St. Saviour's Knightsbridge

This essay first appeared on the electronic
mailing list Piporg-l

Immediately behind (passportless) Mohammed al Fayed's Grand Bazaar and Emporium in Knightsbridge (known more usually as the famous department store, Harrods) is a small church, St. Saviour's, in Walton Place. This is now an area of considerable wealth and grandeur, where even a two-storey early Victorian ostler's cottage will cost you half a million pounds. Though not far from the white stucco splendours of Belgravia or the grand red brick piles of Pont Street, this was once a middle- and lower-class area, no doubt inhabited by the legions of tradesmen and servants required to keep their richer neighbours in the manner to which they were well accustomed.

St. Saviour's must have been built around the middle of the nineteenth century as the area was beginning to expand. In 1840 it acquired a small organ by John Gray (of the firm later to be known as Gray & Davison). This was altered by Hill in 1860, and then replaced in 1864 by an organ by Henry Jones of Kensington, whose greatest work was a 48-stop three manual instrument in the Westminster Aquarium, fairly bristling with modern novelties: the pneumatic lever, radiating and concave pedals, angled stop jambs, overhanging keys, and reeds imported from France.

Of the Henry Jones organ no record survives, for in 1898 the church contracted with Messrs. Norman and Beard of Norwich to have the instrument completely rebuilt.

Ninety-nine years later St. Saviour's Church is empty. It may seem extraordinary, especially to an American reader, that a pretty church in one of the most desirable residential areas in London should have fallen on hard times. Such are the chaotic finances of churches in Britain; the situation found here is merely an indication of a widespread and near-insoluble problem. Some of these churches were never full, and though capital was found for their foundation and construction, there has never been any real feeling that the congregation should, as church members, be encouraged to secure the financial and spiritual future of the building in which they worship. The pattern of decline and decay is familiar.

I did not know of the existence of this church (despite having been born and brought up within earshot of its single bell) until a few weeks ago, when I received a phone call from the present organist asking me for advice. The church has come to the end of the road, now barely surviving, with a small congregation and services conducted according to the Prayer Book of 1664. In order to continue they have had to call in developers, who will shortly move in to gut the building and transform it into a palatial private mansion with a small residual 'worship space' in one corner. Mr. Organist informed me that a couple of people had seen the organ and advised that it should be scrapped: would I like to add my opinion to theirs? .....

I found the Norman & Beard still sitting there, in almost its original state, confirmed by the order book entry in the company's records (now in the British Organ Archive in Birmingham). The rebuild was a comprehensive one: new console, action, framework, winding, soundboards - in fact there are only three or four stops of Henry Jones material left, and these completely revoiced to fit into the new Norman & Beard scheme. In 1898 the organ stood as follows:

Manuals 61 notes, Pedals 30 notes

16 Double diapason (stopped bass)
8 Open diapason Large
8 Open diapason Small
8 Claribel (w)
8 Corno flute (stopped bass)
(8 Vox angelica - in the order, but never installed and no space prepared)
4 Principal
4 Harmonic flute
2 Fifteenth
III Mixture

on heavy wind:
8 Tromba (harmonic from middle c, hooded throughout)

16 Bourdon (w)
8 Open diapason
8 Echo gamba
8 Voix celeste
8 Stopped diapason (w)
4 Gemshorn
2 Piccolo
III Mixture
8 Oboe
8 Vox humana (French import, tin, double blocks) Tremulant

on heavy wind:
16 Double trumpet
8 Horn
4 Clarion

CHOIR ORGAN (enclosed)
8 Open diapason (to bottom c)
8 Viol di gamba
8 Dulciana
8 Rohr flote ('Lieblich gedackt' in the order, but very much a Rohr flote in real life)
(4 Gemshorn - crossed out in the order; never installed and no space)
4 Suabe flute
2 Flageolet
8 Clarinet

PEDAL (all independent)
16 Open diapason (w)
16 Open diapason (m) (not in the order; perhaps a later addition)
16 Bourdon
12 Quint (never installed)
8 Violoncello
16 Trombone

The sole alterations to this scheme since alteration are: 1) The removal of the tierce from the Great Mixture and re-arrangement (all the old pipes are stored in the organ) 2) The replacement of the Choir Dulciana by a Larigot (all the old pipes are stored in the organ) 3) The replacement of the original blowing appratus (probably a water engine) by a rotary fan electric blower. When I first saw this instrument last month, it was silent, owing to the total failure of a windline. At that stage I could not tell the date of the installation, which only emerged after Easter, from enquiries at the British Organ Archive. Despite the fact that it did not work, I was horrified at the prospect of its destruction. Why?

Norman & Beard of Norwich are not the most fashionable of builders. Indeed, until recently they were perhaps the least fashionable of the older large firms. This was a dyed-in-the-wool late-romantic outfit. It flourished partcularly between 1890 and 1914, and was then amalgamated with Hill of London. In its latter guise, trading as Hill, Norman & Beard, it had a rich and varied existence and built some fine organs, but it has to be said that it also built some bad ones. It remained prominent amongst the larger firms until the 1960s, since when it has rapidly dwindled in importance. The many much-publicised rebuilds of the 1950s, 60s and 70s have not, in truth, stood the test of the time. My first visit to St. Saviour's whetted my appetite. Here was a near-untouched example from the best period before the amalgamation with Hill. What on earth might it have sounded like?

