On Thursday afternoon, 29th June 2017, Nicholas Plumley and Dr Alan Thurlow (Diocesan Organ Advisers) met the incumbent and members of the parish to discuss the condition of the main pipe organ in the church and outline possible ways forward in order to address the “poor state of the playing action” (Dr Thurlow’s words). This refers, of course, to the downstairs organ, not the barrel organ in the loft.
The condition of the organ, and what to do about it, will be discussed elsewhere, but I thought it would be interesting here to set out a little of what we have learned of the history of the organ. Dr Thurlow was intrigued to note that the organ was built by one Percy G Beard, of Epsom, and wondered whether there might be a link with the famous and successful organ-building firm of Hill Norman and Beard.
Regrettably, on further investigation, it turns out there is no evidence of any connection. The Beard of Hill Norman and Beard is George Wales Beard and this firm, in various guises, built a large number of organs: the National Pipe Organ register lists 1,940 of them up and down the country. By contrast there are just 3 or 4 Percy G Beard organs listed: one in a Methodist chapel in Cornwall, which may no longer exist; one in Epsom; one in Walton-on-Thames; and the Brightling organ. All 4 were built between 1931 and 1938, after which PG Beard seems to have disappeared without trace (and nothing is known of him prior to 1931 either).
Furthermore, both the Epsom and Walton-on-Thames organs were substantially rebuilt in the late 20th century, so the Brightling organ may be the only PG Beard organ in anything like its original state. Even the Brightling organ is not as built: in the 1980s it was moved from its original location, in the north-east corner of the church, to where it is now. There must have been extremely good reasons for wanting to move it, because this would have been a substantial undertaking – it would have involved dismantling it and rebuilding it, quite likely with a modified layout.
One unintended consequence of this move, as Dr Thurlow points out, is that with the organ in its present position, much of the pipework is inaccessible, with the result that as bits of it have broken, they have tended to be left broken as too difficult to mend.
There is scope for further research. It would be interesting to know if there are any parish records that could shed any more light on the provenance and history of the organ. It would also be interesting to know if either of the above Beards are to be found on the family tree of the present illustrious Beards of Brightling. Another possibility, if anyone has the time and the interest, would be to phone up the other 3 or 4 churches with PG Beard organs and see if they have any further information.
Update August 2017: A little more news on the history of the organ only deepens the puzzle. It has now been established that the “action” (which is the technical term for the transmission between the player’s fingers and the actual pipe valves) is “tubular pneumatic”. However, by about 1920, the tubular pneumatic technology had been superseded by the inherently much more reliable “electro-pneumatic” system; there was simply no sensible reason to carry on building tubular pneumatic organs once the electro-pneumatic system had been developed; yet our organ was apparently built in the 1930s. More research needed.