Church purchased a two-manual hand-pumped organ from the reputable firm of Bishop & Son. It had tracker action with six stops on the Great Organ, eight on the Swell and a Pedal Bourdon. It was unpretentious but well able to support the congregational singing and give sympathetic support to the choir.

The Bishop Organ

The Bishop Organ

A similar instrument may be seen and heard at Walton-on-the Hill, which still sounds very well – a tribute to the longevity of a well-built pipe organ When the church was rebuilt in 1903 the organ was re-erected in the new building and was provided with an electric blower. It was placed behind the large central pulpit, dividing the choir ranged on either side of it, in the semi-hexagonal east end of the building.

The organist faced his instrument and hence had his back to minister and congregation. His choristers had a good view of him, but he had to turn his head right to see the sopranos and tenors and left to see the contraltos and basses. There is an apochryphal story that the architect forgot to leave space for the organ so that it had to be placed where further centrally-placed choir stalls were intended. It continued to stand there for nearly sixty years troubled only by uncertain electrics and a variable wind supply (resolved when, after the second World War, Epsom finally changed from D.C. to A.C. mains supply and a new motor and switchgear were supplied by the Electricity Board).

In the early thirties, cleaning and overhaul became necessary and suggestions were made by some church members, and by the organist, that replacement or enlargement of the Bishop organ should be considered. It was generally felt that the leading Congregational Church in the area should possess a more prestigious instrument capable of supporting major musical programmes. The occasion of the Church’s 250th anniversary, to be celebrated in 1938, provided an opportunity to start a fund to finance the rebuilding of the organ and to make some alterations to improve the appearance of the east end of the church. This fund, started in 1937, realised an amount in excess of £1,000 and a number of firms were approached to tender for the provision of a new, or to extend the existing, organ. Recently invented, the American Hammond electronic instrument with magnetic tone generators was considered, but a demonstration on site was not possible because of the D.C. electricity supply mentioned above. Later the English company, John Compton, did demonstrate their ‘Electrone’ – a similar type of instrument – but the sound did not commend itself to church members and it was unanimously turned down. The contract went to the Taunton firm, George Osmond & Co., to build a two-manual organ based on the Bishop instrument, but with greatly improved tonal resources and modernised action. Plans were far advanced when the war intervened and halted the work. The post-war cost was far in excess of what was available in the fund and, with much-needed repairs to the building a matter of some urgency, the church temporarily set aside thoughts of replacing the organ. However, one leading member of the Church was determined that it should house an instrument to lead the praise of God more worthily. This was the late Mr. Harrison Longhurst who left in his will a portion of his estate to supplement the Organ Fund and enable its original purpose to be accomplished. He died in 1957 and the money remained in trust, supporting his wife until her death in 1969. In 1961, a disastrous fire gutted the building and all church activities were continued at the Lecture Hall in Upper High Street. Mr. Ken. Down, who was organist at the time, arranged for the hire of a Jennings electronic instrument, but this proved so unsatisfactory that the insurance money was spent on the purchase of a second-hand two-manual Walker Model C Positif organ to serve temporarily until the bequest materialised. This instrument was moved back into the re-opened church in 1964, where it gave yeoman service until Spring, 1977.

Allan Healey at the Walker Positif in the Choir Gallery

It was a small extension organ based on three and a half ranks of pipes but, despite its ambitious specification, it failed to meet the demands of contemporary worship although it proved that our new church, reshaped within the old shell, had excellent acoustics. These instruments are extremely popular today in homes and chapels and we are pleased to record that ours is now performing well at a small church near Birmingham where it has been rebuilt by Hill, Norman and Beard.

