The Story of Our Organ by Richard Moth

The Story of Our Organ by Richard Moth

Posted 31 Jul 2010 - 23:35 by helen

The first musical instrument used in our congregation was a harmonium. It cost £30 and was used in the very first Congregational service in Rondebosch held in the Rondebosch Town Hall on Sunday 9 December 1900. It remained with the church, being later used in the Mary Giffen Hall, until it was disposed of in the late 1970s.

Towards the middle of 1903 thought must have been given to obtaining a pipe organ, for in September Mr W C Cooper (later of the firm Cooper, Gill and Tomkins or CG&T) wrote to the church, stating that, if Mowbray Presbyterian and Rondebosch agreed to give him the order for new organs, he would assemble each for the sum of £43.10s. The order was placed with Mr Cooper on 19 October and, through the agents Messrs Findlay, Durham and Brodie, he duly obtained both organs from the Norwich firm of Norman and Beard. This was unusual, as this company had until then supplied only one organ to South Africa, that in the Feathermarket Hall in Port Elizabeth, as far back as 1892. It was unusual at that time to order new organs from anywhere except the Sheffield builders, Brindley and Foster. Rondebosch’s organ cost £650.

Mowbray’s organ arrived first and was put together in time for Christmas 1903. Work on the organ for Rondebosch started on 29 February 1904. The organ was positioned ‘temporarily’ against the south wall of the church, which was due to be rebuilt. Both wall and organ were to occupy their temporary positions for the next 71 years. The work finished by the middle of April. Mr Cooper himself gave the opening recital on Thursday 21 April. A more formal ‘opening’ of the organ followed on Thursday evening, 5 May 1904 with an organ recital by Mr Harry Evans. A meeting on 4 August 1904 appointed a Mr Layton organist. ‘As the Church could not afford to pay an Organist’s salary’, he was asked to accept his fare from Cape Town to Rondebosch in recompense!

Two forms of blowing the organ were provided. A hand pump was installed for emergency use, but the main supply came from a hydraulic engine placed in the vestry. This was a source of constant trouble from the start, refusing to work if the water pressure was low as a result of drought and using excessive water when the leather packing around the piston wore out. The organ had been in use only for 4 months when repairs became necessary through damp, a problem that persisted for the next 14 years.

By the end of 1916 the church had had enough. In January 1917 the hydraulic engine was disconnected, and a human organ blower was appointed to pump the organ by hand. In March 1918 a caretaker and organ-blower was appointed at a salary of £3 per month.

By March 1918 it was agreed that the organ should receive its first overhaul, as many defects had been ‘brought about by dust, grit, knobs of plaster and a multitude of pine needles’. Shrinkage in the timber was also causing excessive wind leakage, making the job of the poor pumper even more arduous.

The following year, the generosity of Miss Celia Thorne, one of the foundation members of the church, enabled it to order an electric organ blower for £123. Cooper, Gill and Tomkins obtained this from the Spencer Turbine Co in the USA and installed it in January 1921.

The original organ, which the congregation at the time no doubt found adequate, was nevertheless a pathetic instrument to perform on. It was originally supplied with three keyboards, anticipating the time when the church would be enlarged, but owing to financial constraints no pipes and mechanism were included for the third keyboard and its stops and indeed many of the other stops, which left little else to play with.

At the end of 1927, Mr Cooper had returned to England to become manager of a famous organ-building firm, Rushworth and Dreaper of Liverpool. This was to lead to a strange quirk of fate. In 1928 the church received a legacy from the estate of Miss Celia Thorne to install some of the missing pipes. Four new stops, Dolce, Cornopean, Wald Flute and Corno di Bassetto, were ordered from Rushworths. Thus even from 6,000 miles away Cooper still had a hand in the organ he had assembled 24 years before. This magnificent legacy more than covered the £195 that these pipes cost. A dedication service and an opening recital were held on Sunday 6 March 1929, and brass plate was affixed to the organ.

In 1934 CG&T recommended another overhaul and cleaning and the replacement of all leather on the internal mechanisms. This was eventually tackled in February 1937 at a cost of £158.10s. A Trinity College examiner who happened to be in South Africa at the time, Dr Edgar Ford FRCO, was asked to give the re-opening recital. This took place on Friday 19 March together with performances by the church choir. Admission was by programme at a cost of 1/6d. The event was described as a ‘rare treat for musicians and organists’, but afterwards Dr Ford complained to the organist, Dr Paul Oates, about ‘the poor attendance by church members’. Dr Oates remarked that it made him ‘reticent to organise a similar evening’. The public’s reluctance to attend organ recitals is evidently no recent phenomenon! Nevertheless the evening raised a total of £11.

