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Death of a major Compton announced


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Wolverhampton Civic Hall Compton Scrapped - 05/02/2019

It is with sadness that it was confirmed today that the 4/57 Compton Concert organ which was originally installed and still housed in the Wolverhampton Civic Hall has been scrapped. 
Due to "possible asbestos contamination" of the organ, the largest of its kind built by John Compton company has already been scrapped as contaminated waste. 
At over 6200 pipes this must be surely one of Compton's biggest instruments? Its future had been uncertain for some time as the Civic Hall is being refurbished. With no prospect of National Lottery funding to cover the £2 million required to remove and restore the instrument it seems its demise was sealed when the ceiling was stripped of asbestos whilst the organ was left in situ last month. As a result the pipes were hopelessly contaminated and have had to be disposed of as toxic waste.
Realistically though what possible future could have been offered to such an instrument? Certainly there is no appetite for local government funding in the current austerity climate - amongst their many legal obligations, councils have to balance their books, not increase council tax beyond a certain amount each year, and must provide statutory services to vulnerable children, adults and older people. If they are lucky there's enough left over after that to empty the bins once a fortnight. £2 million organ restorations don't stand a chance.
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The organ was greatly enlarged as recently as 2001 with many additions of ‘theatre organ’ character and in this form wasn’t all-Compton.  

However, the original 1937 Compton 81 stops organ (of entirely classical character) remained intact and had its own original console which was illustrated in either Sumner’s ‘The Organ’ or Whitworth’s ‘The Electric organ’ - or possibly both. I’m pretty certain that Sumner included a description and the full specification.

Arnold Richardson was the Borough Organist here, and I have a distant memory of several classical organ recitals by him being broadcast by the BBC from Wolverhampton, in the 1950s I think.  He was also one of the four players at the inauguration of the Royal Festival Hall organ in 1954.


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As a post script, an unusual feature of the organ was that the chambers were above the interior ceiling of the hall.  It wasn’t free-standing at a lower level.  Without knowing the location of the asbestos and the logistics involved in removing the organ, it can only be surmise whether the organ could have been salvaged, but it would be interesting to know whether any thought was given to doing so.

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Civic Hall organ to be relocated and restored to former glory


Wolverhampton Civic Hall's historic organ is to be relocated and restored to it its former glory.

The City of Wolverhampton Council plans have been approved by Historic England following months of discussions about the best way to preserve the heritage of the organ that dates back to 1938.

The Grade II listed Civic Hall and Wulfrun Hall are undergoing a £14.4 million revamp to improve facilities.

The organ sits in the roof of the Civic Hall and needs to be removed to enable better ventilation for fire safety and to make adjustments to the stage area in order to attract bigger shows to the venue.

Renowned organ specialist and city organist, Steve Tovey, has been appointed to supervise the removal of the organ and find it a new location, with the hope it can remain in Wolverhampton.

Councillor John Reynolds, Cabinet Member for City Economy, added: "The Civic Hall organ is of historical significance and no doubt brings back fond memories for Wolverhampton residents.

"We are delighted we have been able to find a solution that meets Historic England's requirements.

"The Civic Hall is a nationally recognised and popular venue among UK audiences and the entertainment industry, and attracts very large audiences.

"Increasing the size of the stage at the Civic Hall will enable it to accommodate bigger productions including tours which the region cannot currently attract.

"There is huge potential for attracting new audiences from across the West Midlands to live events and music, festivals, the arts, culture and night life.

"This in turn means even more visitors to Wolverhampton city centre and the wider sub region resulting in the creation of more jobs in the local economy."

The organ, built by British firm John Compton and Company, boasts 6,241 pipes, which range from one and a half inches to 16 feet in height and are similar to that of a church organ.

Tovey added: "I'm delighted I will be personally supervising the careful removal of this historical organ and ensuring it is safely stored until a suitable home can be found where it can be restored to its former glory."

The first enabling phases of the building works at the Civic Halls have now been completed, including structural surveys and other investigations, asbestos removal and the renewal of fire alarm and emergency lighting systems, to enable the halls to re-open temporarily from the beginning of next month.

Refurbishment work on the Civic Halls, including the removal of the organ, will continue in the New Year.

