ST. JOHN'S IN THE SQUARE
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
who would also be pleased to have any further information about the church
and its organ.
Return to the