Historical and Technical Documentation by Geoffrey Cox
© OHTA 2012, 2013 (last updated February 2013)
Alfred Cobby, also known as Professor Cobby, worked in New South Wales and Queensland between around 1871 and 1900. A small one-manual organ built by Cobby existed in Warwick in 1884-85, having been built in Tenterfield during 1883. This was the first of at least two organs built by Cobby in Australia, a larger one of two manuals being built by him in Gympie between 1887 and 1890. The latter was displayed in Wickham Hall, Fortitude Valley in January 1891 and was erected later that year on the stage of the Breakfast Creek Pavilion.
It is possible that Alfred Cobby was in Grafton, NSW, by the middle of 1871 as Musical Director at the Royal Victoria Theatre,1 but the first clear reference to him in Australia is in November 1871, when he was living in Sydney and described in The Sydney Morning Herald as a 'Church and Chamber Organ Builder, Tuner, and Repairer,' and as having previously worked with Gray and Davidson in London:
MR. ALFRED COBBY, Church and Chamber Organ Builder, Tuner, and Repairer, 137, Bourke-street, Woolloomooloo. He has built an organ three rows of keys, 34 stops, 1800 pipes. Unexceptional testimonials from Messrs. Gray and Davison, the eminent organ builders, London.2
Cobby appears to have worked in England as an organ builder in the area of Arundel, Sussex, around 1846.3 According to the 1851 British census, he was an organist of estimated age 32 living in Arundel, having been born in Warblington, Hampshire.4 He appears to have been baptised at Warblington, Hampshire on 7 June 1818, the son of James and Sarah Cobby.5
Alfred Cobby was described as a pianoforte dealer and living in Bognor, Sussex, in 1861, when he appears to have been overtaken by financial problems.6 It was possibly as a result of these difficulties that he moved overseas. Before settling in Australia, he seems to have resided for a time around 1863 in Canada, where he advertised in The British Columbian as follows:
Mr. Alfred Cobby begs respectfully to announce to the inhabitants of New Westminster that he is now prepared to give lessons on the Piano, in Singing, Harmony, &c
The temporary use of the Hyack Hall having been kindly offered to him, he will be happy to receive applications there from the hours of 10 to 12 a.m. Terms moderate. Mr. Cobby would be glad to form a music class for children, the terms for which would be proportionately reduced.
March 12th, 1863.7
Having arrived in Australia at least by 1871, it was in northern New South Wales that Cobby seems to have spent most of his time until the end of 1883. He gave a lecture in the School of Arts in Grafton in May 1873,8 and was described as 'Professor of Music' in his capacity as conductor and accompanist of the Ulmarra Choral Class later that year.9 He appears to have been employed in the NSW Civil Service, and gave his address in advertisements between 1875 and 1877 as the Star Hotel, Grafton:
Pianoforte Tuning, &c.
MR. ALFRED COBBY, Pianoforte Tuner and Repairer,
by Special Appointment to the Civil Service, N.S.W.
Address - Star Hotel, Dobie-street, Grafton.10
In a Grafton advertisement of August 1876, Cobby claimed to have had 30 years' practical experience as a Piano and Organ Manufacturer,11 but his main activities in northern New South Wales seem to have been in the tuning and repairing of pianos and harmoniums. From Grafton he also visited Glen Innes and Inverell.12
As late as 1877, Cobby seems to have had a permanent address in Sydney at 5, Christina Terrace, Fitzroy-street, Bourke-street,13 but he advertised in mid 1879 that he had become a resident of Grafton:
Professor Alfred Cobby, PIANO AND HARMONIUM TUNER, &c, Private Residence - Queen-street, Grafton.
