What makes the Colchester Moot Hall organ special?

Robert Hope-Jones demonstrating  his new electric-action pipe organ;  he is playing outside the church,  but all the pipes are sounding  within the building
Robert Hope-Jones demonstrating his new electric-action pipe organ;
he is playing outside the church, but all the pipes are sounding within the building

by William McVicker
Project consultant

 

In order fully to appreciate the heritage value of the Moot Hall organ it is necessary to understand something of the significant changes in organ building that characterise instruments constructed at the end of the Victorian period and the start of the Edwardian era. G. A. Wales Beard, one half of the organ-building enterprise which constructed the town hall’s organ, was a shareholder in the Hope-Jones Electric Organ Company Limited. Robert Hope-Jones (1859–1914) frequently sub-contracted work to Norman & Beard Ltd. The Hope-Jones’ firm encountered some financial and staffing difficulties in their premises in Birkenhead and a new factory was provided for them in 1898 in Norwich alongside the existing workshops of Norman & Beard. The two workforces evidently combined quite happily. The business was formally sold in 1899 and Hope-Jones subsequently entered into partnership with Eustace Ingram in 1901.

Although Robert Hope-Jones continued to have financial difficulties, by the time of the new relationship with Norman & Beard, his business offered clients what were then advanced tonal and mechanical ideas in organ building. Whilst it is clear that he brought his own ideas from the telephone industry and applied them to the construction of pipe organs, he must have spent some considerable time working and experimenting with an experienced organ voicer in order to cook up new varieties of organ tone. With whom did he undertake this work? Suggested names include William Thynne (1839–1897) or, more likely, John William Whiteley (1865–1940) who was younger than Thynne and is said to have been trained by him. Hope-Jones must have asked his colleagues to provide experimental pipes of extraordinarily small diameter (scale) as well as pipes of unusual width, and to establish under what conditions such pipes could be made to speak. He applied leather to what we call the upper lips of the organ pipes (both diapasons and flutes alike) in order to smooth out the tone and to enable the pipes to be blown harder using heavier pressures of wind — the resulting stops were inscribed with exotic and curious Latin names. The goal was to produce luxuriant, smooth and powerful organ tone — and, in the hands of Norman & Beard, sounds that spoke of Britain’s success at the height of its Empire.

Leathered lips of the Grand  Open Diapason pipes before and after restoration
Leathered lips of the Grand Open Diapason pipes before and after restoration

 

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Hope-Jones’s ideas had attracted interest by the mid-1890s, although they had perhaps not gained general currency by that time. This was a rapidly changing market and Hope-Jones was at its cutting edge. He was not without his critics: some organ builders (probably resenting his rapid rise to fame) were openly hostile to him. The famous concert organist W. T. Best, when asked by the organ builder to provide a testimonial, addressed it ‘Dear Mr Hopeless Jones’. Forty years after his death, Hope-Jones was accorded a certain amount of respect in the organ-building industry: by then his pioneering researches into, and application of, electric technology (using ideas from the telephone industry) were probably reasonably well appreciated — and to a significant extent had shaped the nature and development of English organ-building at that time, especially in the economic downturn of the 1930s. After the rise of the so-called Neo-Classical Revival of the 1960s, his work was dismissed in openly vitriolic terms; but more recently his influence and ingenuity has been reassessed and appreciated — especially in the world of the theatre organ, principally because some of his work in America between 1903 and his suicide in 1914 had been largely connected with the development of Wurlitzer organs.

The ivory nameplate of  the Moot Hall organ
The ivory nameplate of
the Moot Hall organ

 

As will have been seen from John Norman’s article in this programme, Wales Beard was of an entrepreneurial disposition; to an extent he attempted to emulate (and certainly partnered with) the Hope-Jones system of organ building in a new instrument which they were constructing for The English Church Union in London. The exchange of information between the entrepreneurial Beard and the inventive electrical engineer was therefore initiated soon after 1892 and cemented in 1898. As noted, Wales Beard had become a shareholder when Hope-Jones’ first company was incorporated in 1892 — many of his first instruments were, in fact, sub-contracted to other organ builders, most often to Norman & Beard. It is uncertain exactly when the firm first began to adopt Hope-Jones’ revolutionary ideas into their own instruments, but incorporate them they most certainly did: by 1898 one of the organ-pipe voicers (the organ builders who give the pipes their sound and character) by the name of Joe Blossom had adopted the idea of applying leather to the upper lips of flute and diapason stops, and this can be found in their instrument constructed in Holy Innocents, South Norwood in the same year. By 1903 they had extended their portfolio of organ stops inspired by Hope-Jones to other types of pipe, adding leather to unusually shaped wooden pipes for example, in their organ for Beckenham Baptist Church.

