Thank you for the music: the story of the Town Hall organ

Cultural Heart People of Adelaide

The Adelaide Town Hall is inarguably one of the most iconic and architecturally impressive buildings in Adelaide. Ask any visitor what feature they find most striking, and no doubt the grand JW Walker and Sons organ will get a mention. The stunning backdrop for countless wedding and event photographs, the JW Walker and Sons organ is certainly a sight to behold. Grand in stature, as well as aesthetics, the organ sits at approximately ten metres wide and eight metres tall.

2020 marks 30 years since the organ was first installed, and very few people would know that had it not been for a 20 year-long crusade by local organist Andrew Baghurst, its predecessor may still be sitting in the hall.

A professional electrical engineer, Andrew was the President of the Organ Music Society of Adelaide for around 10 years. In 1973, Andrew won a three-month Churchill Fellowship to study organ building in Europe and the UK, spending time with several organ builders and learning about modern organ building techniques. What Andrew doesn't know about organs, is probably not worth knowing.

“There's been an organ in the Town Hall since 1877,” recalls Andrew. “It was built by William Hill and Son, and that organ builder was famous for having built not only the Adelaide Town Hall organ but also the organ in the Sydney Town Hall.”

“The Adelaide instrument had always been something of a poor cousin to the organ in Sydney, but it served the Town Hall well-enough. However, as time went on, the organ became unreliable mechanically and the sound it produced did not do the organ, or the orchestras that accompanied it, justice.”

Old adelaide town hall organ painted white

painted white - The old William Hill and Son organ circa 1988

The decision was made in the late 1960’s to rebuild the organ. “Rebuilding an organ is a tricky business,” advises Andrew. “If an organ is in need of repair, it should be either restored it to its original condition or replaced.”

What happened with the Town Hall organ, was neither. Instead, the organ was rebuilt in an attempt to modernise it, which in Andrew’s view, was not successful. "Unfortunately, the original tonal resources of the instrument were lost making it an unreliable Town Hall instrument," says Andrew.

With the support of his fellow Organ Music Society members, Andrew brought attention to the shortcomings of the refurbished organ by providing a detailed report. Every year or so, Andrew would then write to the Town Hall, following up on the status of the organ.

“During this time, the organ was not a sought after instrument to play on,” advises Andrew. “It did the normal things that you expect in a Town Hall, such as play the national anthem and maybe a piece or two for civic functions, but it never really cut it as a suitable solo instrument to complement to a full symphony orchestra.”

“Over time the Auditorium had become somewhat plain. Everything had just a rather bland whitewashed look to it, including the organ, which for several decades had simply been painted white.” Andrew Baghurst

Out with the old and in with the new

In the 1980s, a decision was made to redevelop the entire Town Hall complex, including restoration of the Auditorium to its original 19th century splendour. Andrew saw this as a great opportunity to push once again to replace the organ, which he strongly believed was critical for one of Adelaide's most prominent organ sites. Fortunately, this idea was taken up with enthusiasm by (then) Alderman James Bowen, who later became Lord Mayor. 

This gave the project real momentum and from here, 20 years after the rebuild of the old organ, the decision was finally made to replace it. The total cost of replacing the organ was estimated at the time to be around $1.3 million. To help cover the costs involved, an Organ Appeal Committee was formed and raised funds from donations made by individuals and local businesses, raising a total of $71,000.

Andrew was appointed the role of Organ Consultant. This position involved initial discussions with JW Walker and Sons regarding design and specifications, overseeing of the construction process, inspection of the organ before shipment, supervision of the erection process in Adelaide and general liaison with Council.

Sketch jw walker and sons organ adelaide town hall

Sketch of the proposed organ drawn by JW Walker’s Organ case designer, David Graebe.

“The opportunity arose to provide an instrument with an English sound,” explains Andrew. “But in order to do justice to the romantic organ and orchestra repertoire, it also needed to have a strong French accent.”

