Joseph Maltby Bignell alone in Walthamstow

St Michael and All Angels, London E17 6PQ

Walthamstow is an ancient settlement on the west bank of the River Lea, for which records date back to the time of King Edward the Confessor (1003-66). It is now absorbed within the north-east London suburbs.

With the coming of the railway in the middle of the nineteenth century the area saw rapid housing development by a variety of independant property speculators building homes for the respectable working and lower-middle classes, and much of the buidling stock dates from this time. Even so, the area around the medieval parish church maintains an air of earlier times, and self-consciously promotes itself as ‘Walthamstow Village’.

Walthamstow’s nineteenth-century population boom brought a need for new churches and by 1903 there were twelve Anglican churches and seven Anglican missions in Walthamstow; in 2017 there are nine Anglican parishes. Among these the church of St Michael and All Angels (1885) is the largest. It was built in an Early English Gothic style using dark brown brick to a design by the little-known Joseph Maltby Bignell  (1827-87) who spent much of his architectural career working as an assistant to Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-78). St Michael and All Angel’s is – for now – his only known completed building.

Currently the church has two pipe-organs. One, of indeterminate origin, is in a gallery on the south side of the chancel. It has two manuals and pedal and replaced an earlier one-manual and pedal organ that was situated here. The current instrument was  decommissioned some decades ago when its console was removed and replaced by a now rather tired and unattractive sounding electronic instrument by the Allen Organ Company; our expectations of digital technology have moved on!

The other pipe-organ is a rather nice Victorian, one-manual and pedal instrument in a handsome ‘Gothick’ case placed in the south east corner of the nave. It was built by the firm of G. M. Holdich originally for a church in the Essex countryside, where in 1965 it underwent restoration by the firm of N, P Mander. The instrument seems to have come to Walthamstow in about 2003. It has a bold, bright sound and while it is no masterpiece it is well-suited to congregational accompaniment and is contemporary with the building.

We can date this instrument from G. M. Holdich’s business address given on the builder’s plate: ‘Euston Road, Kings Cross, London’ from where the firm traded between 1858 and 1866. This fact contradicts a date of  1844 that is given on a recent donor’s plate on the side of the organ.

Stranded by Kings

St Mary-le-Strand, London WC2

As far as I can remember, until last week  I had not previously stepped inside the London church of St Mary-le-Strand (1714–23), stranded rather splendidly in the middle of the Strand opposite Kings College (University of London) in a sea of traffic.

The site was formerly occupied by a giant maypole, reputedly the largest in England, and part of the original plan for the church was for this maypole to be replaced by a 250-feet-high column topped of by a statue of Queen Anne (1665–1714), but the queen died just as the church foundations were being laid and the stone for the column was used instead to add a steeple (1717) at the west end.

St Mary-le-Strand was the first of the fifty new churches built in London under the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches, at a cost of some £16,000. It was the first major building project completed by the Catholic Tory architect James Gibbs (1682–1754) upon his return home to England after studying architecture in Rome, and it reflects the influence of Italian Baroque models; the interior is quite splendid.

It is said that in this church the so-called ‘Young Pretender’ Charles Edward Stuart (1720–88) abjured Catholicism to pronounce his loyalty to the Church of England during a clandestine visit to London in 1750, hoping to accede to the British throne.

An organ never seems to have been part of the original design so far as I can tell. The first known organ dates from 1790. The organologist Henry Leffler (1761–1819) described it as “Not a very good organ being part new & part old”.

The 1790 organ was built by William Warrell, a little-known music-seller and organ-builder whose business was in Bridge Street, Lambeth. The subsequent fate of the Warrell organ is not clear, but by 1863 there was another organ in the building, made by the firm of Hunter & Webb. It too is no longer present.

Warrell’s organ of 1790 was a so-called ‘annuity organ’ i.e. installed at the builder’s expense, the cost repaid to him by the parish by a fixed annuity. Such ‘annuity organ’ schemes are rare but not unheard of at this time, indeed Warrell was involved in another such scheme at St Olave, Jewry in 1814. These schemes often entailed appointing the organ builder as the organist, and this was the case with Warrell both at St Mary-le-Strand and at St Olave Jewry where Warell provided a deputy. (Donovan Dawe (1983) Organs and Organists of the City of London).

Today the liturgy at St Mary-le-Strand is accompanied by a far-from-new Johannes electronic 2-manual organ, an instrument that would once have been considered cutting edge but which – having experienced it – now has little to commend it. To quote Henry Leffler: “Not a very good organ”.

Jerusalem E9

St John of Jerusalem, London E9

Back in June of this year I had the chance to visit the rather lovely early Victorian church of St John of Jerusalem in Hackney, east London. The ‘Jerusalem’ in the name relates to the area’s historic links with the Order of St John of Jerusalem, which owned land and property in Hackney before the English Reformation (mid 16th century).

The parish dates from about 1810 and the current church was built in 1848. As the pictures show it is a rather lovely building, and the area around the church is much gentrified of late.

Sadly the large and imposing west-gallery pipe organ (by the firm of Gray & Davidson c.1873) was removed in the early 1980s; only the facade pipe-display remains. It was replaced with one of the world’s first “dual specification” electronic analogue organs, the Wyvern ST60. Then cutting-edge, but now more than 30 years on a fine example of left-behind technology. In this age of advanced digital sound it does not sound good,  although we can be impressed by the quality of the workmanship that ensures it still works.

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