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