The Colchester Moot Hall organ therefore sits at a most extraordinary moment in English organ-building history: it represents a fusion of new and old ideas. This instrument adopts Norman & Beard’s tubular pneumatic key-action, Hope-Jones’s experimental pipe tones; and it encompasses the newer breed of hooded posaune reeds stops which other English organ-builders had employed (e.g., Willis, Hill, Gray & Davison). This organ also includes the vestiges of the classical German diapason choruses (now greatly attenuated), which had characterised the work of Thomas Christopher Lewis, and embraces a multum in parvo approach to tonal design, which foreshadows the mighty Edwardian organs of Harrison & Harrison Ltd, who, with the acquisition of some of Norman & Beard’s employees in or around 1910, became the leading English organ builders in the years leading up to the First World War. It must be remembered, however, that it was Herbert J. Norman who pulled all these elements together into what we now recognise as the Norman & Beard style.

Norman & Beard’s leathered wooden flute pipes at Beckenham  Baptist Church (1903)
Norman & Beard’s leathered wooden flute pipes at Beckenham Baptist Church (1903)

 

The characteristic tonal ideas, which Hope-Jones pioneered and are to be found in Norman & Beard’s Moot Hall organ, are as follows:

  1.  Leathered upper lips of the diapason pipes 8ft and 16ft of the Great Organ
  2.  A selection of narrow-scaled orchestral string voices on the Swell and Choir Organs 
  3. The use of ‘inverted languids’ for the Swell Open Diapason stop
  4. The pioneering and rare Swell Harmonic Gemshorn stop – a fusion, perhaps, of Hope-Jones’s 4ft Gemshorn and 2ft Harmonic Piccolo stop: ‘bottom octave non-harmonic. Top octave stopped pipes remainder harmonic, double length and pierced with a small hole ½ way up’.
  5. The wooden Harmonic Claribel Flute of the Great Organ; the contract noted: ‘A new stop specially designed for Orchestral Organs. Of fine Solo Quality. Pipes double length and pierced ½ way up with a small hole’.

This extraordinary, small, yet versatile concert organ thus stands at an interesting moment in English organ-building history and its restoration allows us a peep into a bygone age to experience the Edwardians’ tonal vision of the pipe organ which, with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, heralded the dawn of a new age.

Postscript — Organ builders lost to history

 

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The names of the organ builders who made the individual parts of the Moot Hall organ are almost lost to history. But during the restoration work, the staff of Harrison & Harrison has been on the lookout for any inscriptions written on the components. The fact is that Norman & Beard were producing so many organs during this period that there was probably insufficient time for the organ builders to write their names on the sheer numbers of the various items they made. Some exceptions to this seem to be a pneumatic-action specialist by the name of Morgan who signed his name in a number of places in the Moot Hall organ. Ironically, he later became an employee of Harrison & Harrison in Durham.

Some years ago I was shown a photograph of some of the organ builders at work in Norwich, probably taken between 1900 and 1910. The sheer numbers of men doing similar tasks shows just how many people must have been employed in the trade in the years leading up to the First World War. This is borne out by the names we find inscribed on some of the organ pipes. Harrison & Harrison carries on this tradition today and below are some photographs of the men who signed their names on to the organ pipes during the restoration.

An extremely rare photo of one of the Norman & Beard voicing shops; a date unknown, c. 1905? Some of the employees photographed may well be the makers of the Moot Hall organ pipes.
An extremely rare photo of one of the Norman & Beard voicing shops; a date unknown, c. 1905? Some of the employees photographed may well be the makers of the Moot Hall organ pipes.

 

Case pipes by Astington & Batterbi[y] of Norman & Beard, 1902
Case pipes by Astington & Batterbi[y] of Norman & Beard, 1902
H. Mason’s Great  Fifteenth CC pipe
H. Mason’s Great
Fifteenth CC pipe

 

 

 

 

A Swell Mixture pipe  made by J. Hirst.
A Swell Mixture pipe
made by J. Hirst.
The signature of H. Pounning on a Great Octave pipe

 

Great Clarion pipe neatly  stamped by S. G. Holmes.
Great Clarion pipe neatly
stamped by S. G. Holmes.
Choir Concert Flute made by F. Hobbs.
Choir Concert Flute made by F. Hobbs.