Rather plain and quirky to play

St Pancras Old Church, Pancras Road, Camden Town, London NW1 1UL

I have recently had the opportunity to revisit the medieval church of  Old St Pancras to help out with the music for the main Sunday service there. This was a rather nostalgic visit since I was organist there immediately after my days as a post-graduate organ student at the Royal Academy of Music (1980-81), and I subsequently taught for a while at the parish school.

Old St Pancras church is modest in scale, comprising just an unaisled nave and chancel with a 19th-century tower on the south side. The history of Old St Pancras church is well documented, dating from at least Saxon times while some would claim that the site dates back to the days of the Roman occupation. Images and maps showing the building in its setting are plentiful.

There was a major rebuilding project in 1848 by the partnership of Alexander D. Gough (1804–71) and Robert Lewis Roumieu (1814–77) when the  old tower was relocated and redesigned a 7th-century altar stone was recovered and reinstated. There were modest adjustments in 1888 made by Arthur Blomfield (1829–99), with further work in the 1920s and in 1979-80 by the firm of Erith and Terry (Cherry & Pevsner, p.348).

7th-centiry altar stone with five incised crosses, Old St Pancras Church, London NW1. Source: http://www.peter-sheppard-skaerved.com
7th-centiry altar stone with five incised crosses, Old St Pancras Church, London NW1. Source: http://www.peter-sheppard-skaerved.com

The architectural superstructure and the extensive burial ground – with its many famous ‘inhabitants’ – are well described in any number of publications and webpages, as too the various funerary monuments inside the building. There are inventories of the church from the 13th century that list service books, vestments, plate and describe a high altar and two nave altars (dedicated to Our Lady and to St. Nicholas, with a tabernacle), a rood with images of Our Lady and St. John, and images of St. Catherine and of St. John the Baptist. (Survey of London). But surprisingly (to me) there is little information about the church’s later furnishings and decoration.

The parish’s main archive dates from the 19th-century and is deposited in the London Metropolitatn Archive, so I went along to take a look.

St Pancras Old Church, London NW1. Church plate c16-c20, seen c.1980. Image source: London Metropolitan Archive P90/PAN2/63.
St Pancras Old Church, London NW1. Church plate c16-c20, seen c.1980. Image source: London Metropolitan Archive P90/PAN2/63.
H.C. (1854) 'Interior view of St Pancras Old Church, St Pancras.' Source: London Mteropolitan Archive, ref. p5380390.
H.C. (1854) ‘Interior view of St Pancras Old Church, St Pancras.’ Source: London Mteropolitan Archive, ref. p5380390.

In the image above we see the church as it appeared after Gough & Roumieu’s ‘restoration’. Cherry & Pevsner (Buildings of England) state that the c17 pulpit was later cut up to provide the font panels of the altar, shown below.  They also state that that the side galleries were removed in 1925, but the pictures below seem to indicate the galleries were removed at some time in the nineteenth century.

t Pancras Old Church, London NW1. Chancel [c.1870?]. Image source: London Metropolitan Archive P90/PAN2/1-2.
St Pancras Old Church, London NW1. Chancel [c.1870?]. Image source: London Metropolitan Archive P90/PAN2/1-2.
In the image above we see Gough and Roumieu’s fixed-bench pews, but  it is not clear who made the screen or when it was installed, or what happened to it subsequently.

St Pancras Old Church, London NW1. Chancel and baptistry (south side) [11 December 1880?]. Image source: London Metropolitan Archive P90/PAN2/1-2.
St Pancras Old Church, London NW1. Chancel and baptistry (south side) [11 December 1880?]. Image source: London Metropolitan Archive P90/PAN2/1-2.
The images above shows the church before 1888 when the organ was moved under the tower (about which see below).

St Pancras Old Church, London NW1. Chancel, early c20. Image source: London Metropolitan Archive P90/PAN2/63.
St Pancras Old Church, London NW1. Chancel, early c20. Image source: London Metropolitan Archive P90/PAN2/63.

