Hamish Ogston Foundation’s role in restoring the historic Organ at Liverpool Cathedral

This article was published by Ian Tracey in Organ News on 3rd September 2018, following a donation by the Hamish Ogston Foundation to help complete much-needed restorations of the Grand Organ of Liverpool Cathedral, an extremely special relic of musical and indeed British history. The article has been reproduced here with their permission. 

Organ News – Liverpool Cathedral organ appeal


The Grand Organ of Liverpool Cathedral is internationally renowned as one of the greatest church organs in the world; when it was built in 1926, it was the largest musical instrument ever conceived and is still the largest organ in the UK today. With its 8 manual divisions and pedals, 200 draw stops and a staggering total of 10,268 pipes, it is one of the wonders of the musical world. Having been in continuous service for over 90 years, a major Appeal was launched in 2009 which, to date, has raised a staggering £683,000 of the required £900,000. Just as the inflow of funds was slowing, a most generous donation from the philanthropist and polymath, Hamish Ogston CBE, completed the total, for which we are, as the prayer book puts it so well, unfeignedly thankful.


The organ last underwent a rebuild in 1958-1959, and though it was cleaned with the replacement of its transmission system in 1975-1978, almost all of the main soundboards date from 1926, all having suffered, over the years, from the cathedral’s endemic low humidity and now requiring remedial attention.


As soon as funds began materialising, it was decided to proceed on a ‘worst first basis’, however, as the saying goes “that the best-laid plans of mice and men…” and so it was with us, as the dreaded asbestos was found in the lagging of the heating pipes in the South Chamber; so, in consequence, everything stopped whilst the area was hermetically sealed and it was removed. No sooner was this done than blower No.2 failed, and then weeks later, No. 1, requiring them both to be sent away for remedial work and re-winding and re-balancing; fortunately, it is possible to play the organ (judiciously) with one or the other! The antiquated switching gear for all three main motors had also been unreliable for many years, and so all three were replaced. To top everything, during a BBC live broadcast one Sunday morning, one of the two H.P. wind regulators in the blowing chamber decided to burst during the concluding voluntary (making it more French than intended). Again, this was dealt with, out of sync., and, for good measure, we releathered the other one right away.


For some years, we had been having problems with the Pedal slider soundboard on the North-side, just above the console, so this was next on the list (Ophicleide 16ft, Clarion 8ft, Dolce 16ft and Mixture 3rks) and its draw stop machine. The pipework was not in the best of conditions, so the opportunity was taken to remove it to the workshop for bench treatment (Ophicleide 16ft and Clarion 8ft). Whilst concentrating on the Pedal Organ, the actions of the Pedal Double Open Diapason 32ft: Open Diapason 16ft and Principal 8ft: Bourdon 16ft and Bass Flute 8ft: and the Open Bass 16ft were restored and releathered.


Having successfully sorted the Pedal actions, it was next decided to releather the key actions of the Positif organ and enclosed Solo soundboards, along with the Positif draw stop machine. Releathering of the medium and the heavy pressure Swell double-rise reservoirs and cleaning of the organ space on the Northside, the upper level was next. The 50″ motor was the next surprise, as it gave out just before Christmas and there was a mighty effort to get it back; who could imagine a cathedral Christmas ‘senza Tubas’? …. luckily work was completed just in time.


Complete refurbishment of the 30″ pressure Pedal Bombardes was next, the 32ft, 16ft, 8ft, 4ft ranks, including chests, valves, magnets, pallets, link wires, internal power motors, and remedial repair and cleaning of all the pipework; with the Contra Basso 16ft receiving similar treatment. Releathering the second Heavy Pressure breakdown reservoir and internal cut-out mechanism in the blowing chamber followed, along with the installation of two D16b humidifiers on the Northside to help counteract the cathedral’s excessive low humidity.


