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THE LADY COMPTON 3/11


The Compton theatre organ has a rich history what such a fine instrument naturally deserves.
From the 2nd of December 1983 until the 3rd of December 2003 the Compton 3/11 theatre organ played in the Concerthall and Auditorium in Middelburg. Maybe it’s interesting to reflect on a piece of the instruments history.
 

A few brief figures:
1935 - 1961 The Majestic Cinema in Rochester, Kent.
1961 - 1981 R.C. The Holy Innocents Church in Orpington, Kent.
1981 - 2005 Concerthall and Auditorium in Middelburg.
2005 - ???? Street and Fairground organ museum in Haarlem.



We’re going back to 1935 when this organ was constructed.


THE JOHN COMPTON ORGAN COMPANY

The demand for theatre organs in the beginning of the last century resulted in the manufacture of these organs in different parts of the world.
The pipes had, no matter what make, all an equal construction and caracter, based on the romantic style of the classical organs around 1900.
The electric powered windsupply was, from a technical point of view, far ahead of it’s time what made this type of ‘unit’organ – also known as ‘extention’organ- to be accepted as the most suitable organ for theatres. The electromagnets, necessary to regulate the windsupply for the pipes in the chest, had received the predicate ‘reliable’.
Apart from such electro-pneumatic actions for the pipes and percussions, such mechanisms were also used for the so-called multi contact relay. The relay, functioning as the central connection system between the console and pipes, can be compared to the function of the telephone exchange as central link between two people in a telephone call.
Organ builders based the relay on the system developed by Wurlitzer, after the ideas of the Englishman Robert Hope Jones. This system, however, needed a great deal of space and windsupply which made it very expensive.
John Compton was the only organ builder who started experiments with a system that used direct electro magnets and made the expensive windsupply and its pneumatic actions redundant.

  The ‘direct-electric’ relay by Compton was so compact that it could be placed in a narrow cupboard against a wall.

The extra advantage of this system was that the checking and fine tuning of contacts could be done while the organ was still functioning.

This wasn’t possible with organs from other manufacturers where you first had to disconnect the windsupply.
The manufacturers applied the pneumatic system also in the console to control the handling of the stops, stopkeys and so on.

John Compton was the first to introduce the ‘all-electric’console,
again by using electromagnets for these functions.
 

  f.l.t.r. Pedal, Accompaniment, Great, Solo.


To this very day his example, even in church organs, is being followed. Experience learns that these aplications in relay and console – provided correctly adjusted- leaves little to be desired and the pipes speak equally quick as the electro-pneumatic systems.
John Compton was surrounded by a very inventive team. The appreciated organist James J. Taylor was his co-director. There was no question of imitation of Hope Jones’s work.
In 1918 John Compton installed his first masterly organ. The in 1923 installed 4 manual organ with 17 rows of pipework (4/17) in the Pavilion Theatre in Sheperds Bush London, was generally considered to be a great triumph for John Compton. After all, this organ had all ‘direct-electric’applications in the console and relay.
In 1939 Compton had already build more than 500 church and theatre organs. Unfortunately one has to admit, that Compton build many small organs with a less fine sound quality.
The customer however, wanted a maximum sound that was being produced by as little pipes as possible. But in this was Comptons great strenght, namely by extensively carrying through the ‘unit’or ‘extention’principal.
Because of this a Compton organ – compared to for instance a Wurlitzer organ of simular size- is significant larger in the number of registrations and ‘Orchestral’sound. The large production and the costs aspect made Compton decide to have the Tibia pipes also made of metal. Wooden pipework was only delivered on demand at multiple cost.
A well adjusted tremulant connected to a metal Tibia comes very close to the sound quality of the traditional wooden Tibia.
Although the Compton pipework was made by several specialists ( for instance, the Reeds pipes by Hill, Norman & Beard, the Flutes by Rushworth and Draper or Booth) the rest of the theatre organ was completely own make. Even the plastic stopkeys were moulded by Compton himself. Larger pipes were placed on a patented bottom, that realised a variable windsupply, simular to the iris of a camera. Such trifles were typical for Comptons ingenious craftsmanship. Though other organ builders might not admit it; Compton was the leader of the organ trade.
In the late sixties Compton got into financial problems, other firms taking over parts of Compton as a result.
Compton only ought to be judged by the technical superiority of the past. This is best illustrated by the comment of a prominent, American organbuilder who (only known to the traditional relay systems from his own country) studied the setter mechanism and the relay of a large Compton organ. He slowly shook his head and said: “This is unbelievable!”
The biggest and in all respects best ‘dual-purpose’organ in Great Britain is the organ of the Guildhall, Southampton. This organ with its more than 4000 pipes in 50 voices was build in 1937. The organ has two consoles. One console for the theatre organ part and a 4 manual ‘classic’console completely in church organ tradition. This too was a Compton organ. The organ is still being played regularly.



