History of the Church Organs

Note: this article was first published in 1982 upon the restoration of the Binns organ the same year. It contains a Foreword signed by John Rhodes and Malcolm Cockroft, Churchwardens, but the actual author is not stated.

Music at the Parish Church

In the early days of the nineteenth century, music in the Parish Church was provided by a Band sitting in a gallery at the West End. Mr. Skeeles remembered hearing the names of the players and their respective instruments mentioned many times by his father, but made no note of them. However, he did recall that his father played the flute and Mr. John Noble the bassoon; there were also violins and a clarinet.

The Band was superseded by a small organ in the same gallery played by a well-known blind woman, Mrs. Bays. Blowers were not always reliable and Mr. Skeeles’ brothers well remembered her sometimes audible injunction, “Blow, boy, blow!” The date of the installation of this first organ in the West End is uncertain, but both organ and gallery were removed at the restoration in 1857-1858, although it has elsewhere been erroneously stated that there was no organ until 1863.

In the course of the restoration at the East end of the North Aisle a vestry was formed, enclosed by a traceried oak screen with entrance door. Above this were strong-framed, wrought fir timbers and a very thick floor. To this Messrs. Bevington of Chelsea, London, supplied and fixed a new organ which had a Great Organ of 54 notes, CC to F; a Swell Organ tenor C to F, 42 notes and a Pedal Organ CCC to C, 25 notes.

Division/Stop Pitch Material Number of pipes
Open Diapason 8 Metal  54
Stopped Diapason 8 Wood 42
Dulciana 8 Metal  42
Clarabella 8 Wood 42
Principal 4 Metal  54
Fifteenth 2 Metal  54
Sequialtera III Metal  162
Trumpet 8 Metal  54
Double Diapason 16 Wood 12
Open Diapason 8 Metal  42
Stopped Diapason 8 Wood 42
Principal 4 Metal  42
Cornopean 8 Metal  42
Bourdon 16 Wood 25
2 couplers, 3 composition pedals and swell pedal

Bevingtons had a high reputation for their diapasons and the above were good, even though the reeds were rather coarse in tone, and the Sesquialtera noisy.

Photograph of the organ pipes prior to the Comper restoration

In this photograph prior to the Comper restoration the organ pipes can be seen through the arches at the end of the North Aisle; the detail is clearer in the small picture below; note the font in the left-hand corner [Photo: County Record Office Huntingdon, ref. Wh1/238]

In 1865 the organ was enlarged by adding a mixture to the Swell, a 16 ft wood Open Diapason and an 8 ft metal Principal to the Pedals. Mr. F. W. Bird in his mentions the early services of at which this enlarged organ played when Mr. Bob Weed assisted in the choir and took the tenor solos. For a short time Mr. Weed lived at Needingworth and sang at local concerts, but after obtaining a lay clerkship at St. Paul’s he became well-known as a Tenor Singer. He often deputized for Sims Reeves and was known as Mr. Raynham or Raynham Weed.

Close-up of the organ pipes prior to the Comper restoration

In January 1867, the organ loft was taken down and the screen moved forward until it was abutting on the pier between the small arch in the chancel and the nave arcade. The vestry was left in its old position and the organ erected on the ground. An addition of another manual or Choir Organ was then proposed, but left in abeyance for some years. It was not until 1876-77 that this was added, when the organ was partly re-rebuilt and the Pedal Organ extended to thirty notes. In September 1886 the Organ was moved back to the wall standing in front of the East End and the vestry was brought forward by moving the screen. The Swell Organ was replaced by a new soundboard and new case. Some of the old pipes were replaced and new stops were added, but this organ was not quite complete when it was sold.

The new Choir Organ had: Stopped Diapason wood 8 ft, 54 notes from old Swell; Open Diapason metal 8 ft 42 notes; Gamba metal 8 ft 42 notes; Flute wood 4 ft 54 notes; Piccolo wood 2 ft 54 notes; Clarionet metal 8 ft 42 notes; Dulciana metal 8 ft 42 notes.

In 1894, the carved and painted screen with organ loft and rood, designed by Mr. J. N. Comper, the eminent Church Architect, later Sir Ninian Comper, was erected. There is no available record of the changes to the organ, but it would appear that the organ erected in 1886 was disposed of and a new Organ built by Mr. Gern was installed. This organ was opened in September 1894 and proved unsatisfactory. It had an electric action, powered by batteries and this action was a constant source of trouble. The organ builder, Mr. Gern, was asked to make a report to the Vicar and Churchwardens and he stated that as electricity was in its infancy, he had strongly recommended that it should not he used at St. Ives, but that those who ordered the organ had insisted it should be used. He offered to clean and regulate the organ at a cost of £60, but would not guarantee that something would not go wrong in the future.

