Forgotten Organ Rejuvenated

Chris Sillince

Sydney Organ Journal (Autumn 2011) pp55-58


Over the last several decades, many historic organs have been sympathetically restored and given a new lease on life, whether it be in their original homes or by being transplanted to a new home. Sadly, over the years, there have been a number of very worthy instruments that have suffered the indignity of being (with hindsight) ill-advisedly rebuilt and where those rebuilds have been poorly executed.   Two such examples of the latter are the 1883 Hill organs to be found in the Anglican parishes of Ashfield and Burwood, the latter now known as Concord.


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Restored Hill Case, St John’s, Ashfield


The Concord instrument, built with tracker action, arrived in Sydney Harbour on 5 April 1884 aboard the RMS Valetta, a P&O steamer. The ship, having passed her sea trials in January 1884, was on her maiden voyage to Australia. She was built for the England Australia run.


Also travelling on RMS Valetta was the new Anglican Bishop of Sydney and Primate of Australia, Bishop Dr Alfred Barry. Valetta was met in Sydney Harbour by the steamers Eva and Port Jackson with a number of dignitaries aboard including the Dean of Sydney, members of Synod, the Colonial Secretary and Colonial Treasurer! Barry was ushered ashore and later that day attended a Thanksgiving Service in St Andrew’s Cathedral at 3:00pm. Following the service where approximately 1,400 were in attendance, the Bishop was treated to a reception in the newly built Masonic Hall in Castlereagh Street. How things have changed! (Ref SMH Mon 7 Apr 1884).


The Concord instrument had been given to the church by the Walker family of Yaralla in recognition of Eadith Walker’s 21st birthday (‘Historic Organs of NSW’, Rushworth p273). Bishop Barry dedicated the Hill organ at Concord on 14 June 1884. This date has been etched into the casework of this instrument, just to the right of the console.


William Davidson installed the Concord organ in the shallow western gallery. It was moved to its present position at the east end of the south aisle in 1892, possibly by Davidson. At this time, the Great Trumpet was removed and replaced with a Clarionet.


In 1960, this instrument was rebuilt by amateurs who installed a poorly constructed electro-pneumatic action with a detached console. I first encountered this instrument in the early 1970s and it was not a pleasant introduction. Interestingly, no professional organ builder consulted at the time would have anything to do with the proposal which included enlarging it to three manuals. The specification was to be crowned with a Tuba stop! Fortunately, funds were limited and the instrument came out of the rebuild as a two manual instrument only.


The instrument struggled to survive and finally collapsed in 1979 when a program commenced to have the organ rebuilt with a modern mechanical action. This rebuild was highly successful and has been well documented in these pages. The rebuilt organ was dedicated on St Luke’s Day in October 1989. I became organist of this church some six months later and served the parish for five and a half years. At all times, I found this Hill organ to be an inspiration and have a great attachment to it. The parish had retained a number of documents relating to the 1960 rebuild from which I wrote an article on the organ’s history for the parish magazine.


Well, what has this got to do with Ashfield?


The St John’s Hill & Son organ was dedicated by Bishop Barry some three weeks after Concord. It was positioned against the eastern wall of the north transept.


Prior to installing the Hill organ, St John’s had been using a single manual organ built for the church’s western gallery in 1870 by William Davidson. The church was enlarged in 1875 and Davidson’s organ was moved to the southern transept in 1879. The Rector, Canon James Christian Corlette, was also Precentor of St Andrew’s Cathedral and aimed at a high standard of parish church music. On the arrival of the Hill organ, Davidson’s instrument was moved to St Bartholomew’s Church in Pyrmont. On closure of that church, the organ was moved to St Luke’s Anglican Church, Northmead where it was restored by Arthur Jones in 1971. (see OHTA website).


Despite having served the parish well for many years, forces for ‘modernisation’ were afoot and in 1950, at the behest of the organist, Keith Noake, the Wiltshire Brothers were engaged to rebuild the organ with electric action. A new, detached console was provided on the south side of the chancel, just below the pulpit. Stop controls were by luminous discs which would light up when a stop was on and would go out when the stop was off. The Wiltshire Brothers effectively removed all of the Hill wind system, console, action and left only the windchests, building frame, pipes and casework.


By the early 1970s, the instrument was in poor condition and the church sought to have the organ rebuilt again. The Rector, the Revd P.W.G. Twine, LTCL, was an organist and keen to have a good instrument in his church. This time a modern mechanical action was envisaged and the parish engaged Anthony Welby in 1975 to perform the work. Interestingly, there was a move towards mechanical action for this old organ in 1975. It was all the rage at the time.


