History in Detail
By Prof Dr Colin H Parsons MBE FLCM etc
(Founder and Chairman, Ashton Hall Organ Restoration Project)
The organ was designed by Norman & Beard of Norwich and installed in 1909. At the time, the company was one of the largest in the UK, both during the mid- to late-Victorian and Edwardian periods and for some time thereafter.
The organ was one of the very first, if not the first, to benefit from electrically (direct current) blown wind. The instrument employed Norman & Beard’s own complex design of an operating system known as “Exhaust Pneumatic”. The exception to this action was the Swell Division, housed separately in a brick chamber with a decorative wrought iron facade to the right and at 90 degrees of the organist. This department had electro-pneumatic action. Initially this system for the Swell action was powered by batteries and some historians have speculated that it was a system developed by the controversial 19th century organ builder Robert Hope-Jones – however there appears to be no evidence to support this notion.
There is little doubt in the writer’s mind that benefactor Lord Ashton engaged Gillows of Lancaster to design and make the now ‘priceless’, English Oak, decorative organ case. In the Autumn of 2011 a lady visitor (aged circa 80) was to inform us that her grandfather had carved the six oak Cherubs Heads which adorn the casework as early as 1904 and had been employed by Gillows. This was the first time she had ever seen them.
During 1909 the first Town Organist , one Dr. R. H. J. Dixon FRCO (named simply as “RHJD” in renowned composer Percy Whitlock’s 1956 composition The Plymouth Suite, the Chanty movement being dedicated to Dixon). It is of interest to note that, to this day, the Royal College of Organists still offer a prize for extemporisation at Fellowship level called the R H J Dixon Prize. Dr Dixon, not to be confused with Reginald Dixon of the Tower Ballroom, Blackpool, was also Organist and Choir Master at Lancaster’s R.C. Cathedral. There were some striking similarities in the Cathedral and the Town Hall Specifications.
Lancaster Town Hall officially opened to the public as a functional Civic Building.
Despite being an instrument of the Edwardian period, the tonal characteristics of the organ were those of the late Victorian era. The scale of the pipework was generous and the tone full and mellow.
Today the organ is capable of performing most schools of organ composition in a convincing manner. It is an excellent accompanying instrument, but is equally well suited to use at ceremonial occasions. Notwithstanding, it can also sound convincingly like a cinema organ. One interesting feature of the original build was the inclusion of a large, leathered Diapason, on heavy pressure in the Swell Division, an approach ‘highly recommended’ during the early 1900’s by Edward Lamare, former Organist at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster (although he later moved to America to live and work). One can only conjecture if it was a coincidence or a deliberate tonal design feature to provide such a stop with its full and individual sound qualities.
Norman & Beard and William Hill & Son amalgamated to form Hill, Norman & Beard of London.
Some minor changes were made as follows:
An expression chamber was added to the Choir Department and this undoubtedly afforded greater versatility for the three 8′ ranks and one 4′.
A three rank mixture, a II-III at 15-19-22, was added to the ‘heavy pressure’ side of the Swell Division. Consequently, to this day, ingress and egress in the Swell Chamber is quite restricted. (Unusually the Swell Shutters are vertically mounted with adjustable ‘flaps’ – one per shutter. This appears to have been an original feature.)
The Swell Contra Gamba 16′ – zinc-mitred in the Bass and some 14 inches diameter at Bottom C [CCC] – was made available via a new electro-pneumatic switching device (motor). However this could only operate on the ‘off notes’ of the rank (19 pipes). Consequently the provision of independent pedal pipework was necessary. These ‘additional’ pipes are located on a small chest, fixed to the rear of the chamber wall and above the Low Pressure Soundboards.
This allowed for an additional stop (part shared) on the Pedal department as a Geigen Bass 16’. Being enclosed, there are distinct advantages.
It is of interest to note that in the original provision Norman & Beard had effected the same design feature with the façade, Pedal Violone 16’, the Great Division, Double Open Diapason 16’, but clearly not under expression.
The Choir Division Gamba 8′ switched location with the Great Division’s Geigen Principal 8’.
