We are grateful to Rev Dr David Steers of Downpatrick, Ballee & Clough Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Churches who has kindly offered this update on the history of the organ. The good news is that the organ is still in use in Newry every Sunday. However, the 'bad news' is that it apparently has no connection with St George's Chapel Windsor as the author had believed.
Elaine McClure, who wrote the article, is a friend of Dr Steers but a short time after writing the original article she asked him to write an article about the organ for a journal she edited. He then discovered that it was built by an organ builder in Belfast. More or less the same article by Dr Steers has been published three times if you wish to find out about the full history of the organ:
No attempt has been made to alter the text of the original article which was based on information available at time of writing and it is reproduced as it first appeared in Review.
The latter part of the 19th century was a period of great change in the way in which church music was 'offered up' as a means of praising God. The author and poet Thomas Hardy, writing in 1872, regales the reader with the underlying, farcical tale in "Under the Greenwood Tree", of the attempts of Tranter Dewy and his 'ecclesiastical bandsmen' to delay the inevitable - their replacement in the church service by an isolated organist, often at first a barrel organist or harmonium player. Yet the tactics employed by Tranter Dewy and his pious musicians to hold back the tide of change and their attempts to make the advent of the organ as troublesome as possible can be contrasted quite sharply with events taking place within church music on this side of the Irish sea, when a small congregation of Christian worshippers undertook the arduous task of rebuilding, restoring and caring for one of the 'unmentionable invaders' of Hardy's time and lovingly giving it pride of place amongst them.
Contained within the following pages is the story of the crusade to save not a, but the Legend - the old Hanoverian organ of George I and George II - presently housed in the First Newry (Non-Subscribing) Presbyterian Church and which is still thundering away Sunday by Sunday 'making a joyful noise' nearly one hundred and eighty-five years after it first crossed the sea to Ireland.
Its little scratches and blemishes can be compared to the human face whose lines and creases tell a history exclusive to each individual yet the story behind this organ is not only history, but also nothing short of a fairytale! The accolade 'legend' is derived from the fact that the organ's first home was St George's Chapel, Windsor and it was there that the composer Handel played upon it. No doubt, Caroline of Ansbach rose to her feet along with the King to applaud the genius of the man they had taken under their patronage and appreciating the rich tone of the organ he was playing. The organ of the maestro was removed from its royal surroundings in 1806.
The actual original builder of the organ proves as mysterious as the genius of Handel who played upon it and academics in the field have put forward several possibilities. The beginnings of actually bringing any organ to Ireland can be traced back to 1642 when the first congregation of Non-Subscribing Presbyterians settled in Belfast. By 1708 the numbers had swelled to over three thousand members, enough to warrant the building of a second church, close by the original one in Rosemary Lane, as shown on "The Map of Belfast, as survey'd anno 1715" (John Maclenachan) Source: "An Account of the History of the Organ" Dr M E Callender, (1979).
It would seem that the closeness of the two congregations precipitated a 'friendly rivalry' and soon the race was on to see which one of the two would acquire an organ first. The winners of the race were the Second Congregation and it irked their neighbours so much that the church committee considered changing the hours of worship at their own Sunday service. They were very concerned at the effect that this new innovation 'next door' was going to have on their own members' attendance at Sunday worship - i.e. the First Congregation's services would be drastically reduced by the deserting hordes rushing to see the 'Legend' across the road.
The job of building the organ into the Second Belfast (N.S.) Church was a massive undertaking, carried out under the supervision of Edward Bunting, one of the finest musicians in Ireland. The actual organ-builder however, is the mystery. The name Joseph Snetzler is often mentioned in connection with the building of this particular organ.
Rumour has it that it was because of his building of the Church of Ireland organ in Hillsborough (St Anne's) that he was asked to build the 'Royal' one in Belfast. However, closer inspection of the organ casing sets the instrument outside Snetzler's life-time. Dr Callender writes:
"It is just possible that Edward Bunting had an offer of a second hand Snetzler organ, when he told the First Congregation about it in 1801 - and that he subsequently persuaded the Second Congregation to purchase it in 1806 and instal himself as organist."
