Sole Survivor of the Organ Battle

Bond Street leading from Temple Street circa 1950’s.

This is how I recall the area around St John’s Square in my youth and the lasting impression I had from my first look inside St John’s Church, when I saw for the first time Wolverhamptons celebrated artists Barney’s Alter-piece, “The Descent from the Cross” on its  backdrop of oak.

Altar piece by Joseph Barney, R. A. Barney was a Wolverhampton artist and Painter of Fruit and Flowers to King george III.

I am happy to acknowledge as the source of this following article. A booklet I believe to have been written by John S.  Roper, to raise £1.500 towards the restoration of what was described as ” A fine example of Organ Building”. It was  issued by St John’s Church in the 1950’s whose vicar at that time was the Rev J.Hartill,


St Johns church in Wolverhampton, contains a unique musical treasure- one of the instruments that played a part in the famous “Battle of the Organs” in seventeenth century London. How it came to find a home in the Midlands is a remarkable story.

New Renatus Organ.

Sold to repay a debt it remains a Wolverhampton treasure.

In the early 1680’s it was decided to provide a new organ for the Temple Church, but there were rival schools of thought as to who should build it: the benchers of the Middle Temple supported Father Bernard Smith of Germany, while those of the Inner Temple preferred his great rival. Renatus Harris, a Frenchman.

Some of their respective eminence can be gathered from the fact that during his lifetime Harris’s body of work in England, consisted of over three dozen organs, those for the cathedrals of Chichester, Winchester, Ely, Bristol, Gloucester, Worcester, Hereford and Salisbury, as well as one for King’s College Cambridge, whereas Father Smith produced organs for both Westminster Abbey and St Pauls Cathedral.

By 1684 each had constructed an instrument in the Temple and the struggle began. Distinguished organists of the time were engaged to show of their finer points; among them were the composers John Blow and Henry Purcell, as well as Giovanni Battista Draghi- organist to the Queen.

There seems to have been nothing to choose between the two organs, each employed armed guards to protect their instruments from damage. After four years of unsettled contest it was decided that the final choice should lie with the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, Lord Guildford. His death intervened and his successor was the notorios Judge Jeffreys.

This Midland careerist (he was a native of Shropshire) listened only to the Father Smith organ and declared it the winner. It was worth noting that within less than twelve months Jeffrey’s had been committed to the Tower for supporting James II and had died.

It was decided Renatus Harris should take away his organ without loss of reputation and receive an honourarium of £200.

Harris ultimately sold his organ for £800 to Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, where for half a century it was the admiration of all who heard it. When Handel visited Dublin in 1741 for the first performance of the Messiah he performed on it.

St John’s Church, West.

Then in 1750 The Dean and chapter consulted a Mr Byfield, a distinguished organ builder of the day and successor to Renatus Harris, about the possibility of having the organ repaired. He suggested he should build them a new organ and take away the Harris instrument in part exchange.

This odd suggestion they agreed to and leaving them with an inferior instrument he set of for London taking the original organ with him; but at Wolverhampton he died leaving his widow penniless.

Early Painting.

She therefore sold the organ to St John’s Church which had recently been dedicated.

We have the evidence of the benefactions board in the north-west staircase that the organ was paid for by subscription of £500 towards which a Mr William Archer contributed £200.

The Organ.

A nineteenth century  appreciation of the St John’s organ comes from the pen of the eminent Victorian musician and Doctor of music, Sir Robert Stewart, who was organist of Christ Church Dublin. He wrote in 1881, ‘”After leaving Tenbury I did not forget to go to Wolverhampton and had a sight and hearing of our old organ and played on it. I am sure I wish we had that old organ instead of our ‘Saw Sharpener’ . I was surprised that the Chapter of those days were ever induced to part with it, and secondly they permitted it to be replaced by Byfield’s very feeble instrument. It was an evil fate which deprived us of it.”

The Organ as it is today in 2011.

As we see it today the organ has the further advantage of being enclosed in the seventeenth century case that was made for it at Christ Church Cathedral – a very handsome example of Grinling Gibbons -type of wood-work.

The skirting on the organ case.

If any confirmation was needed of its Irish origin , one need only to go to St Mary’s Church. Dublin, where there is an organ case that is virtually identical.

The only difference is that the St Mary’s case is decorated with carvings of human figures in the costume of the reign of Queen Anne , while that at St Johns is surmounted by a carved wooden crown flanked by mitres as befits a cathedral instrument.

St Johns Church looking from George Street 1970’s.

If this were the whole history of the St John’s organ it would be remarkable enough, but in the last war it acheived a unique position. The Temple Church was shattered by German bombs and the Father Smith organ completely destroyed .

As a result, in the Renatus Harris instrument here in Wolverhampton we possess the only survivor of the “Battle of the Organs”.

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