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Welby Console, St John’s, Ashfield


The new Welby console was necessarily brought back close to the organ, but was still detached. The organist now faced south with the organ immediately behind his back. To save on height, the console was fitted with stop tabs instead of stop knobs. The stop action was electric and used ‘SLIC’ slider motors developed by Steve Laurie of Melbourne.


The very nature of this rebuild was the genesis of the organ’s ongoing action problems. To fit the mechanical action under the console and back into the organ, it was necessary to remove part of the structural support of the floor. Over time, the floor sagged and brought all manner of problems with the action.


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Building Frame, St John’s, Ashfield

  Anthony Welby installed three small regulator style bellows and a new British Organ Blowing Co  blower. It was oversized to the point where it could Have blown a much larger organ. It is believed that wind pressures were lowered at this time. The Oboe had been revoiced at some stage (with the caps removed) resulting in the stop sounding more like a mini Trumpet than an Oboe. Further, the Swell Mixture had been altered by the addition of a third rank (1-1/3?) at some stage.



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John Parker replaces the first front pipe


In 2006, the parish approached John Parker to submit a quote to move the console as the church had plans to remodel and completely open up the chancel area. The console needed to be re-positioned. Needless to say, it was impossible to accede to the parish’s request. A mechanical console is an immoveable object!


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Hutch Swell box being re-assembled


Following discussions with the Rector, the Reverend Andrew Katay, it became obvious that the organ was in need of a major refurbishment to allow the console to be moved, to fix the numerous action faults and tonal irregularities as well as stabilise the floor.

It is to the Rev Mr Katay’s credit that the unexpected, but necessary money, was found to allow the organ to be rebuilt. Given what seems to be happening in other Sydney Anglican churches, it is gratifying that this organ was appreciated by the parish it had served for well over 120 years and that they were prepared to give it a new lease on life. It could have been so easy to throw it out and to use other means to try and support congregational singing.


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New bellows frame and (above) electric pull-down actions


Briefly, John Parker has converted the instrument to  electric ‘pull-down’ action of the pallets. New windchests for the pedal pipes have been provided. Also, three new bellows (3.5ft X 5.5ft) have been built and the BOBCo blower has been repositioned into the adjacent vestry. The Swell and Great windchests have been fully restored with the pipe work being cleaned, repaired and returned to proper speech. Wind pressure has been returned (raised) to the Hill standard of three inches.


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Restored Great pipe work

As part of relocating the blower, it was necessary to run the main wind trunk under the floor from the vestry into the organ. A startling discovery was made when the floor was opened up under the organ. A large quantity of lead pneumatic tubing was discovered lying on the ground, no doubt left from the time of the Wiltshire Brothers rebuild. It was a cheap and simple answer to getting rid of it.


The amount of tubing was far in excess of what might be expected had the organ been fitted with tubular pneumatic action to the pedals only, for example. This has led to the belief that the organ had been built by Hill & Son with tubular-pneumatic action rather than tracker action as has been commonly believed. If that is the case, then the Ashfield Hill may have been the first pneumatic organ in Sydney. It would have been two years ahead of the Hunter organ at Petersham.


John Parker has cleaned and repaired all of the pipe work and carefully voiced it o remove speech irregularities. Tuning slides have been installed on some pipes on the Great organ for protection of the pipe work. Much of the Swell flue work already had tuning slides and these have been retained. All Pedal, front pipe and off note chests have been replaced.


Other interesting facts about the instrument are summed up by John Parker:


“This is the third time major work has been carried out on this instrument since its arrival in Sydney, and could even possibly be the fourth. Much evidence seems to prove that the organ was probably a second-hand purchase from Hill (with additions), and its relatively cheap price of four hundred pounds, is certainly under that of other Hill instruments of similar size, imported around the same period.


“There is much evidence that the ground and building frame have been significantly altered at some time. We would imagine that this work was done prior to the organ coming to Australia, as everything has been reduced in floor space. Certainly the outer casework has been moved back into the organ on all sides, to fit on the raised platform the organ sits upon. There is no evidence that the organ floor has been altered, or changed since the organ’s installation, as when floor frame work was removed, it showed clean timbers underneath.


“Other changes to the building frame appear to have been carried out by Hill – excepting obvious amateur alterations, carried out in other work.”




