Pipe Up for Pipe Organs

Pipe Up for Pipe Organs

Chair of Network Rail, Sir Peter Hendy (3rd left), visits the organ at London Bridge railway station with distinguished guests, performers and Trustees of Pipe Up for Pipe Organs.

Every single day in Britain, a church closes forever. This is of course, a major challenge in itself, but hidden behind this another heritage tragedy is unfolding, almost unnoticed.  Now, a new organisation has been set up in Britain to combat it.

Most churches have a pipe organ.  We estimate there are up to 35,000 in Britain. For closed churches, there are multiple safeguards for the building in the development control systems, particularly if it is listed as a historic building. But for the pipe organ, there is virtually no protection.

The new charity, Pipe Up for Pipe Organs, estimates that up to four pipe organs a week are being stripped out and send to rubbish tips.  

Small numbers are moved to other churches by organ builders.  A few more – perhaps 20 a year – are acquired by organ builders, often free, and exported to France, Germany and beyond, where they are installed in churches only too happy to have a British organ.  Others are cannibalised for parts.

One of our founders, Martin Renshaw, has arranged the re-homing of nearly 40 unwanted British organs in FranceDating from 1770 to the 1960s, they are now in Normandy, Brittany, the Vendée, Charentes and above all in deux-Sèvres (13 organs, 3 in private homes), in the Poitiers diocese, Blois and in the south near Dax and in Menton.  He has also taken British organs to Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark and Switzerland.  

It seems that British organs are highly regarded – everywhere but in Britain.

Even in functioning British churches, pipe organs are under threat.  Some churches abandon their pipe organs in favour of guitars, drums and electronic keyboards; others have neglected their pipe organ for so long that it needs expertise and expense that they cannot afford.  Some simply have no-one to play the instrument regularly.

Many pipe organs can be removed from such churches with only the permission of the local Diocese or church heritage committee under the wide-ranging exemption from statutory historic building controls which five major denominations have in the UK.  The cost of re-homing organs means that many unwanted organs have virtually no economic value.

Pipe organs vary hugely in size and complexity.  Most of those now at risk are 19th century and early 20th century, when British organ-building reached great heights of craftsmanship and technological innovation.

Many are modest instruments, sometimes moved from the homes of wealthy 19th century families where they were once installed.  Others are colossal, often donated by a benefactor.  Some are even installed in Town Halls and other civic buildings, where they are equally at risk.  In Wolverhampton, a very large and fine civic organ was sent to a rubbish tip in 2019.  

Many were designed and built to function, uniquely, in the space in which they stand and for the music played in it.  All of them have a rich story to tell of their design and construction, interwoven with the human story of their creators and organists.  Most organs are well built but, like buildings, need regular care and periodic repair.

This modest Harrison & Harrison organ was built in 1897 for a merchant in Newcastle, moved first to a church there, then to a hospital in London, and then in1973 to St Mark’s church, Clerkenwell, London where it is played regularly and well cared for.

So what can be done? Pipe Up is a group of enthusiasts who want to change the entire culture around pipe organs.  We have taken heart from initiatives in Europe and in particular, Het Orgel in Vlaanderen which presented a Zoom conference on organs for FRH in 2021.

We are convinced, first, that public appreciation of pipe organs is high and increasing, and that this can help us raise funds for the routine care and maintenance of the many instruments now sitting unused.

Secondly, we want to make pipe organs more accessible to organists and the public in general.  It is becoming ever more difficult for organists or would-be organists to gain access to them, as church opening hours reduce.  We have ideas to change this.  Digital organs, though cheaper, are no substitute for the real thing.

We are not confining ourselves to instruments some would regard as “historic”.  We regard virtually all pipe organs as important cultural resources for their locality, which deserved to be played, funded and appreciated by their local community.  In 2016 Germany inscribed its organ craftsmanship and music tradition as “intangible heritage” under the 2003 UNESCO convention, and we believe Britain should do the same.  Organs should also be protected by historic building legislation.

Thirdly, we want to rescue and re-home worthwhile instruments, if necessary after a period in a an “organ refuge” in a redundant church.  We are actively discussing such refuge with three organisations with such buildings.

We have already made a flying start on all three objectives with the rescue of an organ built by Henry Jones of London in about 1880 and given to us by the new owner of its last home in a United Reformed Church in North London which closed in 2020.

London Bridge Station

George Allan was one of the team of 6 organ activists which installed “Henry” at London Bridge station in July 2022.

We dismantled “Henry”, stored it for a year in a garage and then re-assembled it in July 2022 on the concourse of London Bridge railway station as a six-month trial agreed by Network Rail, Britain’s rail infrastructure operator, for free public use, during the 21 hours a day the station is open for its 63 million travellers a year.  All the player has to do is to press a time-switch button to start the blower.

We believe this is the world’s first open-access railway station pipe organ. It took 15 person-days of volunteer effort and cost about 700 Euros for transport.

The experiment has been a runaway success.  Hundreds of people have played the organ, and thousands of travellers have paused in their journeys to listen.  Railway staff and management have taken it to their hearts, and some have proved to be accomplished musicians.  It is in a high-security environment and has had only minor and unintentional damage.  We are now discussing which other stations could have rescued pipe organs.

What has particularly delighted us is the diversity of the players. People of all ages and ethnicities play it regularly.  It is a delight to see hesitant pianists experience the joy of playing a real pipe organ for the first time.

Organ performances, and impromptu duets with passing singers, have gone viral on social media with more than 6 million views, and we were pleased to see the instrument’s arrival reported in the media in the Netherlands.

The Chair of Network Rail recently visited, along with the Regional Director of the Royal College of Organists and other distinguished guests including the celebrity organist and social media expert Anna Lapwood. 

Now, the hard work begins: to raise funds, raise awareness and above all, to “pipe up for pipe organs”!

By George Allan.

George Allan is a retired commercial lawyer who has been active in building conservation all his adult life, and puts his experience to use in campaigning for buildings threatened by development, neglect or fire, often with organisations such as SAVE Britain’s Heritage. He takes a particular interest in church conservation and maintenance issues. Having taken up organ playing in retirement, he is now the chair of the new charity Pipe Up for Pipe Organs. He lives in London.”

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