The Organ

Historic Pipe Organ

Music for most services in St Thomas’ is provided by Martin Charlton and Ian MacDonald. Visitors to the organ loft are most welcome.

Harrison and Harrison, 1961
By 1961 the winds of change were blowing through the rather stuffy halls of the English organ establishment. Harrison and Harrison’s 1954 organ in the Royal Festival Hall had opened eyes and ears to some new organ timbres from Europe and America. The RFH organ embodied many ideas of G Donald Harrison, a British organ builder, who had emigrated to the USA to join Aeolian-Skinner, the premier organ-building firm in the USA, in the 1930s. The 1937 Aeolian-Skinner organ, built under Harrison’s careful direction, for the Church of the Advent, Boston is a landmark instrument of the type which has become known as the American Classic organ. Donald Harrison’s ideas were influential on the thinking of Ralph Downes, the designer of the Royal Festival Hall organ, who had himself spent time as organist to Princeton University in the early 1930s. 

The Harrison/Downes philosophy helped shape the thoughts of Donald Wright, Master’s Warden at St Thomas, concerning the provision of a new organ. The old organ was to be substantially enlarged with a detached console at the east end of the building. Many of the timbres on the Positive and Solo organs were new to Tyneside ears, and the organ was viewed as controversial among local organists after its opening in 1961. Most notable among the new stops was the Orchestral Trumpet on the Solo – a loud and very brassy reed stop (compared with the rather darker and richer tones of the Tuba stops on the Solo divisions of other large organs in Newcastle Cathedral, the City Hall, Jesmond Parish Church, and St George’s Jesmond). The Schools and Charities Committee of the City Corporation raised the £40,000 for the reconstruction and enlargement of the organ.

Each manual is provided with 6 adjustable thumb pistons and there are 6 toe pistons to each of the Swell and Pedal divisions. There are also 4 general pistons which allow combinations of stops to be set for the whole organ. There are also reversible thumb pistons for the pedal couplers, Great organ couplers, and the Pedal Trombone; reversible toe pistons are provided for the Great to Pedal and Swell to Great couplers. 

Six switches act as ‘piston couplers’: all the No 1 pistons can be coupled, all the No 2 pistons can be coupled and so on. In this way the divisional pistons can act as general pistons. Four switches act on the first four of the Swell toe pistons – when ‘on’ the toe pistons act on the general pistons and when ‘off’ the toe pistons act on the Swell divisional pistons. 

With 62 speaking stops and 19 other stops (couplers, tremulants, transfers, and combination couplers) there are 81 drawstops on the 4 manual and pedal console which stands at the east end of the south gallery  (there is a list of stops on the organ at the foot of this page).

The layout of the organ

The functional pipe display was designed by Bruce Allsop of the Department of Architecture at King’s College, Newcastle. However, there are many more pipes in the organ than those which are to be seen on the front. 

The gold coloured pipes of the Solo Orchestral Trumpet are most noticeable at the front of the organ in the framework on the gallery front. The largest pipes slightly recessed in the centre of the facade are the lowest notes of the Pedal Violone. The rest of the facade pipes are taken from the Great Open Diapason and Double Geigen stops, and the Positive Diapason. 

Immediately behind the facade pipes on the right hand side is the main soundboard for the Great Organ. Behind it is the expression box for the Swell organ. Behind the facade pipes on the left side of the organ is the Positive organ which stands in front of the expression box for the Solo organ. The pedal upperwork (the flue stops from 8’ to the Mixture) stand on a soundboard located between the Swell and Solo boxes. 

There are two groups of red-coloured pipes either side of the Violone pipes which can be seen above the main part of the facade. Those on the right belong to the Great Trumpet and on the left, the Pedal Trumpet. The Pedal Open Wood and Sub Bass stops are located at the back of the organ between the tower wall and the Swell and Solo boxes. 

The Pedal Trombone is located on a soundboard of its own above the Pedal upperwork at the same level as the Great and Pedal reeds. 

Wind for the organ is raised by electric fans located in a room in the tower immediately behind the organ. Two fans, driven by 3hp and 2hp motors provide low pressure wind for the main reservoir, and a separate 1/2hp motor provides high-pressure wind.

Elliot and Hill, 1832

When the Chapel of St Thomas the Martyr was opened on October 9th 1830 there was no organ. However, the 1831 accounts of the London organ builders Elliot and Hill show that an organ of two manuals for “New Castle” was being planned, to cost £470. The Vestry met on Sunday April 22nd 1832 to raise subscriptions for the new organ. The Corporation of Newcastle contributed 100 guineas, the Master of the Chapel, 50 guineas, and by the end of the meeting over 300 guineas had been collected. The organ was erected in late 1832 and was first used on Sunday 13th January 1833. The Newcastle Courant reported “... the superb, fine-toned and powerful organ recently erected in St Thomas’, Barras Bridge was opened in the presence of a large and delighted audience. The instrument is on the largest scale and possesses the latest and most scientific improvements and its superior, it is believed, is not to be found in any parish church north of the City of York.” The organ had two manuals, Great and Swell, and some rudimentary pedals – there were 16 stops in all. 

