'£50 has been offered...towards a really good organ to supply the place of our present old 'box of whistles'.... wrote the Vicar of St. John's in his report to the Annual Vestry meeting in 1892. The instrument of which he spoke had stood in the west gallery of the church since its consecration sixty years earlier, and is referred to in Brayley's History of Surrey (1850) as '... a good organ ...'; later editions of this work carry water colours of the interior showing its position and appearance. The specification (given below) is found in the Sperling notebooks:-
Built 1831 not known by whom - 2 rows of keys - Great organ GG-F Swell to Tenor F - an octave and a half of pedals.
1. Open Diapason to Gamut G
2. Stopt Diapason Claribella treble
5. Sex. 3 ranks
/Dividing on Mid C
8. Unison Open Pedal pipes Wood GG to gamut G
1. Open Diapason
2. Stopt Diapason
Swell and pedal couplers A composition pedal
Changing tastes presumably explain the derogatory attitude of the cleric and, when the instrument finally became redundant, there are no records as to how it was disposed of. This, however, is not the point of interest here.
The partnership of Beale & Thynne, of Woodstock Road, Shepherds Bush, was approached to supply a new organ. William Thyme, having begun life as a piano technician in his native Bishopwearmouth, had become the tuner of the Schulze organ at Tyne Dock and later moved to London as apprentice voicer with T.C. Lewis. He attracted a good deal of notice with the instrument built for the 1885 Inventions Exhibition (now more familiar to us as the 'Grove' organ in Tewkesbury Abbey). Although there am connections between the parish of St John's, Richmond and the Lewis company, there are no records which explain how the contract with Beale & Thyme was secured, Thynne having left Lewis's employ in 1881. One theory, yet to be fully explored, is that H.C. Tuckwell - later to become the general manager of Lewis & Co. - having been the tuner of the old organ in St. John's, suggested that the work be undertaken by a protege, Lewis being at the time involved with the planning and construction of the organ in St Saviours, Southwark. Mom likely, perhaps, is the connection between the church and that of the Cowley Fathers in Oxford, where Beale & Thynne were also building an organ (destroyed 1978). Whatever the reasons for placing the contract, the following organ was built for the sum of £1,374. 6s. 9d.
C -f' -a'''
1 Double Open Diapason 16
2. Open Diapason 8
3. Clarabella 8
4. Principal 4
5. Harmonic Flute 4
6. Mixture, 12-15
7. Tuba 8
8. Open Diaapason 8
9. Lieblich Gedeckt 8
10. Dulciana 8
11. Salicet 4
12. Zaulberflöte 4
13. Clarionet 8 (Swell)
14. Tuba 8(Great)
15. Bourdon 16
16. Geigen Diapason 16
17. Rohr Flote 8
18. Viole d'orchestre 8
19. Voix Celestes (Ten.C) 8
20. Geigen Principal 4
21. Flautina 2
22. Mixture, l7-19-22/8-12-15 (from e'')
23. Hom 8
24. Oboe 8
25. Clarionet 8
26. Contra Bass 32 (part acoustic, from27)
27. Open Bass 16
28. Violone 16 (from 1)
29. Echo Bourdon 16 (from 15)
30. Flauto Dolce 8
31. Oktave 8 (from 27)
Sw-Gt/Sw Oct-Gt/Sw Sub Oct-Gt
Three composition pedals to Great
Three coupler pistons to Great
Four composition pedals to Swell
Two composition pistons to Choir
Each composition includes an appropriate Pedal Bass
The action was tubular-pneumatic throughout, with the exception of the console action and the unison couplers, which were mechanical (the stop action and the octave couplers were, and are, pneumatic).
The Tuba is on a separate chest and is trunked directly from both Great and Choir soundboards (this is also the case with the Choir Clarionet, which is trunked directly from that manual to the Swell).
There are no contemporary records to show the wind pressures. However, a letter from Henry Willis, in 1954, gives them as follows:- Great 1/4'', Swell 3''. Choir 3 1/4''; Pedal 6 1/2'' and Tuba 6 1/8''. As this company took over the tuning from Lewis, and retained the contract until l960, it is unlikely that any unrecorded alteration took place. A mow recent survey shows that the pressures had been universally raised. The hydraulic blower was in use until l960.
A report of the service of dedication appeared in the Richmond and Twickenham Times on 19 December 1896, together with details of the opening recital, which was given by C.H. Lloyd of Eton:
Sonata no.6 - Mendelssohn
Canon in B minor- Schumann
Variations on an Original Theme Hesse
Prelude in D minor - Chaminade
Ave Maria - Hassett
Prelude and Fugue in B minor - J.S.Bach
Cantilené (Sonata no. 9) - Rheinberger
Postlude in E flat - Lloyd
The next stage in the organ's history occurred a few years later, when some building works were undertaken to the church. The building had been a 'preaching box': rectangular in construction, galleried on three sides with a very shallow sanctuary. The organ had stood at the eastern end of the north gallery, in an unfettered position, and we possess a photograph showing its exact position and appearance. Due to the changing nature of the liturgy and religious practice, plans were made to extend the east end of the church, in order to construct a large sanctuary area and side chapel. The organ, it was deemed, was better placed in a specially constructed chamber on the north side of this new extension, set back somewhat so that at its front should be in line with the outside wall of the nave, allowing room for a passageway between it and the new choir stalls. The task of moving the organ into this chamber was undertaken by Lewis, and there appears to have been a certain amount of re-arrangement, to make the instrument fit into so small a space.
