Peter Hickman

The Renatus Harris Organ

A printed book version of this history, with Technical Appendices (as mentioned below) outlining the many restorations carried out at on this most interesting instrument, between its installation in 1762 and 2002, is available. The volume contains details of the organ specification in 1850, 1869 and 1974, together with the changes intended to be made during the present (2002) restoration. This publication may be obtained from St John’s in the Square, or from the Secretary, at a cost of £2.50 including postage. Payment with order please. All money raised will be for the Organ fund.

Please contact in the first instance.

Thanks to Peter Williams and David Wickens for permission to quote extensively from their work.

The Battle of the Organs

The Church book of St John’s is a large leather-bound volume, opened in 1760 by the churchwardens when the "New Church" was dedicated as a Chapel-of-ease to St Peter’s. On one of the flyleaves is written an account of how this church came to be possessed of its famous Renatus Harris instrument. This reads:

"Extract from a letter and Philomusus to the Editor of The Universal Magazine for Dec 1778, page 376.

Upon the decease of Mr Dallans and the elder Harris, Mr Renatus Harris and Father Smith became great rivals in their employment, and several trials of skill there were between them on several occasions. But the famous contest between these two artists was at the Temple Church, where a new organ was going to be erected towards the latter end of Charles the Seconds time.

Both made friends for that employment, but as the Society could not agree about who should be the man, the Master of the Temple and Benches proposed that both should set up an organ on each side of the Church. Which, in about half a year or three quarters of a year was done accordingly.

Dr Blow and Mr Purcell, who was then in his prime, showed and played Father Smith’s organ on appointed days to a numerous audience, and till the other was heard everybody believed that Father Smith’s would certainly carry it.

Mr Harris brought Mr Sully, Organist to Queen Catherine, a very eminent Master to touch his organ, which brought Mr Harris’ organ into that vogue.

They thus continued vying with one another near a twelvemonth. Then Mr Harris challenged Father Smith to make additional stops against a set time. These were the Vox Humana, the Cremona or the Violin stop, the Double Courtel or Cap Flute with some others I may have forgot. These stops, as being newly invented, gave great delight and satisfaction to a numerous audience and they were so well imitated on both sides that it was hard to judge.

The advantage to either at last was left to my Lord Chief Justice Jeffries, who was of that housed and he put an end to the controversy by pitching upon Father Smith’s organ.

So Mr Harris’ organ was taken away without loss of reputation and Mr Smith’s remains to this day. Now began the setting up of organs in the chiefest parrishes of the city of London where for the most part, Mr Harris had an advantage of Father Smith, making I believe, two to his one among them. Some are reckoned very eminent. Viz. The organ at St Brides, Saint Lawrence near Guildhall, Saint Margaret.

Notwithstanding this success of Harris, Smith was considered as an able and ingenious workman, and in consequence of this character he was employed to build an organ for the Cathedral at St Pauls. These organs made by him; though in respect of workmanship they are far short of those of Harris and even of Dallans are justly admired for the fineness of their tone and have never yet been equalled.

Harris organ was afterwards purchased for the Cathedral of Christ Church Dublin and set up there. About twenty years ago Mr Byfield was sent for from England to repair it, which he objected to, and prevailed on the Chapter to have a new one made by himself, he allowing for the old one in part exchange. When he had got it he would have treated with the parishioners of Lynne in Norfolk for the sale of it. But they, disdaining the offer of a second hand instrument, refused to purchase it and employed Snetzenburgh to build them a new on, for which they paid him 700L.

Byfield dying, his widow sold Harris’ organ to the Parish of Wolverhampton for 500L and there it remains at this day. One of the two eminent Masters now living who were requested by the Churchwardens of Wolverhampton to give their opinions of this instrument declared it to be the best modern organ he ever touched.

William Ryton, Thos. Farmer, Chapel Wardens 1823"

It is curious that there is no written record of this important transaction in the Church Book, although it contains a great many far smaller matters in some detail.

This 'gap' is well filled however by the table of benefactors on the wall of the Northwest staircase where the following is inscribed:

"The organ was purchased by a subscription of Five Hundred pounds, towards which Mr William Archer contributed Two Hundred Pounds. Anno Domini 1762. The salary for the Organist, Thirty pounds per annum raised on the pews by the Act (of Parliament) aforesaid."

Photo by Derek Thom.

Appointment of Organists

The first Organist to be appointed, at this fee of £30, was a Mr Bond. Bond Street is believed to have been named after him. We do not have a list of the organists who have faithfully followed down the years.

The appointment of the organist is the responsibility of the Vicar, with the agreement of the Parochial Church Council. The Church book contains only one full record of such an appointment; this was in 1863, at the same fee!

