Men, money and music
We can with justification be proud of the high standard of music in our parish church: an enthusiastic choir, a music group, a fine organ played by skilled organists (including on occasion the vicar), all supported and encouraged by the ‘Friends of St. Mary’s Music’!
Surviving records prove that this happy state was not reached easily. Nowadays we take for granted that an organ accompanies the singing of choir and congregation, but only about 200 years ago they were a rarity in parish churches. Organs were in use in the Middle Ages in great cathedrals, but even there they were instruments to be remarked upon in the journal of a seventeenth century Dutch traveller, when he saw one on his journeys. They did not come to parish churches until the next century. Before organs came the congregation was led by ‘singers’ or ‘musicians’, sometimes clannish bodies isolating themselves from the congregation in galleries and not in tune with the vicar.
Ewell had an organ before 1769 when £1 13s. 9d. was spent on tuning the organ. Quite an early date for a Surrey parish church. We do not know what type of organ that was, it may have been a barrel organ, which did not need a skilled organist, but was obviously limited in the number of tunes it could play.
Twenty years later Ewell certainly had a ‘finger organ’ played by a Mr. Geast who was paid £7 10s. 0d. for six months. (Organists, like others, were apparently always paid in arrears). However, in that year the Vestry decided, by a majority, that no organist should be appointed, and that the organ should be ‘put down’. Oh dear, was it so bad or were the ‘singers’ staging a comeback? Whatever the reason, the ban did not last long, for in 1794 £9 9s. 6d. was paid for the repair of the organ, and the next year £6 6s. 0d. for organ curtains, considerable sums to be raised from the Church Rate.
A period of stability started in 1797 when a Mr. Monger was appointed at £20 per annum (he had to wait 2 years for his money!). From then on a Mr. Monger was confirmed as organist regularly on Easter Monday, when the Vestry met to appoint officials like the Clerk and the Pew Openers. In 1858 the Vestry expressed their sympathy with the widow of Mr. W. Monger, the late organist, who had served as such for 38 years. For all of the 61 years the salary had remained at £20 per annum. During this period a new organ loft was built and the organ itself rebuilt in 1824 at a total cost of £131. When the new church was put up in 1847/8 the organ was transferred there.
With the demise of Mr. Monger, the Vestry had difficulty in finding a skilled organist. Various appointees, including the masters of the National School, were tried without satisfaction. So by Easter Monday 1862 no organist had been appointed by the Vestry, who decided to ask the vicar to select a competent organist at a salary of £40 per annum. A Mr. Jackman was duly appointed, but the cost proved too high, and two years later his salary was reduced to £25 per annum. In 1867 George Torr, who had bought Garbrand Hall (standing in the grounds of the present Bourne Hall) eight years earlier, decided to give a new organ to the parish church in memory of his son who had died in 1865. He seems to have set aside £500 for this. When he himself died in 1867, his widow added a further £300. It was decided that the new organ should be built by Henry Willis.
Father Willis, as he was affectionately known, was not a priest but an organist and organ builder, who had made a name for himself by building a three-manual 70-stop organ for the Great Exhibition of 1851. Later this was installed in Winchester Cathedral. He soon received commissions for instruments in such places as the Albert Hall and St. George’s Hall, Liverpool. He was very busy when the Ewell order came in, and the new organ was not delivered until after March 1872 when Mr. Hardy had his plans for an organ chamber approved at a cost of £293 4s. 0d. (Extra work increased this to £334 12s. 0d., of which Mrs. Torr paid over £240, and Sir George Glyn most of the rest). In 1876 Mr. Parker replaced Mr. Jackman as organist at the same salary, but he later waived his fees, and his services as an efficient volunteer organist were acknowledged in the Vestry Minutes until 1883. His successor had to be paid £60 per annum, of which the Rev. Glyn paid £50 and the parish the rest.
The Willis organ served the parish well. On November 17 1973, when the organ was just about 100 years old, a group of Surrey organists gave a concert on the completion of the refurbishment of the church ‘resplendent in its new layout’, as the Ewell Parish News reported. Eight days later the north aisle in St Mary’s was gutted by fire and the proud organ totally destroyed. With great determination the work of rebuilding was started, and within six months a replacement Willis organ was found in the parish church of St. Augustine, Highbury. It was bought for £6,000. This was similar to the one lost in the fire, but having been built some 20 years later it incorporated Willis’ later techniques and refinements. It was fully overhauled and had electronic switchgear added by the Liverpool firm of Rushworth and Dreaper at a cost of over £25,000.
On December 1975 Barry Rose, first organist and choirmaster of Guildford Cathedral, and later organist at St. Paul’s London, gave a recital celebrating the rebuilding of the north aisle and the new organ.
And there it is today, over a hundred years old, an instrument by probably the greatest organ builder of his time. St. Mary’s is one of the few parish churches to have a Willis organ, sharing this honour with cathedrals such as Canterbury, Durham, Lincoln and St. Paul’s. Well-protected in its chamber and well-maintained, we must make sure that it continues so as part of our church heritage.