Background Article to be published in the Camberwell Quarterly March 2015 edition:
ORGAN AT ST GILES’ CHURCH – AN ATTEMPT TO BREAK THE WORLD RECORD FOR THE LONGEST MARATHON CHURCH ORGAN PLAYING 25-27th JUNE 2015
An important historic object in Camberwell is the organ in the parish church of St Giles’ which takes up most of the space in the north transept.
The organ was built by J.C. Bishop & Son at the time the church was being rebuilt following its destruction 4 years earlier by fire. The famous organist and composer S.S Wesley, who was the organist at St Giles’ for a period before the fire, returned to design the organ and played it for the consecration of the new church in 1844.
A somewhat apocryphal story tells of Wesley getting carried away with the organ and playing a very long-winded organ voluntary at the end of the service, preventing the congregation from enjoying tea on the Georgian vicarage lawn. The Bishop of Winchester was said to have paid the organ blowers to stop pumping the bellows of the instrument, much to Wesley’s ire but the congregation’s relief!
Throughout its lifetime, the organ has remained relatively untouched; restorations in the 1890’s and 1960’s have not significantly altered the original sound scheme. The organ also retains its original ‘tracker’ action – meaning that each key and pedal is mechanically linked to valves and pipes. The original 1844 leather bellows remain air-tight to this day.
However, electrical adaptions adaptations from the 1960’s are beyond repair. 170 years’ worth of pollution is slowly eroding some of the pipes and water ingress has damaged some of the soundboards. The organ is well overdue for a major restoration.
There is a positive side to the organ still being very much in its original state as it is likely to be easier to obtain substantial grants towards repair. This will be crucial as the works may well cost in the region of £500,000; the works will be put to tender soon.
In order to obtain grants it will be necessary to show that the organ is available for use in the local community. To an extent, this is already the case but the church hopes to increase / explore:
- Educational / school visits
- Concerts – especially through the showing of silent films with organ accompaniment
- Practices and rehearsals
- Open days / tours
- Potential music therapy sessions, for example with Kings and Maudsley Hospitals
Grants can only deliver part of the funding, however.Ashley Valentine has been Music Director and Organist at St Giles’ for six years. In that time, Ashley has set up a number of long-running musical events in Camberwell such as the St Giles’ Concert Series (due to take place every Tuesday or.. each week in May this year) and Carols ‘round Camberwell. He also helped to set up Camberwell Community Choir with the help of the SE5 Forum.Ashley felt that an event was needed to gain maximum publicity for the organ restoration appeal. This event has evolved into an attempt to beat the ‘longest marathon church organ playing’ world record which currently stands at 40 hours 36 minutes and was set in Toronto, Canada in 2011.
Ashley will require help to do this between 25 and 27 June 2015 as, not surprisingly, the requirements imposed are very strict. Some of the rules are as follows: that there is a maximum of 5 minutes rest per hour, a maximum of 30 seconds break between each piece, that every piece has to be published and played to a reasonable standard, the church must be open to the public throughout, 2 experienced time keepers are required, 2 independent stewards – one to be a member of the Royal College of Organists or university lecturer – the other from an audit/professional services firm or solicitor and that the attempt must be filmed. In addition a strong support team will be required with food, drink and perhaps a supply of chewing gum to keep Ashley awake!
The team behind the event is already beginning to look for people who might be able to help in anyway they can. Not surprisingly they are hoping people with links to the media, music or legal / professional services in Camberwell could help – but also of course people who could help manning the doors, making tea etc so that this event is successful. It really is an amazing way to kick off the project and have another reason to make Camberwell special.