Historical and Technical Documentation by Geoffrey Cox
© OHTA 2012 (last updated November 2012)
From 1860 until the end of the nineteenth century, the vast majority of organs installed in Queensland were imported, mostly from England. By the 1880s, however, the earliest attempts to build an organ in Queensland had commenced. The documented examples are: an organ by Thomas Christmas (c.1881) at St Patrick's Catholic Church, Fortitude Valley, one by Edward Waldron (1888-89) at the Wesleyan Church, Fortitude Valley, one by B.B.Whitehouse (1886) that went to St Thomas' Anglican Church, Toowong, and the one described here, which was built by Alfred Cobby in Gympie (c.1890).
An organ built by Alfred Cobby of Gympie was reported in The Brisbane Courier in January 1891 as being on display in Wickham Hall, Wickham Street, Fortitude Valley. It had been described previously in the Gympie Times. Cobby, an organist, was said to be 'advanced in years' and to have gained his knowledge of organ building with Gray & Davison of London:
A QUEENSLAND BUILT ORGAN.
In the Wickham Hall, Wickham-street, Fortitude Valley, Mr. Alfred Cobby has on view an organ built by him in Queensland, of Queensland woods, and intended the builder hopes to find its destination in a Queensland church or private house. Mr. Cobby is a man well advanced in years, but is still an enthusiastic musician. At ten years of age he became organist in an English church, and during the intervening years has closely pursued his musical studies, besides learning the arts of organ building and in a measure church architecture. Mr. Cobby was trained specially by Dr. Essex, a famous organist of his day, and later by Mr. Robert Gray, the eminent organist who officiated at the Queen's coronation, and the organ tutor of the Prince Consort. Subsequently Mr. Cobby was organist at Christ Church, Marylebone, and gained his knowledge of building at Gray and Davison's, London. In addition to other work done in England he was selected to assist in building the organs at Buckingham Palace and St. George's Chapel, Windsor. The organ which Mr. Cobby has recently built is an instrument of very fine design, with plenty of power, and yet of singular sweetness of tone. It serves as well in softer music as in the grand passages in which the organist revels, and Mr. Cobby played a charming extempore accompaniment to his wife's singing of "Home, sweet home" on Wednesday when a few persons were present to see and hear the organ. The following is a full description of the organ given in the Gympie Times, the instrument having been built at Gympie:- "The organ is built in a style that will blend harmoniously with the architecture of modern churches. Its front is of cedar, and striking and effective in design. It is 10ft. wide, and the height of the centre tower is 18ft., while that of the two end towers is 14ft. The towers are capped with 'gable ends.' Planted in the towers are 17 speaking open diapason pipes, elegantly decorated with blue and gold."1
The specification of the instrument is then provided in detail as follows. Given the total number of pipes on the Great, it may be presumed that there is one stop missing in that division, possibly a Flute 4ft or Twelfth 2-2/3ft. Some of the Swell/Choir stops are also apparently given at the wrong pitch:
Grand Open Diapason
SWELL & CHOIR ORGANS
Stop Diapason Bass
Stop Diapason Treble
[* presumably 8 ft]
Grand Open Diapason
Great to Pedal
Swell to Great
(CC to G, 56 keys)
560 pipes [sic]
(CC to G, 56 keys)
(CCC to BB)
Improved Swell pedal action
Two octaves of improved German and composition pedals [sic].
The description of the instrument continues:
Among the specialities of the mechanical arrangements of the instrument is the fact that it possesses two sets of bellows, one for the great organ and the other for the [swell] and choir organ, so that they (the organs) may be played either separately or together. Two extra sound boards are also provided with twelve extra bass open diapason pipes planted thereon, the advantage being that organists who have not qualified themselves to play with their feet, will be enabled to give a deeper bass by using the keys only. The woodwork of the organ is wholly of Australian timbers, and the admirable character of the instrument is proof positive that Australian woods are in all respects suitable for organ work - in fact, according to the opinion expressed by so competent a judge as Mr. Cobby, quite equal to those obtained by English organ-builders from America and the West Indies; and, in support of this, the builder has an organ pipe, made of colonial cedar six years ago in Gympie, which in point of seasoning and soundness cannot be surpassed by the imported article.2
There appear therefore to have been two optional low-compass manual soundboards. Along with the short-compass pedalboard, these features point to a conservative design deriving from early nineteenth-century practice in England.