The organ

  • 1868. The earliest indication of a pipe organ comes in Mackson’s Guide to the Churches of London and Its Suburbs for 1868, with the reference to a Miss Wright as the honorary organist (p.65), and subsequent editions showed Miss Wright as organist up to and including the year 1884.
  • 1872. Mackson’s Guide notes the organ is a 1-manual instrument (p. 74), and this may be the 7-stop instrument recorded in the National Pipe Organ Register at N17059.
  • 1880. The ledgers of the organ-buildring firm of Gray and Davidson – now in the British Organ Archive (BOA) at Birmingham University, UK  – noted “tuning; 1880 new 2m org, no.10423, £270”. (Vol. 8A, p.27). This is possibly the 2-manual, 15-stop instrument shown in the National Pipe Organ Register at N17057. Mackson’s Guide does not note the 2-manual instrumnt until the 1884 edition (p. 119).
  • 1882. The Musical Times and Singing Class Circular, Vol. 23, No. 472 (Jun. 1, 1882), p.305. ‘Organist. – Wanted, an Organist, Gentleman or Lady, for Old St Pancras Church. Salary £25 a-year. Residence in the neighbourhood desirable. Address, The Vicar, Old St. Pancras Vestry.”
  • 1885. Mackson’s  Guide of 1885 (pp. 131-2) shows the organist is now a Mr P.E. Rivers.
  • 1888. Building works supervised by Arthur Blomfield proposed to build “in connection with the new Vestry, an Organ Chamber abutting upon and opening into the Chancel” allowing the organ to be moved from the west gallery at a cost of £700. (P90/PAN2/48/ ‘Restoration of Old St Pancras Church’ [1888?]).
    – The organ chamber was never built but the Gray and Davidson ledgers of 1888 refer to moving the organ. (Vol. 9A, p. 36). But moved where? If this instrument is the one noted in NPOR (N17057) that listing refers to the organ being in the south transept, which might then mean that in 1888 the organ was placed under the tower on the south side. This would make sense of the 1906 reference, below.
  • 1890. Arthur Carwithen was appointed organist in February 1890. (Parish Magazine October 1896 [P90/PAN2/71])
  • 1894-5. Mackson’s Guide of 1894-5 shows the organist is A. Carwithen (pp. 121-2).
  • 1896. Arthur Carwthen left the parish in September to be organist at St John’s, Friern Barnet. (Parish Magazine October 1896 [P90/PAN2/71]).
    – Arthur Carwithen was succeeded by Herbert Nelson “of St Faith’s Stoke Newington”.
    – Mr Major Freeman jun. was appointed assistant organist. (Parish Magazine September 1896 [P90/PAN2/71].
    – the organ was fully cleaned ‘and rewired’ at a cost of £25. (Parish Magazine, September 1896. [P90/PAn2/71]); also mentioned in the Gray and Davidson ledgers (Vol 10, p.110).
  • 1902. Mr Freeman ‘left’ in the summer of 1902 and was replaced by  Mr C.F.J. Wright, formerly of St Phillip’s Clerkenwell. (Parish Magazine, November 1902. [P90/PAN2/77]).
  • 1906. In August the Parish Magazine noted that a leak in the roof – between the tower and the nave – had damaged the organ by Gray and Davidson who repaired it for £47.10s. [P90/PAN2/80].
  • 1919. In October the assistant organist was Mr J. R. Copland (Parish Magazine, October 1919 [P90/PAR2/93]).
  • 1922. Gray and Davidson ledgers show that £300 was spent on ‘work’ on the organ. (Vol. 12, p.741). At some point in the next couple of years Gray and Davidson stopped looking after the organ.
  • 1926. The organ-building firm of Hill, Norman and Beard was now looking after the organ and the company ledger, also in the BOA (Vol. 6, p.104) notes the sale of the 2-manual Gray and Davidson organ for £75.
    –  In the surviving Hill, Norman and Beard ledgers there is no mention of a new instrument to replace the one that was sold, but it may be that they provided the 2-manual 13-stop instrument shown on NPOR at N17056 (unidentified maker) located in the west gallery.
    – This may all relate to the building work of 1925 that is mentioned by Cherry & Pevsner, and others.
  • 1948. The organ-building firm of Mander and Sons installed in the west gallery a second-hand instrument from St. Peter, Cephas Street, Limehouse – NPOR [D03546] – but quite why is unknown. It is the current instrument, rather plain and quirky to play having a cramped console; a narrow, straight and flat pedal board, an awkward ‘kick’ swell, and sharp tuning. The best to be said of it is that it provides a solid unadorned accompaniment for the liturgy.

References

 

Pipeless but not hopeless

St Benet & All Saints, Kentish Town, London NW5

During this summer  I have had the chance to use the organ at the church of St Benet & All Saints in  Kentish Town, north London, and to attend some Sunday services.

St Benet’s is an impressive building perched atop a hill overlooking the valley of the Fleet river. The church was built in stages between 1884 and 1928 on a site given by St. John’s College, Cambridge, then engaged in property speculation by developing its land in the area for well-to-do housing. While the parish adheres to traditional ‘high’ Anglican principles its worship is very nicely fitted to modern liturgical sensibilities.

St Benet's Kentish Town, the chancel pipe organ and its gallery.
St Benet’s Kentish Town, the chancel pipe organ and its gallery.

The church has a small, two-manual pipe organ sited in a gallery high above the north side of the chancel. In an earlier incarnation this instrument had been a house organ designed and built by the eminent London firm of Gray and Davidson, and exhibited at the Great Exhibition (1861). It was rebuilt and enlarged in 1933 by the far less eminent firm of Richards & Matthews of Finchley.  More …

In its elevated chancel position the organ’s primary function was to accompany the liturgical action in the chancel area, sung masses and the Daily Office. The instrument struggles to support worship in the nave. (See also …). Even in the chancel the separation of the organ and organist from those below is musically demanding.  In short, the pipe organ in St Benet’s was always a very limited liturgical organ and although still in situ it is now unplayable.

Thus, in around 2000 the parish purchased a large, brand new electronic (pipeless) instrument from Wyvern Organs; more … .

Built before the days of digital technology, the Wyvern instrument is nonetheless a joy to play, not only for the well-designed console and keyboard action but also for the quality of its sampled sound; money seems to have been well invested in a very high-quality speaker system.

The instrument’s specification is large by any standard and it really does sound very good in the building. The reed stops seem particularly effective. Most importantly this ‘new’ instrument is able to support the needs of parish worship in general and congregational singing in particular. The folk of St Benet’s do sing well.

A small confession here is that on my first visit I was a bit disappointed to find  only an electric, pipeless instrument to play on, even though I knew the pipe organ here to be no masterpiece. You see, I had played it before, some 30 years or so ago and rather enjoyed it …  not so much for the instrument but for the crows-nest position of the organist!

But this rather splendid electric, pipeless machine has won me over to the potential of the pipeless organ.

Trivia/l point: according to Rev’d Dr Peter Anthony, the priest in charge, the large crucifix above the high altar was originally part of the set decoration for the 1964 film ‘Becket’. 

Parish website