This organ was located in the west gallery. The only remnant of the casework is that which currently frames the gold coloured Orchestral Trumpet pipes on the front of the organ. The organist and his console were behind this part of the case. It is likely that the organ was blown by hand, although at the May 1872 Vestry Meeting the Vestry Clerk was instructed to contact the Water Company to enquire about the possibility of metering the supply to the water engine. 

The partnership of Elliot and Hill produced organs for several cathedrals including Ely and Westminster Abbey. Their 1813 organ for Scone Palace is still in existence, and has only one stop fewer than the original St Thomas’ organ. Elliot died in 1832 making St Thomas’ organ perhaps the last to be built by the partnership. 

The condition of the organ gave cause for concern during the 1870s. The water engine used to raise wind for the bellows was repaired in 1873, and by the end of November 1876 a report on the organ by “Harrison’s of Durham” was considered by the Vestry. Their estimate for the repair was £100, and a new stop a further £50. In June 1878 the organist was requested not to use the organ “owing to the dilapidated state”. By mid 1879 it was back in use, although “the hydraulic blowing apparatus being inefficient” meant that the bellringer, Joseph Robson, was paid 2/6 per service for raising the wind by hand. By 1886 the organ was blown by a gas engine. There were further minor repairs by the local builder, Francis Nicholson, at a cost of 4 guineas. 

HS Vincent & Co, 1901 

The Vestry minutes record many problems with the organists in the 19th century and several were served notice. Al.fred Bell left in 1901 taking the entire choir with him! F William Smallwood Mus Bac on his appointment in November 1900 found himself presiding at a rather small and unfashionably antiquated instrument that was nearly 70 years old. Not only had he to raise money for a reconstruction he also had to rebuild the choir. However, his efforts to obtain singers for the choir ruffled more than a few local clerical feathers… 

Messrs Vincent, organ builders from Sunderland, eventually installed a 3 manual organ with 34 stops, pneumatic action, and electric blowing which was opened on Sunday 28th July 1901. Henry Vincent was active during the period 1880-1935; most of his organs are to be found in the North East. In comparison with Elliot and Hill’s work, Vincent charged only £300 for his organ.

Binns, Fitton and Haley, 1931

Three decades later the church underwent cleaning and redecoration. As well as new vestries, the £3000 spent by the City Corporation’s Schools and Charities Committee included a new organ. This instrument was installed by Binns, Fitton and Haley, organ builders from Leeds. It had 30 stops, on 3 manuals and pedal, with pneumatic action and was opened at the 11.00am service on the 4th Sunday in Lent 1931. It was, in the opinion of Donald Wright, “very serviceable, if uninspired”. It was one of a number of organs built or rebuilt by the Binns firm in Newcastle which included: St Andrew, Newgate St (1895), St George Jesmond (1902) Clayton Memorial Church (1913), and the Royal Grammar School (1929). 

Martin Charlton • November 2009

  Pedal: 30 notes, CCC-F
1    Double Open Wood    32
2    Violone    16
3    Open Wood    16
4    Sub Bass    16
5    Lieblich Bourdon (Solo)    16
6    Principal    8
7    Bass Flute    8
8    Quint    5 1/3
9    Octave    4
10    Octave Flute    4
11    Mixture    III
12    Trombone    16
13    Trumpet    8
14    Schalmei    4
15    Orchestral Trumpet (Solo)    8
i    Positive to Pedal    
ii    Great to Pedal    
iii    Swell to Pedal    
iv    Solo to Pedal    
    Positive: 58 notes, CC-a3
16    Diapason    8
17    Gedackt    8
18    Quintadena    8
19    Principal    4
20    Rohr Flute    4
21    Nazard    2 2/3
22    Gemshorn    2
23    Tierce    1 3/5
24    Cymbel    III
25    Trompette    8
26    Orchestral Trumpet (Solo)    8
v    Swell to Positive    
vi    Solo to Positive    
vii    Great Reeds and Cornet on Positive    
    Great: 58 notes, CC-a3
27    Double Geigen    16
28    Open Diapason I    8
29    Open Diapason II    8
30    Stopped Diapason    8
31    Octave    4
32    Wald Flute    4
33    Octave Quint    2 2/3
34    Super Octave    2
35    Mixture    IV
36    Cornet     V
37    Trumpet    8
38    Clarion    4
viii    Positive to Great    
ix    Swell to Great    
x    Solo to Great    
    Swell: 58 notes, CC-a3 (enclosed)
39    Diapason    8
40    Rohr Gedackt    8
41    Salicional    8
42    Celeste (AA)    8
43    Principal    4
44    Spitzflute    4
45    Fifteenth    2
46    Mixture    IV
47    Oboe    8
xi    Tremulant    
48    Contra Fagotto    16
49    Cornopean    8
50    Clarion    4
xii    Solo to Swell    
xiii    Octave    
xiv    Sub Octave    
xv    Unison Off    
    Solo: 58 notes, CC-a3 (enclosed)
51    Lieblich Bourdon    16
52    Spitzflute    8
53    Viole    8
54    Dulciana    8
55    Nachthorn    4
56    Octave    2
57    Open Flute    2
58    Quint    1 1/3
59    Sesquialtera (C)    II
60    Sifflöte    1
61    Cromorne    8
xvi    Tremulant    
62    Orchestral Trumpet    8
xvii    Great Reeds and Cornet on Solo    
xviii    Great and Pedal Combinations Coupled
xix    Pedal to Swell Combinations