That question was answered in full yesterday, when I visited St. Saviour's again with Brian Styles - known to this list and owner of 26 harmoniums. Between us we repaired the broken trunk in a suitably craftsmanlike manner, using repair tape as required, and wedging up the whole length with spare bellows-weights. Emerging dusty but triumphant from the blowing chamber, we were met by Carlo Curley (Concert Organist Extraordinaire) and Jonathan Ambrosino (Distinguished Writer and Eminence Grise). Upon the command 'The Organ Will Now Play', Carlo leapt for the well-polished bench. A glorious flood of traditional organ tone filled the building. There were some notes off, the Choir Organ was only on duty in parts, but the remainder was perfectly healthy, and moreover, pretty much in tune. In trying to describe the sound I will mention, first, the general level of power. This was a hearty and bold sound, at a level only slightly short of that offered by Willis or Lewis. It was certainly louder than a Hill or a Gray & Davison. It was perhaps nearest to the grandeur of an old Walker (with whom, incidentally, the original E.W.Norman trained in the 1850s).

Secondly, let us consider it's 'up-to-dateness'. This was of the highest order, the organ offering every modern tonal advance in a satisfying form, and avoiding extremes or unconventional experiments. Norman & Beard took a great interest in the work of Hope-Jones. G. Wales Beard was a director of the original Hope-Jones company c1891 - 1895, and indeed Hope-Jones himself, at the time of his first financial collapse in 1899, briefly ran a factory in Norwich. The connection may have become even closer, for an announcement by N&B in a contemporary issue of Musical Opinion states that on 20th November 1900 Hope-Jones 'left their employ', and we know that from 1900 on Hope-Jones' former voicer, Robert Lamb, worked for Norman & Beard. No stop in the St. Saviour's organ was of an extreme kind, but the leathering of the diapasons was indicative of something, as was the colossal scale and 'French horn' tone of the Great Tromba (sounding like a halfway step between a Hill Posaune and a Harrison Tromba). The one 'experiment' was the innocuous Corno Flute on the Great, in effect a Dulciana with a high cut-up and pianissimo flute tone. However, there was far more variety than in any organ by Lewis or Willis. The flutes were of several types, the reeds all intelligently different from each other, and even the four open diapasons seemed to cause no wasteful duplication.

Thirdly, the bass to treble balance. This organ did not have loud basses in the manner of Willis, where, despite the overall brilliance of the manual tone the sheer forcefulness of the Pedal stops and Open Diapason basses can sometimes be distracting. Here the basses ran out dead level or even marginally soft, and the pedal ranks sat with, not beyond, the manual tone. The basses were all of good quality, completely avoiding the coarse windy tone sometimes found in English organs of the period betwen the wars.

Fourthly, the general character of the voicing. The flue-work pressures appeared moderate, perhaps 4". The Great Large Open was pretty loud, almost swamping its small partner, but this was achieved by colossal foot-holes in the pipes; the result was hearty but still miles short of Phonon tone. The speech of the principals was slowish, but the cut-ups high and the tone very round yet free. In fact the whole organ was remarkably bright. The foundation work was marginally on the fluty side, even by the standards of the day and despite the slow speech, but this was compensated for by the relatively brave treatment of the upperwork. The Great Mixture (altered) was not entirely happy, but the pleasant sparkle of the Swell Mixture suggested that the original arrangement might well have been more successful than the new. The string tone was mild and blended well, despite the use of very narrow scales. All the flutes were of high quality and their uses infinitely wider than on a Willis of the same period. The reed chorus on the swell, on a pressure of perhaps 6 or 7 inches, was coherent, commanding, and regular. The Tromba was an excellent example of a quite rare type, showing the last vestiges of old Trumpet tone combined with 'modern' breadth, power and smoothness. The regulation of the chorus reeds was, despite age and condition, still excellent. The Choir Open diapason and Rohr flote may have been intended to imitate in some way the restful tone of older organs (the Norman article referred to above indicates that there was some interest in 'antique' pipework at Norwich). Despite missing notes it was clear that the two stops would 'go together'. This nod in the direction of tradition interests me particularly, because it is contemporary with Schweitzer and Dolmetsch, pre-dating the German Classical revival by 30 years. It may be no more than a nod or, indeed, pure accident.

To summarise, this is a fine organ. It is far better than the contemporary productions of other out-of-town builders such as Forster & Andrews or Binns. It is very nearly of the quality of an Arthur Harrison, but pre-dates his 1904 breakthrough by six years. The tone is deliberately conventional, and perhaps even a bit safe, but the result is exceptionally fine and convincing.

Further archival work shows that it was virtually the first Norman & Beard in London, their only previous large contract being a rebuild of the Samuel Green / T.C.Lewis at Dulwich College (the organ on which G.D.Harrison learnt as a schoolboy). It seems to me that, despite the instruuctions to 'rebuild', for the measly sum of 824 pounds, Messrs. Norman & Beard took it into their heads to install about fifteen hundred pounds' worth of brand-new organ, in order to establish their reputation in London.

This is not just a fine organ, it is an important and historic one.


In SEVEN WEEK'S TIME the organ will be scrapped unless someone wants it. If anyone on, or in contact with, this list is in a position to consider buying it, and can arrange for its removal before that date, they should get in touch with me. I will give most encouragement to enquirers who wish to take on the entire instrument for restoration (possibly electrified, if it must be so). Those who want the pipework for other instruments will find me cautious or even obstructive. I have no love of that kind of organ building (if you want to be a real builder, not just a painter and decorator, then please don't break up good organs in the name of your craft).


(17th April 1997; as a direct result of this posting the organ has been dismantled by N.P.Mander Ltd. and shipped to Australia for re-erection in St. Patrick's RC Cathedral, Sydney)