The Foxearth and District Local History Society

The Thaxted Organ

by Nicholas Thistlethwaite

In Thaxted Church is a national treasure, famous for two reasons. Firstly, this is the organ on which Gustav Holst played at the time he wrote the Planets Suite, and the inspiration for the central theme of Jupiter Suite, now sung lustily at football matches. Secondly, it is one of the few surviving Georgian organs left in its original condition. Its originality is unique. It is a shock to discover that the future of this most wonderful survival is by no means secure, and there has even been talk of disposing of it. We went to Thaxted specifically to see this most wonderful device, and learned instead of its neglect.

The Revd Canon Dr Nicholas Thistlethwaite, the author of this fascinating account of the Thaxted organ, is the editor of 'The Cambridge Companion to the Organ' (ISBN-13: 9780521575843 ), and author of 'The Making of the Victorian Organ' (Cambridge Musical Texts and Monographs), 'A history of the Birmingham Town Hall organ' and of 'The organs of Cambridge'. He has also written widely on organs, including 'Dr.Mann and the organ of King's College, Cambridge: 1857/1912', 'The early career of J.C.Bishop, organ-builder, 1807-29 ', 'Carrying on ancient traditions: the work of Thomas Hill 1870-1893' and 'The Hill-Gauntlett Revolution: an epitaph?', 'Bach, Mendelssohn and the English organist: 1810-45 '. He is the former Chairman of the British Institute of Organ Studies

In November 1821, an amateur organist with private means, by the name of John Marsh, travelled up to London from Chichester. Like many other organists (then and now) he enjoyed visiting organs, playing and hearing them. One of his reasons for going to London was to inspect an organ which an organ-builder called Lincoln was repairing for the chapel where Mr Marsh's son was organist.

He was not pleased to discover that Mr Lincoln had made little progress with this instrument. The reason for this was that Lincoln was busily engaged completing an organ for another chapel in Bedford Row, north of Holborn. So Marsh went to hear it. This is what he wrote:

I went to St John's [Chapel], Bedford Row, the new organ in which (given by a few gentlemen of the congregation) was opened by [Mr] Purkiss. After service, I went to the organ loft where I saw Mr Lincoln, whom I told that if the sound of this fine instrument had not put me into good humour again, I should have expressed my great displeasure at his having brought me up to town to no particular purpose … in answer to which he told me that he might yet have been able to finish our chapel organ, had not one of his best workmen been taken ill at the beginning of the preceding week …
(Marsh, ed. Renshaw: 48)

Well, the organ-builder always has an excuse. But the reason for telling you this is that this 'fine instrument' in Bedford Row which cheered the disgruntled Mr Marsh is the organ which, for the last 150 years or so, has stood in Thaxted Church.

By any standards, it is a remarkable survival. First, because very few Georgian organs were spared by the Victorians. In the course of their radical restorations of church buildings, they threw out most of the furnishings, including any organs which they found. They replaced them with what were (to them) modern instruments, and the old organs were scrapped. Secondly, it is important because English organ design changed drastically in the middle years of the nineteenth century, and this organ preserves nearly all the distinctive features of the period before this. Although it has a few pedals to be played by the feet, these are extremely limited in their scope; instead, the organist relies on the keyboards which consequently have more notes (especially low notes) than a Victorian organ would have had. This means that you can play music on it (music written before 1840) which requires these extra notes. Thirdly, it retains its original organ case - the wooden 'enclosure' in which the pipework and mechanisms stand, and which has a decorative front with gilded pipes. It is a fanciful design, with palm fronds, classical mouldings and even Gothic elements - just the sort of mix that the architects and furniture-makers of the Regency period enjoyed. It is great fun.

But what else do we know about its history?

It was made by Henry Cephas Lincoln, a London organ-builder, who had a workshop in High Holborn, not far from St Giles-in-the-Fields. He was born in 1788 or 1789. His father, John, was also an organ-builder, and after H.C. had served an apprenticeship with a firm named Flight & Robson, who specialised in making barrel organs, he went to work with his father. He had a brother named Cleophas, who also worked in the family firm.

