Our Victorian organ was first installed in the chancel in 1879. It’s positioned in a relatively vulnerable place, underneath the gutter between roof and tower, so the history of its placement is outlined below.
The organ is a two-manual (keyboard) and pedal organ, with the original mechanical action for the stops and manuals, and 1956 pneumatics for the pedal Bourdon stop (the large pipes that are housed in the Vestry) which provides the depth of the lowest notes. Everything on the organ is original apart for the wearing and perishable parts like the leathers on the bellows, the pneumatics and the electric blower fitted in 1937 to avoid the effort for some poor slave of operating the still-operational pumping lever in the vestry. The bellows provide the reservoir of air needed to cope with the organist’s sudden demands. Use of the air includes the pedal actions (noted above): it was probably Osmonds in the 1956 refurbishment (and move) who put in the simple exhaust pneumatic pulldown action activated by primary pill box motors from a pedalboard touch box. It’s a well-built solid organ of a reasonable size for the church and has been heard to produce fine music. It is, however, difficult to play because of its purely mechanical action: there is a substantial initial resistance to the finger’s movement when each key is played.
The earliest mention of an organ in Otterton Church appears in the accounts for 1793/4. Such entries include “Robert Bartletts bill for the Orgain £2/10/6d”, “To a lock and three yards of brown wollen to cover the Orgain £0/6/0d” and “To Joseph Hellman for playing of the Orgain £0/12/0d”. The type of organ in the church at that time is uncertain. It was probably a small finger organ without pedals. At the time of the destruction of the old church in 1870 a “Grinding Organ” was in use. This must have been a Barrel Organ capable of playing hymns if the appropriate rolls were available. This instrument was re-erected in the new church for a time: in the Musical Standard for May 6th 1871 under Table Talk they report the following: “It is stated that … in the splendid new Church of Otterton a barrel organ has been set up. We hope that this is not true.”
This was only a temporary measure, for only a few years later details were being discussed for the purchase of a new organ, the one that we have today.
The present organ, built by Vowles of Bristol, was installed in 1879 for £304/7/11. In 1981 it was said that the then-present-day cost would be £35,000. Much of the cost was contributed by Lady Rolle, who alone bore the cost of building the new Church. There was rivalry between Budleigh and Otterton, both with recently-build churches, and Budleigh insisted on a couple more stops in order to edge ahead. Our organ has about 750 pipes ranging in length from the large front display pipes and those o
f the Bourdon in behind which are about 10′ in length, to smaller ones inside which are smaller than a pencil. The majority of the front display pipes are speaking pipes and are the bass notes of the Open Diapason stop, but about 4 are dummy pipes.
At that time the instrument was positioned on the south side of the chancel and the choir stalls matched it in size and style. The main part was set back against the outside wall under the tower. The vestry was not built until 1889 and presumably took more of the sound than was later thought right. So in 1956 when it was being rebuilt the organ was moved from the aperture into the vestry to the back of t
he church (under the arch and in front of where the pod is now) as it was considered that it would speak more clearly, the downside being that communication and synchronisation with the priest and the choir became significantly more difficult.
In 1981 it was clear a major overhaul, including cleaning of all the dust carried in the air, was necessary and fund-raising organ recitals were held. One at least was performed by Dudley Savage of Plymouth, a radio, TV and cinema organist, and another by John Ottley of the RSCM. The work was done in 1986 by Michael Farley, then the church’s organist and still the principal actor in the occasional repairs and restorations – and occasional player at weddings, such as Helen Beacham’s wedding at Easter 2017. More work had to be done in 1998 as inadequate flashing in the south valley, dating from a secondary roof repair in the 1970s, finally caused a major water penetration onto the Great Organ soundboard, which was fortunately covered by the church’s insurers.
In 2013 the proposed re-ordering of the church would have required the space occupied by the organ and so it was decided to move it back to the chancel. A benefactor and a grant covered
the £8,000 cost of these 2014 works and a complete overhaul was conducted on the way.
The Organ which Moved – its specification
Comments made by Michael Farley, who undertook the restoration and move-back in 2014, include the following:
“The scales of the pipework is large and the sound bold but not bright.
The original pitch of the organ was not clear. At 442 it was almost standard pitch on dismantling.
The reed was always rather strangulated and the lowest 12 notes of the Bourdon would barely tune as the pipes were short. This was a mystery as all other wooden pipes on the Organ have ample if not excessive over length yet they all seemed to be original.
A decision had to be made as to the best course of action:
1. To sharpen the organ slightly to enable all the Bourdon pipes to tune properly, but this would adversely affect the Horn – the only reed stop – which would need to go a little sharper too. The Flue pipes would sharpen without any noticeable difference, but the reed, already seemingly having short resonators would have suffered by being knocked sharper.
2. To lengthen the bottom 12 pipes of the Bourdon – quite a task involving considerable alteration to the tops of the pipes
3. To insert a new pipe for bottom C Bourdon and move the bottom 12 up one note.
We chose option 3 as causing the least interference, then tuned to A 440 which improved the tone of the reed where it seemed to naturally speak. The front pipes tuners were in almost a perfect position after tuning which also suggests A440 may have been the original pitch of the organ though the reason why the Bourdon bottom 12 were so short compared to the rest of the Organ is a mystery. This means the original note B 12 is now redundant and has been stored within the organ together with a copy of this report.
The position of the organ now is generally cooler without the sun blazing in on it from the two clear window at the West end where it came from. Two 25 watt damp chasers have been fitted amongst the action to keep the air circulating.“ His concerns about the gutters above the organ in its position in the chancel were addressed in the 2017 roof repairs.