A History of All Saints' Organ
The following was written by Antony Randle in 2001, and updated by Simon Tayton in 2010.
"A neat organ has lately been added to this church, at which Mr H. T. Elliston gratuitously officiates as organist, and by charitably attending to the vocal tuition of the children belonging to the Leamington Sunday School, has completely put to rout the eternal clarionet, fiddle, and leathern lungs of some half dozen of bald-pated remorseless choristers that so long 'splitted the ears of the groundlings' by murdering Sternhold and Hopkins, and inflicting on the congregation all the tortures of Psalmody."
So wrote the author of an early nineteenth century guide book to Leamington about the music of the Parish Church. Hardly complimentary to the old order of things; yet the old order, unmusical though it may have been, had sufficient adherents among the faithful for some to describe the organ as 'an unwarranted innovation'.
The development of the music of the Parish Church was much influenced by the growth of Leamington as a resort and the consequent increase in general musical activity in the town. R.W. Elliston, actor-manager and former lessee of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, built the Parthenon in Bath Street at a cost of E25000, the foundation stone being laid in 1818. This splendid building, later known as the Music Hall and as the Assembly Rooms, was the scene of much musical and social activity. A fine organ was built here by William Hill, and in 1826 it saw the foundation of the Leamington and Warwick Philharmonic Society, the first name in the register being Henry Twisleton Elliston, who played contra-bass in the orchestra, and who was, so far as we know, the first organist of the Parish Church.
Nothing is known of the organ which Elliston took over in 1820 at the age of nineteen, except that it did not last long, since in 1825 Robert Downes, the Vicar, undertook to supply a new instrument, the old one to become his property.
The New Church
When John Craig became Vicar in 1839, the old church, whose site was at the intersection of the nave and transepts of the present building, had already been enlarged five times in eighteen years in an attempt to cope with the influx of visitors, but it was obviously not satisfactory. The famous Dr Hook of Leeds (known to both Downes and Craig, and whose son later became Vicar of Leamington), when faced with a similar problem, pulled down his old church and built a fine new one. Craig was determined to do the same at Leamington, so in 1843 the foundation stone of the present building was laid. The greater part of the building was completed by 1869.
Craig encouraged Elliston to provide "the best music" in the church, and he established a school for choir boys in Grove Place at a cost to himself of £1700. In 1842 All Saints had a surpliced choir - one of the first parish churches in the country to introduce what became commonplace.
The 1825 organ found lodging in various parts of the expanding building. From 1844 it stood in a gallery at the west end of the new nave. In 1869 it was removed to ground level in the north chancel aisle (about where the present console is sited). The Leamington Spa Courier was critical - "as to acoustic effect, the change is a failure"!
R.W. Elliston's theatrical ventures failed, and he went back to London, but his son remained in Leamington and devoted himself to the music of the Parish Church for the rest of his life, with no salary at first, but later receiving "...a slender emolument which was casually and irregularly bestowed". He died after forty-four years in office in April 1864, at the age of 63.
Elliston was succeeded by Henry Matthews, and he in 1876 by Thomas Bladon. In 1877 Craig, parson, architect, astronomer and contentious eccentric, died and was succeeded by J.W. Leigh, who in 1878 appointed Frank Spinney as Organist of the Parish Church.
A Golden Era
Frank Spinney was a Fellow of the College of Organists (which was not then "Royal") and a member of a well-known musical family. In his time the growth of music in the church continued, stimulated, no doubt, by the building in 1879 of a new organ by William Hill & Sons.
The new organ, with three manuals and twenty-nine speaking stops, was placed in the present elevated organ chamber, which was then newly built to receive it. The space below, where the old organ had stood, became a Lady Chapel. The console was in the organ loft, backing onto the small stone gallery which projects above the chancel and now supports the Bodley case. The organ was first used on the Eve of All Saints, and shortly afterwards in what was described as a "momentous performance" of 'Messiah' with over two hundred singers, following on which the Leamington Musical Society was formed, with Spinney as conductor.