In September 1948 the church’s longest serving organist joined the church, Mr (later Prof.) Herbert Greenwood. By September 1949 he had become a deacon, and in December 1950 he took up service at the organ. He was to hold this position with only one break until November 1971!

A further straightforward cleaning of the organ took place at the beginning of 1951 at a cost of £138.10s. But by 1954 further problems were being experienced, not only with worn parts in the organ but also with the motor. A decision was deferred several times, but by the middle of 1956 the situation was critical. On Prof Greenwood’s recommendation it was decided to rebuild the organ with electric action, a new detached console, two new electric motors and installation of the missing third keyboard. It was decided to engage Messrs R Muller and a contract was signed on 31 October 1956, in retrospect an unfortunate decision because of the poor quality of this firm’s work. As there was no room in the main part of the organ for the addition of the pipes for the third keyboard, a concrete platform was erected, jutting out from the north wall of the church above the pews beneath it, and the extra pipes and mechanism were positioned on this platform. It was a peculiar arrangement, as the organist, positioned between the two parts of the organ, now heard the sound of the instrument coming from two different directions at once. Work went on through most of the first half of 1957, and a dedication service and a recital were held to mark the completion of work on Tuesday 28 May 1957. Including the electrician’s charges, this work cost £2784.

It was not long, however, before serious new troubles began. First the concrete platform began to sag noticeably. Several attempts were made to stabilize it, until it settled in the middle of 1960. Then major defects became apparent in the new detached console, mainly bare wires that in touching each other caused short circuits with peculiar effects. Moreover these so-called organ-builders had damaged the Cornopean stop installed in 1928. As a result it still refuses to stay in tune for more than a couple of weeks, whereas the Corno di Bassetto dating from the same time stays in tune like a rock.

At the end of 1967 the maintenance of the organ once again reverted to CG&T. It was not long before they began to urge another overhaul to remedy the instrument’s recurring wiring problems. Only one item was finally agreed to, and carried out by me in April 1970, in my first association with the church, as an employee of that firm.
In May 1970 the first proposals for rebuilding the southern end of the church were tabled. This culminated on 10 March 1975 with the dismantling of both sections of the organ and the removal of the console. The splendid chamber where the organ now resides was constructed, and during the latter half of 1975 both sections of the organ were installed in the new chamber. This amounted to a complete rebuilding of the old Norman and Beard organ, repositioning the 1957 additions, and adding a new mixture stop and new electric cables throughout. It was a massive job that cost R8,126.40.

A few years later, at the start of 1979, the maintenance of the instrument was handed to a local organ-builder, Mr Frank Clift. In 1993 the mechanism of the third keyboard (the work of R Muller again!) suffered a massive split. As a result in August 1993 maintenance once again went back to CG&T. The repairs cost R4,600. The church will ever be indebted to Merry McCleland, who contributed well over half of this.

I took over as organist in July 1994. At the end of that year yet another massive split appeared in the same component. As a professional organ-builder I was able to repair this at a nominal charge, since when it has given no more trouble.

I soon became aware of the one major omission in the tonal resources of the organ: there was no Trumpet stop. It was a cause of embarrassment to me when bridal couples requested the ‘Trumpet Voluntary’ for their weddings. So I obtained a complete set of second-hand Trumpet pipes from Johannesburg in October 1994 and fitted these into the organ at the beginning of 1997, for the cost of the pipes only, namely R10,000. At the same time a new stop was added to the swell keyboard, a ‘Fifteenth’, which gave it some brightness and sparkle.

Meanwhile the 1957 console built by R Muller reached the end of its life, being almost totally worn out. I constructed a brand new console in my workshop that will not only be adequate for the existing organ but make provision for all the additions yet to come. With imported parts, locally obtained timber and my labour, this item alone is to be valued at over a quarter of a million Rand, such is the pace of escalating prices….

All praise and admiration must go to the people of long ago, who decided to purchase an organ from a relatively unknown supplier. Though 109 years old, it is now in excellent condition with first-class materials and workmanship and, we can be confident, will continue giving good service well into its second century. Indeed we now have one of the finest organs in the Cape Town suburbs, and with its additions it has become the seventh largest organ in Cape Town with a total of 2,589 pipes – a far cry from its comparatively miserable beginnings over a century ago!

* Richard Moth started his musical education as a choirboy of 11 in York Minster. He was taught to play the organ by the York Minster organist, Dr Francis Jackson. He eventually apprenticed himself to an organ building firm in Durham, Harrison & Harrison. After further lessons in playing the organ in Durham with Dr Conrad Eden he came to South Africa in 1970 to work for Cooper, Gill and Tomkins. In 1995 he set up his own firm, Durbanville Pipe Organ Builders. He has been our organist since 1994.