In 1975 the legal formalities were completed to enable the Church to obtain its share of the Longhurst bequest. Here the work of Mr. Rupert Nicholson must be recorded. His advice, enthusiasm and dogged determination succeeded at the very time when all other efforts had seemed to fail. In that year also, a gifted young musician, Mr. Allan Healey, was appointed to the vacant post of organist and choir master with the promise of a versatile new instrument which he would have a major part in planning. He was immediately co-opted to the organ committee and with his expert help a number of options were considered, ranging from electronic and computer instruments to classical and tracker action pipe organs. Visits were made to hear the work of various builders, five of whom were consulted. It was decided that the purchase of a second-hand instrument would make the best use of the limited resources of the bequest since a new instrument could cost as much as £2,000 per rank of pipes. The committee learned of the impending closure of St. John’s Presbyterian Church, Forest Hill, with its superb, romantic, three-manual organ – an instrument conceived when the church organ was similar to the ‘town hall’ organ and not specifically geared to liturgical demands. Built in 1908 by J.W. Walker & Son (the builder of our Positif), it had many fine ranks of pipes, some too large and powerful for our building. It was, however, apparent that a design for the new organ could be based on the pipes from this instrument and make possible the performance of music in a wide range of styles. Members of the committee met Ralph Arnold in May, 1976, and were immediately impressed by the outstanding quality of his craftsmanship and, above all, by his ability to cope with exacting limitations and yet produce the most musical of instruments. Consultations led to the drafting of a specification for an instrument with four divisions comprising remodelled Great, Swell and Pedal Organs and a Positive Organ based on two ranks from the old Choir organ. The large pipes were to be disposed of and new upper-work added giving the instrument greater brilliance.

Allan Healey at the console of the new organ

It would be controlled from a remote console set in a well at the front of the church already prepared during the rebuilding in 1961-4, and be placed on the north side of the gallery, beside the choir, as in the scheme accepted in 1938. The Positive department would stand over the front of the gallery allowing it to speak clearly into the body of the church. The specification was agreed, the Forest Hill organ purchased, and Mr. Arnold engaged to carry out the rebuilding. He has been occupied since the beginning of the year designing and building the framework, soundboards, wind supply and action, and refurbishing and voicing the Walker pipework to suit the new environment in which it speaks. By using these excellent old pipes he has created far greater wealth of tonal effects than would have been possible within the budget had new pipes to be bought. The front rank is the Gedackt, of spotted metal and provided with polished wooden stoppers, its visual beauty giving promise of the aural beauty of the whole organ.

Philip Moore practising for the Inaugural Concert

He has also given new life to an instrument from the hey-day of organ building – one designed by Dr. Abernethy, for some time organist at Southwark, and of which our benefactor would have been proud. It has fifteen ranks of pipes represented at the console by thirty-two speaking stops. A service of dedication will take place at 11 a.m. on September 18th. The console will bear a bronze plate with the inscription:

The gift of the late Harrison Longhurst.
Pipework by J.W. Walker & Son, 1908.
from St. John’s Church, Forest Hill.
Rebuilt by Ralph Arnold, Organbuilder, Orpington.
Dedicated September 18th, 1977.

As J.S. Bach, the greatest composer for the instrument, dedicated his works, so we dedicate our organ ‘to the greater glory of God’.

Ralph Arnold began his organ-building apprenticeship at the age of fifteen, but it was interrupted by war service. On its completion after leaving the forces he worked for a London firm of organ-builders until 1966 when he started his own business. The following year his wife became a working partner in this business and together they have continued to build many instruments, recently including those at Poverest Road Baptist Church, Orpington, and St. Mary’s, Kemsing. Both these are new instruments situated in Kent but their numerous contracts for new and rebuilt organs have taken them far afield – even to Perth in Scotland. Their work includes new organs, rebuilds, overhauls and regular tuning and maintenance service over a wide area.

[Note added in 2008:- Ralph Arnold has since retired, and maintenance of the organ is now carried out by Mr Martin Cross, of Grays, in Essex, (Tel: 01375-380703)]

The earlier Walker Organ (No. R00198) destroyed in the fire in 1961, and the Walker/Arnold Organ (No. R00199) built here in 1977 are both registered with the National Pipe Organ Register