THE MIDDELBURG COMPTON

It was a unique fact that the Concerthall and Auditorium in Middelburg was the first concerthall out of England that had a ‘unit’concert organ installed.
It was even more unique that it also was the biggest Compton organ on the main land.

Known as construction number A276 at the, in those days, enormous price of £ 6000 the organ left the John Compton Organ Works in London in 1935.
Its destination: the Majestic Theatre in Rochester, Kent.

This theatre was build for the brothers David and Harry Weston. They also owned the Palace Theatre in Chatham and the Embassy Theatre in Chadwell Heath.

The Majestic had, especially in those days, a very modern interior and could comfortably seat 2200 people. This was the Weston brothers pride and joy and only the best was good enough for this movie palace, including the organ.

This Compton was a ‘one off” model designed by James Taylor.
That’s why the price of this organ was considerably higher compared to the average organ.
 

 

 
     
The console was fitted with glass cheeks where lights with different colours were placed. The organist could control these lights from the console.  

This is how the organ blended with the theatres interior. (The stopkeys for the lights are still on the console).


In 1935 the organ was opened by Cecil Atkinson. Jack Hartland took his place six months later. Another year later Clarence Barber took Hartlands place.
In the beginning of 1937 the brilliant Lew Harris became the Resident Organist of, as he described it himself, his favourite organ.
George Blackmore, student at King School College in Rochester, became close friends with Lew Harris and got –beside his classic organ education- a very intensive training on the Compton theatre organ. It was therefore no surprise that, when Lew was suddenly taken ill, George replaced him.
In the middle of a semester George Blackmore left the music school to become the resident organist of the Majestic Theatre on the 27th of May 1939. From May 1941 until February 1944 the BBC made 19 radio broadcasts from the Majestic with George playing the organ. When George joined the R.A.F. this closed the period where the organ was played by a resident organist.
In 1945 the theatre was taken over by Gaumont-British changing the name of the theatre to Gaumont Rochester. Until 1950 the organ was being played during concerts by a.o. Bobby Pagan, Louis Mordish and Terence Casey. During the fifties the organ was rarely being played.
In 1960 George Blackmore played the farewell concert on the organ in the theatre. At this occasion the dust was blown from the pipes, but the organ still played perfectly as George remembers very well. In the beginning of 1961 the organ was moved to the Roman Catholic Churchof the Holy Innocents in the nearby Orpington, Kent.
For church use effects, percussions and such were not needed and therefore removed. The original Tibia Minor, Trumpet and Clarinet were replaced by a low pressure Hobo, Clarinet and Dulciana. The organ was used by the church until 1981.
In August 1981 the Zeeuwse Theatre Organ Society (founded on the 7th of August 1979) disassembled the organ in the church, only moments before the sledgehammer would strike the proud church/convent/school in Orpington.
The disassembly of the organ is a story of its own. Helped by English organfriends, six boys who left school and could do with some pocket money and the late Stephan Lokkerbol –in charge of loading the 12 meter long container- the organ was disassembled in just three! days.
The console, the blower with motor and dynamo as well as the relay were helped down by a tackle from the balcony to ground level. All of the chests and pipes had to be brought down via a very narrow spiral stair case.
In the beginning of 1983 the Z.T.O.S. was able to buy the original Compton Muted Trumpet, Clarinet, Tibia 16’ as well as the Compton Xylophone, Glockenspiel and Orchestra Bells bringing the organ back to its original state.
 



