One of the interesting objects in the church is a rather innocuous looking tap in the north minor transept, behind the current organ. This is a remnant of the most important organ in Old St Paul’s history – the water-powered organ built by the prestigious Thomas Lewis and Co organ company in London. It was installed in 1877, just after the third major addition of the church was made.
The letters to and fro from the vestry to the organ makers show the difficulty faced in ordering something so large and precious from half way across the world. It is difficult to imagine these days how hard the process was – when working out how long it would take before their new organ would arrive, they had to factor in two months for the letter ordering it to even arrive in London; they figured nine months in total. In the end, it took twice as long.
After much time raising money, the vestry finally decided to order the organ in March 1875, and the church’s organist, W H Warren, began to pen slightly anxious letters to Lewis and Co. In his first he writes: ‘We want a good organ, as good as we can get for the £610 (we do not want the most but the best for the money) and I think it highly probable that we may ‘go in’ for the water machine’.
When the news came back to New Zealand that the ocean liner the Schiller had sunk, with the loss of 200 bags of New Zealand mail (as well as the loss of 335 lives, in one of the worst tragedies in British shipping history), Warren wrote again, just in case their letter had been lost. He again beseeched ‘all I have to ask is that you will do the very best you can for us’. He also sent the organ firm a packet of papers that had been circulated amongst the committee, which he admitted might not be of much interest to the organ makers, but wrote that he had sent them ‘merely to show you the very great amount of trouble taken to secure the order for you’.
Warren also volunteered to forgo his own commission, a portion of the fee for the organ which was traditionally paid to the church’s organist, in order to buy some extra stops for the organ instead. Warren sent plans of the church, details of the weather in Wellington, and information on the water pressure, as the organ was to be powered by water. Charles Barraurd, the artist and long-term St Paul’s vestryman and churchwarden, happened to be in London at the time, so was sent to visit the company to ensure that all went well in the manufacture of the organ and the packing of the pipes and other items.
In November, eight months since they ordered it, the organ committee anxiously wrote to say they still hadn’t had an acknowledgement of their letter, and wanting assurance that the order had even been taken. At this stage, they were hoping that they would be able to afford to water-powered blowing apparatus for the organ that could be supplied by the company. They eventually decided against this, reasoning that the mains water pressure in Wellington was sufficient to work the engines of large factories, so it should be sufficient to make their new organ work too.
In January 1876, still anxious about how the organ would go into the church, the organ committee wrote that: ‘they will feel obliged also if you will forward full directions as to the fitting up of the machinery: Does it require an extra Chamber, or will it stand in that [area] now ready, the plans for which you have received? Kindly communicate fully on this subject as we are working in the dark at present and do not want to have any ‘hitch’ at the last moment.’
The organ finally arrived in the city at in December 1876. Over the Christmas period the ‘numerous large packing cases’ containing the organ were stored at the wharf. Despite the care and concern that had gone into ordering it, its installation was not plain sailing; the organ didn’t completely fit into the newly altered church, and a small part of the ceiling of the organ space had to be cut away. The problems were quickly overcome and the organ was used for the first time in January 1877.
Poor Mr Warren, the organist who had done so much to organise the purchase of the organ, was not considered worthy of playing the organ at the opening of the church, and Mr Towsey, the organist from St Paul’s Dunedin was brought up to play the opening series of recitals and services, including a private recital for the Governor General and three full choral services in one day. When installed the organ was thought be the second largest in the country.
Despite all his hard work in acquiring the organ, Warren was only able to use it for two years before being forced to resign. A vestry minute in Sept 1878 recorded that ‘for some time past the churchwardens had to complain of the apparent carelessness of the organist. He had on several occasions left the water turned on, the consequence being that the private homes below the chancel were inundated’. The city council had been to the church threatening to cut off the water supply, which would have left the church with no music.
The minutes also noted that the parishioners had complained of the manner in which the organ was played, and ‘that unless a more competent organist was engaged we might was well have kept the old instrument and spared the expenses of the new one’. (He was soon after replaced by Robert Parker).
This Lewis organ remained in the church for 88 years. After much discussion, the organ was removed from St Paul’s in 1964, after the church was closed for regular worship, and was installed into the new Cathedral in Molesworth Street, where it remains today, where it has since been electrified and much enlarged in the 1970s, so that is now has 3,500 pipes. For a description of the Lewis organ as it is today, in Wellington Cathedral, and see behind the scenes the cathedral’s Assistant Director of Music, Richard Apperley, see: https://wellingtoncathedral.org.nz/music/organs/
Images: The organ in 1906, detail from image Ref PAColl-6771-1, ATL. Warren from Image Ref WCSP.69, Wellington Cathedral of St Paul Cathedral