The Parish Church was the centre of much musical activity at this time, and every November, at All Saints tide, a great choir festival was held in the church, attended by most of the church choirs of Leamington, Warwick and the neighbourhood. Special books were printed for these occasions and would often contain music by local organist composers such as the Spinneys, Bellamy, George Kennett and E. Roberts West,
Frank Spinney died in office in June 1888, and the general esteem in which he was held can be judged by the crowds which attended his funeral, and buy the £700 afterwards subscribed in his memory to a choirboys' scholarship fund.
Walter Spinney succeeded his brother, and during his tenure of office, in 1892, the organ was taken down cleaned and re-tuned at a cost of £75. In the same year, a set of choir rules was formulated and published by the Vicar, in which he made it clear to everyone that he was the final authority in the church's musical affairs.
In June 1894 Walter Spinney died, and the Vicar offered the post of organist to W.H. Bellamy, then organist of St Mary's, Warwick, and no stranger to the Parish Church, where he had acted as choirmaster/conductor at the annual choir festivals. Mr Bellamy maintained the choral traditions of the Parish Church and founded the 'Augmented Choir for the study of Church Music'. In 1922 he retired and went to live in Wales.
Lionel Wiggins And The New Organ
After W.H. Bellamy's retirement the post of organist was advertised and from many applications a short list of seven was prepared. These seven played before H.L. Balfour, organist of Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, London, and of the Royal Albert Hall, and as a result of his adjudication, the Vicar appointed Lionel Wiggins, then organist of Holy Trinity, Leamington, previously organist of St John's, and a former Parish Church choirboy.
Lionel Wiggins was organist for twenty-nine years, holding at various times other appointments as Director of Music at Leamington College for Girls, conductor of the Leamington Choral Society, Diocesan Representative of the RSCM, and local representative of the Royal Schools of Music for which he was elected Hon RCM. He had a very large teaching practice, and a great feature was the monthly meetings of the Music Makers to which there is reference in the autobiography of Denis Matthews. Perhaps the most celebrated of his organ pupils was Sydney Watson, who became Precentor of Eton, and organist of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.
The great remaining monument to Lionel Wiggins is the present organ in the Parish Church for whose specification he was responsible. In 1925-26 the old Hill organ was rebuilt, by the firm of Hill, Norman and Beard, as a comprehensive four manual instrument with sixty four speaking stops and 3305 pipes, at a cost of about £4000. The Solo organ was added, other departments were tonally revised and extended, the old mechanical action was replaced by tubular pneumatic mechanism, electric blowing was installed for the first time, and the new console was built on the north side of the chancel at ground level, behind the choir stalls. At the time of its dedication in February 1926, the organ was described as being "...probably the most perfect and up-to-date in the Midlands, second only - if indeed second - to the Birmingham City Organ". The opening of the organ was marked by a series of services, concerts, and recitals by G.D. Cunningham, Stanley Roper, Henry Ley and others. Since then it has been played by many famous recitalists, including Harold Darke, Sydney Nicholson, Francis Jackson, Ivor Atkins, Percy Buck, William Wolstetholme, Peter Hurford, Gillian Weir, Carlo Curley, Roy Massey and John Scott.
The PARISH CHURCH ORGAN was the subject of an article in the quarterly review "The Organ", number 103 of Volume XXVI published in January 1947. The writer, D. Batigan Verne, formerly on the staff of the organ building firm of Henry Willis and Sons, provided a fairly technical critical review of the instrument, generally laudatory in tone, from which a few quotations are given:
"From the organ builder's point of view conditions could hardly be more satisfactory. A lofty and spacious church of almost abbey proportions, with a reverberation period (empty) of about two seconds at full organ; an organ chamber elevated on the north side with plenty of room laterally and overhead - what more could he want?"
Of the Great
"He would be a captious critic who could find serious fault with the tonal scheme, comprising as it does a complete flue chorus from double to mixture and heavy-pressure reeds."
Of the Swell
"With the help of a first-rate swell box, the reed ensemble is impressive in its own style, and tells down the church without the need to resort to octave couplers". "Some capital voicing has gone into the Swell flue work".
Of the Choir
"In some respects this department pleases me more than any other, and this chiefly owing to the presence of the exquisite salicional chorus".
Of the Solo
"Certainly this tuba unit on 16 inch wind dominates the scene in no uncertain fashion".
Of the Pedal
"Both the eminent builders and Mr Wiggins are to be congratulated on a scheme for the pedale with more than usual thought behind it".