Alfred Cobby appears to have worked in England as an organ builder in the area of Arundel, Sussex, around 1846.3 Details of his activities in Australia remain sketchy, but he was clearly living by the late 1870s in Tenterfield, NSW, where he built an organ in 1883. It went with him to Warwick, where it was installed in Cobby's Residence in Grafton Street in 1884. Cobby had obtained pipes, keyboards and leather from George Fincham in Melbourne between 1878 and 1883, and Fincham wished him success with his instrument in August 1883.4 He advised Fincham by April 1884, however, that he had been unable to dispose of it.5
The newspaper report of January 1891, already cited, suggests that Cobby was living in Gympie by the mid 1880s. He is certainly described as 'A Cobby, Gympie, Queensland' by 1889, when he again ordered pipes, keys and ivories from Fincham.6 It can be surmised that the instrument advertised in 1891 was different from the one built earlier in Tenterfield.
The Gympie-built organ was still at Wickham Hall, Fortitude Valley in May 1891, when it was advertised for auction. Wickham Hall was opposite the Orient Hotel, which is now the Wickham Hotel:
At Twelve o'Clock.
1 LARGE PIPE ORGAN.
A Splendid Investment.
Under Bill-of-Sale. By order of the Bailiff of the
Petty Debts Court.
KING & KING have been favoured with
instructions to sell by auction on the
Premises, Wickham Hall, opposite Oriental Hotel,
1 Large Church Organ.
Without Reserve. 7
Cobby's instrument was subsequently erected at the Breakfast Creek Pavilion, where it appears to have formed part of a 'representation' of an old English town, as part of the Commonwealth Carnival in August 1891:
The Commonwealth Carnival will be opened at the Breakfast Creek Pavilion this evening and should it be favoured with patronage proportionate to the thought and labour bestowed upon its preparation, it will be a great success. The illumination of the building for last night's ball served to display the attractions of the place so far as the decorations are concerned, and certainly the effect was both picturesque and entertaining. As explained in a former notice, the sides of the hall including the galleries have been transferred into a representation of a street in some old English town. On the lower floor level with the main hall, are little stalls such as those in which our forefathers bought and sold the necessaries of life, whilst above these, on the level of the galleries, are the overhanging rooms with lead light windows, deep gables, and red-tiled roofs, which formed the dwelling places of the old-time shopkeepers. Adjoining the stage is a portion of some old cathedral, with its stained-glass window, and an organ loft in which has been placed the instrument built by Mr. Cobby, of Gympie, and described in these columns a few months ago. . . . 8
Given that Cobby's organ was still at Wickham Hall as late as May 1891, it is curious that an illustration of the Breakfast Creek Pavilion in February 1891 appears to show an organ on the stage. Whether this was Alfred Cobby's instrument or a large harmonium is uncertain. The Pavilion was the venue for Monday Popular Concerts in the early 1890s, and is now a function and conference centre.
Interior of the Breakfast Creek Pavilion
(From a photograph by Poul C. Poulsen, Brisbane.)
[Illustrated Sydney News (28 February 1891), p. 23.]
1 The Brisbane Courier (30 January 1891), p. 6; reprinted in The Queenslander (7 February 1891), p. 254.
2 Loc. cit.
3 David Wickens (ed), The Freeman-Edmonds Directory of British Organ Builders; including organ builders from overseas, and all who have worked in organ building in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland from the earliest times to the year 1950 (Oxford: Positif Press, 2002), vol. 2, p. 313.
4 Enid Matthews, Colonial Organs and Organ Builders (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1969), p. 227; George Fincham Letter Book 3, p. 13 (28 August 1878), p. 350 (2 October 1882), p. 356 (17 October 1882), p. 362 (21 November 1882), p. 368 (30 November 1882), p. 400 (3 April 1883), p. 401 (30 April 1883), p. 409 (14 May 1883), p. 424 (26 June 1883), p. 432 (7 August 1883), p. 438 (25 August 1883), p. 449 (18 October 1883) (State Library of Victoria).
5 George Fincham Letter Book 4, p. 16 (25 April 1884) (State Library of Victoria).
6 Matthews, p. 229; George Fincham Letter Book 6, p. 328 (24 April 1889), p. 343 (l0 May 1889), p. 412 (22 August 1889) (State Library of Victoria).
7 The Brisbane Courier (21 May 1891), p. 8, cited by David Vann.
8 The Brisbane Courier (19 August 1891), p. 4, cited by David Vann.