John Speller's Web Pages Positive Organ Company

John Speller's Web Pages

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In these benighted times when the traditional pipe organ seems under threat and many small churches are struggling for survival, it seems appropriate to remind people of the small church organs that were built by the Positive Organ Company. They were built under a patent of Thomas Casson (1842-1910), a banker from Denbigh in Wales turned organbuilder. Casson's instruments, supplied by a network of local dealers, were ideal for the small church. They were cheap, although sturdily built, little mechanical action organs designed for the pianist who had strayed onto the organ. Constructed from quality, durable materials, they offered not only a small one manual tracker organ at a fair price, but also a number of interesting pneumatic features that rendered the instrument capable of achieving things only a much larger instrument was capable of doing. Thus for example there was often a Melodic Bass, which duplicated the lowest note played on a 16 ft. Bourdon stop, thereby achieving the effect of a Pedal Organ in 4-part accompaniment of hymns and anthems. There was sometimes also a pneumatic coupler playing the top note only on certain stops (often a "Melodic Viol"), thereby supplying solo effects normally found only on a two-manual organ. Or sometimes the manual was divided and the stops drew in halves to achieve a similar effect. Many of the instruments had transposing devices: the organist simply moved the keyboard a note or two up or down and the keyboard notes rather curiously disappeared into the casework. And the instruments also had foot-powered feeders like a harmonium so that the organist could easily blow the organ him or herself, useful in remote churches without electricity, and useful today because of being a very "green" form of energy. Yes, I know that getting the hamburger to McDonald's to give the organist the calories to pump the organ uses five times as much energy as using an electric blower running for an hour or two, but it's the principle of the thing, and because of the elimination of turbulence hand (or foot) pumped organs sound better anyway.

I remember several little churches that had very effective little Positive Organs. One was at Christ Church, Long Hanborough in Oxfordshire, and I remember another at the historic Church of St. Mary Steps in Exeter. One instrument I found less satisfactory was the rather orchestral-sounding one at St. Michael's Church in Michaelstow, Cornwall, where one of the outstanding organbuilders of his day, Roger Yates (1905-1975), had his workshop in the Old Rectory. Another great little instrument at St. John's, Heathfield, Somerset has sadly been replaced by an electronic substitute. Perhaps the finest of all is at St. George, Bicknoller, not far from my home town of Taunton in Somerset. This was the church, in breathtakingly beautiful surroundings near Bicknoller Combe, where Archbishop William Temple spent his summers, and has a 1922 Positive Organ in a splendid carved dark oak neo-gothic case with a spotted metal fašade. The stop list is:

Manual C-a3, 58 notes, enclosed

16' Double Bass [playing lowest note of chords only]
8' Stopped Diapason
8' Viol
4' Principal
8' Melodic Viol [playing top note of chords only]
St. George's Church, Bicknoller, Somerset, Diocese of Bath & Wells. Organ built by the Positive Organ Company, 1922
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