Wellington Cathedral Organ

The enormous organ at Wellington Cathedral, with 3,500 pipes, has been badly damaged in the November 2016 earthquake.  It has been in the cathedral only since 1964,  prior to that it was down the road on Mulgrave Street in Old St Paul’s since 1877. It was imported from London, made by the prestigious organ maker Lewis and Co, and was installed just after the third major addition to the church was made.

Since it was removed, the only remnant that remains in Old St Paul’s is a rather innocuous looking tap in the north minor transept, behind the current organ, as the organ was originally water-powered.


The letters to and fro from the vestry to the organ makers show the difficulty faced in ordering something so large and precious from half way across the world. It is difficult to imagine these days how hard the process was – when working out how long it would take before their new organ would arrive, they had to factor in two months for the order letter to even arrive in London; they figured the whole order would be nine months in total.  In the end, it took twice as long.

After much time raising money, the vestry finally decided to order the organ in 1875, and the church’s organist, W H Warren, pictured below, began to pen anxious letters to Lewis and Co.  In his first he writes: ‘We want a good organ, as good as we can get for the £610 (we do not want the most but the best for the money)’.

Screen Shot 2016-03-19 at 10.38.58 amWhen the news came back to New Zealand that the ocean liner the Schiller had sunk, with the loss of 200 bags of New Zealand mail (as well as the loss of 335 lives, in one of the worst tragedies in British shipping history), Warren wrote again, just in case their letter had been lost. He again beseeched ‘all I have to ask is that you will do the very best you can for us’.  Warren also sent plans of the church, details of the weather in Wellington, and information on the water pressure, as the organ was to be powered by water. They eventually decided against ordering a water-powered engine – reasoning that the mains water pressure
in Wellington was sufficient to work the engines of large factories, so it should be sufficient to make their new organ work too

The organ finally arrived in the city at in December 1876. Over the Christmas period the ‘numerous large packing cases’ containing the organ were stored at the wharf. Despite the care and concern that had gone into ordering it, its installation was not plain sailing; the organ didn’t completely fit into the newly altered church, and a small part of the ceiling of the organ space had to be cut away. The problems were quickly overcome and the organ was used for the first time in January 1877.

The Lewis Organ while in Old St Paul’s

Poor Mr Warren, the organist who had done so much to organise the purchase of the organ, was not considered worthy to play the organ at its opening, and Mr Towsey, the organist from St Paul’s Dunedin, was brought up to play the opening series of recitals and services, including a private recital for the Governor General and three full choral services in one day. When installed, the organ was thought be the second largest in the country.

Despite all his hard work in acquiring the organ, Warren was only able to use it for two years before being forced to resign. A vestry minute in Sept 1878 recorded that ‘for some time past the churchwardens had to complain of the apparent carelessness of the organist. He had on several occasions left the water turned on, the consequence being that the private homes below the chancel were inundated’.  The city council had been to the church threatening to cut off the water supply, which would have left the church with no music.

The minutes also noted that the parishioners had complained of the manner in which the organ was played, and ‘that unless a more competent organist was engaged we might was well have kept the old instrument and spared the expenses of the new one’.

This Lewis organ remained in Old St Paul’s for 88 years. The organ was removed in 1964, after the church was closed for regular worship, and was installed into the new cathedral in Molesworth Street, where it remains today, where it has since been electrified and much enlarged in the 1970s, so that is now has 3,500 pipes.

For a description of the Lewis organ in Wellington Cathedral, and see behind the scenes the cathedral’s Assistant Director of Music, Richard Apperley, see: https://wellingtoncathedral.org.nz/music/organs/

In the November 2016 earthquake two large pipes fell on to the chancel area, where the choir would normally sit, and another seven or eight pipes fell into organ chamber, and many are twisted beyond repair.  Michael Stewart, Director of Music at Wellington Cathedral said it might take months for the organ to be back up and working.

For more stories about Old St Paul’s please see my other website www.osphistory.org.

Images: The organ in 1906, detail from image Ref PAColl-6771-1, ATL. Warren from Image Ref WCSP.69, Wellington Cathedral of St Paul Cathedral.
Main photo: Michael Stewart, Director of Music from Wellington Cathedral, Nov 2016

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