This ‘switching of the ranks’ afforded greater tonal flexibility for both Divisions. Visual inspection of the right-hand side (return) façade pipes will clearly show the much smaller scale (narrower diameter and false lengthening) of the Bass pipes of the Gamba.
A New Bass octave, made of wood was provided for the Choir Division.
Provision of an Expression Pedal for the newly enclosed Choir Division resulted in the loss of the Great No.1. combination mechanical toe lever.
A fire to the rear of the console caused considerable damage. Pneumatic couplers were destroyed as well as the four keyboards and the pneumatic key controls. There was also extensive smoke and flame damage to several of the air reservoirs. It is generally agreed that the organ would have been rendered unusable if the (insurance funded) repairs had not been carried out. The pneumatic couplers were replaced with electric switches, along with the necessary electromagnets to operate the pneumatics under each soundboard. A side benefit of this was to release more space at the rear of the console and cut the demand for wind. Despite the fire, the stop and pedal combination actions remain original. The repairs were effected by Hill, Norman & Beard of London. It is believed that a humidifier (sited high above the organ) was also installed in this period.
All but two of the remaining wind regulators reservoirs were re-leathered by Hill, Norman & Beard, who had continued the tuning and maintaining on the instrument. It appears that the re-leathering was part of a planned ‘phased’ operation to restore the entire organ. Apart from the provision of the ‘high pressure stop ventil’, no further work other than tuning and general maintenance was carried out and Hill, Norman & Beard ceased trading in 1997.
The organ’s ‘Stop’ and Pedal actions continued to deteriorate and become less efficient. The pedalboard return springs had become uneven, weak and in a state of mechanical failure. The Pedal Reeds had not worked for about 20 years and the Tuba’s electro-pneumatic action was showing signs of failure. The Swell Division thumb pistons were no longer usable and have been removed as a precautionary measure. Thumb pistons on the remaining manuals and the Toe Piston mechanical-pneumatic selector levers were becoming increasingly unreliable.
To quote Roger Fisher (formerly of Chester Cathederal), “There can be little doubt that this instrument has a most magnificent tone, even in its current state of decay and is one of the finest of its type I have ever been privileged to play. This instrument remains one of the few in its original state and clearly demonstrates the outstandingly high quality of craftsmanship, tonal voicing and finishing by Norman & Beard during the 1900’s and beyond. As such, the Ashton Hall Concert Organ is an irreplaceable masterpiece equivalent to, if not superior to, any instrument produced by rival companies at the time. It is simply a ‘lost/forgotten National Musical Treasure’.”
The manual actions still (2012) work efficiently and when one considers that much of the underaction dates back to 1909, this is quite surprising and further testifies to the excellence of materials and craftsmanship coming from the workshops of Norman & Beard of Norwich at the time, 1909.
There was much support from many Professional Organists and Organ Builders for this unique instrument to be thoroughly restored for historical reasons. However there was also general agreement that the tonal and aesthetic appearance of the organ should remain unaltered – Lord Ashton clearly employed Norman & Beard to provide the leading action (pneumatic control) of the day. To that end, the instrument will be equipped with the latest, ‘state of the art’ digital control which will ensure the organ’s longevity by avoiding deterioration of moving leather parts. It was clear that no tonal or structural changes should be attempted and that the fine Gillow (Lancaster) casework should be professionally restored along with the re-gilding of the front pipes.
It was generally agreed that the instrument would benefit from electrification on the stop control and piston systems. It was not possible to change any ‘set’ combinations and there are no general pistons. There was some debate as to whether the organ would also benefit from an Advancer system and/or General Pistons for concerts and recitalists. One thing that had universal agreement was that the current Oak organ bench needed to be replaced by an adjustable seat. This was seen as a priority as regular lunchtime Organ Concerts were being established to raise the profile of the instrument and raise the awareness for financial support. An Adjustable Oak Bench from ‘Renatus’ Organ suppliers in Bideford, Devon was provided in 2004, thanks to a grant from the Duchy of Lancaster, H.M Queen Elizabeth II.
It was clear that the best way forward to achive further restoration was to raise the profile of the instrument and use it as much as possible. To that end International Recitalist Robert Munns launched the Restoration Programme with a Celebrity Lunchtime Organ Concert. Since then various musical and social events continue to be organised on a regular basis.
