An obituary has been published in the Telegraph: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/obituaries/2021/09/07/robert-pennells-celebrated-organ-builder-diversified-making/
Bob Pennells, who has died aged 85, was trained as an organ builder and became the owner of a famous organ-building firm. However, blessed with a business acumen unusual in the organ trade, he also ran a kitchen-making concern and founded Solid State Logic (now SSL), a leading provider of high-end recording studio mixing desks.
Robert John Pennells was born at Ilford on March 4 1936. Orphaned in his first year, he and his sister were taken in by aunts and evacuated to the West Country during the war. Returning to Ilford, he joined the choir of St Margaret of Antioch, where he developed his appetite for church music and the organ.
He left Ilford County High School in 1952 with an O-level in mathematics and started a five-year apprenticeship with Gray & Davison, an old established London firm of organ builders, then in its twilight.
After National Service with the Essex Regiment, he returned briefly to Gray & Davison before moving to the well-regarded JW Walker & Sons. Here he detected the management malaise that would be their subsequent undoing and determined henceforth to be his own boss.
Pennells therefore set up in business with Raymond Sharpe, a fellow Gray & Davison apprentice. The new business, Pennells & Sharpe, started in a rented stable in Billericay, nominally producing kitchen cabinets but soon moving on to wooden parts for organ builders.
The quality was excellent, and their success came to the notice of Kimber-Allen of Swanley, a business making electrical and engineered parts for organ builders which took a majority holding in Pennells & Sharpe and moved the business to Swanley.
Shortly after this, Pennells met Colin Sanders, an electronics engineer involved with a project to construct an efficient pipeless organ for which Kimber-Allen would make the console. Having observed the various electro-mechanical switches and relays that K-A were producing, Sanders remarked that solid state switching would be a simpler and less costly means of controlling an organ.
Pennells immediately saw the potential of the method and proposed to K-A that they adopt it. When they declined, Pennells and Sharpe withdrew from the arrangement. With Sanders, Pennells set up Solid State Logic, and with Sharpe he resumed their woodworking business, now known as P&S. Both businesses did well, SSL particularly so after Sanders devised a method to computerise recording-studio mixing desks.
By 1974, the failure of Walker’s that Pennells had foreseen was in progress and, as he was virtually the only person in the organ business who had any money the Walker directors turned to him for help.
It was not an attractive proposition, but Pennells had a hunch. During his overseas sales visits for SSL he had noted the quality of work of the best German builders and their modern, purpose-built workshops. Seeing an opportunity to build new organs to the same high standards as found in Germany, Pennells acquired the name and the goodwill of Walker’s, reformed the business at a new workshop at Brandon in Suffolk and brought in new talent, including the architect David Graebe, who is credited with reviving the art of organ-case design in this country.
It took the better part of four years to settle outstanding problems and stabilise the business, but from 1978 new Walker organs with mechanical key actions, such as at All Saints’, Northampton, Bolton Town Hall and University College School, Hampstead, began to attract attention, restoring the standing of the Walker brand and stirring interest among other British organ builders.
More importantly, the success of the organ at Our Lady of the Angels in Worcester, Massachusetts (1985), opened the door to the American market, which eventually accounted for the majority of Walker’s output.
At the age of 16, Pennells’ son Andrew had expressed a wish to become an organ builder, so Pennells arranged a four-year apprenticeship for him with Klais Orgelbau of Bonn. Andrew returned to Walker’s in 1981 and soon took over the drawing office and responsibility for the mechanical design of the Walker output, including the important instruments at Lancing College Chapel; Exeter College, Oxford; Adelaide Town Hall; and St Martin-in-the-Fields.
In 1994 Andrew assumed the role of managing director of Walker’s and Bob Pennells retired to be chairman of the board. In 1999, however, Andrew, widely regarded as the great hope for a new generation of organ builders, was diagnosed with the cancer from which he died in October that year aged 37.
Pennells came out of retirement and took the reins of the business again, but the vision that previously drove him was now dimmed by the loss of his son. He gradually relinquished his interests, made arrangements for the sale of Walker’s and P&S, and passed the administration of his remaining interests to his family.
He is survived by his wife Wenda and by two daughters.
Robert Pennells, born March 4 1936, died July 18 2021