It seems to have been a flourishing concern. We don't know how many workmen they employed - but probably a dozen or so. During the 1810s, 20s and 30s the firm had a steady output of organs of all shapes and sizes: chamber and cabinet organs for music rooms and parlours; barrel organs for country churches; fully-fledged organs with two or three keyboards for urban churches and chapels. On the strength of a number of commissions for the Prince Regent in Brighton, H.C. was able to title himself 'Organ Builder to the King' (as he became in 1820). By this stage he was one of the five or six leading organ manufacturers in London.

He kept abreast of changes in organ design, and it was while building a large modern organ in 1846 for a church in Southwark that something seems to have gone wrong. He may have had some sort of illness or breakdown, or the organ may just have beyond his technical skills (the musical design stretched the mechanical technology of the day to its limits), and the business collapsed soon afterwards. H.C. continued to do a small amount of work after this - notably, for Buckingham Palace, moving two of his organs from Brighton Pavilion - but he disappears from view during the 1850s. He died on 5 March 1864 at the age of seventy-five. He left no will, and the impression is that he died in reduced circumstances. It was a melancholy end for one who had once been entitled to describe himself as 'organ builder by appointment to the King'.

So much for the organ-builder: what about the history of the organ?

St John's Chapel, Bedford Row, was a proprietary chapel. That is to say, it was an independent chapel, vested in trustees, who none-the-less subscribed (when it suited them) to the principles and liturgy of the Established Church. But they acknowledged no Episcopal jurisdiction, and the whole point of their existence was to preserve a particular type of churchmanship, or (perhaps) to provide a pulpit for an admired preacher.

St John's Chapel had been founded in the early 1700s to uphold the true Protestant faith against the High Church tendencies encouraged by Queen Anne and her Tory supporters.

Around 1821 the building was extended and refurbished, and a subscription was opened for a new organ which was to stand in the west gallery of the chapel. This is the organ we have come to hear. Probably H.C. Lincoln won the contract by competitive tender. Organ-building prices in those days were kept low by a widespread convention among wily churchwardens and trustees of advertising for tenders and undertaking to accept the lowest. This organ would have cost around £500.

There was another, equally questionable convention. This was that the organist sometimes expected to receive 'commission' from the builder. It seems this was the case at Bedford Row. Our friend John Marsh again:

Having appointed to meet Mr Lincoln in the afternoon at St John's, Bedford Row, and try the new organ of his make there, I … was grateified at being able to give a favourable account of it in writing to [the minister] who had requested me to do so, to assist in counteracting some injurious reports respecting it … set on foot by Miss Cecil the present organist, who seemd much prejudiced against Mr Lincoln, perhaps (as was suggested to me) from his not complying with a demand of hers for an allowance, as organist, out of the purchase money, although she had no concern in bespeaking the organ, or chusing the builder of it …

It rather sounds as though Miss Cecil was destined to be disappointed.

Despite the competition, Lincoln's organ was ambitious. The keyboards began with a low 'F', seven notes lower than a modern organ manual. There were two open diapasons in the Great Organ (one of which provided the big front pipes), and the little Swell Organ, enclosed in a wooden box with a sliding front - so that the organist could create crescendos and diminuendos by operating the sliding panel with a pedal - included three reed stops intended to imitate popular orchestral instruments: trumpet, hautboy [oboe] and cremona [clarinet]. Then there were 20 pedals played with the feet - still quite a novelty for English organists - and they had large-scale wooden pipes to add weight and firmness to the bass line.

So it was what we would call 'state of the art' for 1821. (We will hear more about this later.)

