The organ in Australia

by John Maidment
Australia was first settled in 1788 and shortly afterwards a few small pipe organs were brought to Australia by British emigrants. It was not until the 1820s, however, that the first commissioned church organs arrived, built by the London firm of John Gray for churches in Sydney and Hobart. In the following two decades, a number of mainly small instruments arrived, a notable exception being the 1840 Bevington for St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, complete with 32ft pedal stop and case designed by Pugin, alas later destroyed by fire. From the 1850s onwards large numbers of British organs were sent out to Australia in the tide of high British emigration and the wealth which accrued as a result of the gold rushes.

The earliest attempts at organbuilding in Australia were made at Sydney in 1840 when Johnson & Kinloch built a new two-manual organ for St Matthew’s, Windsor, these builders later individually completing further instruments for clients in New South Wales. There were also isolated examples of local organbuilding in Adelaide, by Samuel Marshall, and in Melbourne, by Peter Hurlstone; in the latter city James Moyle was engaged in organbuilding during the 1850s together with Henry Smith. In the Barossa Valley region of South Australia, several German expatriates built small instruments based upon German models. These included Carl Krüger (1802-1871) and Daniel Heinrich Lemke (c.1832-1897). Krüger had come from Cottbus, in Germany in 1848, while Lemke had emigrated from Grabowa Hauland, Posen in 1855. Their instruments were mainly small positives, considered to show the influence of Gottfried Silbermann. Later Johann W. Wolff built organs in South Australia while Ernst Ladegast (1853-1937), son of noted German organbuilder J.F. Ladegast, emigrated in 1883 to Sydney where he worked for several firms.

From the 1860s the indigenous organbuilding industry gained momentum at the hands of George Fincham (1828-1910). Developments mainly took place in Victoria, where a tariff gave protection to the craft; elsewhere in Australia the industry was slow to develop. Fincham was apprenticed to the leading London organbuilder Henry Bevington in 1842 and later worked as a foreman with J.C. Bishop in London before emigrating to Melbourne in 1852. Building and equipping a new factory in Richmond, his first instrument was completed in 1862. From small beginnings, the firm prospered and by the end of the century had built almost 150 new organs for churches and public halls in four Australian states and New Zealand. Initially adopting mechanical action, the firm developed a new system of tubular-pneumatic action which was used for many instruments from the late 1880s onwards. During the boom period of the 1880s, the firm built no less than 57 instruments, but only 26 were built in the following decade owing to the depression. These were characterised by the use of spotted metal pipework, low wind pressures, generally complete choruses and multi-towered cases.

In Sydney, C.J. Jackson and William Davidson were prominent from the end of the 1860s and Charles Richardson (son of a prominent English builder) from the 1880s onwards. Most of their output was in the form of smaller instruments, largely with mechanical actions. In Brisbane, Benjamin Whitehouse junior completed his first organ in 1888 while Fincham & Hobday established in Adelaide in 1881, building 11 organs there; the business was taken over by J.E. Dodd in 1894. Meanwhile, in Victoria, Fincham received competition from Alfred Fuller and William Anderson in the 1880s and 1890s. In Western Australia, the gifted amateur builder R.C. Clifton built a few organs at the turn of the century.

By the end of the 19th century, Australia posssessed some of the finest contemporary examples of the organbuilder’s craft to be found anywhere in the world. All of the illustrious English organbuilders of the period were represented by instruments in Australia, including J.W. Walker & Sons (54 instruments) and Hill & Son (34 instruments), together with many regional builders from Birmingham, Bristol, Huddersfield, Hull and Manchester. These instruments largely went to New South Wales in the absence of a strong local organbuilding industry, where many survive unscathed and are now of international significance. Principal imports included the town hall organs at Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, all built by Hill & Son and the latter the largest in the world at the time of its construction. Major church organs included the Hill instruments at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney and SS Peter & Paul’s Cathedral, Goulburn, the T.C. Lewis at St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne and the Forster & Andrews at St Saviour’s Cathedral, Goulburn. A number of organs arrived from continental Europe, the largest coming from such firms as Merklin-Schütze, of Brussels, E.F. Walcker, of Lugwigsburg, R.A. Randebrock, of Paderborn, and Theodore Puget. of Toulouse. A number of lesser-known German firms are also represented by work in Australia.

In the early 20th century, major exports continued, including major examples from the English firms of Hill & Son, Norman & Beard and Bishop & Son, culminating in the 1929 organ for Melbourne Town Hall, from Hill, Norman & Beard and the Henry Willis & Sons rebuilding of the Brisbane City Hall organ (1927-1929). From around 1917, the American firm of Wurlitzer also began to export cinema organs to all of the Australian states, some of four-manuals and more than 20 ranks while a few Aeolian player organs were imported for the homes of wealthy private owners.

