BIOS / IBO DAY CONFERENCE
ST GEORGE'S CHURCH, HEADSTONE
SATURDAY, 26 APRIL 2003
St George's Church is a magnificent building (J.S. Alder, 1910) set in the 'Metroland' suburb of Headstone, north of Harrow. This was the venue for a celebration of the work of the organ-builder Frederick Rothwell, one of whose major instruments, a three-manual dating from 1915, graces the church in a nearly unaltered state following a restoration sponsored by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The event was attended by over forty people, including members of the Rothwell family.
The day was opened by the Vicar of St George's, the Revd Stephen Keeble, who has made an especial study of the work of Frederick Rothwell, recently published in Organists' Review. An initial lack of information had been made good after contact with the Rothwell family. Michael Rothwell, Frederick's great-grandson, had supplied much correspondence, including the diaries of Frederick's wife, Matilda.
Born in 1853, the young Frederick Rothwell was taken on as a pupil voicer by John Potter, voicer to Bryceson, and, when only twenty-two, joined the long-established firm of Gray & Davison as principal voicer. The firm had, however, seen its best days and Rothwell departed in 1889. However, he had already established himself as a reed-shallot manufacturer and soon went into organ-building on his own. The first new organ was built in 1899. Later, Frederick Rothwell was joined in the business by his three sons, Frederick junior, George and Dudley, after which time he was known as 'Daddy' Rothwell. Rothwell's career had been assisted by his friendship with Sir Walter Parratt, whom he met at Windsor whilst working for Gray & Davison, and later with Walford Davies, first at Hampstead, then at the Temple Church, London, and finally back at Windsor. The firm enjoyed a heyday from 1905 to 1930 and moved to a purpose-built factory in Harrow in 1922. Frederick Rothwell continued working up to his late eighties, dying in 1944. His elder sons died in 1958 and 1960 and the business ceased when Dudley retired in 1961.
Nicholas Thistlethwaite described Rothwell's career at Gray & Davison. The firm had enjoyed particular success since Frederick Davison took charge in 1849. Staff numbers were around seventy in 1861, new instruments totalled about 200 stops a year and Gilbert Scott had been commissioned to design a factory and exhibition hall on Euston Road. Rothwell thus stepped in to a very good position as Gray & Davison's principal voicer. Mrs Rothwell's diary logged his activities from 1882. Rothwell spent much time at the Crystal Palace, revoicing the organ to cope with the enormous choirs which were becoming fashionable, the pressures eventually ending up at six inches for the Great and Swell fluework and ten for the Solo. Nevertheless, by 1875, the house style of Gray & Davison was for fairly mild-toned fluework, modest power and smooth reeds, and this was to influence Rothwell for the rest of his career.
However, all was not well at Gray & Davison in the 1880s. Davison was becoming elderly, his son had gone outside organ-building and his nephew Charles had taken over the management. The company was going downhill rapidly and Rothwell departed in 1889 after an exchange of splendidly acrimonious correspondence.
David Hemsley discussed Rothwell's patents. Rothwell's first (1891) related to domestic taps and his second, in the same year, applied the same principle to pneumatic action. A more useful patent was that for the famous Rothwell console, with the stop-keys between the manuals. Fifty such consoles were made over the course of fifty-three years. There was also a patent covering organs with two consoles, as installed at St George's Chapel, Windsor, in 1930.
The characteristic 'jelly-bag' Rothwell reservoir was never patented, nor the ingenious automatic brake for a lever swell pedal which survives on his instrument in the New Church, Kensington. Howard Turner described and demonstrated his working model of this pedal to the meeting.
After lunch, Stephen Beet spoke, with the aid of recordings, of the history of the tone of the Temple Church Choir, where Rothwell had rebuilt the organ in 1910. The choir had been created by Dr E.J. Hopkins in the 1840s, influenced by Zechariah Buck, promoting a 'head tone' in continuation of the eighteenth-century 'Bel Canto' style of singing. He postulated that the Temple choir had continued that tradition under Walford Davies and that this had helped to influence Rothwell's voicing style. Delegates at the meeting were each given a CD of re-worked Temple Church recordings of 1927-32.
David Frostick spoke about Rothwell's voicing methods. His preference for mild sounds was shown by his Aeoline stops which had remarkably narrow (1/6th) mouths. There had been a move in Rothwell's time at Gray & Davison to smoother reed tone, using closed shallots. Rothwell invented a new way of making them, joined down the back, obviating a seam in the flat face. The machine he developed for cutting the tapered opening has survived in the ownership of the Rothwell family and was demonstrated. It is notably quicker to use than present-day methods and supported his considerable business as a trade supplier.
The day concluded with a fine demonstration recital by Roger Fisher including works by Walter Alcock, J.S. Bach and Harvey Grace, concluding with Reubke's Sonata on the 94th Psalm. The generous acoustic complemented the instrument which nevertheless sounded slightly old-fashioned for 1915, lacking the bass drive characteristic of Harrison or Norman & Beard. The delicacy of Rothwell's voicing was very evident in the 8' registers, though less apparent in the upperwork which had perhaps been subject to later alteration.
In summary, although achieving initial success as a voicer, it was clear that Rothwell's distinctive legacy lay especially in his mechanical ingenuity and in the contacts that he made with distinguished musicians as a result.
[A limited supply of Temple Tone CDs is available from: St George's Vicarage, 96 Pinner View, Harrow HA1 4RJ. Price £5.95 including UK p&p. Cheques payable to 'St George's PCC'.
Initially published in Organists' Review, a revised and extended text of The Progress of Frederick Rothwell by Stephen Keeble, complete with lists of Gray & Davison organs voiced / revoiced by Rothwell and new and rebuilt organs, together with forty illustrations, is available at the same price from the address above.]
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