Autumn: final details of specification – and a couple of nice surprises

Between September and December (2019) there took place…
·· a flurry of correspondence about details of the organ design;
·· visits by the Director of Music and project consultant to Manders’ works, to Manders’ latest work at King’s College, London, and to a specialist organ parts firm in Suffolk to talk about organ keyboards;
·· some in-depth discussions by the organ committee and District Church Council leading to approval for additional expenditure and an addendum to the organ builder’s contract;
·· a visit to the Abbey by our architect and a structural engineer, to confirm that the front of the gallery will support the new and heavier front.

Contra Trombone

The first of the nice surprises was the organ builders’ realisation, after mapping out the new organ layout in detail, that there would after all be space in the gallery for a dozen large pipes which, by extension of the existing Pedal Trombone rank, would form a 32’ Contra Trombone stop. This had been a desired feature of the project but long discounted as unachievable within the available space. Manders’ Tonal Director Michael Blighton has pointed out that our organ will be the first and only one in Essex to have pipes sounding in the bottom octave of the 32’ range, corresponding to the lowest three notes on a piano and another nine below that. (The few existing instruments in the county that do have these notes produce them electronically.) With the addition of this new stop, the number of speaking stops on the rebuilt organ is rounded up to 50.

Chimney flute

Michael Blighton also made a splendid discovery during inspection of the (existing) pipes. The 4’ flute stop on the choir division is an extremely lovely Chimney Flute, which Waltham Abbey tradition holds to be the work of George Pike England (1765-1815) but which, though clearly older than the rest of the organ, does not appear to the expert eye quite like (or quite old enough to be) what it supposedly is. What Michael spotted was the wording “Exeter Hall” stamped on one of the pipes. The most likely explanation seems to be that these pipes formed the equivalent stop on the 1840 Exeter Hall organ by Joseph Walker, founding father of the Walker firm who had been apprenticed to G. P. England and who is known to have carried on making old-fashioned Chimney Flutes. When in 1885 the firm put a new organ into Exeter Hall, they might well have had first refusal on the materials of the old one. Exeter Hall stood in the Strand in London, and was the venue of the first performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah in 1848, at which the organ would surely have been used. (Also present at that performance was the young William Hayman Cummings, a future organist of Waltham Abbey who would also conceive the pairing of the ‘big tune’ from Mendelssohn’s Festgesang with the Wesley text Hark! the herald-angels sing.)

Chimney Flute ex-Exeter Hall (J.W. Walker, attrib. G.P. England)

More on the technical side

The purpose of the visit to Manders’ extremely fine work at King’s College, London (also on the Strand) was to use their latest work as a starting point for discussions of certain tonal details of the Abbey organ. The outcome of these discussions is detailed in the footnotes to the New Specification page of this blog.

The increased number of stops and the desire to increase the provision of ‘pistons’ (the white buttons between the keyboards and the brass toe studs, by which the player can manipulate stops whilst playing) presented a challenge to the designer in simply fitting everything in! However, following several drafts and re-drafts, discussions between designers, organist and consultant, multiple mock-ups using paper cut-outs and Blu-Tack, and the realisation that some conventions of organ console design don’t matter all that much, we have a design which we feel is logical and practical. Particular care has been taken to avoid hazardous piston placings, such as placing of piston X in a ‘conveniently accessible’ location where it will be mistaken for piston Y that normally goes there, or placing pairs of pistons A and B such that it is too easy to hit the wrong one.

‘‘It’s humbling to think that this is part of the fabric of the Abbey, and that it is as it is because that’s how I wanted it.’’

Gallery strength calculations

Mercifully, the architect and engineer pronounced the gallery fit to support the new organ design with larger and heavier pipes in the front than hitherto.

Keyboards & buttons

The final organ-related activity of the year was a visit by Jonathan Lilley to Pennells & Sharp Organ Supplies in rural Suffolk, the original manufacturers of the organ keyboards to whom these had been sent back for refurbishment combined with a certain amount of rebuilding to accommodate the new piston layout. The purpose of the trip was to address some reservations that Jonathan had about the weight and feel of the keys under the fingers. But it was a short and sweet visit, because it quickly became apparent that when refurbished and set up as per the manufacturer’s recommendation, there’s nothing wrong with them! However it was also an interesting visit, to see how the new stop and pistons for the Abbey were engraved with print that matches the existing material perfectly, and to learn that P & S turn their hands to all sorts of crafts, from salt and pepper mills to soundproof doors for the Royal College of Music.

July: Dismantling

Organ gallery enveloped in scaffolding

Bringing down some 2,550 pipes, three soundboards each having the area of a small room, and numerous other very bulky pieces of woodwork – all caked in several decades worth of dust – from a high gallery was never going to be straightforward. Key to it was a well-designed rig of scaffolding taking up a large chunk of the nave, with the entire area beneath it as well as the porch being used as temporary storage space.

Thanks and kudos to Jon Scaffolding Services
(Bishops Stortford) whose work on the project so far was one of the swiftest and most straightforward building operations any of us had ever experienced!

Swell Mixture pipes, now discarded

All but the very largest pipes (around 16 ft) were carefully transported to Mander Organs in Bethnal Green, for close inspection and confirmation of decisions as to retention or disposal. These Swell Mixture pipes were, as envisaged, among the 900+ metal pipes eventually recycled into new pipes.

