My aim here is to give certain instruments that are not always well known a greater recognition, they have a rarity of quality which makes them stand out from the average. It has been said that for every 10 Steinway concert grand pianos built, 1 may stand out as being very special. Some organs have that quality too.

Church of Holy Innocents, South Norwood, London, SE25.

The church of the Holy Innocents, South Norwood, London, stands just a few metres west of Norwood Junction railway station in south London. Not the most affluent part of south London even a little run down these days, until very recently you would be forgiven in thinking that the building was closed. In fact it very nearly was until the diocese put it in the hands of Nicola Coleman to see if she could turn the situation around. In just a few years Reverend Nicola has done wonders increasing the congregation numbers and struggling with a building which makes enormous demands on the purse.

A brief guide to the church written by the late David Whisson, a life-long member and organist of the church, describes it far better than I could. As he states the organ dates from 1898 and is by Norman Brothers & Beard. This company went through several changes during its long history and the name changes reflect this. Clearly NB&B were the early days before Brothers was dropped from the title, when they became known as Norman & Beard, in the 1920s they changed again when they amalgamated with William Hill & Son.

The organ built for Holy Innocents church has 3 manuals and pedals and is almost entirely mechanical, the exception being the pedal key and stop actions which are pneumatic. It stands high on the south side of the chancel in an open position facing north. Largely uncased the Great Opens make up an 8ft façade by which it is just possible to make out an intended case design, though this was left unfinished. A curiosity you can see is that the right side is asymmetrical, the reason for this is not apparent but may have been filled in for appearances.

The organ as it is now in 2015 is in a relatively poor condition as it has received little attention during the 20th century apart from the addition, as described in David Whisson’s guide, of a new “electric pump”. In fact the organ can still be pumped by one person quite easily as thankfully the mechanical blowing system has been left in place.

One substantial bit of work that the organ has received coincided with its centenary, this was the re-leathering of the main reservoir and the replacement of the main steel wind trunk that had been installed with the blower in 1934. There is an interesting story about this that I would like tell.

I came on the scene after successfully tendering for the re-leathering of the reservoir, which had got to the point of leaking so badly it became impossible to raise any wind at all. The work had to be carried out on site as to remove the reservoir would have meant that the whole organ would have to be dismantled. The church had struggled to raise enough funds for the re-leathering and not for a major restoration.

The reservoir is large and fits exactly within the footprint of the instrument. As luck would have it, and very rare for an english tracker organ, access to the reservoir was possible around all 4 sides. I then had to remove all the connections to the bellows, many trunks and conveyances.

When I removed all screws from the steel trunk it would not budge. Realising straight away that this was not the work of an organ builder as I had to prise it away, its almost instinctive that anything made by an organ builder is always removable!  It came away very slowly and started to crumble which I thought was very strange indeed. When I got enough access to see I found asbestos fibres were the reason for the crumbling, and they were blue. Blue asbestos was lining the inside throughout the length of this steel trunk, and inside the blower silencer box.

After some consultation with the church and the local counsel a private contractor had to be called in. After inspecting the situation the contractor announced in no uncertain terms that all work had to stop, the church must be closed, and the organ must be disposed of. When I recovered from the shock of his words I pointed out that I doubted the church would close and that the organ was an antique and a valuable historical monument (which it is but I laid it on a bit). On accepting this we agreed that the reservoir should receive an internal coating of sealant that would halt any fibres that may have been floating around, quite a climb down from the original analysis I thought. The company then went on to remove the steel trunk and blower box in very strict conditions reminiscent of a science fiction film. In no way would I deny the seriousness of asbestosis, but in this case the asbestos was quite secure for 65 years, until I prised that trunk apart.

Pipe OrganSo the organ sings out from its lofty position into, what organ builders say is the best stop on the organ, a very resonant space. The voicing of the instrument is clear and bright and all stops perfectly balance each other, very rare on a late Victorian organ. The reeds too are light and bright, and considering their present condition fairly quick as well. A rare feature here is the Swell Vox Humana, which is clearly imported from the continent as it is made in the French style which for the technically minded is a double-blocked reed.

The specification is complete enough to enable many schools of organ composition to be satisfied. So too is the key action, which is light and responsive, especially the Great organ, a very satisfying play. These are the features which make this instrument stand out from the crowd, it deserves to be better known.

The specification is as follows:

Open Dipason I 8 Bourdon 16 Lieblich Gedact 8 Open Diapason 16
Open Diapason II 8 Open Diapason 8 Viol di Gamba 8 Bourdon 16
Clarabel Flute 8 Stopped Diapason 8 Suabe Flute 4 Violincello 8
Principal 4 Salicional 8 Clarinet 8 Trombone 16
Harmonic Flute 4 Vox Angelica t.c. 8
Fifteenth 2 Geigen Principal 4
Posaune 8 Piccolo 2
Full Mixture III
Double Trumpet 16
Horn 8
Oboe 8
Vox Humana 8
Tremulant (later addition)

December 2015

It is with great regret that I have to report that this wonderful instrument has had suffered severe water damage.  This was due entirely to thieves who removed the lead from the roof above the organ gallery.  This mindless selfish action has not only ruined a great instrument but caused immense problems for an already struggling parish.  The Swell and Pedal organs are now unusable, and only time will tell if this damage is permanent.

NEWS December 2015.  The latest on the condition of this organ is that the Swell and Pedal remain unusable.


The Norwood instrument along with other splendid and interesting instruments in the South London area can be found on a double CD available from Southwark Organist’s Association.

Southwark and South London Society of Organists

Please take some time to visit the website of the Southwark and South London Society of Organists.  If you wish to join they will be very pleased to hear from you!