BEING NOW a Resident of Grafton, Mr. Cobby has REDUCED his CHARGE for TUNING and REPAIRING. He has several instruments under his care to tune every four mouths, when his charge is only 10s each time; for the first tuning the charge will be according to the state of the instrument.14
It was from around this time that Cobby's interest in building a pipe organ became evident. He enquired about purchasing pipes from George Fincham in Melbourne, who replied to him in August 1878 as follows:
Mr. Alfred Cobby, NSW. Messrs Glen & Co forwarded your letter of Aug. 10th to me and I beg to inform you that I only make sufficient organ pipes for my own use.15
Cobby obviously persisted with his enquiries, and received a quotation for pipework from Fincham in October 1882 as follows:
Alfred Cobby, Sydney. Prices for goods. Set of keys £4. Open dia small scale £3-10-0. Principal £6. Prin G to G £4. Oboe with shades £12. Order can be delivered on board in one month. Bank draft for payment.16
There was further correspondence concerning a set of keys, along with payment details,17 and also reference to 'another set of keys' in April 1883:
Alfred Cobby, Sydney. ..ack yours with £2 enclosed for last keys. With regard to your enquiry for another set of keys, I could let you have them in a fortnight after rec. order, but the metal work I could not commence under two months as I am exceedingly busy and can scarcely turn the work out of the metal shop fast enough to supply my own requirements. The diameter of Middle G Open Dia. Small scale will be 2-1/4 ins. My terms are half cash with order, balance on delivery. I do not use split skins as I consider them too light for organ work, but I can supply you with pallet leather of Colonial Manuf (the same as I use myself) at 2/6 per skin.18
In May 1883, the Open Diapason was described as 56 pipes and the Principal of 47 pipes, ready by June.19 Keys and draw-knobs were delivered in June, although there was some question over Cobby's requirements for metal pipes:
Alfred Cobby, NSW. At your request I beg to advise of the delivery of your package of keys and organ draw knobs at the office of Mr F. Tate, Parcels Post office. …. If you are decided upon having the metal pipes, please remit P.O. order and they shall be put in hand at once.20
Fincham wished Cobby well with his instrument in August that year, and metal pipes were delivered to Tenterfield shortly afterwards.21 Now living in Tenterfield, Cobby made tuning visits to Warwick, and the organ he had built in Tenterfield was descibed in the Warwick press in December 1883 as follows:
BY advertisement in another column it will be seen that Professor Cobby, from Tenterfield, is on a visit to Warwick for the purpose of tuning and repairing pianos. The above gentleman has recently constructed an organ in Tenterfield, and on which the Star gives the following critique: - "Mr. A. Cobby, professional organ and piano manufacturer, from the firm of Gray and Davidson, London, has constructed a church organ in Tenterfield, which reflects the greatest credit upon that gentleman as an artist and musician. The instrument is described as a new church finger organ, compass CC to F in altissimo. This excellent instrument has been built by Mr. Cobby for sale. Whether it will be allowed to leave the district we cannot say, but we should very much like to see it in one of our local churches."22
The organ was advertised for sale in Warwick in the early months of 1884,23 and it was announced in March that the instrument would be erected in Warwick:
Church Organ for Sale
The undersigned has just constructed a PIPE CHURCH FINGER ORGAN. For Sale, price £160. It will be erected in Warwick in a few days hence. The Tenterfield Star says:- "This Organ reflects the greatest credit on Professor Cobby both as an artist and musician."
A. C. COBBY
Royal Hotel, Warwick.24
By April 1884, this had been accomplished. The Warwick press described the organ in detail, now erected at Cobby's residence opposite the Wesleyan church in Grafton Street:
Mr. A. C. Cobby has just completed the erection of his pipe organ, at his residence, Grafton-street, opposite the Wesleyan Church. It has a fine tone, and is powerful as well, and has the following stops: - Stop number one, open diapason, made of the best spotted metal, on large church scale, compass, from G fourth space of the bass to F in altissimo; stop number two, claribell, cedar wood, the same compass as the open diapason; stop number three, principal, best spotted metal, compass from G first line of the bass to F in altissimo; stop number four, principal bass, from double CC to gamut G; stop number five, grand, eight feet, open diapason, from double CC to F sharp fourth line of the bass. The organ has also two composition pedals, viz., fortissimo and pianissimo; one octave of pedals playable with the feet, is attached to the keys, and the keys can be used in the ordinary way by those performers not hitherto accustomed to the use of pedals. The instrument is a good one, of superior tone, and is an excellent piece of workmanship. He will be glad to show it to anyone interested in music. The work has all been executed by Mr. Cobby, and is a good specimen of his skill in this particular branch of his profession.25
The Wesleyan Church, Warwick, c.1885,
opposite which Alfred Cobby resided
[Illustration: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland]
The organ thus appears eventually to have been a single-manual instrument of 54-note compass with one octave of pedal pulldowns. The Oboe stop mentioned in earlier correspondence with Fincham appears to have been replaced by a 'Claribell', and the specification might be reconstructed as follows:
Open Diapason Bass
One octave of pedal pulldowns
2 composition pedals
Cobby obviously had difficulties in selling the instrument, and it was advertised again in the Warwick press in April and May 1884 as 'a fine-toned PIPE CHURCH FINGER ORGAN.'26 It had still not been sold by July, when Professor and Madame Cobby announced that a grand concert would take place in the Town Hall, and that the organ would be used on the occasion.27 The Town Hall in Warwick between 1873 and 1888 was the former Masonic Hall, a brick building in Palmerin Street.