Almost-empty organ gallery

All that remained in the gallery were (right) the three very largest and awkwardest pipes to take down, (bottom left) some of the wind trunking that isn’t being altered, and (right, far end) the heavy bellows weights that need no refurbishment.

It was oddly satisfying to see the increasingly leaky and unreliable soundboards finally consigned to a disposal skip.

The object leaning on the left ‘wall’ of this skip is the old Great soundboard on its side.

The Walker wind reservoirs (right-hand skip) were well-built and seemed a shame to throw away, but they are of their time in being rather larger than actually necessary, and given the work involved in modifying them for the new design, it was as well to have new ones made.

Here are skilled organ craftsmen sawing the old Swell Box, a soundproof wooden construction the size of a small room, into pieces small enough to fit within a skip.

With the organ gallery empty for the first time in over sixty years and for the last time for another fifty or so, the scaffolding was re-rigged at the back of the gallery and the opportunity taken to carry out pointing and cleaning work on the rear wall. At the same time, the long-desired objective of removing the unsightly high-level walkway across the width of the rear wall was finally achieved. Its function of providing maintenance access to the south clerestory will in future be fulfilled by ladders attached to the new organ structure.

Work has started!

The Great Waltham Abbey Organ Rebuild of 2018-19 has begun!

Well, a comparatively small part of it has, in a painstaking and at times hair-raising operation lasting some eight hours (not counting site prep and clearing by some very patient bell-ringers) and involving the closure of part of the church.

The organ’s trusty old blower was dismantled, and a hoist erected in the tower to winch the heavy pieces down through the bell-hatch and away to the Surrey workshop of The Duplex Pipe Organ and Blower Company. Conveniently for everyone involved, Duplex also have the know-how to refurbish a wind reservoir and regulator which live in the blowing chamber, and to renew the specialised electrics that manage the phased starting up and shutting down of the whole organ in sync with that of the blower motor.

Might we just as well (i.e. more economically) have acquired a new blower?  No! – organ blowers are virtually bespoke, and, the old one was well enough built in the 1950s to keep going for a very long time given timely maintenance.

Meanwhile, the specialised removal of some asbestos, previously made safe by saturation in oil to save removing the blower specially, can be put off no longer. In the immortal words of Michael Flanders: Oh, it all makes work for the working man to do!

Full Steam Ahead

Great news! Our Rector, Revd. Peter Smith, has signed the contract with Mander Organs to rebuild our Walker organ. Thanks are due to the many supporters who, over nearly ten years, have contributed by fundraising, donating and organizing the Heritage Organ Appeal to provide an instrument for the 21st Century. It is an enormous achievement by Waltham Abbey church, supporting the long heritage of Anglican church music in this place by providing for its future.

Mander Organs will start by manufacturing the brand new parts of the organ in their London workshops. Starting on 23rd July, the existing organ will be removed over a period of two weeks. The parts we are retaining (mostly pipes) will be taken away to be cleaned and restored. Finally, the new instrument will be re-installed probably in the Spring of 2019.

There will be other associated works taking place including the renovation of the organ blower by Duplex Pipe and Organ Blower Ltd, new electrical supply and connections by Bradshaw Electrical Ltd, and scaffolding installation by Jon Scaffolding Services Ltd. Scaffolding inside the West end of the church will be in place for three to four weeks during the removal in July/August and again for longer in Spring 2019. During these periods the South Door will became the main access route for visitors and for services.

We are also taking to opportunity to remove the eyesore of the scaffolding walkway at the back of the gallery and replace it with a proper ladder to give maintenance access from the gallery to the South Clerestory.

For those who are interested, a full pipe specification of the rebuilt organ will shortly be available on these pages. [Now added!] Meanwhile, here is the initial design for the new facade incorporating the largest of the new pipes.


Faculty Consultation Underway

The Diocese of Chelmsford has issued a Notification of Advice for our Faculty Application for the initial stages of the organ rebuilding. This is part of the process of getting approval for the proposed works and means that a consultation period has started. The Notice may be seen on display in the church.

Amongst the bodies that we will consult are Historic England (formerly English Heritage) who comment on all works on listed buildings. We will also be asking the local historical society about their views on the change to the appearance of the organ front once the design has been completed.

As the photo shows, the current organ front it rather dull in appearance and does not cover the whole width of the gallery such that the scaffolding access walkway is visible. We intend that the new design will solve these issues and greatly improve the appearance of the west end of the church.

We will make a second faculty application to the diocese one the design of the organ front is complete.


Organ builder appointed

Mander Organs Ltd have been appointed to rebuild our Walker Organ following an exhaustive tendering process. We were very impressed by the similar rebuilt organ at St Michael’s Church in Bishop Stortford which Manders completed in 2016 and expect that ours will sound just as good.

On Monday, the team from Mander Organs, John Mander and Michael Blighton, joined organ consultant William McVicker and key people on the organ committee to start the process of finalising the specification.

The organ console (below) is due for an overhaul, with an upgraded combination system and new pedal sweeps.


This picture illustrates some of the challenges in the organ gallery; very cramped access for tuning and routine maintenance, caused by new sections being added on in the past. The rebuild allows us to start from scratch with the layout and optimise the use of space to makes access for maintenance much easier.



As well as the pipes here being rather dusty, some of them are supported with cloth ties where the original soldered loops have failed.

Running repairs

So, while Manders get busy on the design, we have started work on preparing a two-stage faculty application, firstly to enable a contract to be signed and dismantling work to start, and then to approve the final design including a new façade to improve the appearance of the West of the church.