In May 2014 organ consultant Ian Bell undertook a detailed inspection of the St Mellitus memorial organ, reaching the conclusion that restoration was “decidedly overdue”. Several notes and stops no longer worked, due to the deterioration of the leatherwork over the years (a huge amount of leather is used in the construction of the organ).
This, together with the discovery of the its historical significance as a war memorial, convinced members of the parish that they should apply for funding for its restoration. Their application to The National Lottery Heritage Fund resulted in a generous grant, awarded in 2019.
F.H. Browne & Sons were awarded the contract to restore the organ; Managing Director Steven Bayley said, “F H Browne and Sons organ builders are thrilled to have won the tender to restore this magnificent organ. To personally be part of this project is a great honour.”
F.H. Browne & Sons has been working in Kent since 1871, when Canterbury-born Frederick Henry Browne set up his own business from a disused chapel in Nelson Street, Deal, at the age of just 22.
The team began the work in December 2019, by first dismantling the console, which houses the keyboards, pedals and stop controls. The console had been moved from the ground floor of the church to the upper gallery when the church was converted for Catholic liturgy, around 1959 when the RC Diocese of Westminster acquired the church to meet the needs of the burgeoning local Irish catholic population.
The organ is pneumatic, relying on hundreds of small tubes, each sending its own signal from the console in the gallery to the pipework on the ground floor. There are 61 tubes for every note of the three ‘manuals’ (or keyboards) as well as those for stops, pistons and other parts. The work on the console at this stage was therefore very complex.
The team returned to the church in early January 2020, to remove everything that required restoration, including the pipework, bellows and the huge ‘derivation’ machine, the brains of the organ that switch the signals from the console to the corresponding pipework on the soundboards.
Work then moved to the workshop in Kent, where several craftsmen worked through the coming months to clean the pipework and restore the organ and console to return each part to its original condition. Each piece of leather was removed and replaced, and the organ chamber was deep cleaned. Decades of London grime had settled on every surface of the instrument.
In March, the team was joined by Joe Calder, on a Trainee Placement supported by the National Heritage Lottery Fund. Joe said, “I’m looking forward to working with craftsman, seeing beautiful churches and being trusted with the maintenance, cleaning, building and maybe playing the world’s biggest instrument.”
By May, everything was fully restored and ready to be reassembled on site at St Mellitus. The biggest challenge, as expected, was the reassembly of the console. The difficulties those moving the console must have experienced decades ago became apparent, as there was so little space in the detached console and working conditions were very cramped.
Once this difficult work had been done and most of the pipework had been replaced, the next stage of the work involved adjustment and testing, which started in June.
The adjustment of the action – the mechanism between the organist’s fingers and the pipework, is painstaking work. As keys are depressed, small charges of air (or ‘wind’) move through the many small tubes to open the pipe’s valves, allowing them to sound, or ‘speak’: All this takes just a fraction of a second, but it all needs careful adjustment.
Once the restorers were happy with these adjustments, work moved on to regulating the pipework and then to tuning, done almost completely by ear. After a rebuild, tuning can take some time to stabilise as pipework has been taken apart and reassembled. The restored pipework was therefore tuned several times, each time getting closer and closer to perfection.
There are two types of pipe: ‘flues’, which make the classic organ sound, and ‘reeds’ which provide the brilliance of sound and often imitate orchestral instruments. At St Mellitus there are for example a horn, an oboe and a clarinet among the reeds.
One of the last jobs will be the placement of new decorative pipework into the screen, forming an organ ‘case’. Since the church’s change of ownership, the organ has been hidden from view with a screen that had all but covered the pipework, thus muffling the sound.
The last bit of pipework, newly built in a specialist workshop in Essex from metal shipped from Germany, is entirely decorative and will improve the look of this impressive instrument. The new screen will allow the organ to sound out into the church and greatly improve the listener’s experience.
The restoration of the organ has been something of an excavation, revealing new discoveries along the way. During the dismantling of the console, the team found hand-written notes, dating the cleaning of the console as well as some old pennies that may have fallen out of someone’s pocket.
During the refitting of the organ, the team found that each of the three soundboards were built to support 62 notes, giving a symmetry to the whole, with 31 notes each side. They also discovered a ‘dummy note’, where although there is action, it is never used and there is no tuning to it from the console. Care was taken to ignore it when reconnecting all the small pneumatic tubes.
In the 60s, it was very common to electrify existing organs, so the St Mellitus organ is a lucky, and largely complete, survivor which once fully reinstalled, will sound better than it has for 50 years, leaving an important legacy – musical and historical – for the parish and the local community.