Report on visit to St Mary’s Tottenham 07/07/2011 by David Sutton
St. Mary’s is extremely fortunate to have an instrument, which up till now has been unsullied by the 'restorer’s hand’. As a consequence of lack of money or will (or perhaps both?), the organ was not repaired or modified. Indeed it got to the state of being unplayable about 20-odd years ago and an electronic instrument was acquired to keep things going musically. There it languished in this state until the will (and the money) materialised to bring it to life again.
Perhaps today we are more conscious than ever of our artistic inheritance and what has happened at St Mary’s has borne this out. The firm of Nicholsons has restored it to its former glory and haven’t changed anything – even the trigger swell pedal.
Father Morris, who welcomed us, gave a brief history of the church and explained how the current situation has emerged. We noticed a number of TV screens about the church. I am sure they used in the services but in addition they display the organ to great effect. Cameras have been installed in the organ at strategic points so, with a flick of switch, you can view the trackers and stickers all busily at work, the swell box shutters opening and shutting etc etc. This is a valuable educational tool and fascinates the mechanically minded (both young and old). A designated display features a time-lapse film showing the assembly of the console. Of particular interest to us was the Barker Lever mechanism revealed by opening a door in the case-work. This piece of invention 'takes the heat' out of the heavy tracker touch and therefore makes things a lot easier for the player and in this instance was applied to the Great organ only.
All the manual key-action is mechanical, and this is notable here for the console is separated from the main body of the instrument by a side aisle and, because of the configuration of the columns of the chancel and organ chamber, the console is not set centrally but offset slightly. This must have produced something of a headache to the designer of the key action. Even the use of the Swell to Great Octave coupler – an unusual feature of a mechanical action organ – did not make things unbearable.
Enough of the mechanics! Turning to the sound! Although the church interior is spacious and high, the acoustic is surprisingly not that reverberant. The organ chamber, situated in the south side of the chancel, is open directly only to the choir and chancel. Any sound which needs to reach the main body of the building has to do an ‘L’ turn and Father Morris is convinced the rood screen is not a help in this process. Despite these difficulties the timbre experienced by the organist, choir, and front end of the congregation is bright and forward. The specification is typical of Hill of this period with the Great and Swell organs topped by a three-rank mixture containing a tierce (in the lower octaves). Indeed the specification is remarkably similar to another Hill of similar vintage which CLESO visited at Christ Church Wanstead. The Tottenham instrument has two open diapasons on the Great. Both are perfectly good specimens, each slightly different in tone, but when combined with each other we get another one! Three for the price of two? Unlike the Wanstead organ this instrument has a 16’ Pedal Trombone which has wooden resonators. It is not a particularly loud stop but is a satisfactory 'peak' to the Pedal tonal scheme.
Ten members were present for this visit and nine had their go at making music on this historic organ. Hill in those days did not think (going by the console here and at Wanstead) of providing labels for the departments. It was left to the organist to find out where things were. The console is arranged (à la francais?) having the drawstops in three horizontal tiers set into square jambs either side of the manuals - the Swell + Pedal + Couplers on the left and the Great + Choir on the right. As mentioned already, the swell shutters are operated by a trigger lever. There are three positions - closed, partly open and fully open. Any possibility of effecting a gradual crescendo is well nigh impossible without a great deal of practice! The continued bangings (and ensuing muttered cursing?) bore witness to our fumblings in this area!
If any organ consultants involved in rescuing ancient instruments read this (and of course the heritage funding that goes hand in hand with the process) may I possibly pose a question? Is it not possible to at least fit a balanced swell pedal to an instrument which possibly may have had one in the first place if a different builder had done the job as I believe the whole concept of a balanced swell shutter operation was in being from the 1860’s onwards? In my opinion it does not compromise the tone and is not contrary to restoration principles.
Anyway, enough of the gripes! Nevertheless we all had a great time, exploring the organ that had been 'preserved in aspic' and brought back to glorious life by a thorough and sensitive restoration by Nicholsons. Father Morris is to be thanked for giving us such a warm welcome and for being so generous with his time. He said to me it was the first visit by an organist’s group since its restoration and looks forward to others! I think they will be in for a treat.