The Organ At Bradford Abbas Parish Church, Dorset
by Colin Pykett
Posted: August 2004
Last revised: 21 December 2009
Copyright © C E Pykett 2004-2009
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In Memoriam - Mr W L (Les) Bennett
Dorset must contain some of the most singular organs in the country. It is an ancient and largely unspoilt part of England, crammed with delightful villages, virtually all of them possessing an equally ancient and beautiful church. But these shelter a decidedly mixed bag of organs. It is not so much the quality of the original instruments which engender surprise but the state into which they have degenerated, either through neglect or intent. It is the latter which deserves further remark here. It goes beyond human understanding to comprehend how so many of the hapless rebuilds one finds could possibly have made it through that labyrinth of advisers and committees which is supposed to protect our churches and their instruments.
The sort of thing one finds is illustrated by the instrument at St Gregory the Great, Marnhull. Within the last decade this organ, originally a respectable Forster & Andrews with (of course) mechanical action, has attracted accretions which include a floating electric Trumpet unit and a Great Fifteenth which sits resplendent on its unit chest on top of the swell box. The organist sits not only behind but virtually inside the organ, isolated within a sort of chapel-cum-vestry, completely blind to the goings-on in the church and largely deaf to anything beyond the sound of the nearest pipes. As if this was not enough, s/he is not assisted by the absence of department labels at the console in addition to other similar irritants (this was the case when I played the instrument a few years ago).
The organ at St Mary's, Bradford Abbas in its original position in front of the west door. (January 2001).
Against this background the situation encountered not far away at St Mary's, Bradford Abbas, at first evoked little beyond inward resignation when I was invited to report on the organ there early in 2001. On entering the church for the first time I found an organ which completely occluded both the west door and most of the attractive window above it. Anyone wishing to ascend the tower had to squeeze past the pipework to get to the staircase door. The bats which roosted above the organ had covered its innards with a liberal coating of guano (and we all know that we aren't allowed to do anything about bats). The organ suffered badly from shortage of wind when more than a couple of unisons were drawn. But you were lucky if they remained drawn long enough to allow you to investigate this, because stops and couplers came and went apparently at random regardless of whether the drawknobs were in or out. A most astonishing phenomenon inside the organ was a liquid which looked remarkably like oil dripping from the wind trunks onto the building frame. When the pistons were used the stops moved leisurely in or out as though they were annoyed at having been disturbed. There was a curious mixture of actions. Festoons of ancient cotton covered wiring hung untidily around, matching the bundles of pneumatic tubing. Yet ...
... some of the organ sounded wonderful, quite transcending the appalling state it was in. The Great diapason chorus rang through the building with scarcely any attenuation in the farthest corner. Despite the fact that the Cornopean consisted mainly of crowded and badly mangled pipes, those which did speak revealed a stop which must have had considerable character in its heyday. I began to understand why the church knew it had the nucleus of something good here, yet it was unsure how to proceed when so many options presented themselves. They were standing not merely at a metaphorical crossroads but in the middle of a traffic island from which at least a dozen roads led off.
The one signposted "electronic organ" was immediately discounted. The danger of losing the effect of this vigorous pipework would have been so great that I would not have dared to venture that way. But that did not ease the decision making in view of the number of other options which still remained. To understand why we proceeded in the way we did, it is necessary to step back in time and discover some of the background to the situation.
"Provenance" is a word much used by antiquarians, restorers and conservers. But to apply it to this organ would have been to endow it with a spurious dignity which the instrument I saw simply did not possess. It was a hotch-potch of bits and pieces which had seen better days, bunged into the building with no apparent regard for architecture or liturgy. How a faculty came to be granted (though indeed it was granted, in 1973) for such an instrument to have been stuck in front of the grandest door in the building is an unsolved mystery, at least in my mind. However we are in Dorset, remember! Nevertheless, its predecessors were rather nobler and their story is worth telling. I am indebted to Richard Mentern, one of the organists of the united benefice, and through him to Eric Garrett, Clerk to Bradford Abbas Parish Council, for much of the following historical detail.
