The Music of St James’s Church

Prior to 2020, the organ at St James’s was worked on by at least four organ builders. William Hill & Son of London constructed a three-manual, thirty-five stop organ in 1882, for Street’s (largely new) church. Hill was, along with Willis and Lewis, one of the leading organ builders of the second half of the nineteenth century. The company was then run by Thomas Hill and the specification of the organ was much as one would have expected from the company at this period, although the inclusion of an Orchestral Oboe on the Great Organ was unusual. Hill & Son would have been on the eve of winning the contract to build what was to become the largest organ in the world – for Sydney Town Hall – and the company was at the top of its game.

The organist of the church between 1894 and 1907 was Henry J. B. Dart; he must have persuaded the church authorities to commission Hele & Co of Plymouth to enlarge the instrument to cathedral-style proportions by adding a fourth manual – the Solo Organ – and the instrument practically doubled in size at that time, gaining high-pressure Great reeds and flue stops, as well as an enhanced pedal organ. The provincial Hele company was doing very well in the early Edwardian period, on account of the outstanding voicing work of George Hele’s son, John.

The prodigious size and power of the resulting instrument was no doubt an attraction to Harold Darke and Sir George Thalben-Ball, who both held the post of organist in the ensuing years. In 1936 the firm of Rushworth & Dreaper worked on the instrument, remodelling the Choir Organ and updating the console and mechanisms.

Finally, in 1972, J.W. Walker & Sons rebuilt the organ. They retained the basic Hill/Hele internal layout, most of the Hill/Hele pipework, and the wind system, though with the addition of ‘schwimmers’. A new console, solid state key action, and piston system were provided, together with a new, in-vogue Positive Organ and other judicious tonal changes. The organist, Douglas Hawkwridge (longstanding Professor of Organ at the Royal Academy of Music), was rightly proud of the results.

By 2020, the instrument was struggling to perform its basic functions of accompanying the choir and leading the congregation. Though most of the 3,220 speaking pipes remained in good condition, much of the internal workings, especially those still in their original form, were failing badly. A refurbishment of the console and the long-obsolete electrical systems, was well overdue. The firm of F. H. Browne (now trading as Mander Organ Builders) were awarded the contract to rebuild the instrument. The main objective was to ensure the instrument returned in tip-top mechanical and electrical condition. The entire organ, including its vast collection of wind reservoirs and soundboards, was deconstructed and removed. Detailed overhaul and adjustment of all the actions, and restoration or replacement of all the soundboards was required. The wind system in particular had suffered numerous problems and there was evidence of several historic attempts to address difficulties. It required much careful thought to solve some deep-seated issues and to bring this substantial organ back into reliable service. The rich, reedy, romantic character of the Hill/Hele pipework has now emerged once more and its heroic qualities have been recaptured.

It was decided to keep the instrument’s tonal character close the commanding scheme left in 1972. Some minor changes were made; the Swell Scharf II added by Walker has been removed and replaced by a Vox Humana rank (as originally). These new pipes are based on a stop from 1895 in St. Matthew’s, Northampton. The Positive division was rebuilt on a new soundboard. The former Cymbale III sat precariously over a chorus of flutes, without any diapason ranks to blend with. It was an uncomfortable contributor to full organ and has been replaced with a colourful Larigot (Old French for ‘little flute’). This is a high pitched stop that can add piquancy to both early and modern music alike. Some gentle and minor adjustments to the Walker pipework have improved the blend of the Positive organ, which now contributes to various combinations more coherently.

The final stage of the project was tonal finishing. This involves the replacement of the stops of the organ one by one, balancing the sounds of the pipes against each other by means of small adjustments to the pipe material. This took about a month to complete. Once reassembled, the organ was given its final fine tuning, and should give good service for many years to come.

Dr William McVicker, Steve Bayley, Michael Blighton & George de Voil