the former St George’s Church, Edinburgh

the former St George’s Church, Edinburgh

During May half term our family visited Edinburgh for our holiday and used some of the time to investigate some of the early history of the St Mary & St Giles church Willis pipe organ. From 1882 until 1962/3 the Willis was in St George’s Church, Charlotte Square, Edinburgh, which was an important place of worship of the Church of Scotland. I wanted to check the Kirk Session Records for the earliest acknowledgement of its existence as part of the history research strand of the Heritage Lottery Funded ‘Willis Pipe Organ Restoration and Reach-out Project’. David had done some initial investigation of the Kirk Session records in late 2012, enough to tell us the extent of the task and that there was some information about the organ in the records. I wanted to start collecting actual entries.

During the mornings of Thursday 29th and Friday 30th May I spent a total of 4.5 hours in the National Records of Scotland Historical Reading room, checking the periods of 1895-1901 (Thursday) and 1880 – 1886 (Friday). I wrote a 15 pages of A4 notes in pencil (you cannot take a pen into the Archives, or a drink nor use a mobile phone), another time I shall take a laptop (this is allowed) to type up notes.

In the 1896 records I found mention of the organ which had recently been enlarged by Willis II and Mr Hartley the organist being given permission to use it for an organ recital for the Bach Society members in April or May 1897. This was repeated in 1898, but I found no mention of a similar booking request for a private recital for the Bach Society to the Kirk Session meeting in the following years. In 1897 (14 June meeting) Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Hymn was mentioned in the records when the treasurer was authorised to purchase 1,000 copies of the official Jubilee Hymn (written by the Bishop of Wakefield) to be sung in the Church on Sunday 20 June 1897 to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee. In 1898 the meeting gave permission for the Church of Scotland Guild to use the church and the organ on 27 March for a special service, with the Guild organist being allowed to play the Willis. It seemed from the records in this period that the newly enlarged organ was proving attractive for particular events as well as regular worship.

Willis ledger 1896

Willis ledger 1896

I read about the choir master whose tenure at St George’s pre-dated the Willis organ (Sir A C Mackenzie) who went to live in Italy for health reasons in 1881 and recommended a young choir master called Adam Carl Hamilton to take his place. There was no mention at all of the Willis in 1880 or 1881 but several mentions of the choir and a choir committee. I was hoping to find something about the organ being commissioned but there was nothing in the records, then suddenly, in the meeting for 2 October 1882 (the month which the organ was recorded in the Willis ledger), the session clerk recorded that “the meeting authorized the clerk on the part of the session to sign the agreement with the water company for the supply of water for working the bellows of the organ” and in the same meeting a committee was convened “as to the appointment of an organist at a salary not exceeding £50 (per annum) in addition to the present case persons of the choir”, this was followed at the 26 October meeting when the treasurer was authorised “to pay Mr Bradley who had been appointed organist by the Committee in terms of the powers given them at last meeting £25 per annum salary in advance from 15 October, the date of his appointment”. The following month the organ was insured for £1,000 (it had cost just over £900). Mr Charles Bradley and Mr Hamilton were both given notice in late 1884, to leave in February 1885, though the Kirk Session records didn’t record a clear reason for their dismissal. A committee was appointed to investigate whether a joint organist and choirmaster would be a better option, and Mr Henry Hartley organist of Newington Parish Church was appointed from 86 applicants!

Willis ledger 1882

Willis ledger 1882

This was all intriguing and I reluctantly dragged myself away from the records office with a number of questions. Why was there no mention of the commissioning of the organ – was this something which had gone through the Choir Committee rather than the Kirk Session meetings and was a bequest involved. Why had Mr Bradley and Mr Hamilton been sacked together (but expected to work out their notice) and why had they been succeeded by one person to do both roles (who had gone on to be a much loved, successful organist and choirmaster at St George’s for 26 years).

Some of the answers emerged from conversations with Records Office staff and members of the congregation of St Andrew’s and George’s West church in the following days, however that is the subject of another post about the history research.

Anna Page