Setting aside for the moment the actual identity of the organ-builder, the organ itself was formally introduced to its congregation on 7th September 1806, when it was 'dedicated to the Glory of the Almighty, for the adornment and beautification of this (the Second N.S. Presbyterian Meeting House) House of God'. Edward Bunting was the guest of honour and it was fitting that the processional hymn was none other than the 'Old 100th' - that which Handel had termed the 'hymn that belonged to the great Reformer Martin Luther and him alone! The service was conducted by the Rev Mr Drummond in a manner reported by the Belfast News-letter as being 'reverent and deeply meaningful - words that have become almost synonymous with the manner in which these small congregations of Protestant dissenters conduct their worship of God'. (Source: Belfast Newsletter 8th September 1806). The large congregation on that night numbered one the Rt Hon Lord Castlereagh, who assisted in the taking up of the collection in aid of the Dispensary and Fever Hospital.
As the years progressed, it was inevitable that change would take place. It did not come easy, especially to the Church Music Committee, who were as opposed to anyone tampering with the organ as Hardy's 'Mellstock Quire' were to the introduction of an organ of any type whatsoever! The Church Organist at the time (that is the middle 19th Century) was a Mr Albert Dawes and acting on his own initiative he replaced the existing pedalboard and carried out some minor improvements. The members of the Music Committee were quick to spot his endeavours and gave him a suitable reward - immediate dismissal from his post as Organist! Change and the Music Committee were going to be uneasy bedfellows. Further inspection of the organ in 1857 forced the committee into sending the organ back to London for immediate and intense repairs. Change could be halted, but only at the expense of the organ's early demise - so the committee charged the revered Thomas J Robson to carry out the necessary repairs. The organ returned to Belfast near the end of 1857, none the worse for its arduous sea voyage.
The committee found their beloved organ much the better for having been given more powerful stops, new pedals and its Swell soundboard having been replaced. The bass had also been given new Bourdon pipes and other minor alterations carried out -all for £18 extra. In total, by the end of 1857, the Committee was £141-10-0 the poorer - but it had been worth it as much to their delight Robson had 'sacrificed none of the old pipework'. At least Robson had not been innovative for innovation's sake and a level of change had come to pass with which both historian and the church committee could at least be happy! The organ was reopened on 22nd November 1857.
As the 19th Century ebbed towards its close - change came again - this time to the congregation itself. They left Rosemary Lane to move to their new church at All Souls' in Elmwood Avenue, Belfast (recognised as being the 'Cathedral' church of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland and late pulpit of the outstanding theologian the Rev Dr Arthur Linden Agnew). The organ followed the congregation three years later.
Had the unfortunate organist Albert Dawes still been alive in 1908, he would have been forgiven for thinking that the Music Committee had taken leave of its senses. This infamous band of men had now decided to instal - wait for it - an electric blower. The electric blower was removed in 1909!! 'Deep and intense listening' by the committee Sunday by Sunday, had brought them to the conclusion that 'this thing' was much too noisy. They passed the tuning contract to Norman & Beard for a fee of £4.00 a year. The organ was again cleaned in 1926 for the sum of £25.00 - a period of great financial strain on many people everywhere - yet where the organ was concerned, the money was found. But, its long and happy association with the Second Congregation was coming slowly to an end.
John Montgomery had left the Belfast congregation a sizeable sum of money with the instructions that they use it to purchase their own 'brand new' organ in memory of one Agnes Montgomery - presumably his wife or mother.
The view of the organ in the South Chancel of All Souls' Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church. Taken from 'An Account of the History of the Organ.' Dr. M. Callender (1979)
Overnight it seemed that the history of the old Hanoverian organ they had protected for so long had turned into dust. Legends and quality of tone were forgotten as the instrument on which Handel allegedly played was put up for sale, in favour of a newer, sleeker model of 'questionable merits'. But the Lord works in a mysterious way and the organ-sale was to open a window of great fortune upon the Newry congregation who had been wanting to purchase an organ for some time. Mrs Slipper (wife of the minister and organist of the Newry Church) spear-headed the campaign to bring the 'royal' organ to Newry - something of an irony given the organ's illustrious connections with the Royal Family and the Newry Church's connections with the Young Ireland and the United Irishmen movements (the young John Mitchell having worshipped in the church while his father was minister in the middle to late part of the 18th Century. Mitchell junior's association with the Church before pipe-dreams led him away to his ultimate reward of transportation to Australia for 'treasonable offences' - is, as they say - another story!).