Palmerin Street, Warwick, c.1884
[Illustration: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland]
The concert took place on Monday 28 July, and was described as follows in the Warwick Argus the following day:
CONCERT. - The concert given in the Town Hall last night by Professor and Madame Cobby, assisted by lady and gentlemen amateurs, attracted a large audience. Professor Cobby could hardly fail to feel pleased at the reception accorded to him on this his first public appearance in Warwick, for the audience were very hearty in their expressions of approval. The Professor's fine pipe organ was erected at the back of the stage; it presented a handsome exterior, and the maker's performances upon it were much appreciated. Madame Cobby's singing was loudly applauded, and some of the amateurs were accorded an equally flattering reception. We have only space to add that the concert was a success both musically and financially.28
More detail appeared in the Warwick Examiner & Times on the Wednesday:
PROFESSOR AND MADAME COBBY made their bow to a Warwick audience on Monday evening last by a concert, in which they were ably assisted by several lady and gentlemen amateurs. There was a good attendance, the front seats being particularly well filled. The new fine toned pipe church organ, built by Professor Cobby, was erected on the stage, and on this excellent instrument the concert was commenced by the organ solo, "Improvisemente." The Professor is thoroughly master of this branch of his profession. Madame Cobby followed with the song "Il Segreto." Possessed of a voice of considerable compass, with a clear and distinct articulation, and unaccompanied with that harshness which is frequently met with, she at once engages the attention of her audience. . . . The second part commenced with an organ solo by Professor Cobby. . . . The National Anthem brought the concert to a close. The accompaniments throughout were played by Professor Cobby. The various performers deserve the highest credit for the manner in which they acquitted themselves. In every respect the concert was a success.29
Cobby remained in Warwick until at least April 1885, advertising as a piano tuner and as a supplier of pianos and American organs.30 He also advertised for sale the piano arrangement of his 'Sussex Polka,' which presumably dated from much earlier:
FOURTH EDITION OF THE CELEBRATED "SUSSEX POLKA" DEDICATED to Her Grace the Duchess of Norfolk, performed at the Crystal Palace, London; composed and arranged for the Pianoforte by ALFRED COBBY. Copies can be had of Mr. JAS. MILLAR, Book and Stationery Depot; or of the Author, Grafton-street, Warwick.31
It was not until January 1885 that Cobby was reported to have sold his 'church organ' to a gentleman in Gympie:
We understand that Professor Cobby has disposed of his church organ to a gentleman at Gympie, for a good figure, and that he will take it to Gympie and personally erect it. During his visit to the auriferous town, he along with Mrs. Cobby will give a concert. We can promise our Gympie friends that they will have an enjoyable entertainment, judging from what we have seen of their performances here. Both Mr. and Mrs. Cobby have given concerts at Warwick and at Allora, and on all occasions have been well supported and favourably received. The Gympie people can not do wrong in patronising them largely, for they will be well repaid by a good musical entertainment.32
Reports of further concerts given by Professor and Mrs Cobby were reported in the Warwick press in March 1885, but they were poorly attended.33 It is not clear when Cobby left Warwick, but he was described by December 1888 as 'the well-known Gympie musician' who had spent two years laborious work, almost completing a two-manual organ there.34 This was the instrument later displayed at Wickham Hall, Fortitude Valley.