  • released: Thursday 22 September, 2016


December 4th - 2018

Plans to restore Wolverhampton's historic organ to its former glory scrapped


Plans to restore Wolverhampton's historic organ to its former glory have been scrapped after council bosses refused to pay the £2 million revamp fees.

More than 6,200 pipes of the organ, which dates back to 1938, will be 'disposed' of after Wolverhampton Council claimed proposals were 'no longer financially viable'.

But the Labour-led council has since been blasted for failing to move the iconic organ from its home before work at the 80-year-old Civic Halls began.

Leader of the opposition Councillor Wendy Thompson said: "If the organ was removed before the asbestos work, the organ would still be in a good condition

"It's not just immensely disappointing, it's a sign of greater issues because it's now, yet again, another example of Wolverhampton Council not taking proper care of public money and assets.

"I think many people in Wolverhampton care about history. I'm sure they will wish more care had been taken with it, and more thought."

The council revealed plans to remove the organ from its home in the roof of the Grade II-listed Civic Hall two years ago.

The organ, which was built by British firm John Compton and Company, needed to be moved to enable better ventilation for fire safety and increase stage space as part of the Civic Halls refurbishment.

It has 6,241 pipes, which range from one-and-a-half inches to 16 feet in height.

Further investigation during the works uncovered the pipes were in poor condition but now plans have had to be scrapped due to 'staggering' costs and no possibility of funding from the Heritage Lottery.

Historic England has no objection on heritage grounds to dispose of the pipes, as approved by planning officials, the council said.

But the council is reviewing options to preserve the organ console.

Councillor John Reynolds, the council's cabinet member for city economy, said: "We are in the process of carrying out a sensitive refurbishment of Wolverhampton’s historic Civic Halls.

“Working closely with Historic England, we have looked at all the options available to us with the organ but unfortunately this is the only one that makes financial sense and we are really disappointed we are unable to restore it.

“The Civic Halls are internationally recognised and popular among UK audiences and the entertainment industry, attracting very large audiences.

“Increasing the space above the stage at the Civic Hall will enable it to accommodate bigger productions including touring groups, which the region cannot currently attract.

“There is huge potential for bringing new audiences from across the West Midlands to live events and music, festivals, the arts, culture and night life.

“This in turn means even more visitors to Wolverhampton city centre and the wider sub-region resulting in the creation of more jobs in the local economy".

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This organ was apparently last restored less than 20 years ago by the Lichfield firm of Hawkins, organ builders. Asbestos is now being cited for its scrapping and so are the people who worked on it now in a state of terminal decline due to asbestosis? I think a certain amount of salt needs to be applied to statements and excuses coming from the local council.

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I don’t have local knowledge or necessarily the full up to date local picture, but a Google search for Wolverhampton Civic Hall (then interior and then images) produces photographs showing far-reaching changes - modernising the venue.  One’s impression is that ‘classical’ organ music doesn’t seem to have been likely in the scheme of things.  A further search on the organ brings up more photographs, mostly of the post-2001 ‘theatre’ additions, including a new console, and a few nostalgic ones of the Hall and organ as they were originally.

The NPOR entries are worth a look.  

The original 1937/ 38 Compton:   N04867

2001 and beyond with ‘theatre’ additions by various other builders:   R00070


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This must be in the post-2001 format with theatre organ additions.

The 2001 additions included Wurlitzer and Conacher pipework, (some of the latter subsequently replaced) according to NPOR  R0070, percussions and grand piano!  The original number of speaking stops increased from 81 to 125.

Presumably everything has gone?  Can anyone with local knowledge tell us more?

Arnold Richardson mentioned above was a classical organist of distinction.  It was at his invitation that Messiaen gave the first complete performance in England of “La Nativité du Signeur” in 1938 at St Alban, Holborn where Richardson was organist before being appointed to Wolverhampton in that same year.

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'Two Borough Organists have served Wolverhampton at the Civic Hall, Arnold Richardson (1938--1973) and Steve Tovey (1991--2016), the latter becoming City Organist in 2001. Prior to Steve being appointed organist, the organ was destined for the scrapheap after making no profit to the hall for many years. Steve turned this around when he proved that it could be profitable by holding theatre organ concerts on the organ, which subsidise the classical organ concerts'.


