The case of the wandering organ

Can you imagine a pipe organ that took up 900 square feet, was 70 feet high, 54 feet deep, weighed 87 tons and had 4,209 pipes, the largest of which was some 38 feet long. Large, but not unexceptional for a public concert hall. More surprising is that this behemoth of an organ was originally built for a private London house — it took three years to build and cost £8,000 in 1875 (or more than $1 million today) — making it one of, if not the, most expensive instruments of its kind in the world. Its only rival was one on Long Island that was built in 1880 and cost about the same.

It was commissioned for Victorian telegraphic pioneer with a passion for playing the organ, Nathaniel Holmes, and was installed in his house in Primrose Hill, London. At the end of 1875 Holmes took delivery of the monstrous village of pipes, bells and wiring, replacing a smaller version which he sold to Australia.

holmes organ

His new toy had all the bells and whistles — in terms of bells, it had a Carillion of 61 of them, as part of its “almost endless variety of pleasing effects at the command of the performer.”

The organ had widely been acknowledged as one of the best in Europe. The Graphic went even further in its praise: “The organ” it mused, “is stated to be superior to any other in the world in the points of magnitude, tone, balance of power and constructive art.”

Never mind what the neighbours thought when the Staffordshire figures on the mantelpiece began to rattle as Nathaniel practised, you have to marvel at just where in his house this giant (complete with two steam engines in the basement attached to four large bellows to provide the puff), was kept.

While Nathaniel had the organ in his house, there would have had to have been a skilled boilerman chez Holmes to keep the brute running.

It would be strange if there were not sighs of relief after Holmes died in 1883. Only the boilerman, whose services were indispensable to the organ may have been dismayed at the news that he no longer would be needed to tinker with the furnaces for an hour or so each time Mr Holmes wanted to rattle off the odd toccata or fugue. Perhaps he relocated with the organ as a mahout may do with his elephant. The removers came tasked with the ticklish job of dismantling it to take it south of the river to a more appropriate public hall, the newly built Albert Palace.

Imagine living nextdoor to this?  The organ relocated to the Albert Palace

The organ relocated to the Albert Palace

While for nearly ten years while the Albert Palace was fought over in court following its financial collapse, the organ suffered the depredations of sparrows nesting in it for nearly a decade.

The organ went up for auction in 1893 and this time struggled to make £625. Though the buyer thought he’d make a killing by selling it back to whoever acquired the building, no-one did get the Albert Palace and so he was stuck with it until he finally found a buyer. It was on the move once again.

Building at the time in Fort Augustus Scotland were some Benedictine monks. Their abbey church, designed by Peter Paul Pugin, the son of Augustus Welby Pugin, designer of the interiors of the Houses of Parliament, was nearing completion. With the finances of the church behind it, removing and transporting the organ was not a problem. Its journey north involved in a specially commissioned goods train of 25 coaches. Nevertheless it wasn’t until 1914 that the Abbey was ready to have a part of the organ installed and as it was during the First World War the staff were not around to make a good job of it. In 1936 it was once again pulled apart and rebuilt using the remainder of the bits lying around since 1894. The organ had a further overhaul in 1979, further changing it from the magnificent instrument it once was. When the Abbey’s monks moved out following financial problems and sex scandals in 2000, the cut-down organ was moved yet again, to a Catholic church, St Peter’s, in Buckie, near Elgin, where it resides today.

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