Apart from the fact that it was sold to a gentleman in Gympie, the fate of Cobby's Tenterfield organ, which existed in Warwick in 1884-85, is unknown.
1 Clarence and Richmond Examiner and New England Advertiser (Grafton, 11 July 1871), p. 3 & (25 July 1871), p. 5.
2 The Sydney Morning Herald (4 November 1871), p. 8.
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 UK Census Online. www.ukcensusonline.com - accessed June 2012.
5 "England, Births and Christenings, 1538-1975," index, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/JMYP-254 : accessed June 2012), Alfred Cobby, 07 Jun 1818.
6 The London Gazette (5 July 1861), p. 2816. www.london-gazette.co.uk/issues/22527/pages/2816/page.pdf - accessed June 2012.
7 The British Columbian (New Westminster, 1 April 1863), p. 3.
8 Clarence and Richmond Examiner and New England Advertiser (Grafton, 13 May 1873), p. 2.
9 Clarence and Richmond Examiner and New England Advertiser (Grafton, 8 July 1873), p. 3.
10 Clarence and Richmond Examiner and New England Advertiser (Grafton, 5 October 1875), p. 1.
11 Clarence and Richmond Examiner and New England Advertiser (Grafton, 12 August 1876), p. 3.
12 Clarence and Richmond Examiner and New England Advertiser (Grafton, 26 May 1877), p. 3.
13 Clarence and Richmond Examiner and New England Advertiser (Grafton, 17 March 1877), p. 5.
14 Clarence and Richmond Examiner and New England Advertiser (Grafton, 3 June 1879), p. 1 & (10 June 1879), p. 1.
15 George Fincham Letter Book 3, p. 13 (28 August 1878) – cited by E.N. Matthews in Fincham/Matthews Collection (State Library of Victoria, MS 9423).
16 George Fincham Letter Book 3, p. 356 (17 October 1882), op. cit.
17 George Fincham Letter Book 3, p. 362 (21 November 1882), p. 368 (30 November 1882) & p. 400 (3 April 1883), op. cit.
18 George Fincham Letter Book 3, p. 401 (30 April 1883), op. cit.
19 George Fincham Letter Book 3, p. 409 (14 May 1883), op. cit.
20 George Fincham Letter Book 3, p. 424 (26 June 1883), op. cit.
21 George Fincham Letter Book 3, p. 432 (7 August 1883), p. 438 (25 August 1883) & p. 449 (18 October 1883), op. cit.
22 Warwick Examiner and Times (29 December 1883), p. 2.
23 Warwick Examiner and Times (12 January 1884), p. 3; (19 January 1884), p. 2; (23 January 1884), p. 2 & (8 March 1884), p. 3; Warwick Argus (15 January 1884), p. 2 & (8 March 1884), p. 3.
24 Warwick Examiner and Times (5 March 1884), p. 3.
25 Warwick Examiner and Times (26 April 1884), p. 2.
26 Warwick Examiner and Times (26 April 1884), p. 3; Warwick Argus (3 May 1884), p. 3.
27 Warwick Argus (22 July 1884), p. 2.
28 Warwick Argus (29 July 1884), p. 2.
29 Warwick Examiner & Times (30 July 1884), p. 2.
30 Warwick Argus (19 April 1884), p. 3 until (7 April 1885), p. 4; Warwick Examiner and Times (26 April 1884), p. 3 until (17 January 1885), p. 2; Warwick Examiner and Times (26 November 1884), p. 4. until (4 March 1885), p. 3.
31 Warwick Examiner & Times (24 December 1884), p. 3.
32 Warwick Examiner & Times (10 January 1885), p. 2.
33 Warwick Argus (10 March 1885), p. 3; Warwick Examiner & Times (14 March 1885), p. 2.
34 Queensland Figaro and Punch (8 December 1888), p. 23.