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On the face of it the contrast with the Colston Hall at Bristol could not be greater.  As we all know, they have an imaginative scheme to maintain the building as a major musical venue, with the organ included as part of the plans.  Are there any obvious reasons in principle why this could not have been done at Wolverhampton?


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To be fair to Wolverhampton Council, when you are having to make savings of £45 million next year compared to this year, and when you are around £1 billion in debt, nothing short of a cast-iron guarantee that spending £2 million restoring their civic organ would more than pay for itself through additional ticket sales at organ recitals and other events where it was being used would have been a strong enough reason to have saved the instrument. How many of us would have been able to provide such assurance?

Furthermore, the difficulties confronting Warrington and Manchester councils who know they have gold plated organ treasures (two large Cavaille-Coll organs) yet both are in a precarious position financially and are struggling to know how to preserve their organs, should be a warning that something of arguably less historic value - a giant, modified Compton organ that is trying to be both theatre organ and classical organ - is unlikely to be considered worthy of salvaging by the accountants. If Wolverhampton Council had decided that on its merits it should be sold as a going concern, what prospect would there be that someone would come along, offer a reasonable price for it, pay for the dismantling, and re-erect it elsewhere? Just how much demand would there be for such an instrument, what would a reasonable offer look like to the Council for the pipework, and what would it cost to relocate? The answers to that might also explain its unfortunate demise.

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Newspaper articles aren’t always a completely reliable source, but the two posted above by S-L indicate a somewhat different picture.  The removal of the organ was part of the scheme for upgrading the venue.  The budget was the not inconsiderable sum of £14.4 million.  It’s by no means clear that the Council was ever committed to spending £2 million on the restoration of the organ.  Mr Tovey’s brief was to supervise “the removal of the organ and find it a new location, with the hope it can remain in Wolverhampton.“  His own quoted words were “I'm delighted I will be personally supervising the careful removal of this historical organ and ensuring it is safely stored until a suitable home can be found where it can be restored to its former glory."

Sadly, Mr Tovey died during 2016.

It is stated that by 26th September 2016 “The first enabling phases of the building works at the Civic Halls have now been completed, including structural surveys and other investigations, asbestos removal” ...  etc.  From that one cannot say whether the asbestos had been removed or was something which the structural survey identified as yet needing to be done.

You are absolutely right about the parlous state of local government finances - practically everywhere.  Equally, what you say about a potential purchaser is, I am sure, perfectly valid.  In circumstances like these, “a reasonable offer” might have been a quite nominal sum which would only have had to satisfy the District Auditor.  But the other difficulties you mention would remain.

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8 hours ago, David Drinkell said:

I wonder if they tried the Lottery Fund.  It came up with the money for a first class Harrison restoration of the organ in Moot Hall, Colchester, where they retained an expert consultant in the person of Bill McVicker.

That's a very good point.  There's also a deeper implication in that a properly-chosen 'expert consultant' who is committed to the project,  works hard and has enough experience and the right networks can personally facilitate the granting of HLF money.  Like David and others on the forum, I know of other cases where Dr McVicker has done exactly the same thing.

As to local councils and they way they husband their resources, both cash and assets, I'm not convinced they necessarily come up with optimum solutions despite loud and constant bleats to the affirmative.  On the one hand they are hamstrung by their Victorian bureaucratic roots - who else these days still calls pavements/sidewalks 'footways' and roads 'carriageways', or sends an entire planning sub-committee out in a bus to look at an ordinary tree in someone's garden (this actually happened to me!).  I doubt their operating mandate handed down from central government would allow them to do much about this.  On the other hand, and like all public sector organisations, they probably do not lose as much sleep as their opposite numbers in the private sector who can face sudden wipeout if the bottom line turns red.  So their financial imperatives are different when it comes to husbandry of assets such as a civic hall organ.  I wonder if a simple fiscal comparison was done to at least see whether it would have been more economic to have advertised the organ for sale and removal prior to the work on the hall, compared with what actually happened?  If so, it would be interesting to see the figures.  If not, why not?  It could have been done on a couple of sheets of paper in a day or two by someone in the finance and accounts department.  Maybe I ought to submit a FOI request asking why my tree was apparently so much more important and worthy of preservation than the Wolverhampton Compton ...


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Some of your points are valid.  In his first post above, Contrabombarde said that National Lottery funding was not available implying that it had been explored.  

