The Story of the Organ in the New Palace Theatre Organ Heritage Centre

Our Unique HiLSDON Unit Orchestral Pipe Organ

An unexpected development. . . .

Early in 1995, Apollo Leisure lodged a Planning Application for Listed Building Consent to remove the organ from the Playhouse.  STOPS were not the only objectors, so because of the building being Listed as worthy of Preservation, which listing specifically included the organ, the application had to go to the Scottish Office for comment.  Following weeks of phone calls and meetings between ourselves, Historic Scotland (as it was then), the Secretary of State for Scotland’s office, and the Planning Department of Edinburgh District Council, a formal meeting was called in the Council Offices.  As soon as the meeting was opened, the representative from Apollo Leisure, who had arrived late, announced that if they didn’t get approval for the Planning Application, they would ‘happily skip the organ and pay the fine’.

With that attitude from the building's owners, it was quickly agreed by everyone that to safeguard its future, the organ should be removed from the theatre.  However, despite our objections to the contrary, the representative from Historic Scotland decided that the organ should then be transported to Greenlaw and combined with our existing instrument, as a tribute to the work of Hilsdon.

Apollo Leisure were instructed by the Scottish Office and Historic Scotland to donate the organ to STOPS, which they subsequently did.  It took almost three months of weekend working, with odd days during the week when the theatre was 'dark', to dismantle and remove the organ, and then to transport it to Greenlaw.  Each van load was first unloaded into the Centre, then the organ's parts were distributed either around the organ chambers or into store for longer term re-use.

An evaluation of all the pipes and parts of the Playhouse organ was undertaken as they arrived in Greenlaw, which concluded that two of the three large slider soundboards were too badly damaged to be retained, with their 'tables' having been split beyond restoration.  Whilst the pipe work was mainly in excellent condition, with the sole exception of the pedal department’s 16' Open Wood, which again, was badly split.  It was impossible to remove the longest pipes of the Open Wood from the organ chamber in the theatre, so the pipes had to be cut half way along their length, at which point, the four largest pipes fell apart, in two cases leaving piles of wood no larger than kindling.  We are still searching for a suitable replacement rank.

But - how were we to fit it all into our little theatre!

Measurements were taken of the organ chambers and the various organ parts, sketches were made to scale of the spaces available, and a design was slowly brought together.  We decided to do the work in two main phases, with phase one happening very quickly.  This was to refurbish the only slider soundboard we retained, and install it into the attic of the Palace Chamber at the East side of the Balcony after part of the ceiling here was removed.  Eight ranks of pipes, the Carillon Harp & tuned Sleigh Bells were installed there and brought into use quite quickly, along with a rank of 'cobra head' Cor Anglais pipes.  The 16' Violone was installed along the back wall of the East Balcony, with the lowest notes extending right up to the attic's roof, where the lowest 5 pipes had to mitred to fit them in.  At this time, the seats were removed from this side of the Balcony and a partition erected to separate the organ pipes from the auditorium.

The 16' Violone

In the main chamber, the 85 pipe Bombarde unit, with straight, unmitred resonators, was put into position in place of the pedal Fagotto, which went into temporary storage.  Once again, we had to mitre the longest 4 pipes to make them fit into the height of the chamber.

An unusual view of the 16' Bombarde

We benefited from someone else's misfortune when we managed to obtain the chests from the ex Regal Cinema, Eastleigh's Christie organ, from which all of its metal pipes were stolen whilst the organ was in storage in County Durham.  This allowed us to add several more ranks of Hilsdon pipes very quickly into the main chamber.  Stop tabs were added to the console to control the additional ranks of pipes, and for the next three years, the stop list grew to be as follows.  Changes and additions are in bold type.

4 manuals, CC-C, 61 notes.
Concave & Radiating pedalboard, CCC-G, 32 notes
Installed in two chambers, one behind and above the stage, the other in the East Attic of the main ceiling space, which even then was referred to as the 'Palace' chamber.

Tibia Bass16
Cor Anglais16
Clarion  8
Principal  8
Viola  8
Tibia  8
Cello  8
Flute  8
Accompaniment to Pedal
Great to Pedal
Orchestral to Pedal

Contra Gambatc16
Trumpet  8
Tibia Clausa  8
Violoncelli Celestes  8 2rks
Vox Humana  8
Stopped Flute  8
Orchestral Oboe  8
Violins Celestes  4 2rks
Vox Humana  4
Flute  4
Flute Twelfth2,2/3
Piccolo  2
Accompaniment Octave
Orchestral to Accompaniment
Orchestral Octave to Accompaniment
Palace Section to Accompaniment
Palace Section Octave to Accompaniment

Double Diapason16
Contra Tibia16
Bombarde  8
Tibia Clausa  8
Open Diapason  8
French Horn  8
Violoncello  8 & 4
Vox Humana  8
Bombarde  4
Tibia  4
Tibia  2
Cathedral Chimes
Great Octave
Accompaniment to Great
Accompaniment Octave to Great
Orchestral Sub-octave to Great
Orchestral to Great
Orchestral Octave to Great