Little information exists concerning the organs at Bradford Abbas prior to the mid-1890's, when the church obtained an instrument from St John's, Yeovil. This had almost certainly been ousted by the new one built for St John's by Hope-Jones around that time, a venture which consolidated if not established his reputation in the West Country as it probably led to further contracts. One such was at Pilton near Barnstaple in 1898 . The displaced organ may have been by John Smith of Bristol, though there is also a possibility it was by Kirtland and Jardine. The stop list of this two manual instrument is not known, but at Bradford Abbas it stood at the east end of the north aisle from its installation until 1911. It was then moved into a new organ chamber on the north side of the chancel.
The organ did service until 1936 when a bequest from the Revd F Nesbitt enabled it to be rebuilt by J W Walker. Although a few ranks of pipes survived, the major part of this instrument was new. The action was converted to electro-pneumatic, and a new speaking facade of pipes added which still form the front of the organ today. The stop list of this organ, the earliest which survives at Bradford Abbas, follows:
Although rather an octopod, this organ apparently gave good service until it was overhauled by Walker's without any tonal changes being made in 1958. However one is reminded of the aphorism "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" at this juncture, because there was a most unfortunate fire arising from the operation which destroyed parts of the organ and damaged the roof of the north aisle. Happily, the instrument was put back into order again and it continued working until 1969 when it suffered severe water damage. This time the outcome was not so satisfactory, and a Hammond electronic organ was pressed into service for the next two years or so.
Quite what happened to the Walker does not seem to be known, but in view of subsequent developments it is sad that so much of it seems to have been lost. In 1973 another pipe organ appeared, and it is this one which was sited for reasons unknown in front of the west door. The basis of this instrument came from St John's on the Isle of Portland. It was a two manual tracker organ, probably by Sims (alternatively spelt Simms), but because of the cramped situation at Bradford Abbas it had not been possible to use its case nor (as I found later) its wind reservoir. For this reason the Walker pipefront and parts of the front casework and console were retained, and it is interesting that the number of drawstops on the organ is the same as that on the 1936 Walker. This implies that the present stop jambs and stop heads might be from the old Walker instrument also. It was unfortunate that no maker's name had survived on the console, otherwise some of the uncertainty surrounding the history of the organ might have been dispelled more easily. Even the builder who installed it did not think fit to leave his mark.
When I first met this organ in 2001 its stop list was as below:
On paper the organ was obviously much more attractive as a musical instrument than the previous one, and despite its major mechanical defects it was the Great diapason chorus which made one realise that there was something worth salvaging. Moreover, the reason why it projected so well into the building was due to the ample space above the pipework: the arch under which it stood was about half as high again as the organ. Therefore, although there were compelling reasons for moving an organ which occupied an otherwise ludicrous site in the church, I was determined that this feature must not be lost in the relocation.
The Pedal organ was distinctly odd, with its preponderance of 8 foot stops. The Trumpet barely worked at all in view of the fact that its pipes were not hooded and were therefore choked with the filth from the bats, as well as other dirt. How strange that this stop had not been extended upwards and made playable on the Great, given the liberal use of electric action in an otherwise mechanical instrument. The Pedal Principal was almost independent; its lowest octave was from the Great Open Diapason but the rest of the stop used the pipes in the front above the console. These were probably from the old Walker organ.
Besides resiting the organ there were four areas which any scheme would have to address: the combination and stop actions, the winding system, the state of the pipework and possible tonal changes. In addition the usual attention would have to be devoted to overhauling the mechanical action to the manuals. This was quite crisp if rather on the heavy side when coupled, but it rattled badly. These areas will now be considered in turn.
