On Tuesday 20th January, 23 people boarded a coach in Market Square, Stony Stratford and travelled to Kent. However we weren’t the first of our party to make it to the workshops of FH Browne & Sons that day, as Geoff and David had set off much earlier to spend the morning interviewing and filming (for the DVD) the organ builders as they restore the 3 manual Willis organ. In addition, 4 other people travelled by car, making our group 29 people in total (unfortunately 4 others were unable to come at the last minute).

Steve Bayley welcomed us when we crowded the front workshop (the boy’s school part of the Old Cartwright School). He explained that the large bellows (reservoirs) we could see had all been re-leathered and everyone admired the beautiful soft creamy white leather joining the different levels of the enormous boxes together.  There are six reservoirs of different sizes in the Willis organ, some them set to higher wind pressures than others. The blower fills these with air so they expand at the leather folds and the wind pressure for the pipes is maintained by placing heavy weights on top of them. Also on view in this workshop were the 3 large soundboards for the Great, Swell and Choir sections of the organ – these are the action boxes which enable the wind to get to the correct pipes when the organist plays at the keyboard.

Steve welcomes and explains

Steve welcomes and explains

I was delighted to be greeted by the smell of button polish when I entered the workshop (it took me straight back to my apprentice days more than 22 years ago): one of the organ builders who specialises in wood working was busy polishing the new Waldhorn soundboard and his work was a beautiful example of fine craftsmanship. Upstairs one of the apprentices was busy cleaning and repairing pipes from another organ and eagerly explained and demonstrated how he was repairing splits in the wooden pipes – he had done a lot of the cleaning and repair of the SMSG Willis organ pipes in the gallery at our church last year. Some of the Willis organ Great under-action was upstairs in the process of being restored – we could see the worn out and blackened leather puffs which will soon be replaced with new leather.

The choir and swell soundboards

The choir and swell soundboards

It was lunchtime when we arrived, and the staff had very kindly set out tables and chairs for us in the main workshop so we could eat our packed lunches. Some of us went across to the Voicing workshop (in the girl’s school building) to find out how the pipes are cleaned and voiced (brought to the correct sound and pitch), later everyone else came to see the voicing machine and learn how it helps the organ builder with this important task. The kitchen was filled with 3 enormous cakes baked by the wife of one of the organ builders and there was plenty of tea and cake for everyone. Some of our group also made a brief visit across the road to the local church.

Picnic lunch at the organ builder's

Picnic lunch at the organ builder's

Blowing pipes in the Voicing shop

Blowing pipes in the Voicing shop

Explaining pipe voicing

Explaining pipe voicing

I asked everyone what they thought was the most interesting part of the visit; these are some of their comments:

“Loved the enthusiasm of the staff for their trade.”

“The staff are so friendly and ready to share their knowledge.”

“Everyone was so welcoming despite the fact that they were doing their work in between us all.”

“The bellows & materials used. The whole day was very informative and I learned a lot.”

“The voice room, the young chap spoke with a feeling of knowledge and love of his job.”

“It was very interesting to see the work in progress and to be aware of the ongoing working needed after the organ is installed.”

“Completely fascinating”

“The bellows i.e. size and the thinness of the leather.”

“I especially enjoyed learning how the pipes are tuned”

“Seeing the new leather joints & 19th century tuning implements.”

“Sound chest and how air goes to pipes and voicing different types of pipes.”

“It’s still quite difficult to lace the whole process from key to note together! Browne's staff VERY knowledgeable and friendly.”

The voicing shop was definitely a highlight for many people and the staff got a lot of praise in the feedback forms for their willingness to explain to a large group who had never seen inside an organ before how different parts of the organ work. We know as a result of this visit that there is real interest in understanding how ‘key to pipe’ works – we hadn’t provided any diagrams to explain this before the visit and are planning, as part of the DVD and the education materials we’ll be developing as part of the Heritage Lottery Funded project, to explain this clearly.

At the end of our visit, we presented Steve Bayley and the other organ builders with a thank you card, which we had all signed, and a box of chocolates as a small thank offering for giving us (as one feedback comment said) “a wonderful opportunity for 23 members of the church to learn about the exceptional workings of our beautiful Willis organ”.

Anna presents the card to Steve

Anna presents the card to Steve

More photos of our visit to FH Browne & Sons can be seen at https://www.flickr.com/photos/78058413@N06/sets/72157648126897944/

by Anna Page

(Postscript: One person on the outing did her knitting on the coach journey and succeeded in completing 12 inches of knitting!)