The Organ of St Mary’s Church, Bridgwater, 1448-1823

The first mention of an organ in the church was in 1448, when it was recorded in the Bridgwater Borough Archives that the churchwardens paid 18s 3d for “ij bilewes pro les organes” [two bellows for the organs]. It was also mentioned in 1474, when the Vicar, John Colswayn left in his will “to a player of the hergons, iiis iiiid” [to a player of the organs 3s 4d]).

This organ, which was about the size of a present-day upright piano, probably consisted of a single keyboard, one row of pipes and hand-operated bellows, and was known as a Regal. You can watch a video of a modern reproduction of a Regal here.

A smaller version, called a Portativ, could be carried and used in processions. You can watch a video of a modern reproduction of a Portativ here.

Little is known about the musical life of St Mary’s then, but various leaves from illuminated service books have been recovered from bindings of the Bridgwater Borough records and may be seen in the County Record Office at Taunton.

29. An attestation made by William Tredewyn, priest, of North Newton, within the parish of North Petherton. He declares that in his youth he was continually abiding in the vicarage of Briggewater, with one Sir John Wheler, parish priest of the said town (he was a chaplain), to learn, read and sing with the said Sir John Wheler, at the commandment of Mr. Sir John Colswayne, vicar of the said town. Date about 1480. (This document shows that the vicars exercised a wholesome discipline over the chaplains in requiring them to teach reading and singing.)

A medieval monastic organ, with two hand bellows
Illumination from the Peterborough Psalter
Brussels Royal Library

At the Reformation the Roman Catholic liturgy was adopted by the new Church of England, but in English instead of Latin. There was a difference between monastery and cathedral churches and town and village churches: the former often had choirs and organs, but the latter sometimes had organs only. Here the organ was used to help the priest and congregation to sing plainsong.

The Anglican Prayer Book is re-working of the Roman Catholic Missal and Breviary, which together give the words of the Mass or Eucharist, and the words of the other services of the day, Mattins and Evensong, and the Lectionary, which lists the bible-readings for the day.

The first prayer book was that of Edward VI, 1549, with a later unused version of 1552, and the prayer book of Elizabeth 1559 (revised 1662). The latter was used in St Mary’s until the late twentieth century when modern revisions were introduced. The 1662 prayer book is used at the 8 o‘clock Communion still, and for Evensong until the service was dropped at St Mary’s in very recent times.

At the Reformation there was a move towards thorough reform along Calvanistic lines, and in some churches organs were dispensed with. The clerk, who pre-Reformation had assisted the priest in the chancel with the responses of the service, became the Parish Clerk who led the congregation in the versesand responses of the said psalms, and sometimes he chanted the plainsong. A metrical psalm was sometimes included, as what we today call a hymn. This was announced, read and led by the clerk sitting at his desk.

The service reverted to Roman Catholic ritual during the reign of Queen Mary (1553-8) and back to Anglican ritual at the Accession of Elizabeth in 1558.

In the early 17th century it is known that Ralph Chappinton,  (d.1620) of Netherbury, Dorset, repaired the organ in Saint Mary’s. He seems to have been in demand as an organ repairer and tuner throughout the west of England. He came from a family of organ-builders based at South Molton, Devon.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century the ritual of individual churches varied as did adherence to the Prayer Book, for Puritanism was common among some clergy. The appointment of William Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633 led to a tightening of clergy discipline and a return to High Church forms of worship.

The Puritans did not object to secular music – indeed Cromwell was an avid music lover, but they did objectto music in church. In 1644, the year before Laud’s execution, came the Parliamentary decree that all church organs shouldbe silenced. During the Civil War and Commonwealth, parish churches sometimes became Independent or Presbyterian with no music beyond metrical psalms sung by the congregation. A century before, in 1536 the Lower House of Convocation had declared that organ playing to be among the “84 Faults and Abuses of Religion”. It was now acted upon.

At the Restoration of the Monarchy on 1660, the Book of Common Prayer was resumed, and most of the Commonwealth clergy were expelled. In Bridgwater’s case John Norman, who was minister 1647-1662, was replaced by George Wootton, (who had been a curate from 1623 under John Devenish, and Vicar 1644-45.)

From 1660, organ-building was begun again, for many church organs were destroyed or damaged during the Civil War and Commonwealth. A number of foreign-born organ builders settled in England, particularly the Schmidt (Smith) family, and the Harris family from France.But organ builders were active locally: Robert Hayward, organ builder Bath, 1660s ; Robert Tanton, organ builder Bristol, 1660s, John Loosemore and his successor John Shearne, Exeter, 1640-1670s.

In 1682 a note was written on the fly-leaf of one of the church registers which states that “the organs were erected or as some say – were repaired”. In 1700 a new organ was built in the church and opened on 17 July, but the maker is unknown. It was located in an organ loft above the screen in the chancel arch.