We know very little more about the organ in its original home. It was cleaned by an organ-builder named Joseph Walker in 1853, but three years later, disaster struck. I quote:

One Thursday evening in November, 1856, when the verger was about to ring the bell and summon the congregation for the usual week-day evening service, he could produce no sound. Still many were assembled, and divine service proceeded; but when the Minister ascended the pulpit, he perceived, from signs not to be mistaken, that the whole of the immense and massive roof had shifted and sunk, and might at any instant crush him and the whole congregation. A very short sermon naturally, and most wisely, followed this discovery; and that was the last sermon preached … in a chapel where the TRUTH AS IT IS IN JESUS, had been so long and so faithfully held forth …

The chapel closed, the building was demolished, and the fittings were dispersed.

We turn now to the Thaxted records.

Julian Litten drew my attention to an anonymous commonplace book in the Thaxted archives in Chelmsford (I think) which records incidents in the life of Thaxted between 1854 and 1887. Under the date of 9 June 1858 the following entry is found:

The new organ opened. It was purchased for the sum of £230 from the owner of S John's Chapel Bedford Row London. It had been built by Henry Lincoln for Miss Cecil the daughter of the Rev'd Richard Cecil who was for some time Organist of the above Chapel. Lord Maynard contributed £150 towards the purchase[;] the reminder was raised by voluntary contributions. Mr J T Frye performed on the Organ at the opening day. Miss Frye was appointed organist.

It is always gratifying to be able to pin down dates, and this usefully confirms that it was in 1858 that the old Bedford Row organ was brought to Thaxted and installed here.

The lack of alterations is surprising. By the 1850s, Lincoln's instrument would have seemed very old-fashioned to a younger organist - but maybe Miss Frye's ambitions were modest (and, in any case, there was probably no money to pay for changes). Whatever the reason, we must now be profoundly grateful that it survived the move intact.

Mercifully, the organ's history at Thaxted has been almost entirely uneventful. The Cambridge firm of A.T. Miller undertook minor repairs in 1884 and 1885, and a London organ-builder, Alfred Kirkland, did further work in 1907. Internally, there is some evidence of alterations: to the bellows, for example, and the Great roller-board. Also (regrettably) the pipes of two reed stops - a trumpet on the Great Organ, and the bassoon on the Choir - and one of the Great mixtures, have vanished; we know they were still there in the early years of the twentieth century. But generally, and despite its decrepit state, the organ has survived as a unique example of a large late-Georgian organ. There is nothing as complete, or as resourceful, and that is why it is so special.

Perhaps I could end by saying just a little about the organ's present condition. Organs are remarkably resilient, in many ways, but they are constructed of materials (metal, wood, leather) which are affected by temperature changes and the amount of moisture in the air (or the lack of it). The organ has fared better in the north transept than it would have done in the south - where the sun would have dried it out even more than has happened in its actual location - but it has suffered badly from low relative humidity. Timbers dry out and split; glue hardens and eventually ceases to hold things together; and so the chests intended to hold the wind that causes the pipes to sound leak badly, and wooden pipes fall to pieces. Leather hardens, and either cracks (wind leaks again) or fails to cushion to motion of the action parts, leading to increasing rattling and clatter when the keys are played. Metal pipes gently subside under their own weight; they need straightening and supporting. Tiny bits of grit work their way into the organ mechanisms, causing wear and tear, and (sometimes) malfunctioning, and dirt gets into the pipes, preventing them from sounding properly.

The result of all this is that the organ now sounds a shadow of its former self. It's still nearly all there, waiting (like the Sleeping Beauty) to be re-awakened and restored to glory, but in its present state it cannot give a good account of itself. It is also getting to the point where some of the damage will become irreversible. Unless we are able to conserve and restore the organ quite soon, more aspects of its character and originality will be lost.

That needn't happen and it shouldn't happen. The organ is of such importance that funding ought to be forthcoming from national bodies if they are approached in the right way with an appropriate scheme for restoration. I hope you will agree, after reading this, that this is a national treasure that must be preserved.

(If, like us, you are concerned about the future of 'Holst's organ', then please contact us at the Foxearth and District Local History Society, and we will put you in touch with a group of people who are determined to preserve this unique device)