On the 9th of January 1863, the competition for the Office of Organist to St John’s took place, as resolved upon at a meeting held on the 22nd December last 1862.

The umpire, Mr B Whitham of London, placed Mr Roland Rogers at the head of the list of competitors and he was accordingly appointed by the Vicar to the office, commencing on Sunday the 11th January 1863.

The Stipend shall be £30 a year. The duties of the organist shall be to conduct the musical part of Divine service, Morning and Evening Every Sunday. Once on Ash Wednesday. Twice on Good Friday. Twice on Christmas Day and at one evening service every week on a weekday, and he will have to devote sufficient time and at suitable hours to instruct the Choristers in the reading of music.

Three months notice at any time from the vicar to the Organist, or from the Organist to the Vicar shall terminate the agreement.

Dated and signed this last day of January 1864.

Henry Hampton. Vicar.

Roland Rogers. Organist

Geo. F Thatcher. Choir Master."

The organ was of course blown by hand; the old handle is still in place. We have tantalising snippets recorded, such as: -

"1764 June 29th Adams for one years salary ringing the Sacramental Bell, 9 shillings."

"1764 April 20 The Organ Blower for half a year. Due Lady Day last 9 shillings."


Looking for Evidence

There is a large bundle of records of work done on the Organ down the years, almost since its installation. This record is safely held in the County Records Office at Stafford, where it may be consulted. It is not the purpose of this article to provide a fully comprehensive treatise. However there have been two substantial recent surveys by persons with expert knowledge and these are the main source of current information.

The first is an article in "The Organist" for July 1961 by Peter F Williams.

Williams discusses the early history of the instrument. He mentions that Harris probably split the organ after removing it from the Temple Church, incorporating a large part in the organ which he was building at St Andrew’s, Holborn. Sadly both this organ, and the Schmidt organ in the Temple Church, were completely destroyed in the London blitz of 1941.

Examining the story step by step, Williams writes:

"1. The battle ended around the beginning of 1688. What happened to Renatus Harris’s organ is not exactly known, but it is possible that he did split it up, as the later historians say, rather than removed it complete to another church. However, it is also not unlikely that proud churchwardens and others boasted of having an organ by Renatus Harris who had done so well in the Temple battle, and even perhaps of possessing a remnant of that organ; and it is not inconceivable that Harris himself took advantage of his reputation and gave out that he had incorporated bits of his famous organ in others he built later; he seems to have been the sort of man who might have consciously set up such a legend. But it may also be an entirely post Harris story; and there is some confusion, for Ellis in his study of Pitch reports, though he does not commit himself to supporting, a claim that St John’s Church, Clerkenwell contained Harris Temple organ; and Hughson, in his description of London (1807) states several times that the discarded organ went (only) to St Andrew, Holborn.

2. It seems generally accepted that Harris built an organ for Christ Church, Dublin, and Mr Freeman and Dr Sumner give details of the date (1697) and cost (£800). Certainly Renatus Harris is known to have had work in Dublin, and it is noteworthy that the case of the Wolverhampton organ is very similar (indeed identical, if one can trust photographs) to that in St Mary’s Dublin, which Leffler says was a Harris organ. Perhaps the work of a Dublin workshop, they conform to the usual Renatus Harris style.

In the Musical Antiquary, Vol V, WHG Flood pointed out, since confirmed, that George Harris built a small organ for Christ Church; and in 1667 Pease of Cambridge, built a chaire organ, presumably as a choir organ to Harris’ great. The work of these two builders must have been very unsatisfactory, for in 1694 a contract was made with Bernard Schmidt, interestingly enough, for a new organ. In the event Renatus Harris took over the contract and the high price (£800) would suggest that was an entirely new instrument, although it would be strange if it did not include parts of the George Harris/Pease organ

3. There is no evidence in the Christ Church Chapter Acts that Byfield took the Harris organ in part exchange; but it was a common practice then and can be accepted that this is what Byfield did.

But which Byfield? John Byfield Snr. Died in 1757; and although the Chapter on June 22nd 1750 agreed to have a new organ by Byfield, there is no other mention in the books until1765; and Mr John Holmes tells me that in 1752 Byfield was asked to repair the old organ.

These dates are difficult to fit together, and there appears not to be a ready answer.

4. The part of the story that alleges that Byfields widow sold it to the New Church in Wolverhampton is very plausible, for not only did builders widows often carry on for a time at this period, but also carriage problems were severe, and it would be most convenient to sell an organ in the nearest church in the case of an emergency caused by death. It is certainly the best explanation of a Harris organ being in Wolverhampton.

