by Nigel Chapman
Councillor, Colchester Borough Council
Chairman of the Friends of the Moot Hall Organ
Former Mayor of Colchester
Sketching the history of the various musicians who have served as Borough Organist has proved remarkably difficult. Below I present the merest outline of the characters who are thought to have held this position.
Christian was the first Borough Organist, appointed in 1904, at the age of 44, having played the organ on a number of occasions since it was installed. He had passed his Associateship of the Royal College of Organists (ARCO) in July 1894, and was one of 44 candidates who passed, out of a total of 140 candidates. He served as organist for 36 years until his death on 6 February, 1940. ‘Billie’, as he was known, joined Lion Walk Congregational Church as organist in 1877 following two years at St. Leonard-at-the-Hythe and remained in post until his death. He composed some pieces of music including a setting of The Lord’s Prayer that was played at his funeral. It is recorded that he felt he owed a great deal to his master, Sir William Parry, whom he described as ‘one of the finest exponents of organ playing in the country’.
E H Turner
Borough Organist 1940–1950
Turner had passed his ARCO in July 1911 and is listed in the Royal College of Organists’ Calendar as organist at All Saints’ Colchester between 1910 and 1932, subsequently moving to a new post at St. Nicholas-cum-St. Runwald’s Church in the High Street. Ernie Turner regularly played the Moot Hall organ during WWII to entertain the troops. Leonard Simpson, his successor as Borough Organist and Desmond Pye, a Patron of the Friends of the Moot Hall Organ were others who volunteered in this way. During Turner’s tenure as Borough Organist it was noted that W. F. Kingdon had served the Borough in 1949. Kingdon had been a friend and assistant to Sir Walter Alcock, held the Fellowship diploma of the Royal College of Organists (1896), and listed himself as holding a Bachelor of Music degree from 1906 whilst living in London, moving to Colchester in or around 1916. He appears to have been organist at St. Mary-at-the-Walls, now Colchester Arts Centre, from the early 1920s until 1950. He never officially held the post of Borough Organist, even if he occasionally deputised for Turner or Everett in that capacity. It is uncertain whether he was related to Edna May Kingdon, wife of the famous organist Percy Whitlock.
Leonard was born in Dulwich in 1909 and moved to Colchester six years later. He was educated at Hamilton Road Central School and attended St. Leonard’s Church, Lexden, where he learned the organ. At the age of 16 he joined Paxman Diesels, the largest employer in the town, in the costs-accounting department, retiring in 1974. Although he was a member of the Royal College of Organists he did not hold any of the examination diplomas. He was appointed organist at St. Paul’s Church on Palm Sunday in 1928, moving to Culver Street Methodist eight years later, where he met his wife Betty, staying there for fourteen years. Following his appointment as Borough Organist in 1950 he moved to St. Mary-at-the-Walls. Fourteen years later he went to Lion Walk Congregational Church, where he remained for just four years. In 1969 he went to St. Peter’s Church and left for his final position, in 1977, at the Garrison Church.
Ian Ray was appointed as Colchester’s Borough Organist in 1988 and up until the organ’s demise in 2004 he presided at the Moot Hall Organ for the annual Mayor-Making ceremony and the Oyster Feast, as well as playing for miscellaneous cultural, social and official civic events.
He is well known in East Anglia as an organist, conductor, singing coach and pianist, regularly performing in various concerts in Hertford, Harlow, Chelmsford, Long Melford, Lavenham and Ipswich. He also presents recitals in various London churches including St. Martins-in-the Field and directed performances further afield in Prague, Reims, Rouen, Wetzlar and Snape Maltings.
He has devoted much of his life to stimulating musical activities in Colchester where, since 1976, as the director of Colchester Choral Society and the Colchester Sinfonia, he has been responsible for bringing soloists and musicians of national distinction to the town. Ian regularly works with choirs from local schools in a wide-ranging programme of concerts embracing most of the standard choral works and everything from Carissimi to the Beatles and James MacMillan. He commissions new works, notably from the distinguished Colchester-based composer Alan Bullard.
For forty years he held a full-time lectureship in music at Colchester Institute where he directed over thirty operas and musicals ranging from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas to Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, conducting the choirs and working as Head of Singing. Since 1969, he has been Director of Music at Lion Walk Church in the centre of Colchester, where he promotes a regular series of midweek lunchtime concerts, frequently accompanying visiting performers.
Ian is looking forward to the new opportunities for fresh musical activities presented by the restoration of the Moot Hall Organ, which he has known and loved since he first heard the organ as a schoolboy growing up in nearby Dedham.
The author is grateful to Jonathan Price BA, MSc, FRCO, LGSM for additional research into the musicians listed above.