Contra Violtc16
Vox Humanatc16
Bombarde  8
French Horn  8
Tibia Clausa  8
Open Diapason  8
Clarinet  8
Violoncello8 & 4
Flutes8 & 4 & 2
Vox Humana  8
Orchestral Oboe  8
Tibias  4 & 2
Cathedral Chimes
Palace Section
Contra Viola16
Cor Anglais16
Violin Diapason  8
Hohl Flote  8
Viol d'Orchestre  8
Viol Celestetc8
Bassett Horn  8
Gemshorn  4
Orchestral Sub-octave
Orchestral Unison Off
Orchestral Octave

Contra Bombarde16
Contra Tibia16
Vox Humanatc16
Bombarde  8
Tuba Horn  8
Open Diapason  8
Tibia Clausa  8
French Horn  8
Clarinet  8
Vox Humana  8
Tibia  4
Tibia  4
Cathedral Chimes
Orchestral Sub-octave to Solo
Orchestral to Solo
Orchestral Tierce to Solo
Orchestral Quint to Solo
Orchestral Octave to Solo

8 general thumb pistons
5 double touch thumb pistons to Accompaniment & Great
6 double touch thumb pistons to Orchestral
4 thumb pistons to Solo
3 Toe Pistons to Pedal
General Cancel thumb piston
Balanced Swell Pedal to Lower Swell Shutters
Balanced Swell Pedal to Upper Swell Shutters
Balanced Swell Pedal to Palace Shutters
Balanced General Crescendo Pedal

Crash Cymbal

Blower Start/Stop
Console Lights (on dimmer switch)

Although the organ was reasonably satisfying to play, it had so many shortcomings in how one could combine stops and pitches, that we knew we would have to do something with the console to add more stops, sooner rather than later.  In the meanwhile, plans were being drawn up to see how we could fit as much of the bulk of the (1985 enlarged) HiLSDON organ from the Playhouse into the building.

And then fate struck again.  The remains of the Hilsdon from the Picture House, Paisley came on the market, and as it looked like the pipework and parts were going to be scattered to the four winds, one of our members donated funds to the Society specifically to allow us to buy them.  And so, the last remaining sets of Hilsdon theatre organ pipes and windchests came into our possession.  Shortly before that, we had been given all the pipes from a Hildson church organ dating from the same general period as both the Playhouse organ and the two Hilsdon unit organs, some of which could be used to replace missing sets of pipes from both the Playhouse and Palace organs.

No sooner had we got this work done, than we were donated the organ from the United Reformed Church, Raby Street, Byker in Newcastle.  Although the internal pipework was not of good quality, the facade pipes and woodwork were of use to us.  For some time, visitors to the Centre had asked 'where does the sound come from' with many being convinced in their own minds that the tiny loudspeakers either side of the stage were the source of the organ sounds.  We adapted the woodwork, cut the facade pipes to length, sprayed the pipes and painted the woodwork, and duly installed everything above the stage, in front of the sound opening, to give us what many thought was 'a pipe organ'!

The organ in Byker which made -

our 'new' pipe facade above the stage.

Around this time, we were also lucky to remove a small unit organ from a church in Berwick-upon-Tweed.  It had originally been a very small two manual tracker organ, with the pipes and chests mounted on legs above the pulpit, but had been rebuilt as a unit organ by Hill, Norman and Beard's Northern subsidiary, Blackett and Howden, sometime in the mid 1930's.  Although operating on 'normal' wind pressures, we were amazed to find that the pipework was all made by Hill, Norman and Beard, with 'Christie' style regulators and tremulants, as well as HNB electric stop tabs in the console.  The only contribution that Blackett and Howden seemed to have made was to make the console case and windchests.  Whilst we were removing the organ from the now closed church, its pastor kindly gave us all the felt coverings from the pews, so we ended up with more rolls of excellent quality wool felt than we will probably ever need.

A short time after this, we were donated three ranks of pipes which had been rescued from the original Jardine orchestral organ which had been installed in the Stoll Cinema, Kingsway, London, and which had been removed to make way for a Jardine unit organ.  The orchestral organ had ended up in a Hartlepool church and subsequently removed by an organbuilder who had stored the pipework in his works for many years but not used it.  We were also given some unrelated unit style windchests as well at the same time.

Never ones to look a gift horse in the mouth, we accepted the donation of another two ranks of pipes, this time from a Walcker 'Dulcinelle'.  Comprising a tapered open metal flute, and a 'dolcan' construction Dulciana, the latter was almost identical to the Playhouse's Dolce stop, and amazingly, would blow at the same wind pressure as the Playhouse's rank!  The perfect 'celeste' rank had been found it seemed, for the Dolce!

And so, the Society ended up owning lots of pipe ranks, primarily by Hilsdon, a reasonable number of windchests to sit them on, some regulators and tremulants, but a huge lack of wind ducting and most importantly, a reliable control system.

It looked like Phase Two would have to begin more quickly than we had anticipated, if only to reduce the amount of materials we now had stored.  And so Phase One and a half, the modification of the existing console was planned!

Plans were drawn up to make the existing console bigger, and a new control system was bought.

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