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Organ

The organ of St Michael and All Angel’s, Croydon is a distinguished example of the work of ‘Father’ Henry Willis, the best-known organ builder of the Victorian period.  The founders of the Willis dynasty, Henry Willis and his brother George, rose to prominence abruptly with a most ambitious instrument displayed at the 1851 Great Exhibition in South Kensington.  Both technically and musically this included many innovations guaranteed to appeal to the progressive Victorian mind, and attracted great interest. Enlarged and rebuilt to find a final home in Winchester Cathedral, this exhibition instrument brought Willis the contract for the huge new organ in St. George’s Hall in Liverpool, completed in 1855.  This taxed the relatively inexperienced organ builders to the full, and perhaps inevitably was less successful in some respects than in others, giving ammunition to Willis’s critics and competitors.  It nevertheless was — and remains — a magnificent and bravely conceived instrument. A large new organ for Carlisle Cathedral followed in 1856, but although busy with a steady flow of lesser work, Willis then seems to have kept a relatively low profile through the 1860s. He bounced back with a vengeance in the early 1870s, completing within a couple of years the very large new instruments at the Royal Albert Hall, the Alexandra Palace, and St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Although each of these organs had idiosyncrasies which were not to be repeated in later work, they established Henry Willis very firmly indeed as the leading builder of his time, and he never looked back.

Though his later work is more complacent and less striking than what preceded it, Willis dominated the British organ building scene until his death in 1901, building or rebuilding very many of the large cathedral, town hall and parish church organs in the country. The company turned out more than 2,000 instruments during this period — more than one per week — including some of the largest organs in the world.

The instrument Willis built for St Michael’s evolved in several stages, and, as elsewhere, this augmentation of earlier vigorously-voiced material with later tidying up of the rough edges, resulted in an instrument of real character and distinction.  The first work in the instrument dates from 1872, from an organ made for the temporary (wooden) building that preceded the magnificent Pearson church of 1881.  By 1882 Willis had enlarged and enhanced his earlier efforts and installed them in the new church, though grand plans for expanding the instrument to include four manuals were shelved for want of funds. At first the inner workings were hidden behind simple rows of zinc display pipes, including the bass of a new larger Diapason accommodated on a ‘clamp’ grafted onto the front of the Great soundboard, but in 1901 the organ was completed by the two impressive cases, designed by G.F.Bodley. The stoplist by that time was as follows:

Great Organ  C-g3  56 notes   Swell Organ C-g3  56 notes  
Double Open Diapason 16' Contra Gamba 16'
Open Diapason 8' Open Diapason 8'
Open Diapason 8' Lieblich Gedact 8'
Claribel Flute 8' Dulciana 8'
Viola 8' Vox Angelica 8'
Principal 4' Octave 4'
Harmonic Flute 4' Harmonic Flute 4'
Quint 2 2/3' Flageolet 2'
Fifteenth 2' Mixture III
Mixture III' Cornopean 8'
Bombard 8' Oboe 8'
    Clarion 4'
Choir Organ C-g3  56 notes    Pedal Organ  C-f  30 notes  
Claribel Flute 8' Contra Bourdon 32'  
Dulciana 8' Open Wood  16'
Lieblich Gedact 8' Violone 16'
Gemshorn 4' Bourdon 16'
Harmonic Flute 4' Cello 8'
Piccolo 2' Ophicleide 16'
Clarinet 8'    
       

The mechanism of the keys and pedals of the Willis organ was principally tubular-pneumatic (operated by wind-pressure), though the stops were direct
mechanical linkages. The Choir Organ was originally sited within the main organ case, between the Great and Swell sections.  Apart from upgrading of the original hand-blowing equipment, first to hydraulic and later electric operation, and some repairs and very minor alterations in the 1920s, the organ remained unchanged until 1955.

From what survives it is clear that this was a mainstream Willis instrument, very competently produced to a very high standard. It was an organ of the best quality available in the country, and the parish must have been justifiably proud of it from the start.

