St Gabriel’s Church Organ (part 1 of 3) - History
Going back over the centuries, organs weren’t the regular feature in English parish churches that we seem to expect these days, and having one depended largely on having the finances to afford one (although if Oliver Cromwell had had his way, there wouldn’t be any at all!). It’s therefore not surprising to discover that when our church building was completed in 1914 there wasn’t enough money left in the kitty for an organ of our own; so a modest 2-manual instrument was hired which went into its allotted space in the organ loft above the vicar’s vestry, the organist having to climb a staircase (still visible) every Sunday to play it. I haven’t found any information about this instrument, but it couldn’t have been very impressive, so the post-First World War congregation of St. Gabriel’s seemed determined to raise the finance for an instrument more worthy of our church.
They obviously did a very good job, because they were able to commission one of the UK’s – and the world’s – leading organ builders (Hill, Norman and Beard) to design and build our organ when they could easily have enlisted any one of the many smaller firms around at the time to produce a serviceable – though inferior – instrument. According to reports, there was a sustained fund-raising effort over years, including large donations from individuals to provide stops (sets of pipes) and other items in the final specification. The result was a much larger and far more impressive 3-manual instrument that necessitated using every square inch of space in the organ loft for the over 1,900 pipes, moving the organist to a detached console in the Lady Chapel (where it is today) and the large blower unit into a specially partitioned area of the downstairs choir vestry.
The organ was dedicated by the Bishop of Chelmsford at a service in September 1934, followed by a recital by G.D Cunningham, the City Organist of Birmingham and one of the country’s leading recitalists at the time. It’s the most valuable single asset in our church building and remains an instrument of which we should be very proud – and most agree that it’s somewhat better than it was as originally installed after improvements during overhauls in 1969 and 1992. As we all know, complicated mechanical things don’t go on for ever and, even with the superb quality of our instrument, unreliability is starting to appear. So, after 31 years since the last one, it’s time for overhaul number three which, unfortunately, isn’t going to be cheap. St Gabriel’s currently has a wide reputation for serious musical events and, bearing in mind the enormous efforts of our congregation a century ago to acquire this instrument, it’s something we need to take very seriously.
Music Director, John Light