By 2013 the Appeal total was now creaking up to £340,000; a marvellous sum in just three years, and representing nearly 100,000 per year. The entire Swell organ was now the target, actions, wind and its 2,375 pipes. This led to an interesting few months for the organists, without complete Swell choruses; which rather changed the sound world for the daily choral services, all of which, have continued undaunted, throughout the work. The Great reed reservoir and actions were restored and the Pedal enclosed division on the Northside was completely restored, with complete restoration of the draw stop and key actions, reservoirs, wind trunks and associated mechanisms and workshop repair of the 288 pipes. Whilst the pipework was out, a reversal of the shutters was affected, for better projection of the division into the Central Space.


New industrial-sized humidifying equipment was installed in the blowing chamber and the Southside and both consoles were re-lit with L.E.D. lights…so the organists are now very definitely, in the words of St. Paul, “in a greater light!”


By Easter 2016 the total stood at nearly £580,000! Another two reservoirs were also releathered and restored. The 20” pressure Solo Tromba reservoir and the 32ft Pedal Double Open Wood double rise reservoir. Two new organ benches were also provided, including one with an electronic motor and memory for playing heights of each of the organists.


Works in 2017 included the complete refurbishment of the 30” pressure Bombarde Tubas 16ft, 8ft, 4ft, actions reservoirs and the 183 pipes, which again went to DWOB for shop restoration, as did the four ranks of Great reeds 16, 8, 8, 4; another 610 pipes. The work, in both cases, included chests, valves, magnets, pallets, link wires, internal power motors, and remedial repair and cleaning and restoration of the pipework.


The Summer long vac of 2017 saw the complete cleaning of the 549 pipes of the Positif organ, releathering of the Great double-rise reservoir and restoration and cleaning of the Pedal 32’ Bombarde.


Work this year has included updating of the two consoles and the refurbishment of the 1,459 pipe Solo Organ; including complete renovation of chests, valves, magnets, pallets, link wires, internal power motors, and cleaning and remedial repairs to the pipe-work and reversal of the shutters for better tonal egress into the Central Space. This year’s long Summer vac saw the cleaning of the 1,215 pipes of the Choir Organ, which now pretty much completes the work on the North-side.


Thanks to Mr Ogston’s generosity, completion of the project is now assured, and 2019 will see the restoration of the Bombarde 10 rank Grand Chorus Mixture – 610 pipes, the Solo Hohl Flutes 16ft, 8ft, 4ft; complete restoration and cleaning of the eight soundboards of the Great Organ, and finally, the Tuba Magna. After this, all which remains are a few isolated ranks around the organ not on slider soundboards.


All being well, the work projected in 2007 will be completed by 2020. However, some of the 1970’s work has begun to let us down, such as the rather antiquated transmission and piston systems; so we are not yet finished! The good news is that this is all fairly minor, in comparison of what has been accomplished … nevertheless, I can’t hang up my fundraising hat just yet!


Earlier this year we had the wonderful news of a legacy, primarily to be used for the provision of the long-promised ECHO organ, which had always been the hope of one of the final acts of the Appeal, completing, as it does, the original scheme for the Cathedral’s Grand Organ.


The division will be housed in the Eastern-most bay of the South-East Triforium, just above the Sanctuary will not only provide a distant ‘echo’ effect but also, an accompaniment division for the choir when singing in the Sanctuary area. The pipes are held by David Wells and are from the same Willis III organ from St. James Waterfoot which was used to provide the Central Organ some years ago. They are contemporaneous with those of the Grand Organ and probably made at the same time by the same workforce. That David Wells should acquire this pipe-work is was almost too coincidental a thing to be an accident, it almost seems that we were meant to have them, and thus enabled to complete the scheme, which would take the organ to 220 stops and 11,000 pipes -staving off any further challenges….


In terms of the original specification, this just leaves the West Organ, proposed for the Nave Bridge, which is probably now out of the question, for a whole host of reasons, though, those who come later may well have other ideas …and Goss Custard & Henry III’s amazing vision may finally be realised.


Read more about Hamish Ogston’s thoughts on the UK’s musical heritage and why he chose it as one of the Hamish Ogston Foundation’s main areas to focus on here.


The Hamish Ogston Foundation is a UK registered charity
(Charity no. 1185978)

Dixon Wilson
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22 Chancery Lane
London WC2A 1LS
United Kingdom