In 1955 a major rebuilding and modernisation took place under the direction of Leslie Betteridge, organist at St Michael’s at that time. The work was entrusted to N.P.Mander Ltd of Bethnal Green, then a relative newcomer on the scene, for which this contract was (and remained) a valued and most important milestone in the firm’s development.  The key and stop actions were entirely renewed to Manders’ own electro-pneumatic design, though some parts of the Pedal action were retained after renovation.  A mainly new console was provided, complete with modern thumb pistons and toe pistons, the piston settings being adjusted at a very basic switchboard in the adjoining corridor.

Tonally, there were significant changes.  Apart from the addition of a 16ft reed to the Swell, the Great and Swell remained outwardly unaltered; but in the newly fashionable style, the original Choir department was recast to become a Positive section, albeit with the slightly incongruous inclusion of a unit-extension rank to provide the 16, 8 and 4-foot flutes.  Some original Willis ranks remained on this revised section, and others were combined with mainly recycled pipework to give a ‘new’ enclosed Choir Organ, sited in an alcove just to the East of the main organ chamber.

The Pedal organ was considerably enlarged, almost entirely by unextended ranks of salvaged pipework, though soon after completion the original plans for a grand Bombardon 32ft were modified to the provision of a short-length reed of Dutch origin and decidedly alien character. A fine new Tuba, standing behind the West façade, completed the scheme, and the work was judged by W.L.Sumner — a noted authority of the time — to have resulted in “one of the finest three-manual instruments in Britain and Europe.”

In 1987 a limited scheme of releathering, cleaning and refurbishment was undertaken by Mander, principally aimed at renewal of the low-voltage electrical equipment.  In other respects the 1955 work remains unchanged.

The console

This was largely new in 1955, though the music desk and key-bench survive from the Willis era. Typically of Noel Mander, the design is rather plain and unfussy, and in many respects it follows the broad outline of its Willis predecessor.

The keyboards were new in 1955 and were of good quality, with thick ivory plates to the naturals, and ebony sharps. The pedal keys are of modern design, dating from 1955, and were simply scraped and refelted in 1987, rather than having the playing surfaces refaced. The position of the pedals in relation to the manuals is very close to the modern standard. The swell pedals are similarly close to the modern standard position. As with the thumb pistons, matching additional toe piston units were found in 1987, the remainder all dating from 1955.

The stop-jambs were dismantled in 1987, the bushings being refelted and the stopknobs fitted onto new solenoids, of very good quality, provided with modern reed switches rather than the previous open silver wire contacts.

The electric contacts of the keys and pedals were all renewed in 1987, as was all the low-voltage cabling within the console area. A new piston system by Solid State Logic was fitted, and after some initial hiccups seems to have worked reasonably consistently - as one would expect. In 2011, the number of levels available to the general pistons was increased to 99.

Transmission:  

The 1955 low-voltage switching and relay equipment was also replaced in 1987, the ‘transmission’ — as it is termed today — being a simple diode system, of good quality, by Kimber-Allen. The wiring between the console and transmission was also renewed in modern PVC-insulated cable, but from the original main connection-board onwards into the organ, the 1955 cotton-insulated cabling remains.

Soundboards:

Most of the organ’s 3,350 pipes stand on, or are fed from, seven slider soundboards, which supply them individually with wind-pressure according to the combination of keys and stops selected by the organist.  The original Willis soundboards were very well-made and nicely finished, and the later second-hand soundboard used for the Choir in 1955 seems equally competently built, perhaps originally by Hill.

Stop actions:

Apart from a few adapted Willis actions on the Pedal soundboards, the stop or slider machines are all of Manders’ electro-pneumatic design, dating from 1955.

Key actions:

The electro-pneumatic key actions of the Great, Swell and Positive soundboards were all new in 1955, and are ‘slung’ — that is, they are suspended beneath the soundboards and connected to them with trackers (operating two soundboards each in the case of the Great and Swell).  That of the Choir is built into the soundboard, and older than the remainder, but was restored and converted to electro-pneumatic operation in 1955.