Having received the sum of £25.00 as a donation to the organ fund from Lady Edith J Durning Lawrence, Mrs Slipper was now firmly established upon the fund-raising trail and a Musical Service followed on the 30th January 1927 at which the principal soloist was a gifted blind singer from Ballyclare -a Mrs Moore, ALCM, ably supported by a spirited quartet and the music committee themselves under the guise of the Church Choir! The funds raised from this and the Sale of Work, in the Minor Town Hall, Newry were both described as 'splendid'. Funds having been raised, a deputation comprising the Rev Slipper and Mrs Slipper, Miss S Warnock and Messrs J Thompson and Isaac Moore were sent to inspect the organ in Belfast and another one which also happened to be for sale at their sister church in Grey-abbey. After detailed examination of catalogues relating to the respective organs it was decided to purchase the organ from All Souls'. Mrs Slipper was deeply mindful of the historic instru-ment which was being brought into their midst:
"It was said to come from St George's Chapel, Windsor and that Handel played on it at one time, while it was in that Chapel. However, that may be, but it is a fact that it was the very first pipe organ possessed by anyone in the North of England". [sic - perhaps the author had intended to say "North of Ireland"]
The job of removing it from Belfast and building it into the Newry Church was given to the distinguished architect Edmund Barre. The music committee of the Newry Church, it would seem, was not as against the use of electricity as their Belfast colleagues, and they decided to power their new organ by dynamo. However, nearer the opening disaster struck. The Music Committee found that there was either (a) not sufficient power in the town electricity supply at their time of asking or (b) if there was they could not have it for a considerable time after the opening.
The Non-Subscribers' good friends and neighbours the Irish National Foresters came to their rescue. They controlled the local picture palace, which was two doors down from the church and they willingly consented to give the Newry Church the power supply that they used for their picture palace. Their generosity continued for nearly a year until the town supply was either ready or made available. The fact that the I.N.F. refused any remuneration for the electricity was deeply appreciated by the congregation, who earlier had been thrown into a quandary as to what they would do on their 'Opening Night' if they had an outstandingly beautiful organ, but with no sound!
The organ was opened and dedicated on Wednesday 28th November 1928. Repairs were carried out again in 1943, 1949 and 1951. In 1953 the 1806 Choir Organ stop was removed by Mr W Dilley of Queen's Buildings, Thomas Street, Portadown. Twenty-six years later, the organ was completely re-conditioned by the Wells-Kennedy Partnership of Lisburn. That restoration cost the congregation £14,000 and with sterling effort at the time of re-dedication, (June 1979) - almost £9,000 had been raised.
Throughout the entire restoration, the mechanical action, soundboards, console, keys - were all styled in the Robson tradition. The sound-boards are now constructed of modern laminates and mahogany, with special slide seals to adjust to changes in humidity. The roller-boards are constructed with light alloy rollers fitted with needle-pin bearings and jeweller's points. The old music committee of All Souls' would rest easy - all the old pipe-work of the organ has still been maintained with the addition of some new pipe-work which replaces missing parts. The early 19th Century casework has been cleaned down, restored and wax finished and the front pipes have been splendidly gilded with 21 carat best gold leaf.
But one returns to the identity of the original builder. If Joseph Snetzler was not the craftsman, then Renatus Harris and Samuel Green are two contenders for the crown. Many have been quick to knock down the legend of Handel playing upon this venerable old instrument, yet if the Dublin organ maker, Green, did actually build this organ, then the 'Legend' is vindicated, its illustrious past upheld - an instrument upon which George Frederick Handel did indeed play - if not compose, which did indeed entertain the Electors of Hanover, and an organ which, one would suspect that, even Hardy and the Mellstock Choir themselves would have heartily approved of and welcomed gladly into their midst!
Footnotes and Sources:
Present organist of the Newry Church is Mrs Madge McNews from Portadown. She has just notched up over 30 years service to our Church (another Craigavon link!).
The organ in Newry is also recognised by the Organ Society of Ireland as being one of the finest examples of a Chamber Organ in the British Isles - both for its clarity of sound and range of tone.
Writer also acknowledges the assistance given her by the Rev D H Porter, present minister of the Newry Church and former Moderator of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland.