The Restoration of the Organ in the Moot Hall, Colchester

Harrison Harrison workshop


by Duncan Mathews

Production Director Harrison & Harrison Ltd


Our Victorian forefathers were keen proponents of municipal pride, and what better form of display could there be than a Grand Town Hall endowed with a large organ set above the stage of the main hall? Such an arrangement is not uncommon, but Colchester were late entrants to this club, perhaps considering that their Victorian water-tower on its nearby hill-top spoke highly enough of the prowess of its inhabitants. In comparison to the great town halls of the industrial north, the Moot Hall and its organ are built on a modest scale; perhaps a consequence of the debt on the water tower, which saddled the corporation until well into the twentieth century? The organ was built in 1902, and is therefore one of the first organs completed in the Edwardian period. The specification is by necessity inventive as the Hall is a fine room with good acoustics, but only limited space was made available for an organ and this restriction required much of the organbuilder. Norman & Beard rose admirably to the challenge and provided an ambitious scheme for the space which in its operation makes good use of pneumatic mechanism, a technology they had mastered. This type of mechanism demands much of the skills of those who make it, and the choice of materials employed in its construction are also critical to its long-term reliability. Leather that is not porous and well-seasoned timber are essential to the mix, and it is clear that such was used throughout the organ.

Despite the care evident in its construction the organ was in a dire state prior to restoration, a consequence of failing leather combined with excessive shrinkage in the timber components caused by low levels of humidity in the building. Organs of this era are often dismissed because they are thought to be unreliable and difficult to play, and with this in mind many instruments have been discarded or suffered major alterations. It is worth pausing to consider this further. This type of organ mechanism is complex and made up of natural materials, which will age and deteriorate. An untouched mechanism that is over a hundred years old cannot be expected to work in the manner it did when new, but this is often forgotten or ignored and the current state of an instrument may be used as justification for scrapping or major change. Fortunately, this narrow view has not prevailed at Colchester, and the restored organ demonstrates the folly of such decisions.

Fixing releathered motors in chest 2
Restoring a chest and leather motors


Viole d'Orchestre in voicing shop
The new Viole d’Orchestre pipes


Refacing the pedals with new timbers
Restoring the organ’s pedalboard


Norman & Beard were at the forefront of the development of tubular exhaust-pneumatic key-actions, and many of their ideas and techniques were adopted by Harrison & Harrison, who further refined and installed these mechanisms in instruments of all sizes throughout the first half of the twentieth century. It was interesting to note the name of a Norman & Beard employee inside the organ, as this organ builder was subsequently employed in the firm’s workshop in Durham, taking with him much that he had learnt in the workshops of his previous employer.


Dirt and debris before restoration
Dirt and debris before restoration


The drawstops awaiting restoration
The drawstops awaiting restoration


Restoring organs of this type requires a particular discipline, and all involved must be enquiring and painstaking in their approach. Although Harrison & Harrison have undertaken similar work elsewhere, we know that it is unwise to assume anything, and wise to question the meanest detail. This applies to all stages of the work, and from removal of the first pipes to the final component leaving the building, we were on the lookout for details that would inform our restoration of the mechanism in Durham. This was followed by detailed examination of the components in our workshop, with all being analysed and assessed before restoration began. It is a relatively simple matter to remove old leather and apply new: the materials and techniques are the same today as when the organ was built, and hot animal glue continues to be our adhesive of choice in such work. Other areas required greater intervention, such as a considerable inconsistency in the sizes of valves, which were causing leakage and making actions inefficient; our analysis revealed a pattern by which valves could safely be carefully enlarged.

The restoration work continued in Colchester as the organ was reassembled and the pipework cleaned. Organs with pneumatic mechanisms contain many hundreds of narrow-diameter lead tubes, which connect the console to the pipework, and these must be sound and in good order. Lead tubing is malleable, and heavy, and vertical tube runs must be very well supported to prevent gravity taking over. This was an area of concern, and major improvements were required to both stabilise the tubing and make it sound. Cleanliness is also of paramount importance, as small pieces of grit or other debris will cause havoc if they come to rest on a valve. This demands much use of the vacuum cleaner through-out the process to ensure that all tubes and borings are clear.

A newspaper article covering the 1952 cleaning work
A newspaper article covering the 1952 cleaning work


John Oliver of Harrison & Harrison Ltd fine-tuning the pipework

There is some uncertainty as to whether or not the case pipes were originally painted. Detailed examination revealed gold paint beneath the later cream layer, and as the paint was unstable these pipes have been stripped and refinished in gold.

The specification of the organ was slightly revised in 1972 and restoration sees the instrument returned to the 1902 tonal scheme. Such work is always an interesting challenge, and the question might justifiably be asked as to how we can be certain that the new pipework has the same voice as that which has been lost. We are fortunate to have gained considerable experience of other instruments by Norman & Beard, which has enabled us to take details of original pipework of the era. We can therefore be confident that the restored organ sounds as it did when first heard.

The organ has been fully restored, and it is once again possible to give a musical performance without compromise. Harrison & Harrison were pleased to be entrusted with this task, and have enjoyed the challenges of the work. The smooth running of the project was facilitated by Lee Spalding of Colchester Council, and we are grateful for the informed support of Dr William McVicker who acted as consultant for the project.