It is not strange that Byfield Jnr. did not retain the organ according to the previous plan: his father is reputed to have offered it to Burney’s church in Kings Lynn and on refusal, if this is true, no doubt a new church nearby (i.e. near to the Dublin-London road) would be a likely customer. So the most probable course of events is as follows:

a. Byfield was asked to build a new organ (1750)

b. Byfield was asked to repair the old one, either while the new one was in the making, or because it had not yet been begun (1752)

c. The new organ eventually came into service around 1756-9

d. Thereupon or a bit later the old organ was shipped back to England

e. About 1761, on its way back it was sold to the nearly finished church in Wolverhampton.

f. In mid 1762 it began service in this church, presumably after some repairs.

The time factor is the difficulty to be solved, and the above suggested course of events perhaps does this. But it will then be seen that the death of Byfield Snr had nothing to do with the selling of it to St John’s, except in so far as it caused a delay in the fulfilment of the Dublin contract. A cursory check has not supported the claim that Byfield’s death is registered in Wolverhampton, but if it is true it complicates the matter exceedingly for there are then the five years to explain away between the death and the 1762 setting up of it in St John’s Chapel; and one may wonder what happened to it (presumably all packed up on a cart) during this time.

5. There are no records that the organ was bought for £500 except that on the board quoted above, and this does not say the seller was Byfield; it is strange that so large a sum of money should be spent without a Chapel-warden’s record.

Nor is there mention of it in the books of the Collegiate Church of St Peter’s, for which St John’s was a Chapel-of-ease. Perhaps the subscription was organised entirely independently of the official church committee, which would be busy with more ‘necessary’ things for a new church. £500 is a surprising sum, if the original price best part of a century ago had been over half as much again. Perhaps Byfield used a part of his new organ in Christ Church; or perhaps it was in a bad state when it was set up in Wolverhampton, although it evidently was put into use there.

The "Messiah" Legend

One of the popular tales of Wolverhampton is that the organ of St John’s was the one upon which G. F. Handel played during the first performance of his great oratorio "The Messiah". Whilst it is true that the first performance of "The Messiah" by G. F. Handel took place in Dublin in 1742, there is no contemporary evidence that this organ was used in connection with this performance. The story has been repeated so often down the years that it has found its way into print many times. However the good folk of St George’s Church at Douglas, Isle of Man also have printed antiquarian ‘proof’ that their organ, which is by Harris and Byfield, was also the honoured instrument!

One thing is clear - the first performance of "The Messiah" was in Neal’s Music Hall, Fishamble Street in Dublin on 13th April 1742. The rehearsals had been in the same place on 8th April. (The first English performance was in Covent Garden, 23rd March 1743.)

The Organ Since 1762

Williams reviews the history of the organ subsequent to its installation in St John’s up to 1881, but omits the extensive overhaul by Nicholson and Lord, in 1910, which was the year of the Church’s 150th Anniversary. There was also an effort made to raise funds for repairs in 1929 and again in 1938, both of which were deferred due to the very hard times of the 1930’s, followed by the War. In 1953 the organ was eventually restored by Willis, following urgent repairs to the great arch of the Apse. (All this work is summarised in Appendix A at the end of the book).

The Interior of the Organ

The second expert who inspected the interior of the organ case was David C. Wickens in 1995. Williams had not been inside the case and some of his assumptions were tested by Wickens' inspection. In addition notebooks by Sperling have been recently rediscovered in the library of The Royal College of Organists. This manuscript gives a list of stops existing in 1850, following the restoration of 1844 by Bishop. (This information is recorded in Appendix B of the book). The restoration by Tubb was carried out in 1869 (and a contemporary list of stops from that date form Appendix C of the book. Appendix D of the book gives the stops in 1974 following the restoration of Walkers.)

It is the present intention to carry out a restoration under the Guidance of Mr Roger Fisher, Advisor to the Lichfield Diocese. (A summary of this proposal forms Appendix E of the book).

In Search of Harris Pipework

Wickens full report is available with the organ records at Stafford and it is his intention to further examine the instrument during the current restoration, which will be carried out by Trevor Tipple of Worcester. A summary of his investigation was printed in the Journal of the British Institute of Organ Studies, at the end of 1997. He reported as follows:

An examination of the pipework took place in 1995, taking into consideration the pipe markings, the style and construction of the pipes, and how they fitted into the received history. The Harris pipework is immediately recognisable: it is blackened with age, has French pressed mouths, and its original markings are easily identifiable as belonging to the Harris school. It was clear from the outset that there is not as much Harris pipework in the instrument as was previously thought. Close examination shows that much of the Harris pipework consists of miscellaneous pipes reworked to form ranks for which they were not originally made. There are three stops that are reasonably complete Harris stops: Great Stopped Diapason, Choir Stopped Diapason, and Choir Flute. There is miscellaneous pipework in the Great Twelfth, Great Fifteenth, Swell Fifteenth, and Swell Mixture, and there are 35 speaking front pipes of which 15 are at present in use.