RESTAURATION AND RE-INSTALLATION

When the container arrived in Middelburg it was quickly unloaded on a Saturday morning.
The organparts were stored in the building ‘De Waag’ in Middelburg.
 

  In September 1981 the restoration of the organ began.
A dedicated team of organ enthousiasts repaired, renewed or restored the console, relay, blower, motor, dynamo, chests, shutters, regulators and tremulants.
The blower with motor and dynamo were checked by the firm De Schelde in Vlissingen.
The blower that used 440 Volts in England was prepared for 380 Volts.

The meanwhile bought parts like effects, drums, Xylophone, Glockenspiel and Orchestra Bells were thoroughly overhauled and given new motors or membranes where needed.

Arthur Noterman, former partner of Noterman Organbuilders of London, made the 12 wooden Tibia 16’ pipes together with complete new chests.
The ‘Steck’ piano was bought from the by now demolished Plaza Theatre in Birkenhead. The piano restoration workshop De Hamernoot in Middelburg gave the piano –free of charge- new felt, hammers and strings.
The motor block of the piano was restored by the team and partly given new motors.

The municipal works service of Middelburg was executor of the rebuilding under the stage of the hall to create the blowerroom and organchambers required, using the design of ir. Eric Halsall, head technical team of the Lancastrian Theatre Organ Trust. His experience used in the lay out of our organ was indispensable and extremely important to re-install it. Early September 1983 the organ was being put in the hall.
A handfull of organfriends devoted all their free time to construct the organ for the next three months.
 

 

Putting the blower with motor and dynamo in place was a very ‘heavy’ task as it weighs about 800 kgs all together.


The placing of the chests was taking a lot of thinking and was very time consuming as was the rewiring of the chests. The organ was balanced and tuned by Dick Le Grice, an English expert in this field of work.
And so on the 2nd of December 1983 the organ was inaugurated during the opening concert as the ‘Lady Compton of Middelburg’. The nickname ‘Lady’ refered to Lady Grace Rycroft of York, a great admirer of the organ since 1939.
Until the openingsconcert about 3300 manhours were spent on the organ.
 

The previously mentioned George Blackmore, Joyce Alldred and 19 year old Carolyn Riddick played the openingconcert.
The late Jan van Weelden, also invited to play , was recovering from an operation.

The closingconcert given by Bernd Wurzenrainer took place on the 3rd of December 2003. The audience was ever getting smaller and the Z.T.O.S. decided to stop giving concerts.
In 2005 the Middelburg council closed the hall. Performances were stopped because the hall failed to meet fire regulations.
The council ordered the Z.T.O.S. to remove the Compton organ from the hall.
 

 


THE CONCERTHALL AND AUDITORIUM IN MIDDELBURG

Since 1815 the local archery of Middelburg had a band and in 1816 a choral society. Founded in 1829, the Middelburg department of the society to promote usic, got access to their own concerthall at the Groenmarkt in 1839. The users of this concerthall, among others a choral society founded in 1834, were told in 1895 that they, due to restorationworks to the Abbey buildings –including the concerthall at the Groenmarkt- no longer could use their concerthall. The people concerned then founded a committee whose goal was to acquire, if need be, build another building.
With great energy the committee went to work and soon a large property at the Singelstreet, called ‘Do well and don’t look back *’ was found. After this property was rebuild the inauguration of the Concerthall and Auditorium took place on Wednesday 21st of October 1896. 
( * = free translation.)

During World War 2 German troops were stationed in the hall as did the Allies after the liberation of Middelburg in 1944. After that the hall was used as a warehouse. In 1946 the hall was restored to its former glory.
The acoustic quality of this hall is put in 6th place of the European list.

After the rebuilding of the hall starting in 2006, the hall will be used as homebase and rehearsal space of the Zeeuwse Orchestra.