Following a recommendation by AHORP, Lancaster City Council appointed Paul Hale, an accredited member of The Association of Independent Organ Advisers, and Director Corie at Southwell Minster, as ‘Independent Organ Consultant’ for the project. AHORP funded Paul to produce a comprehensive report. His remit was simple: “What is necessary to put this organ back in peak condition – cost is not an issue”. Paul inpected it in minute detail then delivered his report (5MB, PDF format) detailing his findings and reccomendations.
In summary Paul recommended the following actions:
- Restoration of the 1975 electro-pneumatic under-actions and change-over machines to manual soundboards.
- Unit chests, bass actions, front pipe blocks to have their tubed pneumatic actions removed and modern lever-arm magnets fitted directly to the valve stems.
- Removal of the 1975 electro-magnetic coupler switchgear and all remaining console note-action pneumatics, to be replaced by computerised tranmission to give the player state-of-the-art control over the organ.
- Installation of a MIDI (Music Instrument Digital Interface) to increase the orgran’s modern-day capabilities.
- Addition of reversible pistons to Solo-to-Pedal, Swell-to-Pedal, Great-to-Pedal, and Choir-to-Pedal.
- The 1975 plastic console keys to be re-covered in bone for the natutrals and ebony or another black wood for the sharps.
- Restoration of and design improvements to the swell pedal runs to the Solo and Swell, along with fitting of shutters on the Swell and Solo boxes.
- Attention and improved support for the wind trunking.
- Replacement of asbestos-based Swell access door.
- Replacement of flimsy and damaged main access passage boards.
- Overhaul of blower and humidifier.
- Ultrasound cleaning of metal pipework, mainly to remove nicotine.
- Re-making of all reeds with large mitres/hoods to avoid their tendancy to collapse.
- Rubbing down and gold painting of case pipes
- Restoration treatment of wooden pipes and their stoppers/tuners.
The Great Organ had to be removed following accidental water and ‘wet’ plaster damage which ingressed directly from the ceiling over the pipework and both sound tables of the Great Division. Approximatley 850 pipes and two huge soundboards were removed by Principle Pipe Organs of York, under the direction of Geoffrey Coffin, sometime organist at York Minster, and taken to their workshops in York. Such was the damage that all the pipes were cleaned. The Trumpet 8’ and Clarion 4’ (reed pipes) were sent to Duncan Booth in Leeds for repair, the hoods gained mechanical supports to strengthen the mirtes and all were re-tongued and voiced. AHORP chose stainless steel pipe slides over ‘tin’ versions, a more expensive option but with greater long-term benefit [WHY WAS THE SS OPTION MORE BENEFICIAL?] The soundboards required a great deal of attention and further removal, both for difficulty and financial reasons. Of the original 3 stages of external and 4 stages of pneumatic control had become damaged [SENTENCE DOESN’T MAKE SENSE] and was inefficient, Principal Pipe Organs recommended a great deal of design simplification. They also recommended that ‘pipe seals’ (to prevent wind loss) were provided. Beyond the cost to the insurance company, AHORP Trustees undertook an £18,000 difference in the cost.
The Great Mixture 15-19-22 was resourcefully wasteful [IN WHAT WAY?] and was consequently re-ordered from middle C up from whence originally it replicated the Octave 4’, Twelfth 2 2/3 and Fifteenth 2’ These now spoke an octave higher and brought brilliance to the Great Diapason chorus. The tonality of the reeds matched that of their original installation. The fluework was stunning, especially the Flutes 8’ & 4’. This was in part due to the slide seals, ensuring that all pipes were ‘fully winded’.
The total bill for this work was slightly in excess of £54,000. A DVD of the enire process was professionally produced and is available [LINK to ORDER PAGE – £10-00 per copy.]
Lancaster City Council had the Ashton Hall re-wired and a new fire alarm system installed. As part of the scheme, the old 3-phase electrical blower switch control gear was replaced with a state-of-the-art switch unit which will close the organ mains OFF whenever it triggered. The work included the provision of new wiring and a control switch at the console. At this point the Master Control for the Console light was removed to the general ‘stage lighting’ panel for safety reasons. Local organist Peter Entwistle of Hornby Parish Church paid for a new brass console light, with Lancaster City Council funding its installation along with new pedal lighting and switching.
