Moving the Organ and the Services in the Victorian Cathedral

This Advent it has been possible to hear the fine Kenneth Tickell organ again and to use the quire for services. The damage caused by a pinnacle falling from the tower onto the roof of the north quire aisle a year ago resulted in much more extensive damage than first suspected, and the displacement of services for repairs to be carried out has sometimes seemed endless. It is interesting to compare the experience of the Victorians, which in some ways was similar.  While they did not have the struggle with Covid, they were excluded from the quire for prolonged periods, and the use of the organ was disrupted when it had to be re-sited in different parts of the building.

On three occasions during the Victorian restoration of the fabric, services had to be moved from the quire to the nave. The first of these in 1857 lasted only two months while whitewash was removed from the quire and lady chapel, but the second time, four years later, was for nearly two years, and the organ was boarded up as protection from dust. The organ stood on the screen and had started its life as a conservative instrument made by Thomas Harris in 1667 but had been extended and enlarged several times over the years, latterly by the well-known builder William Hill in 1842. Hill had added pedals so that the enthusiastic assistant organist, William Done, was able to play Bach fugues, although James Berrow has recently studied the company’s records which suggest that, although the pedalboard was larger, there was only a single octave of pedal pipes.[i] Contemporary views from the west show how the case was altered at this time. 


The west face of the organ from John Britton’s ‘The History and Antiquities of the Cathedral Church of Worcester’ of 1835. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

The west face of the organ from an 1863 photograph of the Three Choirs Festival performers. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

The organ screen and organ were dismantled in January and February 1865, the choir organ case finding its way to the church of St Mary and St Michael, Mistley, Essex, and carved work on the screen, the canopies and columns, to Holy Trinity Church, Sutton Coldfield. Part of the organ was reassembled by William Hill at the west end of the north quire aisle, so positioned that it could continue in use for the liturgy in the quire, and the remainder of the pipework was stored in the Chapter House. The third and most prolonged transfer of services to the nave started in June 1867 and lasted five years. An altar had been installed under the west window with choir stalls, a pulpit, and matting and chairs for the congregation, who faced west. William Hill once again moved the organ, this time to the west end of the north nave aisle and incorporated the pipes from the Chapter House, so that it could continue to be used for services.[ii]

This new arrangement was not entirely satisfactory. A member of the congregation complained of inaudible sermons and lessons, a shortage of hymn books, filthy floor and seats, and he claimed that “large portions of the congregation” left before the sermon because of the difficulty in hearing it.[iii]  William Done, the organist was unhappy too; he found it difficult to accompany the choir, saying “while we hear the singers on the opposite side of the church distinctly, the voices of those who sit under the Organ are heard very imperfectly . . . it has been the cause of many failures . . .”.[iv] . After five years the liturgy was moved once again, this time to the lady chapel, while the present floor was laid throughout the quire and nave, and the organ was moved a final time to a new site, chosen after much debate, in the north quire aisle.

A postcard view of the quire with the Hill organ of 1873. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

The organ was completed in 1873 in a new case designed by George Gilbert Scott and made by the Lambeth company of Farmer and Brindley. It retained much of the former instrument: of forty-one stops only eight were new, three old ones had been removed, a tremulant added and the mixtures and echo cornet altered and recast. It was thought to maintain much of the character of its predecessor which was admired as being “very fine and mellowed”.[v]

It became clear even before this time that the quire organ was not going to be adequate to accompany nave services, particularly when there were large congregations, and these had numbered thousands for some summer nave sermons. The Earl of Dudley applied to the Dean and Chapter in February 1874 for permission to erect a second organ “in some part of the nave or South Transept”.[vi] Agreement was reached and Thomas Hill’s company started work in November. One of its first uses the following April was to accompany a well-attended memorial service in the nave for Dean John Peel, led by the voluntary choir. Opinions on the organ were mixed.  An independent organ consultant, Walter Joy of Leeds, examined it eleven years later and thought it “a splendid organ, thoroughly well-made and sound in all vital parts; characterised by a tone eminently “Cathedral” and capable of accompanying a large body of choral voices”.[vii] Another commentator found it “coarse and rough”, and a reviewer of the “Mock Festival” of 1875 used the same expression, but was surprised that under the hands of S. S. Wesley “the instrument, which is undoubtedly rough and coarse, and wanting mellowness in some of its stops, has a certain sweetness in it as well as power.”.[viii]