1950     Rebuilt with electric action. R A & D A Wiltshire

1975     Rebuilt with tracker action. Anthony Welby

2008     Rebuilt with electric action. John W Parker


“In the Wiltshire rebuild, the organ was converted to electric action of some description. Certainly the pedal chests were provided with an electric ‘primary’ action, and a very strange form of “envelope” opening pallet valve. Some of these chests remained till 2006 when the organ was dismantled.


“The Wiltshires also extended the 8’ Hill pedal Violone Cello to 16’ pitch, and provided a remote console on the opposite side of the chancel. Apparently, at this time the Hill double-rise bellows was dispensed with, and some strange form of regulator/bellows was installed. Some people have suggested that there may have been wind pressures as high as 6 inches introduced at this time, but there is no evidence that any pipe work was altered to suit.


“At the same time, the front pipes were put on electro-pneumatic chests, and certainly the slider soundboards had some form of action made to operate them. Sadly, the work of 1975 removed any ‘tell-tale’ information, as this involved the cutting out of the underside of the slider soundboards.


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New Console, St John’s Ashfield


“Realising funds were limited, and that this could be another organ that was cast into a corner and forgotten, we set about assessing it.  The pipe work was virtually untouched, other than the Swell being fitted with tuning slides; the addition of a third rank to the Mixture in 1975, and the revoicing of the Oboe as a Hautbois,  or small Trumpet.


“The Great pipe work was a bit sad. Years of cone tuning had ruined the pipe toes. The smaller pipes of the Principal and Fifteenth were actually forced down the toe-holes. It was decided that these pipes be repaired, and that the fitting of tuning slides would preserve their usefulness, not to mention speech Also, the wind pressures were set too low.  We knew there was an organ waiting to ‘get out.’”


A refurbished console, originally built for the J P Eagles organ at Lugar Brae Presbyterian Church, Waverley, has been provided. The pedal board is a refurbished one originally built by Hill Norman & Beard. This stop-tab console is located, at the church’s request, on a mobile platform to allow it to be moved up to two metres away from the organ.


Given that this organ appears to have been put together from several different sources in the Hill factory, and the subsequent rebuilds, there is probably nobody alive now who can accurately recall how it sounded prior to the Wiltshire rebuild.


John Parker has achieved outstanding results in this latest work. It must be remembered that everything was necessarily achieved on a tight budget. Workmanship is of the highest order and every part of the organ has received critical attention.

One source of regret in this work is that the stencilling on the case pipes could not be reinstated. Gold paint was applied to the pipes in the Wiltshire rebuild. However, restoration of the diapering will have to wait for the future.


The organ speaks cleanly and boldly into the church and more than adequately supports the congregational singing. Because of the constrained budget, some tonal items have been left over to another time. This includes the taming of the Oboe and revision of the Swell Mixture.


Nevertheless, this organ makes a very respectable sound and is a great credit to John Parker’s professionalism and the enthusiasm of the Ashfield parish. Given the organ’s background, it is probably fair to say that it has never sounded better than it does now.


There has also been an unexpected and welcome aside to this story. One of the Rev Mr Katay’s sons, Miles,  attends a Sydney Anglican School, and was so taken with the organ’s rebuilding, he was sufficiently inspired to undertake organ lessons at the school.


I would like to thank John Parker for his input in the completion of this article including the provision of the photographs.


The organ’s specification is as follows:


Open Diapason

Lieblich Gedackt

Gamba (pierced)

Voix Celeste



Mixture (rank 3 1970’s)

Oboe (revoiced)





















Open Diapason

Stopped Diapason



Wald Flute


Swell to Great













Open Bass


Violone Cello

Bass Flute

Great to Pedal

Swell to Pedal






















Swell Sub Octave+

Swell Octave+                (Swell couplers playable through Sw – Grt coupler)


*  Added by Hill prior to delivery     #  Added by Wiltshire     +  Added by J W Parker


Organists of St John’s, Ashfield

1864 Miss Gittins, 1868 Miss Woods, 1869 Messrs G. Yarnton, 1878 W.G. Broadhurst, 1880 Thornton, 1881 Albert Fisher, 1881 H.G. Noble, 1883 W.T. Sharp, 1895-1932 Albert Fisher, 1932 Christian Hellemann, 1932 Herbert Sheppard, 1933 E. Massey, 1934 Stanley Holliday, 1936 Dr Gardiner, 1938 Messrs Malcolm Dick, 194? Keith Noake, 1951 Michael Dyer, Jack McKelvie to 1957  (G. Hyde, deputy), Ron McIntosh, Charles Boyd Bell, David Rumsey (ca. 1960-63 and 1969-73), David Jenkins. Current: Mr Alan Orr and Mr Miles Katay. (Peter Meyer