Bert Bleasdale (84), the last remaining working French Polisher from Waring + Gillow, restored the English Oak Organ Case. Schofields of Lancaster repainted the facade pipes. The paint was a Liquid Gold Suspension and costs roughly £50 per litre. This work was funded by The Citizen Newspaper at a cost of £10,000. AHORP Trustees contrinbuted £2000 for additional costs.
The year marked the centenary of the Organ’s installation and plans were discussed about suitable celebratory music. At the Fifth Organ Day the celebrity Organist was Malcolm Archer, who was subsequently invited to compose a Lancaster Suite for Organ. Fees were agreed and an appeal by AHORP Chairman, Prof Dr Colin H Parsons MBE resulted in the considerable finance necessary being raised in just six weeks. Malcolm Archer (Winchester College Chapel) started work and the idea had a spin off: as well as celebrating the Organ’s Centenary, AHORP got the work professionally produced and publish it themselves in order to raise the now ‘dwindling balance’ of £200,000 for the remaining restoration.
Remedial work by Principal Pipe Organs of York in 2010 resulted in almost all the Trombone 16’ functioning once again – and what a tremendously rich sound those zinc pipes make!
Lancaster City Council closed the Ashton Hall for major internal ceiling repair following a major survey. Scaffolding was necessary and the organ covered. However, on removal of the ‘stage’ area scaffolding, one pole damaged three of the right hand side ‘tower’ pieps and these had to be re-painted by Schofields of Lancaster. Again, more scaffolding is necessary but all is covered by insurance.
On 13th July Malcolm Archer came to the Ashton Hall to launch the Lancaster Suite for Organ. The evening was a definite success and a copy of the work was sent with loyal greetings to Queen Elizabeth II who replied with her congratulations and thanks for an autographed copy of the composition.
Towards the end of the year and following major Town Hall (external) roof replacement and general internal disruption in the Organ Blower Room, it was noted that the Humidifier was in a poor state of repair and had in fact been disconnected. AHORP requested some action from Lancaster City Council who arranged for Watkins & Watson, who service the Blowing Plant and the Humidifier, to be called in. Following their inspection agreement was reached with LCC for a replacement, rather than a refurbishment, be provided. At the same time the Crompton electric motor would also be refurbished. The work would be carried out in 2011 under the new budget and funded by LCC as part of their commitment to the organ’s on-going maintenance.
Independent Professional Insurance Assessors value the organ and the necessary building infrastructure etc – without its Gillow casework – at a staggering One Million Pounds.
Lancaster City Council fund a new Humidifier and refurbishment of the Crompton electric motor. The work is estimated to have cost £2,500.
An official ‘unveiling’ of a signed A3-sized copy of the Lancaster Suite for Organ below the Swell Grill on the right hand side of the stage followed a lunchtime recital.
Thursday 2nd and Friday 3rd
Following the ingress of dust during and following the major works to provide a new Town Hall roof, it was found necessary to remove all the previously cleaned pipework (approx.. 850 pipes) and also deep-clean the sound and rack boards. The re-cleaning work and tuning lasted two days.
A new state-of-the-art LED, multi-functional (colours, fades etc as well as white) spot-lights are provided vai two separate benefactors. The lights will remain in the care of AHORP who were the named beneficiaries. Link cabling has also been provided and jointly installed by AHORP and LCC staff. The current stage and organ flood lighting is considered inadequate by some ‘users’ and it is hoped that the provision of these new lamps will ‘spur on’ further investment as well as illuminate the magnificent Organ façade with its gold pipes and wonderful Gillow casework and provide much needed lighting to the stage area.
The Founder and Chairman of the Restoration Committee AHORP is Prof Dr Colin H. Parsons MBE who, with his enthusiastic team of colleagues and supporters, are working closely and by a written legal agreement with Lancaster City Council in a bid to see this magnificent, unique, historical organ fully restored and used widely for educational, concert and civic events in the inspired surroundings of the Ashton Hall, which is an integral part of Lancaster Town Hall, itself a Grade 2 Listed building.