Unfortunately, by the 1880s the action was giving problems. It had been cared for by Nicholsons who reported in 1884 that it “requires much and immediate repair”, for which the Chapter authorised £100.[ix] Eighteen months later there were still issues and Walter Joy’s report identified a number of problems which were later confirmed by Hill.  It seemed that difficulties over several years had led to springs being added to the action “in all directions” to cure ciphers, making the touch stiff and irregular.[x] Further work was done, but even in the 1890s problems persisted, although tradition has it that Hugh Blair still chose the transept organ to première Elgar’s Organ Sonata on 8th July 1895.

It was against this background of faults and problems that the Dean, Robert Forrest led a campaign in the 1890s to replace both organs with a new electric one by Robert Hope Jones. Mains electricity had only arrived in Worcester in 1894, supplied by a hydroelectric generator at Powick, and this may have been a spur for the plan, although as it happens the organ did not immediately make use of mains power. A new console was made, the great case of the transept organ was moved back some twelve or fourteen feet as it was now only required to house the solo and pedal departments, and a new quire case mirroring that on the north was built on the south side of the quire.

The characteristics of a Hope Jones organ have become well-known: flue pipes with strong fundamental but few harmonic tones; smooth-sounding diapasons; keen strings with very narrow scaling; and immensely powerful reeds on unprecedented wind pressures. The Worcester organ was conceived as having nave and chancel sections to accompany nave and quire services respectively, and at the time was greeted with quite positive comments. The blind organist and composer William Wolstenholme thought the diapasons very fine and was particularly impressed by the voicing of the gamba tone; some remarked particularly on the power of the organ, which was sometimes considered overwhelming and best appreciated from just outside the building. Others expressed doubt as to the suitability of “fancy” orchestral stops and novel effects for a church.[xii]

The Hope Jones Console of 1896[xi]. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

The organ continued in use until the mid-1920s but had to wait until after the Victorian era for mains electricity to be employed for blowing it. The laying of power lines from the Guildhall to the Cathedral was arranged to coincide with the installation of tram tracks up the High Street in 1903, and after this, two electric blowers were installed by the Kinetic Swanton company in a chapel of the crypt.[xiii]  

The rather restless moving both of the services and the organ during this period must have been unsettling, but the work done in Victoria’s reign on Worcester Cathedral achieved a building that was safe from collapse and an organ that was adequate for the tasks required of it, so there was much for contemporaries to be proud of.

Richard Newsholme

[i] James Berrow, The making of an English organ builder: John Nicholson of Worcester, British Institute of Organ Studies, Reigate, 2021, p.283-4

[ii] F1209 Estimate for the organ by W Hill, 13th May 1867.

[iii] Worcestershire Chronicle, Wed 5th April 1871

[iv] M6.1 Letter William Done to the Dean and Chapter, 17 Nov 1869

[v] Berrow’s Worcester Journal, Sat 11th April 1874

[vi] Chapter Acts A298 Feb 21st 1874

[vii] M5.3

[viii] Worcestershire Chronicle Apr 21st 1875; Berrow’s Worcester Journal, Sat Sept 25th 1875

[ix] M5.2; Chapter Acts Nov 20th 1884

[x] M5.4

[xi] M8.41

[xii] Musical Herald, 800 (1914) p.391-4; Musical Opinion and Music Trade Review, Jan 1897, vol 20 issue 232, p245; Worcestershire Chronicle Sat Aug 11896

[xiii] A1.7.38


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