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“Seeing Double”: A visit to St George’s Chapel, Windsor 60 years ago

Rowland Wateridge

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As a teenager guest of the East Surrey Organists’ Association I joined them on a visit to St George’s Chapel, Windsor in about 1958.  We were greeted by one of the lay clerks, and attended Evensong for which we sat in the quire in stalls beneath the banners of the Knights of the Garter, a scene of unparalleled splendour which was matched by the service music.  As I recall, the service settings and psalms were all by Stanford on that occasion.  To my youthful ears this was simply wonderful - musical heaven!  There was no conductor; the beat was kept by a lay clerk on each side. The voluntary was César Franck’s Third Choral in A minor, a wonderful performance by Sir William Harris which I remember to this day. 

After the service our host lay clerk reappeared and escorted us up some stairs to the organ loft where we emerged from inside the organ through a pointed gothic door in the north organ case.  There we were met by Richard Greening, Sir William’s affable young assistant, later to be Organist of Lichfield Cathedral (and who, sadly, died at a young age).  Sir William was at the further far end of the organ loft standing with his back to the south case, studying a book or score.  He seemed very surprised (at first possibly not entirely pleased!) by this invasion of his organ loft, but came over and joined the group. 

After his initial shock, Sir William was a warmly welcoming host.  He had the additional distinction of having taught piano to the Queen and Princess Margaret as children.

At that time, the organ was still the Gray and Davison as built for Sir Walter Parratt (also containing older historic pipework), in turn rebuilt by J W Walker in conjunction with Frederick Rothwell with the two unique Rothwell consoles. These were positioned at right angles in an 'L' at the north end of the choir screen/ organ loft, the organists facing south and east respectively.  It was explained to us that the two consoles could be played simultaneously with different registrations, thus affording greater scope than a duet on a normal single console.

Sir William and Richard Greening demonstrated some of the Rothwell's unique features.  The two consoles appeared to be identical, with Rothwell's duplicated inter-manual tab stops.  Sir William Harris showed that for the pedal stops these could be operated from any position and automatically activated the other corresponding stop (above or below) by direct mechanical linkage.  Other unusual features were the Rothwell locking lever swell pedals at the extreme right of the pedal board.  There were no thumb pistons. These, again, took the form of five centrally-positioned reversible tab stops with a spring action.  On a second touch they reverted to the “off” position.

Two players could play simultaneously on the same manual using different registrations.  Effectively the organ had two completely independent actions, but that independence did not extend to the swell shutters.  

Another strange feature was the organ bench incorporating a swivel chair, rather in the style of a ‘captain’s chair’ positioned centrally in the bench.  Apparently conventional benches were also available, but I did not see them, and the swivel chairs were at both consoles that day.

Sir William related that for the annual Order of the Garter Service the pipes in the Chaire case were removed - I forget the reason, but had the impression that he considered it an inconvenience! 

The Walker/ Rothwell organ at Windsor had been provided in this form for Sir Walford Davies, he having previously had Rothwell's stop arrangements installed at The Temple Church in London. 

My next visit to St George’s Chapel was 40 years later in 1998 with the Winchester Assciation.  By then the Rothwell consoles had gone, the organ having been rebuilt by Harrison & Harrison to the design of Sidney Campbell, and tonally very different, with a new H&H console placed centrally on the screen facing west.  Sadly, I believe the Rothwell consoles were, for want of a better word, scrapped.

I borrowed “Seeing Double” for my title from a very informative article from New Zealand by David Bridgeman-Sutton (hereby acknowledged) which includes photographs of the Rothwell consoles - and those extraordinary swivel chair benches.  

See https://www.pipelinepress.com/seeing-double---part-2.html

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What an interesting account. Thank you, Rowland. The Walker/Rothwell organ can be heard on this Evensong.  It may be Clement McWilliam playing rather than Campbell, judging from the plain psalm accompaniments—although Campbell would still have been new in post, which might be an alternative explanation.


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VH:  Thank you for that link.  A fascinating contrast to the service I attended only four years earlier.  Some of the choir, in the back row at least, could have been the same people.  Given the recording quality, I thought the organ sounded rather fine in the closing voluntary, cut short in best BBC fashion of former times.  It would be interesting to know how the playing was shared between Sidney Campbell and Clement McWilliam and, if both, whether they played from separate consoles.

I knew Clement McWilliam, although not intimately, when he came to Winchester as assistant to Alwyn Surplice.  For a brief period, he and Graham Matthews held that role alongside one another.  Clement was later Sub Organist.  In retirement he returned as Choir Music Librarian and general factotum in the Music Department.  I had forgotten his time at Windsor.  In fact there has been much interchange between St George’s Windsor and Winchester over the years: with intermediate posts in all cases.  In that direction came Winchester Cathedral organists Harold Rhodes and Alwyn Surplice, assistants Clement McWilliam and Philip Scriven (Windsor Organ Scholar), and in the other direction, Roger Judd (Winchester chorister and organ pupil) and Tim Byram-Wigfield to Windsor.

I don’t have Roger Judd’s book about the Windsor organs and organists, and it may well include this nugget about the Rothwell  ‘re-arrangement’.  As is well known, this was the personal project of Sir Walford Davies.  Originally the plan was to employ Harrison & Harrison working with Rothwell to rebuild the organ, but that fell through, ostensibly due to perceived difficulty of their working together (I believe Harrison’s claim never to have built an organ without drawstops), and Walker’s were instructed to take over in their place.  Then, it seems, the Dean and Canons had anxieties about the cost and the scheme seemed likely to founder.  This was overcome by Walford Davies personally donating £1,000 (at the time his stipend was apparently £600 per annum plus the organist’s house in the Castle), thus saving the day.

For Windsor aficionados, E H Fellowes’ “Organists and Masters of the Choristers of St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle” (from 1406 to 1991 - there are 120 pages!) is available on line, as below:




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I should imagine that most of the lay clerks were the same.  In those days a lay clerkship at Windsor (and not only there) was a job for life.  I hope at this distance in time it is not too indelicate to say that several that Campbell inherited were well past their best, but apparently impossible to remove. Things began to improve in the early '70s with death, retirements and the appointment of younger men with fine voices. Nevertheless, it remained a mixed bunch. I do not know whether Christopher Robinson managed the impossible, or whether it was simply natural retirement that did the trick, but he certainly transformed (and enlarged) the choir into one of the finest of its type in the country.

Roger Judd's book on the organs is beautifully produced, very detailed and well worth having. Your account is correct. Initially, in 1927, Harrison was perfectly willing to co-operate with Rothwell, even to the extent of using his keyboards. He changed his mind when he learnt that Davies wanted Rothwell to be responsible for the consoles, the action and the pipework of the Choir Organ and three stops in the Swell, leaving Harrison with responsibility for the rest of the pipework, including its 'adaptation', and the wind supply and pressures (subject to mutual agreement). Harrison complained that this would give Rothwell four-fifths of the work and leave him virtually nothing to do with the building of the new organ. From a letter he wrote to the dean it seems that he was convinced that the dual console mechanism and soundboard construction would soon start causing trouble and that, despite his minor part in the rebuild, his firm's reputation would become tainted. So Harrison bowed out and Walker was engaged to co-operate with Rothwell instead.

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