As mentioned previously, the drawstop heads, shanks and jambs were probably from the 1936 Walker instrument, and if this is so it is also likely that the electro-pneumatic mechanism which moved them in response to the pistons was also original. The drawstops were moved by book motors actuated by electric primaries, but the action was very slow on the occasions it worked at all, indicating at least the need for a thorough overhaul. In fact I recommended that the mechanism be replaced by standard drawstop solenoids, although the handsome engraved heads should be retained. However I saw no need for the elaborate, expensive and unnecessary electronic gobbledygook which so often accompanies such work, such as a sequencer and multiple levels of capture memory. A simple setter board was all that was necessary with so few stops, and it would have been an improvement on the clumsy method of adjusting the existing book motor system. All of this was accepted and carried out during the rebuild.
The stop action itself was also electro-pneumatic, with lever arm magnets at the slider boxes operating pneumatic power motors. Although this aspect of the mechanism per se did not seem in bad order, the stop action from a player's point of view was completely unacceptable. You could draw a speaking stop or coupler only to have it go off again or not work at all, despite the fact that the stop remained drawn at the console. This was due to the pathetically inadequate contacts at the rear of each drawstop, which pulled something looking like a nail into proximity with a something like a pair of hair grips. The arrangement is illustrated elsewhere on this website (click to see it). Not only were the metal surfaces inappropriate for electrical use, but the absence of a toggle action on the stops meant that contact was only made or maintained at random. It is difficult to see how this system could ever have been satisfactory, and this was also why I recommended the drawstop mechanism be totally replaced by modern solenoids. Large solenoids were also fitted to operate the sliders.
It is likely the imported Portland organ originally had a conventional wind reservoir ("bellows"), but this was absent on the organ at Bradford Abbas. One reason might have been that the blower itself was housed in a huge cabinet under the soundboards, leaving little room for anything else in the confined space into which this organ had been crammed. Originally this organ might have been hand blown because the faculty authorising its installation stated that an electric blower was to be added. There would certainly have been a reservoir in this case, therefore this lends support to the suggestion that the reservoir was displaced by the blower itself.
The main problem was that of wind sag, in which the pressure dropped when more than a few stops were drawn. This caused the fluework to go badly flat. In no way could the organ be considered fit for purpose with this defect alone, even ignoring the other problems. The problem could have arisen from a number of causes, but it transpired that there was in fact no means of regulating the wind pressure at all. Air from the blower was simply delivered to the soundboards via plastic trunking. Initially I believed there might have been Schwimmer-type regulators at the two main soundboards owing to the presence of vestigial bellows of small dimensions; in such regulators their function is not to store wind but merely to operate a valve at the incoming wind trunk. However this was not so, and apart from the problem of wind sag it turned out that there were four different wind pressures in this organ as a result of the abandonment of any attempt at pressure regulation!
My recommendation was that the traditional reservoir and roller valve system be reintroduced. But this, of course, would require more space inside the organ, and in turn this was related to the issue of relocating it which will be discussed later. For the present it is only necessary to state that the organ builder who carried out the work agreed with these recommendations and he installed a proper reservoir. This completely solved the problem of shortness of wind.
Given the filthy state of the organ it was obvious that the pipework would need to be thoroughly cleaned. This was a most unpleasant job thanks to the bats, and the state of the display pipes was such that it was impossible to remove the corrosion they had suffered as a result. Consequently they were painted subsequently.
Much of the pipework would also need to be repaired, particularly the Cornopean which looked as though it had been physically forced into the swell box in view of its damaged state. I was dubious whether this stop was recoverable, though in the event F. Booth & Sons did a magnificent job of returning it to speaking condition. The Trumpet was likewise in extremely poor condition, but it also was rescued and used in the manner described presently.
I recommended only two changes to the stop list, both affecting the Pedal Organ in view of its peculiar and not very useful collection of registers:
1. That the existing Trumpet rank, playable only from the pedals, should be extended upwards and put on the Great instead.
2. That the existing pedal Principal be moved up an octave and used as a 4 foot Choral Bass. Since the pipes concerned stood in the front display above the console this stop would project well.