There was a further problem. A considerable part of the organ was incorporated in the design of the screen. As a result, the choir could not hear the organ, and the congregation could not hear the choir. In the Parish Magazine it was stated: ‘The Architect, Mr. Comper, gave the wrong measurements so that the bellows were smaller than they should have been, consequently the wind supply was insufficient’. At the Dedication Festival in August 1903, the organ collapsed completely at the morning service and for the remaining services the organist had to use a harmonium.

Photograph of the organ pipes after the Comper restoration

In this photograph taken in the 1890s after the Comper restoration, the organ is a functional part of the screen; the North Aisle window is now clear [Photo: County Record Office Huntingdon, ref. Wh1/240]

In December 1903, at a public meeting of the Congregation, it was agreed the organ be reconstructed by Mr. Alphonse Noterman of London with a tubular pneumatic action and a new Choir Organ added. The cost of the reconstruction was £160 and the new Choir Organ was to cost a further £90. The newly constructed Noterman Organ was opened on March 17th, 1904 and a recital was given by Mr. Bruce Luard Selby, Organist of Rochester Cathedral. On this occasion it appeared at first that the troubles with the Organ had not ended, for there was consternation when the organ broke down at the beginning of the recital. However, it turned out that the trouble was caused by a bolt in connection with the blower-lever becoming displaced and this was quickly corrected.

It was agreed that the rebuilding of the Choir Organ had very much improved the Organ: the tone was much better and the instantaneous response to the touch of the organist was excellent. The bellows for this Organ were in the organ-loft built as part of the screen, and it was necessary for the organ blower to bring a ladder from the West End of the Church each time the Organ was used, and by means of this he would then climb into the organ-loft.

On March 23rd, 1918 a considerable part of the church was wrecked when a light aeroplane from Wyton struck the steeple. The church was closed for major repairs and was reopened by the Lord Bishop of Ely on June 10th, 1920. As a result of damage to the church and the work of repair and restoration the Noterman Organ had to be extensively cleaned.

In 1926, a generous donation from Col. Hamilton Bell and Mrs. Wilde made it possible for the Noterman Organ to be removed and replaced by a greatly enlarged organ built by J. J. Binns of Leeds. The restored and rebuilt organ was dedicated by the Lord Bishop of Ely on September 23rd, 1926 and the Service was followed by a recital given by H. S. Middleton, the then Organist of Ely Cathedral. This was followed by a second recital in the evening, and at these recitals works by Wagner, Bach, Guilmant, Handel, Widor, Mendelssohn and Bairstow were played.

The Binns Organ was placed in the North Chapel, but facing-pipes of the earlier organ which were incorporated in the Comper Screen were left in position because it was felt their removal would spoil the aesthetic appearance of the screen. It follows from this that the organ pipes row seen as part of the Screen are dummies. When the Binns Organ was built, there was no public supply of electricity available in the town and for several years the Organ was blown manually, until a public electricity supply became available and electric lighting installed in the Church, an electric blower was installed too.

In 1950, the chancel roof was badly affected by decay and death watch beetle and a new chancel roof was constructed. When this work was done, the chancel was closed off from the rest of the church and during the progress of the work on the chancel roof the organ could not be used. As a result, the organ was cleaned and overhauled by J. J. Binns and Co. in 1952, at a cost of £234, which is of course equivalent to a much larger sum today, and no other major work has been done to the organ since 1952. Messrs. Binns and Co. ceased trading in that name in 1953.

The action of the Binns Organ was giving much trouble in the early 1980s, and it was felt that this was bound to grow worse. The organ was examined by experts, and the opinion of three different organ builders indicated that the only remedy was to install a modern action. The work was entrusted to Messrs. Cousans of Lincoln who carried out a complete rebuilding, in which the organ has been cleaned, tuned and revoiced. The old pneumatic action has been replaced by solid-state, electro-magnetic action and the leatherwork has also been renewed. There is now solid-state electronic switching for all the couplers and a piston selector panel has been placed at the end of the console. The 16 foot Bourdon from the Swell Organ has been replaced by a three rank mixture.

The Binns Organ had been in place for fifty-six years. It will be seen from the above details that no previous organ in the Church had existed for so long without major change or overhaul. Because a complete modernization was now necessary, the Parochial Church Council set up a special committee to raise the necessary figure of almost £10,000, including VAT. Such was the generosity of members of the congregation and the friends and patrons of the church that this sum was raised between Epiphany and Faster 1982.

Past Organists

This brief history would not be complete without reference to the loyal service of some of the long-serving organists who have, by their devotion and skill, added greatly to the quality of the music at All Saints’ Church. At the turn of the century the Organist was Mr. George Holloway, whose father had previously been the Organist. He was succeeded in 1902 by Mr. H. J. Halton, who remained as Organist for 54 years until 1956 and was succeeded by Mr. Charles Cannon, who was Organist until 1982.