An Organ Builder Looks Back
by Tony Cragg - Nottingham
Part 1
I have been interested in organs from a very early age. At the time (in the 1930's) I became a server (altar boy) at our local parish church, which was very "High" and used incense. It was necessary for the man with the incense to return to the vestry at intervals during the service, and the means of access was via a gloomy matchboard lined passage through the organ, wherein toiled a gentleman operating a large blowing handle after which one squeezed past the surpliced organist manipulating his rows of keys and stops.

This was my first introduction to the instrument which was to occupy an important place in my life. Incidentally, the casework and Victorian Gothic painted pipes of this grand old instrument (a large, three manual pneumatic job,) still exist, but alas now conceal the speakers of an electronic substitute, an all too common state of affairs today.

My interest also extended to mechanical organs as, at that time, the local "Wakes" was held near the town centre, and boasted two organs, on Messrs Holland's gallopers and cakewalk. The former was a notable instrument and could be heard up to a mile away. I spent much time in front of it, and can still recollect "Light Cavalry" overture as part of its repertoire, and on the cakewalk, (a 46) "Sing as we Go".

However, my very first experience of a mechanical organ was as a small boy on holiday in Frome, Somerset. A burst of music from along the street, (few cars about then,) revealed a genuine Italian organ grinder, complete with "stick" organ and monkey. This was the one and only time I ever came across one of these, though Street pianos were by no means uncommon up to and into WW2. A Nottingham firm, (Flints) hired these out as well as hawkers' barrows. The last street piano I saw operated professionally was in the West End of London in the 50's.

To move on, however, on leaving school, I applied to a local organ builder (a friend of my Father,) for employment, but as WW2 had started, organ building was on hold and confined to tuning and basic maintenance. As the next best thing, I trained as a joiner (it is not surprising that many organ builders have had a background of carpentry, including the Bruder and Limonaire dynasties, and the famous German, Gabler - the organ having been described as a "medieval contraption of wood and leather"!).

After service in the RAF, the war being over, I was taken on by the firm of Henry Willis at their Nottingham Branch, for a period of training. Organ building was undergoing a boom at that time, following years of neglect and war damage, and we then had seven or eight men fully employed on overhauls and rebuilds, plus a tuning round of several hundred organs. The threat of the electronic organ, and wholesale church closures was still only a cloud on the horizon.

Today, apart from myself, the only surviving organ firm in the (Nottingham) area, with two men, comprises the whole local trade. The Willis firm still exists in Liverpool, but I believe no longer under the Willis family. Many large and well known firms have ceased to exist over recent years.

I was fortunate to experience working with some "old timers", some of them rare characters with many a tale to tell. One recollects starting on a round with the tuner, ("Next, wike up dahn there!" them learning to lay a scale - the tuner's "Pons Asinorum," - tuning meters were of course unheard of, and in any case would have been regarded as crutches for the lame, and possibly other unprintable descriptions.

Tuning was regarded as a plum job, being away from the shop and not under the gaffer's eye. The time spent in church was largely dependent on what time the train or bus went, though "Calls Back" by disgruntled organists were to be avoided at all costs. Later the acquisition of a car or the firm's van improved matters, and enabled one to tote around more tools etc than the traditional "Gladstone Bag".

Periods in the workshop covered a wide range of activities, including re-leathering pneumatics and bellows, electrification of actions, overhauling chests and soundboards etc.

Then, there were "country and lodging" jobs of which more later. The revival, of the mechanical organ was hardly yet underway, and more of this in due course.

Part 2
During my period of employment with Henry Willis and Sons I had occasion to travel to many and varied jobs, on organs of all types and sizes.  The smallest I can recollect had a single rank of pipes (it still exists in a local church, having been later enlarged to two stops) to the gigantic organ in Birmingham Town Hall, which has a 32 foot front, and contains four or five storeys of action and pipework, each with its staircase for access.  I spent three months on this job along with a rather jolly gang of Willis men from various branches of the firm.

Other jobs one can remember include Salisbury Cathedral, various Town Halls in the Potteries, some of which were vast, Victorian and considerably the worse for wear.  Many smaller church jobs in all parts of the UK from Torquay to Glasgow were undertaken. Church organs, being static, unlike fairground organs, required the organ builder to travel, (and stay) on the job, lodgings not always being up to the standard which one might hope for!

After a few years of this, I decided that I had had enough travelling, and had the opportunity to go into partnership with another ex Willis man. Work was fairly plentiful at that time, and we had a number of fairly successful years together.  The preservation movement was by now under way, and we had a steady succession of work of this type, including a number of well known organs. A good tuning round was also built up during the period.

However, all things come to an end, and we eventually decided to go our separate ways. Organ builders are generally men of strong opinions, especially about the job, if you get three men together you will generally get three verdicts on the "correct" way to do the job!  For the past twelve years or so I have continued on my own (with part time assistants), and still undertake both church and mechanical organ work, together with a moderately sized tuning round, though I now prefer to concentrate on "shop" work, having had enough of travel.

The mechanical organ scene today is vastly changed from the 1950s and 60s with numerous amateur and professional organ builders at work. In those days, knowledge of this type of instrument was virtually a closed book with little or no literature on the subject. The only man with real knowledge in the field was of course the late Victor Chiappa.  I had the pleasure of meeting him at his works at Eyre St hill where I was most courteously received, and spent several hours in interesting conversation, together with a tour of the works, including the music cutting room and the vast store of patterns. No microchips then!

Yes, things are different today - I am not going to say "worse" as we must move with the times. The church organ scene is a "pale shadow" , but I am sure that the pipe organ will still continue to have its adherents, and interest in mechanical organs seems to continue, at least with the organ buffs, if not the general public.  On the church organ front, the trend seems to be "back to the future" with an increase in interest in the old style "tracker" organ, old tuning systems ie unequal temperaments and even, in a few cases hand blowing!  There are a number of small firms turning out some first class work, and I feel that the future of the trade is not all gloom.