September 2022

Ahead of this autumn’s series of organ recitals at St Swithun’s Church, we take a look at the history of this special instrument and its maker…

The current St Swithun’s church in North Allington was built almost 200 years ago, and many Bridge readers will be familiar with its exterior. If you’ve ever been inside to have a look, however, you may have entirely missed the fact that it has a rather fine organ. This is because the instrument is behind and above you as you enter the church, so it’s easy to miss. 

When the building was constructed in the 1820s, it was common for churches to have musicians and singers standing in the ‘gallery’ – a kind of balcony on one wall (sometimes more) of the interior. This is how things started off at St Swithun’s, and as musical fashions changed, the church decided to install a single-manual organ here in 1857 to accompany the parishioners in their hymn singing. The gallery is still in place today, but there is a different organ.

At the beginning of the last century, St Swithun’s decided to order a new organ from a manufacturer called Conacher of Huddersfield, and the splendid new instrument arrived in 1901. It is believed to have incorporated some of the pipes from the previous organ. There was some heated discussion over where to put the new organ, as it was considerably heavier than the old one. Some people thought it should be in the main body of the church, and others wanted it to go in the gallery, in place of the previous one. The latter group won out, although this meant reinforcements were required to take the weight. Additional pillars were installed to support the gallery and its contents, and that is the arrangement you see today.

Conacher & Co was one of several notable organ builders of the time. Born in Scotland in 1823, Peter Conacher (pictured right) trained as an organ apprentice and ‘voicer’ in Leipzig. He was later employed by William Hill & Sons, a very prestigious firm, and then by J W Walker & Sons, who sent him to Huddersfield. It was here that he started his own company in 1854, moving in 1873 to a purpose-built site, the Springwood Organ Works. This was said at the time to be the largest and best equipped in England; with its large steam engine, full complement of machinery and 80 craftsmen, it built around 30 large organs each year to be installed in churches, halls and other venues. 

During the era of silent films, organs were required to accompany the screenings, and Conacher manufactured a number of these. Apparently only one has survived – it was originally in the Central Cinema in Harrogate but was moved to the Church of St John the Divine in Rastrick in 1955. 

In 1986 the Conacher organ company was acquired by John Sinclair Willis, great-grandson of the well-known English organ builder ‘Father’ Henry Willis, whose company, Henry Willis & Sons, built pipe organs for a number of cathedrals including St Paul’s, Lincoln and Salisbury. 

The organ at St Swithun’s has 663 pipes spread over two manuals and pedals. The longest pipe is 8ft, and the shortest pipe is 3/8″ long. The manual key action and couplers are mechanical while the pedal bourdon/bass flute unit operates on pneumatic action. Originally these organs were pumped by hand to produce the air necessary for the ‘stops’ to sound. In 1948, however, the organist complained that he couldn’t always be sure of having enough men available to pump the organ for choir practice, so an electric motor was fitted a couple of years later. 

Since then the organ has been restored twice, the second time in 2016 by Ryde organ builder Andrew Cooper, who overhauled it fully and brought it to its current fine condition. Organists tell me that although it is a comparatively small instrument, with only 12 stops, it is a fine example of organ building and a pleasure to play.

We’re making full use of the organ this autumn by inviting a number of organists – including some enthusiastic young players – to give recitals. We hope music lovers will come along and hear this lovely instrument being put through its paces! 

Mandi Sturrock

The 2022 series of organ recitals at St Swithun’s begins on Sunday 2 October with a performance by Peter Shepherd, organist at Paisley Abbey.