Pipeless but not hopeless

St Benet & All Saints, Kentish Town, London NW5

During the summer  of 2016 I 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. While the parish adheres to traditional ‘high’ Anglican principles its worship is very nicely fitted to modern liturgical sensibilities.

St Benet’s is an impressive building perched atop a hill overlooking the valley of the Fleet river. It is built on a site given for this purpose in the late 1870s by St. John’s College, Cambridge, then developing its land-holding in the area for well-to-do housing. The parish was formally established through an ‘Order in Council’ before Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle on 2 March 1881 [LMA].

St Benet and All Saints, Kentish Town, London. Interior, c.1935, facing east. [Source: 'In jubilaeo' (London: 1935)]
St Benet and All Saints, Kentish Town, London. Interior of the ‘tin mission’ church, c.1881, facing east. [Source: ‘In jubilaeo’ (London: 1935)]
The first church building was a temporary ‘tin mission’ building – later used as the church hall- that opened for worship on 17 July 1881

The first permanent building was built to the design of the architect Joseph Peacock (1821–93), opened for worship on 31 October 1885.

Contemporary photographs show how Peacock’s designs were translated into brick and stone. In particular the planned chancel was never realised so that the east end of the nave terminated with a solid wall. For a short period c.1901-05 the east wall was decorated to “give the impression of a stone screen pierced by various openings […] a young local artist, Mr W. Kingsley, painted three huge canvases in tempara to represent stained glass windows glowing in richest colours and a rising Belgian artist very kindly painted in a more than lifelike crucifix.” (In junilaeo, p.16).

St Benet and All Saints church, Kentish Town, London; parish room and song school, unbuilt (1880). Drawing by Harry Sirr (1860-1945). [Source: RIBA ref. RIBA22108]
St Benet and All Saints church, Kentish Town, London; parish room and song school, unbuilt (1880). Drawing by Harry Sirr (1860-1945). [Source: RIBA ref. RIBA22108]
A rather stylish seeming parish room and song school was designed (1880) by Harry Sirr (1860-1945) but alas the building was never erected.

In 1906 a spacious and lofty new chancel was added to Peacock’s nave, to the design of Cecil Greenwood Hare (1875–1932). As we see from the images, the organ in the nave, shown in Hare’s proposed design, was moved.

The church by Peacock seems to have been poorly designed and despite several attempts to shore-up the walls Peacock’s work was dismantled and rebuilt (1927-28) to a new design by Cecil Greenwood Hare, incorporating Hare’s 1908 chancel and using much material from Peacock’s  former structure. This is the church we see today.

An often repeated canard about the demolition of Peacock’s church is that it was unknowingly built over underground springs of water that undermined the foundations. However, the Diocesan surveys undertaken prior to the rebuilding by Hare reveal the problem to have been a timbered roof that was too heavy for the walls; that roof is briefly glimpsed in the image on the right. There is no mention anywhere in the surveys of problems caused by underground springs. [LMA]

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 pipe organ

As we see in the 1908 image (above) the organ was originally in a gallery at the north east corner of the 1884 nave. This instrument had been designed as a house organ by the eminent London firm of Gray and Davison and was exhibited at the Great Exhibition (1861). During the construction of the new nave this organ was placed in storage.

After the completion of the nave a new organ gallery was created in the north-west corner of the chancel and in 1933 the rebuilt and somewhat enlarged instrument was installed by the little-known firm of Richards & Matthews of Finchley.  In its elevated chancel position the reinstalled organ struggled to support worship in the nave.  The pipe organ is no longer in use.

In 2000 the parish purchased a large, brand new electronic (pipeless) instrument from Wyvern Organs; more … . The instrument’s specification is large by any standard

Built to an early form of digital technology whose reproduction of organ pipe sound is not uniformly good to our present-day ears, the Wyvern instrument is nonetheless rather nice to play, not only for the well-designed console, keyboard action and powerful amplification but also for the extraordinarily resonant acoustic of the building. Despite my caveats this ‘new’ instrument is perfectly 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’. 

References