On the stage of the Concerthall and Auditorium is an organfront. This is the only remaining part of the Wilhelm Sauer organ that played in the hall until World War 2. During the war the inside was largely demolished. The pipes were moved to the attic of the hall and the chests were burned in the streets in a cold, hungry winter to find a little warmth.
 

In 1981, while the organ was build in the organchambers under the stage, we used the space behind the organfront to place the relay and toycounter.

The console was placed behind the doors in the front, where once the Sauer organ console stood. Because of the length of the cables between the console and relay (9m) the console couldn’t come out any further than shown on the picture beside.

At itself this was of course a handicap to the organist.
 
On top of the stage he was relatively far from the audience.

That’s why we used a large mirror, allowing the audience to see what the organist was doing.
Another handicap was that the sound of the organ came from behind the organist as the sound openings were in the levels of the stage. Instinctively, the organ was slow to play.

Later it all changed. Via relations in the Telephone company we became the proud owners of a lot of cable when one of the offices was relocated. The multiwired cables, that otherwise would have been thrown away, was now being used to make a new connection between console and relay. This connection was put under stage creating the possibility to put the console in the room itself.

At the same time the storage space of the care taker of the hall gave the console a new place. A lift was used to move the console on and off stage.
This too gave more options. The connection to the console was so long it could easily stand in the middle of the room. A few times to accompany a choir the console stood in the room against the stage.

The piano was stored at the console’s old place, behind the doors in the old Sauer organ front. Until that time we had to take it back to the blowerroom after every concert. A heavy task.
The piano was placed on a rail in the blowerroom causing you to mind your head if you wanted to go into the Solo chamber. Quite a few heads banged into this rail, I assure you.
Because the rail was no longer needed, it was removed giving us more room to guide the interested people through the organ chambers.




THE ZEEUWSE THEATRE ORGAN SOCIETY

The society, ZTOS for short, was founded on the 7th of August 1979. A few years before the late Willem Brouwer, the late Stephan Lokkerbol and undersigned made the effort to place a theatre organ in Zeeland.
Especially Willem played a big part in it, also because of the many relations he had in this world especially in England.
And then at one point you have an organ. A lot of arrangments have to be made such as money, subsidies and of course the acquisition.
To ensure that everything was arranged legaly, the society was founded. As a society you are a legal entity.
From the moment the Compton was unloaded in the building ‘De Waag’ in Middelburg a team of volunteers was formed. Under the inspired guidance of Cees Bimmel a group of 6 or7 men worked every Saturday morning on the restoration of the Compton for two years. After the opening concert the maintenance and tuning stayed in Cees’s capable hands.
Soon the composition of the committee was looked at. That’s how the society came after a few years under the chairmanship of drs. Cor Hartog.
During the 26 years the ZTOS existed a lot has been tried in terms of co-operation and Public Relations. Then you find out that these things cost lots of time and money and that there is so much entertainment, Zeeland isn’t waiting for you to come along.
Your own audience grows thinner every time and at a certain point an organist is playing for a nearly empty room. This was the main reason to stop organizing concerts after the concert on the 3rd of December 2003, exactly 20 years after the openingconcert. Around the same time the Middelburg council decided that no more performances were to be held at the Concerthall and Auditorium because the building failed to meet fire regulations.
When the council also orders you to remove the organ from the building because it is to serve a different purpose, it is time to find another place for the organ. This wasn’t very difficult because we had very good contacts with the NOF fot a long time.
That’s how the Compton came into possession of the NOF on the 29th of August 2005 and finds a place in the Street and Fairground organ museum in Haarlem.
Before the ‘Lady” Compton was disassembled recordings were made in August 2005 by Len Rawle.
This CD can be ordered on our "Order CD"-page .

After all the financial matters were taken care of the ZTOS was discontinued in March 2006. During the last meeting the decision was made to use the remaining money for the purpose that was the aim of the ZTOS all these years: the Theatre Organ.

The remaining money will be transfered to the NOF.

 

With thanks to our Theatre Organ friend Simon Bil,  
and Anneke Bezemer for the translation.

 

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