The Fincham Organ

We are very fortunate at the Church of All Nations to have a fine, heritage-listed pipe organ and, moreover, an equally fine organist to play it. For the 130th anniversary of the Fincham organ in August 2007, organist Ethel Fullerton prepared this brief history of the instrument (with thanks to Adrian Purvan for additional research).

How did we acquire this beautiful organ?

This organ has been a very important part of the life of this church for 130 years. In front of where the organist sits, there is a plaque which reads, “Presented to the Trustees by the Young People of This Church, August 16th, 1877.” There is a very interesting story there.

Adrian Purvan, who was the administrator of our Outreach Programme in the 1980s discovered that, in the 1870s, this was a very flourishing church with many families attending worship. Attached to the church was a school with over 220 pupils. In 1877, it was these pupils and the younger members of the congregation who raised funds for the building of this organ. One can imagine a busy band of children pestering their parents and relatives and friends for a donation. We would like to know much more.

In 1876 the organ builder, George Fincham, was commissioned to build the organ at a cost of two hundred and thirty nine pounds. In 1877, it was presented to the church and dedicated. Ten years later (1886), George Fincham was asked to add a swell division to the organ, which greatly increased the versatility of the organ. This cost a further one hundred and sixty five pounds.

It is not a large organ. It has two manuals, 14 stops, pedal organs and swell. It remains unaltered from the original, except an electric bower has been added. Prior to that, somebody had to sit and pump to fill the bellows. The pump handle still exists. By an irony, when the restored organ was dedicated in l992, the electric blower failed temporarily and someone had to leap to the rescue and pump until the fault was rectified.

Who was George Fincham, the patriarchal organ builder commonly called “Grandfather Fincham”?

Recently, I have been interested in digging up any information I could find about George Fincham. There is so much to tell. He was born in London in 1828 and, after finishing private school, he was apprenticed to a London organbuilder. His father was also an organ builder.

He came to Victoria in 1852 and set up an organ-tuner and repairer business in Queen Street, Melbourne. The next year he went to the Ballarat gold mines, staying a year and in 1855 was able to purchase land in Bridge Road, Richmond, where he built his home and a large bluestone factory. He built his first organ in 1864. These were gold rush days and people had money to pay for pipe organs in the churches where they worshipped and other large buildings, like our Exhibition Building, and the demand for organs grew.

Because of the great skill of Fincham as a practical organbuilder and his insistence that only the highest quality of timber, leather, keyboards, etc., be used, the business expanded quite rapidly. His insistence on using only the best, well-seasoned timbers of types suited to the vagaries of Australia’s climate meant his windchests, actions, wood pipes proved superior to imported organs that invariably suffered damage during the long, slow sea transport in the holds of ships through the tropical areas. He had a very efficient pipe-making division and produced pipes of high quality from sheets cast with his own composition of ‘spotted metal – namely 45% tin and 55% lead. And this is what the pipes of our organ were made from.

Fincham’s instruments were widely sought after and he built close to 200 for buildings throughout Australia and New Zealand. Over time, most of these organs have either ceased to be, or have been modernised. Our organ is of particular interest because it is one of the very few that remains in the original condition in which George Fincham built it.

Changing fortunes of the organ
Over the years, the organ has gone through so many different periods that it has in a sense developed a personality of its own. We have had many different organists. For quite a long period, the church employed a succession of very gifted organists, who made a great contribution to the life of the church. However, nearly 20 years ago, the church decided to economise and I was asked to become an honorary organist. This proved to be quite a challenge for me. I was trained as a pianist, and I soon discovered that being a pipe organist required a very different technique.

About this time, it was becoming increasingly apparent that the organ was urgently in need of some major restoration. Back in 1986, Mr John O’Donnell, then Dean of the School of Music at the College of the Arts was quoted by the Melbourne newspaper The Herald as saying, “the mechanisms in the old organ ‘have simply worn out’. It has had irregular attention over the years and has quite literally been stuck together with sticking plaster. But in spite of that, it is still tonally impressive and a great instrument (31/10/86)

It wasn’t until 1989 that the Parish Council of the Church decided that the organ should be restored. This decision led to quite a deal of drama.

A group of Melbourne organists who loved the organ became concerned that we maybe planning to modernise the organ. They mounted a very vigorous campaign to ensure that this did not happen. We appreciate their interest and concern, but they need not have worried, because the church never intended to do more than restore the organ as far as possible to its original condition. Three organ builders — 2 in Australia and one in New Zealand — were invited to submit tenders.

Finally, the South Island Organ Company of Dunedin in New Zealand was commissioned to undertake the restoration of the organ. I watched with great interest as craftsmen from this company, under the leadership of John Hargreaves, the manager, came to Melbourne to dismantle the organ for transportation to Dunedin where the work would be done. I was amazed at how scrupulously careful these tradesmen were. They described, marked and photographed all the parts before they were packed away.

However, two further obstacles remained. In 1990, the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) included our organ on the National Trust Register naming it as “an important part of Australia’s heritage, which therefore requires special care”. We discovered as a consequence, we had to make an application to Canberra for an export permit under the Protection of Moveable Cultural Heritage Act. This meant that our organ sat in boxes on a Melbourne wharf for some time while this requirement was met.

A second obstacle was: how to pay for this restoration. To help, a small group of women in the church under the leadership of Ann den Houting set out to raise money by catering for church and public functions to contribute towards the cost. It was hard work, but we had a lot of fun and a great feeling of satisfaction when our organ was returned to its “home”.

The rest, as they say, is history. The South Island Organ Company undertakes the maintenance of the organ on a quarterly basis.

Ethel Fullerton
Anniversary Service
Church of All Nations, Carlton
19 August 2007

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