A home for pipe organs

Although better known for poultry and forestry, the small town of Herbert, in North Otago, is the unlikely home of the largest display of pipe organs in New Zealand.

Oamaru musicologist and organ builder Dr Ron Newton, over the last two and a-half years ''with the help of a lot of friends'', has been collecting the instruments and putting them together in the New Zealand Organ Museum, now housed in the 1866 original chapel at St John's Presbyterian Church.

New Zealand Organ Museum Trust member Dr Ron Newton tickles the ivories of a mid-19th century reed organ built by Busson in Paris. The larger pipe organs in the background are (from left ) a Henry Jones (1882 ), George Sandford (1885) and Positive Organ C
New Zealand Organ Museum Trust member Dr Ron Newton tickles the ivories of a mid-19th century reed organ built by Busson in Paris. The larger pipe organs in the background are (from left ) a Henry Jones (1882 ), George Sandford (1885) and Positive Organ Company (1897). Photos: Gerard O'Brien
An organist since the age of 15, in 1978, Dr Newton began his doctoral thesis in the early 1990s and came to write about 20 of New Zealand's early organ builders as he scoured church records around the country, focusing on 1895 to 1930. Those good economic years were a boom time for pipe organs in New Zealand as over 150 were built in New Zealand and a further 100 were imported.

''So that's 250 pipe organs opened in New Zealand churches and schools in a 35-year period, which is quite remarkable considering the population,'' Dr Newton said. ''But it was simply because, in 1895, New Zealand suddenly came out of a depression and because of a change in taxation rules, it made it very easy for anyone to build a pipe organ.

A 1976 Thomas electronic organ is part of the collection of the New Zealand Organ Museum Trust.
A 1976 Thomas electronic organ is part of the collection of the New Zealand Organ Museum Trust.
''It became more expensive to import them, but there was no duty on parts. And so a number of people learned to build pipe organs out of books. They weren't necessarily trained organ builders, but their work is quite remarkable.''

Herbert's New Zealand Organ Museum, now only houses six pipe organs but the trust that runs the museum has ''quite a lot of instruments in storage around the country''.

''We have enough instruments to fill two or three museums of this size,'' Dr Newton said yesterday.

The former St John's Presbyterian Church in Herbert now houses the collection of the New Zealand Organ Museum Trust.
The former St John's Presbyterian Church in Herbert now houses the collection of the New Zealand Organ Museum Trust.
The museum's collection includes not only pipe organs but ephemera and ''interesting examples'' of harmoniums and American reed organs from around the world of different periods ''so we do have representative examples of basically every sort of instrument'' - and each historic instrument has its own story.

The 1885 Sandford pipe organ from Lyttelton, the first instrument acquired by the museum in 1989, is understood to be the last pipe organ heard played by Captain Robert Falcon Scott before his ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition in 1910.

hamish.maclean@odt.co.nz

 

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