The Great and Choir Stopped Diapasons are rare examples by Harris of such stops in wood rather than metal. The Great Stopped Diapason is of oak- bodies as well as caps, blocks and stoppers – and has all the aspects of a 17C stop. Very faint markings (probably pencil) are Harris in style. The basses of the Choir Stopped Diapason (and Flute) are different, with pine bodies, relatively longer caps and longer upper lips. It might suggest work of a late date, but there are similar markings to those on the Great Stopped Diapason, the feet are similarly rasped to semi roundness, and the pipe bodies have similarly rasped to semi roundness, and the pipe bodies have characteristic chamfering at the tops - an unusual and idiosyncratic feature. The scaling of each stop is different.

It is possible – even probable that the two stops were made at quite different times, and might support the tradition that part of this organ came from the failed "Battle of the Organs" instrument from the Temple Church.

The Choir Flute is of metal from 2ft (actually C#). It has movable tuning canisters (as had the Thomas Dallam pipes at Guimiliau), though some of these have been soldered up in relatively recent years. It also has long tuning ears. The pipe markings show rescaling in Harris’ time – either at the outset or when the stop was reused. This might, therefore have been a Temple stop, made in 1682, reused and rescaled by Harris for Christ Church, Dublin, in 1697 – though it is better not to jump to conclusions.

The pipework used in the Great Twelfth and Fifteenth has note marks only; its original use can only be conjectured. It is clear, however, that some of the pipes served as Quint ranks, others as octaves and yet others as Tierce ranks. They probably came therefore from the Mixture work – i.e. the Great Sesquialtera (and Cornet?) – and perhaps, the independent Tierce. It is possible to identify the type of rank by reference to the notes, which they are now speaking. The added bottom octave of the Bishop Tenor C Swell Fifteenth has now been made up of similar miscellaneous pipes, as has the bulk of the Swell Mixture. This was presumably done by Nicholson and Lord. If Tubb had done it when he altered the compass and he must have been responsible for more than is assumed for him – the replacement of the Great Sesquialtera.

The Harris principle pipes are of plain metal of at least 25% tin (the typical English metal composition) or perhaps planed spotted metal of higher tin content. They have French upper lips. The languids are counterfaced and modestly nicked. The upper lips are often arched and have a slight chamfer. The ¼ mouths are cut up in excess of ¼. Some of the pipes have been lengthened for their present use; the additional lengths have been taken from other Harris pipes. There is evidence of trauma: some pipes have been splattered with unidentified material sufficiently hard to evade being cleaned off. There is some slight bruising consistent with much travelling.

The front pipes proved difficult to measure but evidently they follow the usual Harris school arrangement of being scaled according to visual symmetry. The two pipes either side of the centre pipe, for example, are made to the same scale, one now being used as C# of open Diapason I, and the other of Open Diapason 2. The scaling of the centre tower pipes is somewhat inflated – the middle pipe, for instance, now 8ft C of open Diapason 1, is approximately 71/4 ins in diameter,….it is in fact, the same measurement as Harris’s 10 2/3, G pipe in the case at Bristol Cathedral. This raises the question whether the centre tower was shortened when the Organ was erected in Wolverhampton, the centre pipe originally being 10 2/3 G. The evidence for the centre tower having been taller is not conclusive: there is a diagonal cut visible on one of the main posts, not matched on the opposite post: the centre pipe has been cut, high up below the cutaway slots. The other four pipes might have had portions cut off their tops. There is room within the shaded canopy of the centre tower for significantly longer pipes but it is unlikely that it would have been filled with pipe length. Similar cases to that at Wolverhampton were made for St Mary, Lambeth (1701) St Bride Fleet Street (1676) and St Mary, Dublin. Photographs of St Mary, Dublin and of St Bride, Fleet Street show the effect of a taller centre tower in this type of case.


From the contents of this history, the reader will appreciate the difficulty of achieving an exact pedigree for an instrument which has been in existence for over three centuries. We are indeed fortunate that our predecessors have cared for and maintained this organ down the years and that it is sited in a building of such exceptionally clear acoustic properties. A treasure such as this organ is not to be locked away, like a museum piece. It exists to be used for worship and secular music for this generation and those to come. This we are determined will happen. The restoration currently being carried out is by Trevor G Tipple, Organ Builder, of Worcester. The total scheme will cost over £70,000, and is being done in three stages as money becomes available. Stage 1 is centred on the Swell organ at a cost of £23,000. Some funds have been promised to help raise the necessary monies for the next stages, but we are still far short of the needed total.

Detail from Derek Thom's photo (above) showing some of the carving.

The technical appendices referred to above can be found in the printed version of this work. To obtain a copy please call at the church or contact who would also be pleased to have any further information about the church and its organ.

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