The Choir Organ action differs from the others in that it has one row of small ‘primary motors’ which are in the open air, and the leather in these has gradually deteriorated. This was renewed in 2010, and the opportunity was taken to repair a number of wind leaks around the instrument at the same time.

The Pedal Organ soundboards and older Willis chests have a variety of Willis mechanisms, each involving external motors or purses, all of which were restored in 1955 but in which — again — the leather was exposed to the light and atmosphere, and aged more quickly. These were therefore all neatly further releathered in 1987, and that work all appears in good order. They remain pneumatically operated and were not converted to the 1955 electric action. Although quite noisy, the actions are reasonably prompt and have quite good attack and good repetition. 

The pedal ranks added in 1955, together with some manual ranks — the Swell Double Trumpet, Tuba, Positive flute rank, Choir Double Dulciana, and some basses — are on separate individual electro-pneumatic chests dating from 1955. These are all provided with variations on the tried and tested Roosevelt design of action.

The wind supply is regulated by nine reservoirs. These fill with wind-pressure rather like a gasometer, and depending upon the number of cast iron weights or coil springs acting on their top-boards, they feed appropriate pressures to the different sections.

Pipework: 

The original Willis pipework is of excellent quality, and the later additions are generally to a similar standard. Most of the pipes are in fairly good physical condition.

Tonally the organ remains distinctive and distinguished. The Willis character remains largely evident in the Great and Swell, particularly in the excellent chorus reeds.
 

Current Organ Specification:

Great   Swell (enclosed)   Choir (enclosed)  
Double Open Diapason 16' Contra Gamba 16' Double Dulciana 16'
Open Diapason (1901) 8' Open Diapason 8' Leiblich Gedact 8'
Open Diapason 8' Leiblich Gedact 8' Viol di Gamba 8'
Claribel 8' Dulciana 8' Dulciana 8'
Viola 8' Vox Angelica 4' Harmonic Flute 4'
Octave 4' Octave 4' Salicet 4'
Harmonic Flute 4' Harmonic Flute 4' Piccolo 2'
Quint 2 2/3' Flageolet 2' Corno di Bassetto 8'
Superoctave 2' Mixture (17-19-22) III Tremulant  
Mixture (15-19-22) III Double Trumpet 16' Tuba (unenclosed) 8'
Bombard 8' Cornopean 8'    
    Oboe 8'    
    Clarion 4'    
    Tremulant      
           
Positive (floating)   Pedal   Couplers  
Bourdon 16' Contra Bourdon 32' Choir/Positive to Great  
Claribel 8' Open Wood 16' Swell to Great  
Stopped Diapason 8' Violone 16' Positive on Great  
Gemshorn 4' Bourdon 16' Tuba on Great  
Flute 4' Leiblich Bourdon 16' Swell Sub-octave  
Nazard 2 2/3' Contra Dulciana 16' Swell Octave  
Block Flute 2' Cello 8' Swell Unison off  
Tierce 1 3/5' Flute 8' Positive on Swell  
Larigot 1 2/3' Quint 5 1/3' Choir Organ (on keys)  
Mixture (19-22-26) III Octave Metal 4' Choir Sub-octave  
    Mixture (19-22-26) III Choir Octave  
    Sordun 32' Swell to Choir  
    Ophicleide 16' Positive on Choir  
    Double Trumpet 16' Choir/Positive to Pedal  
    Trumpet 8' Great to Pedal  
    Clarion 4' Swell to Pedal  
        Great and Pedal Pistons  
        Combined  
        Generals on Swell toe pistons  
           

Action: Electro-pneumatic, except for original tubular-pneumatic pedal soundboard and 1955 direct action top-note chests
Pressures: Up to 3 3/4 inches (Tuba 15 inches, Pedal Ophicleide 7 inches)
Compasses: Manuals CC-ccc 61 notes; Pedals CCC-G 32 notes