The inaugural sermon was delivered by the Rev. John Shuttleworth, Rector of Oborn and Lillington, in Dorset. It was published later as a 24 page book,. The preface says he was asked to answer objections to instrumental music in church, and took as his text Ephesians 5, verse 9 : Speaking to your selves in Psalms, and Hymns, and spiritual Songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.

What Shuttleworth’s link with the town is not known , but it is known that a few years a before controversy arose in Tiverton, where it was alleged that Poor Rate money had been diverted to pay for a new organ in the Parish church. More pertinently there was a residual hostility to organs and music from the time when Puritanism was to the fore.

The Sherborne Mercury in the early 1730s carried advertisements for the appointment of an organist at Saint Mary’s.

Between 1782 to 1786 Edmund Rack (1735?-1787) was actively engaged in making a topographical survey of Somerset. After his death the work was published by the Rev. John Collinson in 1791 in three volumes. His MS report on St Mary’s included:

The chancel is divided from the nave and ayles by a curious open work Gothic screen, over which is an organ loft with a large fine toned organ in the center and gallerys to right and left. In the front of this gallery are the royal arms and 12 other coats in the pannels of the wainscot, belonging to the families who subscribed to the organ.’

The Royal Arms is presumably the one now on the tower wall at the west end of the nave.

This organ appears to have survived quite well, only needing repair in 1810, and it remained in that position in the church until 1823. It was then decided to dismantle it and rebuild it in the new gallery being erected at the west end of the nave, under the western arch, where it effectively blocked the draught from the tower arch. The details of this alteration have been recorded and include paying Mr. Smith, organ builder from Bath, £ 102 10 0 for repairing the organ and £37 18 ½d for moving it from the chancel to the west end and repairing its casing.

Plan of the organ and the adjoining gallery in the west end of St Mary’s Church, before Brakspear’s Restorations. Dr Cattermole Collection, most likely taken from SRO DD/X/BKP/1
The Chancel Arch of St Mary’s Church, from which the organ was removed. In the centre front is the Corporation Screen, then behind that is the medieval rood-screen (with the pinnacles and the ogee/star centre decoration. The organ was once placed atop this.

A Note on Church Singing

The metrical psalter of Sternhold and Hopkins, published by Day in 1562, was the prime source, but later versions with music came to the fore: East in 1592 and Ravenscroft in 1621, and after the Restoration, Playford’s in 1677. Sternhold and Hopkins was the main psalter authorised for use by the Church of England until Tate and Brady’s version appeared in 1696. but for ordinary parishes, the psalm verses would be read as prose alternately by the priest (or parish clerk). The psalm books of the time were a useful musical education in sight-singing, for they usually commenced with an introduction describing how to sing them – a kind of sol fa. In the eighteenth century itinerant psalmody teachers were common and in the nineteenth century Bridgwater Baptist church ran singing classes for them.

Dr Charles Burney, (1726-1814) the music historian wrote in the article Liturgy in Vol 21 of Rees’s Cyclopaedia,(pub 1812):

It is true that the Christians differ very much in their musical tastes. The Quakers have no liturgy; they wait till the spirit moves them to speak, and never sing; they only sigh and groan. Calvin stript music of harmony and measure, and allowed of nothing but unisonous and syllabic singing in the conventicles, without the assistance of that box of whistles, as the Scotch reformers used to style the organ. The modern methodists like light, airy, and familiar music so much better than solemn strains of supplication, that they admit ballad and barrel-organ tunes out of the street to be adapted to their hymns. The music à cappella, in the cathedral service of the Roman Catholics and Protestants of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, seems the most solemn and reverend species of music with which to address the divinity; at least it is the most grateful to cultivated ears. In parish churches, under the guidance of a powerful organ, or a judicious chantor, psalmody in parts, provided some respect were paid to accent, and distinction were made between long and short syllables, as in the 104th psalm and other melodies in triple-time, would cease to be absurd and ridiculous to lovers of music, and rendered a gratification, instead of a torture, to cultivated ears.

In the eighteenth century, the growth of evangelicalism saw the booksof books of hymns, — Watts in 1707 and John Wesley in 1767. Wesley’s brother, Charles composed more than 6000 hymns. But the singing of them in a parish church was technically illegal until 1820, so they were developed by non-conformist congregations.

Where a parish church had no organ a church choir and orchestra was common. These were often located in a gallery at the west end of the nave. They performed simple metrical psalms, and even anthems. The instruments were random groups of flutes, clarinets, trombones, bassoons, serpents, violins and cellos. In towns where an organ was more common, the choir often comprised ‘Charity Children’, drawn from the local free schools for the poor, or a Sunday School where they were taught to read and write, the Catechism,and the Bible. At the end of the eighteenth century barrel organs were developed for churches with no pipe organs, where interchangeable pinned barrels were made for a range of popular hymn tines.

Continue to Part 2: 1823-Now

Tony Woolrich 24 August 2020