I have the impression, but hope I may be wrong, that retention of the organ within the Civic Halls was never part of the plans.  We recently discussed the not dissimilar scenario of the BBC’s planned move to Olympic Park from Maida Vale - interestingly also potentially involving a Compton organ - and, thus far, no indication that there is to be an organ at Olympic Park..

In answer to your point about local authority highway terminology, LA officers tend to use in everyday communications the language of the Highways Act 1980 (and other legislation) in which ‘footway’ and ‘carriageway’ have defined meanings.  A ‘footway’ is an entirely different animal from a ‘footpath’.   ‘Bridleway’, ‘cycle path’ or ‘cycle way’ and ‘rights of way’ similarly all have distinct statutory meanings.  ’Sidewalk’ isn’t proper English usage!  It’s American (and possibly Australian, although not certain about the latter).


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Without wishing to wade into political debate, I work for a local authority and therefore can comment directly on some aspects of the financial challenges facing many councils. Local authorities have a legal obligation to "break even"; therefore far from "losing sleep" at the prospect of the bottom line turning red, senior officers could potentially go to prison for financial mismanagement of a council so not sticking to budget is not an option. Furthermore councils have statutory responsibilities such as providing care to elderly people or children in care and the cost of doing so is rising rapidly for a variety of reasons (more people living longer in frail health, affordability of paying a living wage , fewer foreign workers available to work in low-paid jobs. Much council funding comes mainly from three sources - council tax, business rates and government grants. A further sting is that the government grant is in the process of being phased out whilst councils are only allowed to increase council tax by a few percent per year unless they hold a referendum of their residents to authorise a higher increase - and I'm not aware of any council ever going down that route as the result would be a foregone conclusion.

A legal obligation not to overspend the budget, combined with shrinking income and growing social care needs, is at the heart of the dilemma facing councils when asked to find millions of pounds for something like restoring a pipe organ that will be very expensive and highly unlikely to turn any profit (and difficult to demonstrate how it might turn any profit), even though one might see how restoring a run-down civic hall into a function suite for instance could eventually turn a profit. That is why many councils appear so uninterested in saving their organ heritage - there simply is not the money in the public purse and under such circumstances restorations will need to funded through alternative means. The National Lottery appears to have shown no interest. Maybe they didn't consider a Compton to be as worthy a musical instrument as perhaps a Schulze or Father Willis. Perhaps the removal (in 1939) of the Wolverhampton organ's Melatone and the addition 20 years ago of several ranks of Wurlitzer tibias (which I would have thought could have commanded a high price) meant it wasn't in a sufifciently original condition.

The point of making these comments is neither to have a dig at Wolverhampton council or the Government that is reducing councils' funding so much as to point out why an organ like this hasn't been able to be rescued. What can organ lovers do about it, in terms of overcoming the problems mentioned?

(i) what can we do to stimulate enough interest in pipe organs to make new and restored installations pay for themselves in demand from concert-goers or other music lovers?

(ii) rather than hoping the local council or National Lottery will pay for a new or restored organ, what other sources of funding for major projects can we turn to? Realistically where else could funding have come from to have saved (either in situ or through transplantation) this organ, especially given its size and the fact that it is somewhat unique being a hybrid classical-theatre organ?

(iii) organbuilding is a vital and highly skilled profession, but if it is in danger of becoming unaffordable for all but a few organisations to be able to commission a major new organ or major restoration, how can the profession adapt to make organ building and restoration more affordable so that unachievably huge sums of money do not have to be raised to commission or save an organ?

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Thank you for that contribution which brings back balance to the debate as far as local authorities are concerned.  They come in for a lot of stick (which sometimes can be deserved), but they have a huge diversity of functions and responsibilities far beyond the examples which you quote, and in addition to budgetary limits they have to work within a complex and strict legal framework.  Practically every aspect of local government work is the subject of one or more separate statutes.

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Looking at the details in NPOR, I wonder if the enlargements and enhancements which took place in 2001 might have scuppered the chances of Lottery funding.  Adding another forty or so speaking stops is quite a change, even though the original Compton  scheme remained untouched underneath it all.  I wouldn't presume to criticize the work, which seems imaginative, and I didn't know the instrument personally.

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