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Pulling out all the stops

The University’s Great Hall organ at 100

-written by Christopher Cipkin (MA Musicology, 2005)

Most students have sat exams in front of it, and most will also have graduated to the sound of it; a privileged few have also played it. The stage apse of the University’s Great Hall is crowned by the golden dummy pipes of a majestic organ which, in 2011, will have given the University 100 years of faithful service.

The history of the organ is closely linked to the wider history of the University, especially the London Road campus, and over the years the organ has been altered and enlarged to reflect wider events and developments in the life of the University.

The origins of the organ can be traced back to the early days of the relocation of the University College from Valpy Street to the London Road campus. A foundation stone of the Great Hall was laid on 7 June 1905 and it was at around that time that an Appeals Committee was convened to begin the fundraising campaign for an organ. The Director of Music at the time, Dr. (later Sir) Hugh Allen approached the Leeds firm of J. J. Binns to enquire about the cost of building the core of an instrument, with the plan that it could be enlarged as and when funds became available. A very reasonable quote of £600 was given for a modest two manual (ie two keyboard) and pedal organ; a third manual was to be put in place at the console, but with no associated pipe work until additional funds could be raised. By 1910, Hugh Allen was in detailed discussions with Binns about the choice of stops and the design of the organ case. It was agreed that the case should be made from a cedar which had previously stood on the site of the Great Hall.

By February 1911, following a renewed fundraising effort at the end of the previous year, £500 had been raised and so a firm order was placed with Binns. The contract was signed on March 16, 1911 and the building work commenced during the summer vacation on a two manual organ with a third manual ‘prepared for’. The organ also came with a rare and ingenious mechanism by which the Director of Music could use a key to disable a number of the louder stops so that students would not disturb other University activities taking place near the hall. The full cost was to be £585, which included an electric motor for blowing.

On October 21 1911, the formal opening of the organ took place in a ceremony attended by The Right Honourable G. W. Palmer, President of Council, Dr. W. M. Childs, College Principal and Mr. J. H. Sacret, Honorary Secretary and Treasurer of the Organ Fund. After Mr. Palmer’s opening address, Dr. Allen gave the opening recital. The programme, typical of the Edwardian period, featured original organ compositions and also concert hall arrangements:

  • Prelude and Fugue in C minor: J. S. Bach
  • Air and variations in G: W.A. Mozart
  • Andante from Symphony in C: J. Haydn
  • Four sketches for pedal piano: R. Schumann
  • Variations on Sellenger’s Round: W. Byrd
  • Scherzo and Passacaglia in E minor: J. Rheinberger

The organ remained unchanged until the next significant event in the University’s life. In 1926, the University College was granted its Royal Charter and became a University. As a mark of appreciation towards Professor Childs who had secured the University status, it was proposed to complete the organ by raising funds for the third, hitherto ‘prepared for’ manual. Following a circular sent out by the Old Students’ Association, £300 was raised to complete the Choir organ with four new ranks of pipes. The pedal board was also replaced at this time. A brass plaque on the side of the organ celebrates this addition.

In 1946, the organ tutor in the School of Music, Dr. O. Peasgood, initiated some tonal alterations to the Great manual, replacing a couple of flute ranks with more robust principal and fifteenth stops. This brought the specification into line with J. J. Binns original 1909 proposals. It was also cleaned and overhauled.

The history of the organ since then can be ascertained from a file of correspondence recently lodged with the University archives and previously looked after by the now retired Dr. Christopher Kent, of the former Department of Music. It reveals a story of use and abuse by students and a long campaign to restore the organ to its former glory.

In February 1968, an internal letter from an irate H. C. Barnard complained of damage being done to the organ by student societies using the Great Hall. In an effort to control the free spirit of the 1960s, Mr Barnard went so far as to suggest that the Students’ Union should be charged for any damage incurred, which had, apparently, included driving nails into the cedar case in order to put up ‘decorations’ for student dances.  It was not only students in the 1960s who were accused of damaging the organ, however. In a memorandum dated 18 November 1982, Dr Kent reported that the Music Department had to meet the cost of repairs to the organ following damage during the 1981 Jantaculum. He recommended reviewing the terms of use of the organ at Jantaculum, including issuing a written agreement whereby students ‘undertake to be responsible for the organ’ and to meet the costs of any repairs which may arise as a result of its use.

Most of the archive, however, is concerned with ensuring the continued reliability of the instrument, which became increasingly temperamental, as outlined in a series of reports by the post-war tuners, Bishop & Son and their successors, J. W. Walker, who still have care of the instrument. Indeed, during the mid 1980s, Walkers issued two reports recommending the scrapping of the organ and the installation of a new instrument more sympathetic with trends in contemporary organ design. Only the prohibitive cost of doing so prevented this becoming a viable option.

By the 1960s, the original Edwardian pneumatic action was starting to fail, making the instrument dangerously unreliable for public performance. On 24 February 1969, therefore, a contract for £1272 was approved for work including new electronic action on the manuals. The problem with this partial solution, which became increasingly evident in the following years, was that the manuals then spoke far more promptly than the pedals causing problems for the playing and making the instrument far from satisfactory to listen to. In 1991, over twenty years later, the money was eventually found to undertake the electrification of the action on the pedals. In 1993 (to split the cost over two financial years) cleaning and repair work was also undertaken to the manual divisions and the quiet Dulciana stop on the Great manual was replaced by the sparkling Mixture, at a cost of £1825. This work, however, did not resolve every problem, as the archive shows a series of repairs were needed just two years later, ahead of a recital given by Dame Gillian Weir on 17 June 1995. In 1996, therefore, the Friends of the University, kindly gave a grant of £4000 for more cleaning, repairs and revoicing, including work to the Great Trumpet stop. In July 2000, the spending of a further £14,000 from the Deferred Repairs and Graduation accounts was approved for repairs to the wind trunk and the curing of mildew in the soundboard wind boxes, which was affecting valves and magnets.

The history of the Great Hall organ shows that its history is inextricably bound up with the wider history of the University, both major events and also the shifting tides of its financial health. What has survived, however, is what H. C. Barnard described in 1950 as ‘one of the finest small three-manual instruments in its neighbourhood’. Originally built with money raised by alumni and subsequently benefiting from money given by the Friends of the University, the instrument brings together in a unique way current and past members of the University. Most importantly, its pipes still speak, bringing delight to thousands of graduates, their friends and families as well as members of the University at graduation ceremonies, concerts and other events each year.

Written by Christopher Cipkin

Christopher is Liaison Team Manager (Arts and Humanities) in the University Library. A graduate of the University (MA Musicology, 2005), he was formerly Music Librarian (1999-2004) and he plays the University Great Hall organ for the majority of degree congregations. He has also given several solo organ recitals in the Great Hall.


H. C. Barnard, The organ of Reading University The Organ: a quarterly review for its makers, its players & its lovers Vol. 29 (1950), pp. 116-121.

National Pipe Organ Register. Reference N09840. (accessed 2 February 2010)

Uncatalogued Great Hall Organ Archive, now lodged with the University Archives.

I am also especially grateful to Dr. Christopher Kent for his assistance in the compilation of this article. 


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