"This is a notable example of organ-building as it was in the 1920s".
"Wiggy" was a great character. Described in Denis Matthews' book "In pursuit of Music" as '...benign and gentle-voiced", he was a fine musician and teacher, and a convinced and practising churchman, whose pupils learned something more from him than merely how to sing, or play, the notes. He died in 1951 and for six months Mr R.A.E. Dingle, formerly organist of Lillington Parish Church, was engaged as temporary organist.
In making the next appointment, the Vicar enlisted the services of the RSCM, whose officials prepared a short list of three from the many applicants, and from these, after an adjudication by Dr Gerald Knight, the Vicar appointed Robert Dickinson, organist of Mold Parish Church. Robert Dickinson gave many successful recitals and was the first organist to broadcast from the Parish Church. For a time he revived the Leamington Male Voice Choir. In 1956 he left to become organist of St Asaph Cathedral in Flintshire, whereupon the Vicar, without advertising the post, appointed Hugh Large to the Parish Church.
Hugh Large was well-known at the Parish Church, where his father, a former diocesan registrar, had been Warden. After leaving the Royal College of Music, he was for a time at St Paul's, Knightsbridge, London, but his subsequent career lay mainly in scholastic work, and he was Director of Music successively at Bloxham and at King's College, Taunton. During his eight years at the Parish Church he maintained a fine choral tradition and gave many organ recitals. After his resignation in 1964 he continued to live in Leamington, teaching privately and at Warwick School until his death in 1973.
Neil Wade, formerly organist of St Aidan, Leeds, came to the church in 1964, but his stay was very short. The following year he became organist of Halifax Parish Church and was succeeded by Graham Steed, a former pupil of Marcel Dupré, who had held church and cathedral appointments in North America. His tenure of office was also comparatively short.
After Alan Jones, Derrick Stiff was next appointed; he was formerly organist of Woburn, and had the task of building up the choir to something like its former proportions. He was later ordained priest.
Keith Sedgebeer came to the Parish Church when he took up an appointment at Leamington College for Boys. He was for a time conductor of the Leamington Bach Choir and resigned to take up an appointment as a County Music Organiser.
The Late 20th Century
David M. Palmer was trained by Harold Dexter at Holy Trinity, Leamington, where he served as assistant organist before being appointed to St Mark's, Leamington. A professional draughtsman, his work was strongly marked by a sense of orderliness. He was local representative of the RSCM, and immediately on his appointment set up a committee to work for the rebuilding of the organ, a project into which he poured endless energy. Many concerts and recitals were given during his organistship. He also formed a girls' choir in anticipation of the boys' numbers declining. This proved to be the case and gradually female voices, were introduced into the choir.
Robert Munns came from Kent to Leamington, but perhaps his most prestigious previous organistship was at Holy Trinity, Brompton, London, when he was also Director of the Blackheath Conservatory. With a reputation as a recitalist and organ consultant beyond local limits, he gave, and organised, many recitals and concerts. A policy of recruiting only men and women to the choir was adopted. A first ever-cassette of choral and organ music was issued. Mr Munns worked extensively as an examiner for the Associated Board.
John Wilks came to Leamington with an established reputation in the world of academic music and of English opera. After early retirement as Dean of the Music Faculty at Durham University, he commuted from his home in Melton Mowbray during his short tenure.
Colin Druce trained with Roger Fisher at Chester Cathedral, and subsequently with Dr John Bishop at the Birmingham Conservatoire. He was organ scholar at St Alphege, Solihull, before being appointed Organist and Choirmaster at St Margaret's Parish Church, Olton. He has given many recitals and concerto performances as an organist and pianist, and he is one half of the duo Tuba Magna. He maintained a high standard of choral and organ music. In 1989 he established the All Saints Music Society, now the Friends of All Saints Music, and re-established a top line of children's voices in the choir. In 1992 he held the first of the annual choir camps for trebles. He still lives locally, is active as a guest organist, teaching privately and in the Warwick Schools Foundation.
These last three appointments were made by the vicar in consultation with the churchwardens and two independent musical assessors.
