The visit was well worth the long journey there (and back). We met outside St John’s Church at 8.45am on Tuesday 16th June and arrived at the factory at 12 noon. The coach was very comfortable, with a bar and toilet, and the weather perfect for a trip to the countryside. Approaching Malvern was superb, seeing the hills in the distance from the front of the coach. On arriving at Nicholson, Andrew Moyes the Managing Director gave us a warm welcome and much needed coffee and biscuits.
The factory was surprisingly compact, considering Betty’s many components, all of which are being repaired and cleaned. Most of us had no idea just how complex Betty’s internal parts are. Andrew explained how she worked, showing us the reconditioned soundboard of the choir organ, the new electric stop action and how tracker action works. This is the mechanical linkage between keys or pedals pressed by the organist and the valve that allows air to flow into pipe(s) of the corresponding note. I know – very technical and far beyond my comprehension.
Then we saw Betty’s new framework – a splendid sight. I seem to remember poplar was used. A few intrepid souls went to the higher reaches of the factory to see the brand new swell box. This is a structure that is an enclosed box with shutters, which contains 10 ranks of pipes (560 to be precise), that allow the sound to be either loud or soft depending on whether or not the shutters are open or shut. This is normally concealed within the bowels of the organ, so it was a one off opportunity to gaze at a large section of Betty’s innards!
I was particularly intrigued by the different types of leather which are used to ensure that there is a snug fit between the tops of the wooden pipes and the wooden tuning stoppers. It is vital to make sure they are airtight so that the pitch of the note remains correct. The thickness of the leather is critical. We were then shown the large restored bellows, which are the lungs of the organ. The air escaping from the perished leatherwork when the organ was turned on caused the huge amount of noise in church during Services. A very disruptive sound. When she returns to St John’s, Betty will sound more like a purring Rolls Royce than a hissing kettle I hope!
We were told that the organ was made at a time when mahogany was freely available. Nowadays it is a protected species so the team at Nicholson’s hunt down pieces of any shape or size to recycle. It is like gold dust and Betty has much need of it.
We then went to the pipe shop to see how they were made and how they produced a sound. Nicholson only make metal pipes and buy in wooden pipes if they are needed. Betty won’t be having any new pipes but will have two ranks of resourced pipes from redundant Hill organs, which will be included in the final stop list. This is to restore her to her original registration of 1865. Guy Russell, tonal director at Nicholson, showed us one of the reclaimed ranks of pipes being used for our organ, and demonstrated the sound it produces. So exciting!!! He also showed us how they voiced pipes to make sure the required sound was even throughout its range. I had no idea how varied they were in size and shape and how the tuning could be affected by a slight change in temperature. Totally fascinating!
During the final part of our tour around the factory we saw the old console polished and looking very smart. It was a part of Betty I recognised instantly. It was as if Betty had had a facelift with new teeth, with her 3 new gleaming keyboards (manuals), shiny pedals and the console area re-stained so it looks bright and new. What a delight! I was getting worried I wouldn’t be able to recognise the old girl, but there she was. We learnt that the term ‘manual’ comes from the Latin, manus – hand and pedals, pes – foot. I learnt how Betty’s 3 manuals worked and what they are called: choir, great and swell. The choir, the lowest of Betty’s keyboards, is a quieter manual. The great in the middle is the loudest and includes the decorated pipes from the case of the organ, and the swell is the expressive one, which is in a box with the shutters. The pedals have the low notes and some of the pipes make up the case in the south transept.
We came away amazed at the complexity of Betty’s workings, delighted at the care and expertise of the Nicholson’s staff and more than ready for a bite to eat!
A great day was had by all! Many thanks to Nicholson’s for their work on Betty. I have learnt so much about our organ, an instrument that gives us so much pleasure. It is after all an important part of the fabric of the church and she is and has become a family member at the heart of the church. From Betty’s restoration close friendships are evolving between people who share a common passion for heritage, and who otherwise may not have connected. I certainly have formed bonds between others on this project. I can’t wait for her to return and sing out to congregations once again. I certainly feel much more connected to her soul. On our return journey on the coach, with a nice plastic cup of white chilled wine, I toasted Betty, our organ. Long may she reign.