The organ at St Mellitus is a unique memorial, built to honour the men from the parish who served in the First World War.
It is housed in a splendid Grade II listed building, now known as St Mellitus church, but originally opened in 1871 as the New Court Congregational church. When attendance numbers declined (the building seats more than 1000 people) it was sold in 1959 to the Roman Catholic Westminster Diocese. This allowed the burgeoning St Mellitus parish, with an overstretched church in nearby Everleigh Street, to accommodate the rapid influx of Irish people to Islington after the Second World War.
An ageing church organ already stood behind the altar at New Court but by the time the First World War broke out it was in need of replacing. As the scarring effect of the war was felt across the congregation, the church wished to memorialise the men from the parish who had fought, served and died in the war, and the organ became a focus for this need.
In 1919, an appeal letter reported that a recent annual church meeting had reached a unanimous decision to erect a memorial and that ‘…the best way to worthily perpetuate the names of these men…would be to reconstruct and enlarge the organ. This would be the memorial: the names of our fallen heroes and also the men who had served in HM Forces would be suitably inscribed in some prominent place’.
Esteemed organ builder Alfred Hunter & Son of Clapham was commissioned to build the organ which was dedicated on Sunday 12 December 1920; the engraved memorial panels were unveiled at the morning service. The public opening of the organ took place on 17th December with a recital by Mr HL Balfour, the organist of the Royal Choral Society at the Albert Hall. The total cost of the organ was £4,500 (the equivalent of around £200,000 today).
For the next 40 years, the organ was used for church services as well as regular recitals and performances. A series of organists were appointed, including a Mr EA Adams who served for 27 years and was replaced in 1944 by Cecil Crawley at £60 per annum with three Sundays off a year.
When the church was purchased by the RC Diocese of Westminster in 1959, it was converted for Catholic liturgy and the organ console (keyboard, stops and pedals) was moved from its central position behind the altar up into the church’s south gallery and the fine case removed. To accommodate this, hundreds of metres of rubber tubing had to be installed to link it to the large pipes below which were covered by a hardboard screen. The memorial tablets were also removed at this time.
Whilst it was still used in subsequent decades, in recent years it suffered serious decay. Parishioners were confronted with the idea that this important heritage asset could be lost forever.
The organ was assessed, placed on the British Institute of Organ Studies register and awarded a Grade II historic organ certificate. Ian Bell, the Organ Adviser to the project, confirmed its importance:
“The organ at St Mellitus…is from the most polished and experienced period of the Hunter firm’s work and falls squarely into the mainstream of their most successful output, both tonally and mechanically”.
Research carried out for the church’s Golden Jubilee (1959-2009) led to the discovery that the organ had been installed with the two wooden tablets inscribed with the men’s names. This in turn led to the discovery of the original documentation relating to the organ’s commission, at the London Metropolitan Archives.
The organ, albeit deteriorated, remained, but the tablets were assumed lost. Exciting additional research led to their discovery in a boiler room at the New Court Elm Pentecostal Church in Regina Road, which had been built by the Congregationalists when they moved from the original site.
Funds were raised to restore the memorial tablets and they were officially reinstalled in St Mellitus church at a Remembrance Day service in 2014. Appropriately, members of all three churches – Congregationalists, Pentecostals and Catholics – took part in the touching service.
The organ by this stage was now almost unplayable and in need of urgent restoration. The parish’s recognition of its historical importance and value to the community focussed this need and a development plan for an application of support from The National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) was drawn up. A grant was awarded to the RC Diocese of Westminster in 2019, to restore the organ and deliver an ambitious community and education plan.
Kent-based organ builders and restorers F H Browne & Sons were awarded the contract to restore the organ, which will be completed in time to celebrate the centenary of its dedication in December 2020 and to reinstate the parish’s original wishes that the organ should be a permanent memorial to the men from the parish, and their families, who made such sacrifices 100 years ago.