The desire was for the appearance of the new organ to be similar to that of the old William Hill and Son instrument (before it was painted white), but even grander and with a stronger architectural impact. A selection of wood carvings from the old organ were salvaged, including two harps, four urns, and the central broken pediments, which all became features on the new JW Walker and Sons instrument. 

The case was designed by esteemed UK architect, David Graebe and built by JW Walker and Sons. “I liaised with those people on the tonal design, the appearance and the mechanism, and I helped with some of the interface between that and the electrical system here and travelled to visit them on two occasions,” explains Andrew.

“The second occasion was exciting because the instruments are built from the floor up in the workshop. So, I was able to inspect this instrument at a point when it was nearing completion.”

The organ was constructed to the point where they could hold a 'workshop recital' which UK organist, Thomas Hayward performed. The organ was built to near completion and then disassembled into literally tens of thousands of parts, with each part labelled for reconstruction here in Adelaide.

It was delivered in the evening to the Town Hall in two 40-foot containers, which had to be parked and unloaded outside of the Town Hall. A gantry crane was erected on the balcony of the main Auditorium and the parts were carefully removed from the containers and placed on the foot path. They were then hoisted up onto the balcony and taken into the Auditorium through the open doors.

Finally, a grand new organ

The new organ is significantly larger than the old one, with 4 manuals and pedals and 61 stops, reputed at the time to have been the largest mechanical-action instrument to be built in the UK for 100 years. By comparison, the instrument it replaced had 3 manuals and 37 stops. The new organ is also about 50 per cent heavier than the old, and features around four and a half thousand pipes. 

“It all went very smoothly,” recalls Andrew. “Except for one hiccup at the end. The organ was in danger of being damaged by dust which had penetrated the Auditorium as a result of construction activities in the building.”

“I came in one day in early January 1990 to meet the organ builders, who were coming back from the UK to put the finishing touches on the organ. I made my way in and to my horror found that the plastic sheeting which covered the western entrance to the Town Hall had been perforated, and that jackhammering of the floor in the western foyer was releasing concrete dust which was settling over everything in the Town Hall, including the organ.”

The organ then had to be substantially dismantled and cleaned, as concrete dust is extremely abrasive and harmful to its working parts. The Lord Mayor's Gala Concert, intended to be the opening night of both the new organ and the Adelaide Festival of Arts, had to be cancelled and rescheduled. That event was eventually held on the 30 March in 1990 and was a dual celebration, marking both the completion of the new grand organ, as well as the end of the four-year redevelopment of the entire Town Hall complex. The occasion also marked a ‘home-coming’ for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, which had, during the Town Hall’s redevelopment period, been based at the Adelaide Festival Theatre.

Pages from the Lord Mayor's Gala Concert Souvenir programme

Following the installation, Andrew was appointed as the Town Hall Organ Curator. He remembers many overseas organists writing to the Town Hall offering to give free concerts. Even renowned organists would play for a token fee because the opportunity to put on their curriculum vitae that they had given a concert or a recital in the Adelaide Town Hall was held in such high regard.

Prior to the recent travel restrictions, the Town Hall would often still receive requests from abroad to play. Today, the organ is regularly used for practice and performances by local organists, with the Adelaide Town Hall offering free organ concerts throughout the year.

To celebrate the anniversary, the Adelaide Town Hall have produced a 30th Anniversary Virtual Organ Concert Series, featuring a stellar line-up of South Australian organists including Gina Dutschke, Graham Bell, Josh van Konkelenberg, Claire Baker, Amir Karas, David Heah and Peter Kelsall. To see the JW Walker and Sons organ in action, watch the video below.

You can find out more about Andrew's involvement in the organ with ABC's coverage in 2010, which covered the 20th anniversary of the organ.

Article by

Melanie Stewart

Melanie Stewart

Having lived interstate, Melanie is an avid promoter of her beloved hometown, Adelaide. With a passion for community and sustainability, she loves sharing stories of everyday people, doing extraordinary things.