In the event the Trumpet was extended downwards using an octave of half length pipes and used as a Trombone. I was not too surprised at this, having detected a hankering from the outset for such a stop from at least some of the organists! Personally I feel this is an expensive luxury which is not really warranted on such a small instrument, and it would in my view have been cheaper and more musically useful to have used the pipes as a Great Trumpet as recommended. However, I have to admit that the Trombone is indeed effective and one can barely "hear the join" between the old and new pipes - again a tribute to Booth's voicing skills. Now it is there it would be just too sour to wish it were not!
The pedal Principal was retained as an 8 foot rank, leaving the somewhat more anodyne 4 foot flute as the highest pitched stop on this department. This, however, now speaks in a less cluttered environment and it approximates to the Choral Bass which I recommended originally.
The remaining big issue was where to move the organ to. Several options had been mooted before my arrival on the scene, including elevating the organ but otherwise leaving it where it stood. This would have enabled the west door to have been brought back into use, but from every other point of view I could see no virtue in it. There was considerable danger that its tone, wonderfully prominent, would have been stifled as the pipes moved further into the tower and above the arch. Then there were the engineering imponderables associated with supporting such a weight within such a venerable building. Clearly these would not have been insurmountable, but I could foresee much expense as well as wrangling taking place with various heritage bodies.
I saw no reason why we could not short-circuit the discussions and simply move the instrument back to where its predecessor from Yeovil once stood - at the east end of the north aisle. In this position the sound would be even less constrained than it was in its existing position under the tower (it would be enclosed on only two sides instead of three), and the height of the aisle roof and the arcades into the nave would present negligible impediment to the sound filling the building. Happily, this argument was accepted by the church. There was a requirement for new casework to clothe the south side of the organ, given that the console was to be on the west side, but this could be realised relatively cheaply. A row of dummy pipes could be procured to sit on top of some panelling, for example.
The organ at St Mary's, Bradford Abbas in its new position at the east end of the north aisle. (January 2004).
Most of the work done on the organ followed my recommendations, save those relating to tonal changes, and its current stop list is as follows:
The Great Mixture was augmented from two to three ranks (19.22.26), and the pedal Trombone has replaced the former Trumpet. All chests have been overhauled, and the Great and Swell soundboards re-palletted. A completely new wind system was installed which entailed the construction of a new reservoir and main wind trunks. A single pressure of 3.5 inches (89 mm) is now used throughout the organ, instead of the random collection of four pressures found formerly! All of this was done for a cost which would not have covered the purchase of a half-decent electronic organ of similar size, a fact which might be considered by those who think that "digital" means "cheap", or who think that major work on a pipe organ will automatically be prohibitively expensive.
The work was carried out by A K Bishop of Wimborne, Hampshire and the organ was dedicated on 14 December 2003 by the Bishop of Sherborne. It is an entirely successful outcome to a project which had its difficulties. For reasons not fully understood, the church encountered resistance from the Diocese to carrying out the proposed work. Indeed, the former winding system was apparently considered "clever". It is therefore a tribute to those concerned that they won the day and that the entire venture was completed in less than three years.
To conclude, it is fitting to quote one of the church officers who has articulated a widely held view:
" ... the result of Tony Bishop's work has provided St Mary's with a magnificent organ with a highly individual character of its own, and a degree of versatility seldom encountered in Dorset village churches, and which establishes Tony as one of the finest small-firm craftsmen active in this area ... "
I could not have put it better myself.
And now the west door is useable, what does it look like after having been hidden for so long? The picture below shows how attractive this little corner of the church has now become (the organ pipes temporarily stored in the right hand corner are dummies which will be used to complete the new casework on the south side of the instrument). An incidental advantage is that the bats appear to have gone also!
The west door at St Mary's, Bradford Abbas following resiting of the organ. (January 2004).
Mr W L (Les) Bennett, one of the organists at St Mary's, was perhaps the prime mover behind the project to overhaul the organ. It is a matter of great sadness that as this article was nearing completion he died. Therefore, although he will not see it published, he did have the satisfaction of seeing the work completed and of playing at the dedication service in 2003.
1. "The Hope-Jones Organ in Pilton Parish Church", C E Pykett, Organist's Review, November 1993. Also currently on this website (read).