St Mary & St Margaret - Castle Bromwich Parish Church


Our historic church organ

St Mary & St Margaret, Castle Bromwich parish church viewed from the east. Inset: Martin Bates, church organist
St Mary & St Margaret, Castle Bromwich parish church viewed from the east. Inset: Martin Bates, church organist

A very brief history of the church

The medieval wooden chapel c1450
The medieval wooden chapel c1450

After the Norman Conquest of 1066, a small stone chapel was built by the lord of the manor to service the nearby motte and bailey castle. Evidence survives in the present chancel.


Around 1450 this was extended with a large timber-framed building by one of the Devereux family. The wooden pillars and massive oak roof timbers can still be seen.


Between 1726 and 1730 this was encased in brick in neo-classical style by the lord of the manor, Sir John Bridgeman II of Castle Bromwich Hall. This is the building we see today.


History of the church organ

Although churchwardens' records exist from the 17th century, even before the rebuilding of the church, they give few clues as to the music performed here and almost no information about the organ. This is likely due to the fact that ours was not a parish church but a manorial chapel built by and for the lords of the manor of Castle Bromwich. It may be that evidence of the first organ here is hidden away in the archives of the Bridgeman family and yet to be discovered.


So what do we know?

A plaque on the present oragn console names Peter Conacher & Co of Huddersfield as the builders of this organ. The company was set up by Scotsman Peter Conacher (1823-1894), who served as an apprentice organ builder in Leipzig before coming to England to work first for William Hill & Sons in Lincolnshire, and then for Joseph William Walker & Sons in London.


Peter Conacher & Co

Conacher's factory in Water Street, Huddersfield
Conacher's factory in Water Street, Huddersfield

Conacher's built up a their reputation building  high quality church organs which were installed  across the country.


Later, the company  diversified and made organs for cinemas and dance halls, the most famous of these being at the Odeon Theatre in Blackpool. Sadly the company recently ceased trading.

A thorough search of the old records held by our church uncovered documents relating to the organ.


Conacher's installed the organ in 1927, but it soon emerged that this was actually a rebuild and augmentation of an earlier organ, many parts of which were reused and are still present in our existing instrument.


The paperwork we discovered included a letter from a city organ adviser written some years earlier suggesting that the organ in use at that time was unfit for purpose and was typical of an organ from as early as the 1820s.   

An earlier organ

The British Institute of Organ Studies' National Pipe Organ Register suggests that the previous organ builder may have been Forster & Andrews. However, the date of the organ is cited by the Register as c1815 and that company was not founded in Hull until 1843. It may be that, like Conacher's, Forster & Andrews carried out work on an earlier organ. 


If this is the case, the earlier organ would have used a mechanical system of levers and wooden rods known as trackers to transmit the action of the keys and stops to the valves in the windchests. About 1847 a pneumatic system was invented in France by organ builder, Prosper-Antoine Moitessier who perfected a system whereby lead tubes of ¼ inch internal diameter connect each key and stop to the windchest. The system meant that the console could be further away from the pipes allowing the possibility of a greater number of pipes. It may well be that Forster & Andrews converted the earlier mechanical organ to a state-of-the-art pneumatic organ which Conacher's later augmented.


Other documents show that Conacher & Co dismantled the pipework from the previous organ prior to their rebuild and recommended that, as a significant part of it was of high quality, it should be retained and reused in. This amounts to some 70% of the rebuilt organ and is evidence that the greater part of the instrument as it remains today is considerably older than 1927. The date of c1815 may well be correct. 


On the west wall of the church, behind the organ pipes, is evidence of the position of earlier pipes. In the centre, the frieze has been hacked away to accommodate pipes which must have reached right up to the ceiling. 


Left: part of the original plaster frieze. Right: the frieze removed for earlier organ pipes.
Left: part of the original plaster frieze. Right: the frieze removed for earlier organ pipes.

Old church records

A  page from the 17th-century churchwardens' accounts
A page from the 17th-century churchwardens' accounts

The churchwardens' books are held at Warwick Archives and reveal only the bare bones of activity at the church. Each year's report has a written statement of the main areas of financial activity and a list of income and expenditure. 


Typical entries specify 'tuning the organ', 'paid for two bell ropes' or 'sweeping the chapel' with an amount paid to So-and-so. 


Major expenditure on the organ is not listed here probably because the expense was borne by the Bridgeman family, lords of the manor since 1657, whose chapel this was. Searches have also been made of the family's archives at Staffordshire Record Office, but references to this church are frustratingly few and far between.


First reference

The churchwardens' accounts presented at the Vestry meeting on  Easter Monday 1820
The churchwardens' accounts presented at the Vestry meeting on Easter Monday 1820

The earliest certain reference to the organ is found in 1820 when £12 was paid for the organ not only to  be tuned but also repaired. £12 in 1820 was a significant sum of money. While tuning is a regular feature of the accounts, the fact the instrument needed repairing in 1820 suggests a rather earlier instrument. 


The west gallery
The west gallery

The organ is situated on a west gallery with seating for a choir. The gallery was built later than the rebuilt church of 1726-1730 and stands on slender cast-iron columns. It is first mentioned in 1815 when Charles Cooper was paid for arranging to have the psalms led and for sweeping the chapel and gallery. (No mention of an organ.) The date of the gallery is unknown, but Christ Church Macclesfield has one of the earliest cast-iron galleries which dates from as early as 1775.


Not only is the date of the gallery unknown, but nor is its original purpose. Was it built for a choir, a for a church band or was it built specifically for an organ?