The work completed in 1905 remains to this day and contains many acoustic solecisms, chief among them the placing of the Great at the back of the organ chamber, in its deepest and furthest recess, behind the Choir, directly under the Swell and surrounded by the Pedal (which is itself split up around the instrument in a very haphazard manner). Some of the longer pipes were mitred to fit under the sloping ceiling, and a west-facing arch (containing all that is visible of the organ to most of the congregation) displays a motley collection of pipes from various ranks, each quite different in formation, in a position which actively discourages tuning, being at least twenty feet from the rest of the instrument. The organ is almost impossible to maintain, and records exist of tuners' complaints to this effect. The internal mechanism is bizarrely laid out and, in the words of our Consultant, '...would give even the untidiest spider food for thought. Also at this time the reeds were revoiced (although these were not Thynne's original work) and there is a reference to the Great Mixture being revoiced, though to what degree we are, as yet, unsure.
Various improvements were carried out in 1914, whilst Alec Rowley was organist, but these amounted to little more than the addition of a Swell tremulant and a new piston action (now defunct).
The problems inherent in this newly arranged instrument have been rehearsed for more than seventy years. Due to the design of the new chancel and the position of the console, aural and visual communication are virtually impossible. A detached console has long been seen as a necessity, as has the re-arrangement of the divisions to ensure a proper balance.
Plans have been mooted and discussed in great detail for most of this century. On two occasions, the re-decoration of the church meant that work o the organ had to be shelved; and the Second World War halted plans for the most comprehensive rebuild envisaged. It was not until l960) that any serious work was carried out on the instrument by Walkers, although this was little more than a clean and overhaul. The Pedal action was electrified at this time, the old composition cranks were replaced pistons, and a balanced Swell pedal replaced the old nag's head lever. The reeds were again revoiced and the Tuba chests overhauled.
In essence, with the exception of the reeds (which have been revoiced many times) and to a small degree the Great Mixture, the organ is tonally and mechanically almost exactly as it was when built, a fin example of Thynne's work and one of the very few original instruments by this artist which remains. Some of the stops are justly famous: there is a long description of the Zauberflote in Audsley's The Art of Organ Building (II, p. 546-7) - a stop which Thynne created for the 'Grove' organ but perfected here. The Swell strings attracted the attention of the Revd Noel Bonavia-Hunt, and he makes reference to them in his works.
I made reference earlier to the mechanism being original. It was deemed to be worn out in 1947, and the organ is now virtually unplayable. We have therefore decided that the time has come to undertake a complete rebuilding of the instrument, lest it is silenced for ever.
This is not something which we have entered into lightly. On a personal note, I see myself as the custodian of the instrument, and the goal set is nothing more than has been so often discussed over the years. This goal is based on the following principles:
1 . The instrument must not be altered tonally.
2. The departments must be re-arranged to allow them to speak properly.
3. There must be a detached console.
We hope to revoice the reeds to as near an original sound as possible, and to add a bottom octave of a Lewis-type Pedal 16' reed, which is deemed by all to be necessary to complete the instrument. If we can decide how the Great Mixture was altered, then this will be restored.
We have taken advice from a number of experts, but particularly from John Budgen, who was involved in the restoration of the 'Grove' organ. His report summarises the problems of the instrument:
A perverse layout of the main divisions
A complex and questionable pneumatic system
Poor access for tuning as well as upkeep
Poor appearance in an unfavourable and not original position
A decision has been taken, therefore, to avoid a true restoration, as this would merely perpetuate the problems outlined above. A decision to electrify the action (although not the chests themselves) was not taken lightly.
The intended re-disposition of the departments is hard to describe to those unfamiliar with the building, but it consists of removing the organ from its present position, building a gallery in the present chamber (at first-floor level), and resiting the instrument on its gallery. This will allow for the passageway (mentioned above) to remain free, and will further permit the Great to be placed in the west-facing arch (towards the congregation), the Choir to be situated in the Chancel arch, and the Swell to speak through both arches at once. All but the longest Pedal pipes will be on this gallery. By allowing the instrument to speak freely once more, the wind pressures can be lowered to their original level, particularly that of the Great (where several ranks are overblowing in the struggle to be heard).
The visual aspect of the instrument could only be improved. Sketches are extant, in the hand of the architect of the east-end extension, showing the west-facing arch filled with a metal grille, matching existing work in the crossing below. The chancel, which is in the 'Arts and Craft' style (rather than gothic, as is the nave), needs a different treatment, and here the Choir department will be fronted by a simple screen of pipes. Both will be designed to ensure that the egress of sound is not affected.
The Beale & Thynne organ in St. John's is an important instrument not only in terms of its uniqueness, but because it represents a major stepping-stone in the development of various types of organ tone, particularly the metal string ranks. It has suffered much over the years, during both to the move into the chamber and general neglect. St. John's has never been a rich church, and for this reason the organ has probably escaped the faddish 'improvements' which have befallen so many of its contemporaries. That it remains a virtually unaltered work of Victorian artistry is something for which we should all be thankful.