The English organ, the Anglican Church and St. Giles

Whilst the use of pipe organs can be traced back as far as 200BC, the use of organs for the accompaniment of Anglican Church Music is rather more recent. Organs had been present in English cathedrals and collegiate churches but until the second half of the 18th Century there were few in parish churches. The Oxford Movement was possibly the most important factor in the changing of West Gallery Music (consisting of singers and instrumentalists) into the practice of having a robed choir in the chancel, very often with an organ there too. By 1800 it was reckoned that organs could be found 'In around 80% of London churches' and during the next century this spread to most parish churches throughout the country. Organ building became a major 'industry' in England during this period.

Organ builders were among those at the forefront of technology, constantly looking for ways to be better than the competition in their manufacture. Some had their own railway sidings to help with transport.

At the Great Exhibition of 1851, a number of organs by prominent builders of the day was installed to entertain visitors while walking round the exhibition, including the largest organ in the world at the time, with 4474 pipes and 77 stops, built by 'Father' Henry Willis, who was awarded a gold medal for his efforts.

Whilst there is much excellent music for the organ written over hundreds of years, an English church organ is effectively a 'one man band' which has to be used to accompany large and small congregations, choirs singing Anglican chant, service settings and anthems, so playing organ music usually has to come second. Until quite recently there was no real alternative to the pipe organ that could do all these things but played by just one person.

St. Giles followed this pattern of West Gallery music, then a barrel organ, then the real thing.

Organs at St. Giles and Fox's Brewery

The history of the Oak Brewery in Green Street Green is well documented elsewhere and had a considerable impact on the locality, including the start of the massive population increase that took place over the next century or so. Green Street Green was within the Parish of Farnborough until 1937.

The St. Giles building was, of course, never intended to have a pipe organ. Prior to 1842 there was a musicians' gallery at the West end and music was probably provided by a band of singers and one or more instrumentalists.

On January 16th 1842 a barrel organ belonging to Mr. Fox of Fox's Brewery was loaned to the church, 'And will remain in the church only during his pleasure unless any future any future arrangement be made between him and the officers of the Parish.' This was probably John Fox, who had founded the Oak Brewery in 1836 or possibly his son, Thomas Samuel Fox, as both were involved in philanthropic activity. In 1844 the upper musicians' gallery was removed and the barrel organ placed in the lower gallery. There are records of monies being paid to have it moved from the back of the church to the front, and then back again, which implies that either it was not really adequate or took up too much room lack of space has always been an issue, it seems. The siting of the barrel organ in the lower gallery had led to the loss of seating and changes had to be made to seating on the South side of the church to make up for it.

The change to a proper pipe organ happened during the 1880s, which was quite late compared to some parishes in or close to London. Thomas Hamilton Fox, son of Thomas Samuel, was an organist (by 1961 some of his organ music which had been given to the church was still lying around in what was then the organ chamber) and in 1885 he offered to pay for a pipe organ to be installed in St. Giles on condition that the church provided a chamber to house it. Thomas's father died in 1883, leaving the brewery to his sons so when Thomas Hamilton made the offer of a pipe organ one would have thought that he might have been feeling the burden of the massive debt that his father had run up during the re building of the brewery.

Some argument ensued over the addition to the building to house the new organ and a drawing of the proposed structure in the archives has scrawled over it 'This must never be built'. As we have learnt through the years, additions, alterations and restorations to ancient buildings usually open up cans of worms and the chancel itself was found to be in such a bad state that it had to be rebuilt in addition to the work on building the new organ chamber on the north side of the chancel. Doubtless some parishioners at the time wished that the offer of an organ had never been made.

The National Pipe Organ Register

The NPOR is a record of pipe organs and work that has been done to them through the years, in all sorts of locations, including instruments in churches, cemeteries and crematoria, theatres, cinemas, private residences, even restaurants. It has been well maintained since the late 1800s and is invaluable to organists, especially when they are asked to play something on an instrument they do not know – by no means all organ music can be played on every instrument. However, in the case of St. Giles it is lacking somewhat. There is no record prior to 1963, except a reference to the Hull organ builder Forster and Andrews, who possibly carried out the work to the organ in the 1920s. Forster and Andrews had a distinctive style and examination of the original organ pipe work, which has an even more distinctive but very different style, shows that they did not build the original organ at St. Giles.

As there is no Parish record of any discussion as to the specification or builder of the new organ it seems likely that Fox himself made most of the decisions. The builder of the new organ seems not to have been recorded anywhere. The initial clue to the original builder is that by the end of the century tuning and maintenance was in the hands of Beale & Thynne, a fairly small company in West London. It is fairly certain that the original pipe organ was built by them or, more likely, their forerunners, Michell & Thynne.

Michell & Thynne's first - and only - major project was to build an organ for the 1885 Inventions Exhibition in Kensington. Their aim was to: 'Attempt to place into the hands of the player a grand and complete organ reduced to the smallest possible dimensions as regards the number of stops.' In fact it was quite a large instrument and when it arrived at the exhibition it was found that, due to a misunderstanding about the space made available for it drastic alterations and reductions in size had to be made, it appeared long after the other exhibits and due to the cost of doing it all company was eventually pushed into bankruptcy. Presumably they felt they needed to make a splash at the exhibition in order to break into the now well established organ building business. The organ looked as if it was half finished, perhaps because that's exactly what it was or possibly this was so that visitors could see the construction. This organ was exhibited again the following year at the Liverpool Exhibition where celebrated city organist W.T. Best pronounced it ‘the finest organ of its kind that I have ever played’. It was considered so groundbreaking at the time that for years there were rumours that the established competition had connived to see them off by getting their pitch at the exhibition reduced in size.’

In 1887, the Reverend C.W. Grove purchased the organ and presented it to Tewkesbury Abbey to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. It was placed in the North Transept where it has remained ever since in the same format as at the exhibitions so it has an 'unfinished' look but with rather grand pipe towers at the front but little other casework. Michell and Thynne’s partnership was shortlived.

Michell emigrated to America and Thynne continued organ building and it was at this point that Mr Beale came into the business as a business partner rather than an organ builder. The output of the firm consisted mostly of small 2 manual organs of the sort of size installed at St. Giles. Whether Michell was still working with Thynne when the St. Giles organ was installed is unclear.

Organists often have a love of all things mechanical such as railway engines, not to mention something of a fondness for the odd glass of beer and Thomas Hamilton Fox seems to have been no exception. The brewery would have made regular use of the railway because it delivered to Hither Green every Thursday. Fox, who had been known to complain to the parish council about the deplorable state of the road between Green Street Green and Orpington Station (no surprise here, it still floods when it rains hard!), would doubtless have enjoyed a steam train ride into London and it does seem highly likely that he went to the 1885 Inventions Exhibition in Kensington, was bowled over by the Michell and Thynne organ and decided that his parish church must have one like it. The pipe towers at the front of the original St. Giles organ had a similarity to those on the Exhibition organ. It may also be that he wanted St. Giles to have something rather larger than the instrument it ended up with but his available finances did not allow it as it only took up about half the space allowed for it by the new chamber.

Clive Brearley