On the resignation of Cohn Druce in 1998, the Vicar, George Warner, assumed the office of Director of Music, and appointed as organist Sean Montgomery, who had studied with Richard Seal at Salisbury Cathedral and at the Royal Academy of Music. Formerly organist of St John's, Wolverhampton and assistant at St James the Great, Leicester, he has worked for the last ten years in the electronic music industry. Canon Warner appointed as choirmaster Peter Smith, who sang at St Peter's, Wolverhampton, was choirmaster at Albrighton, Shropshire, and before graduating from Cardiff University was a lay clerk at Llandaff Cathedral.
After Peter Smith resigned in August 2002, Simon Tayton was appointed acting Choirmaster, assuming the permanent post from January 2004. He was already assistant organist, having deputised for Sean Montgomery since 2000. He studied organ under Christopher Argent at Coventry Cathedral, and Geoffrey Holroyde, formerly Director of Music at St Mary’s, Warwick. He has a number of choral compositions to his credit, and several remain in the All Saints’ choir library. After two years in post, he was appointed Director of Music at St John’s Church, Halesowen and was succeeded by Bea van der Kaaj, who moved from Holland with her family to take up the post. Sean Montgomery resigned on moving from the area in 2006, to be replaced by Jeremy Meager.
Bea left on moving away in 2007 and was replaced by Julian Parkin, who resigned in 2013. In 2009, Cynthia Hall was appointed organist. She was succeeded by David Williams, the current organist in 2012. David Williams followed by Simon Lawford took charge of the Choir on a temporary basis until Richard Cook took up duties as Director of Music in September 2014.
Rebuilding The Organ – 1982
David Palmer's ambition for this great, but increasingly unreliable, instrument was accomplished in 1982 with the rebuilding by Longstaff and Jones of Dudley.
The tubular pneumatic action was electrified between the console and the loft, though the action within the loft remains largely pneumatic. A number of tonal alterations were made on the advice of the consultant, Peter Hurford. Amongst these, the leathered Great Open Diapason I was removed, also the Harmonic Claribel. The Swell Vox Humana was deleted and the Choir Clarinet transposed in its place. The Choir Organ was largely revoiced as a Positive, (losing the salicional chorus so much admired by D. Batigan Verne in 1947). More radically, the entire Solo department, with its instrumental ranks, and the Tuba which could speak splendidly over the whole organ, though still in situ, was left mute, being then thought to be unnecessary. A Bombarde division was created from some of the Great reeds with a new Mounted Comet
Externally, the chancel front of the organ was provided with a splendid case, designed by G.F. Bodley, originally at Holy Trinity, Rugby.
The blower fans were entirely rebuilt in 1994, and a new electric motor and switchgear provided for the blower in 1998, after the old one overheated during an RSCM festival, filling the church with bituminous smoke, though happily not causing any other damage.
In 2001, following a report commissioned from the organ consultant, Ian Bell, Nicholson of Malvern provided four new keyboards, which lack of funds had prevented being done in 1982, and a new microprocessor-based piston capture system, at a cost of £18000. The compass of the manuals was reduced from 61 to 58 notes, allowing a slightly wider spacing between the sharps.
The organ was for many years in the care of Wood of Huddersfield, who did a valiant job keeping the instrument going in spite of its quirks and shortcomings. For example, a serious leak above the Pedal Salicional chest has resulted in its demise. A split in the high-pressure swell reservoir in 2005 created a challenge, occurring as it did during a Sunday morning service. A temporary repair of duct tape served for a few months until the reservoir was releathered.
Though the work of Longstaff and Jones may be criticised, it should be remembered that if nothing had been done, this great instrument would by now be quite unplayable. Instead, the organ continues to play its part in the life of the church and the town, and long may it continue to do so.
Peter Spencer of Bubbenhall now cares for the organ, and has recently reinstated the Solo section of this historic and impressive instrument, which had been mute for over thirty years.
Pipe organs are very expensive to maintain and (when necessary) rebuild. If you would like to contribute towards the cost of this historic instrument, allowing it to inspire future generations of worshippers and music lovers, we would appreciate it greatly.
One way is to donate to the Organ Fund. This can be done using the Donations page of the website. Please also contact us to tell us what the gift is for.
The other is to leave a legacy to All Saints' Parish Church and restrict it to the maintenance and repair of the organ.
Thank you very much indeed.
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