A number of new names entered the organbuilding scene in New South Wales and Victoria early this century, including G.C. Griffin, C.W. Leggo, W.L. Roberts and F. Taylor, all building instruments of symphonic design and mainly with tubular-pneumatic actions. However, the most important builder of symphonic organs was the Adelaide builder Josiah Eustace Dodd (1856-1952) who quickly forged a new and progressive organbuilding style which was widely sought after by clients in five Australian states and New Zealand. Later, the English firm of Hill, Norman & Beard opened a factory in Melbourne in 1927, the firm completing more than 800 contracts until its closure in 1974. The firm was the first in Australia to adopt electro-pneumatic action as its standard, many of which were built upon the extension principle.

While the interwar depression saw fewer new organs built, the postwar period resulted in an organbuilding boom, with many firms working to maximum capacity, building instruments with electric actions. These included Hill, Norman & Beard, George Fincham & Sons, Laurie Pipe Organs (all in Melbourne) , J.E. Dodd & Sons Gunstar Organ Works (in Adelaide) and Whitehouse Bros. (in Brisbane). However, with a growing interest in the classical organ and the belated arrival of the principles of the orgelbewegung in Australia in the 1960s, firms including Sharp, Pogson and Fincham began building mechanical action instruments of classical inspiration, later joined by Smenge in the 1980s. Ronald Sharp (b.1929) was the first to build modern mechanical action instruments in Australia, these exhibiting an original synthesis of tonal design and construction. His work culminated in the building of the largest mechanical action instrument in the world, at the Sydney Opera House, opened in 1979. The Sydney builder Roger Pogson (b.1932) followed soon afterwards, his instruments exhibiting an original approach to design and solidity of construction. Later, Knud Smenge (b.1937) began building organs in Melbourne in the early 1980s following experience in Denmark with Marcussen & Son and Bruno Christensen & Son, for whom he was head voicer. His new instruments, numbering 40, have a strong, articulate sound and exhibit outstanding craftsmanship.

Other firms have continued to carry out restoration and rebuilding work. The restorations carried out by the Sydney firms of Mark Fisher, Peter D.G. Jewkes, Pitchford & Garside and Roger Pogson have received international acclaim. The latter firm restored the Sydney Town Hall organ (1972-1982) which must rate as the most extensive of its type ever carried out. These restorations have been characterised by meticulous respect for original style and construction, retaining original winding systems, actions, materials and cone tuning. The facade pipes of many organs have been carefully restencilled. The conservation of historic organs in Australia has been supported and promoted by the Organ Historical Trust of Australia (founded 1977).

The Melbourne firm of Australian Pipe Organs has specialised in pipemaking for the trade since the 1980s while firms such as S.J. Laurie have manufactured electrical components, some of which have been exported.

In the late 1950s, the export of organs to Australia resumed with the arrival of Australia’s first modern mechanical action instruments from the E.F. Walcker firm. At this time also, the English firm of J.W. Walker & Sons carried out considerable work in Australia. The first major European export to Australia of the period was the large von Beckerath instrument (1972) for the Great Hall of the University of Sydney. This was later followed by a string of important concert instruments including the Rieger organ for the Festival Theatre, Adelaide (1979), the Casavant organ for Elder Hall, University of Adelaide (1979), the Ahrend organ for Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University (1980), the Casavant organ for the Melbourne Concert Hall (1982), the Klais organ for the Brisbane Performing Arts Centre (1987) and the Walker organ for the Adelaide Town Hall (1990). Notable church organs of the 1990s include the Kenneth Jones organ at Trinity College Chapel, University of Melbourne (1998) and the Rieger organ at The Scots’ Church, Melbourne (1999).

Preservation of the heritage

Later in the present century, this wonderful heritage has been substantially eroded through destruction and insensitive rebuilding. None of the four major Melbourne 19th century concert organs survive while very little of the major work of George Fincham remains intact. In the 1950s and 1960s, the introduction of electric actions and tonal modifications, often in an alien style, resulted in the irretrievable alteration of numerous historic instruments, thus losing their tonal integrity and jeopardising their mechanical longevity.

Many instruments remain, however, and in the past two decades more than 100 organs throughout the country have received meticulous restorations, often removing later accretions and reconstructing missing components to high standards of authenticity.

Australia’s heritage of historic organs has been documented thoroughly by OHTA. The instruments have been listed through the Gazetteer of Pipe Organs in Australia, currently being completed, while many have received a full historical and technical documentation. A number have been classified by the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) or protected through registration with the Heritage Office, New South Wales or Heritage Victoria.

Australia’s heritage of historic organs, of world importance, is indeed a fragile one. Through your support of OHTA, this heritage can be monitored and protected for the appreciation of posterity.

John Maidment is chairman of the Organ Historical Trust of Australia, editor of OHTA News, and widely-known as an organ consultant, writer and historian.


Gazetteer of Pipe Organs in Australia

(Melbourne: Society of Organists (Victoria) Inc., 1970-1981)
John Maidment, ‘Australia’s multi-cultural organ heritage’, BIOS Journal, xiii (1989), 79-86

John Maidment, ‘Tubular to tracker’, The Organ Club golden jubilee handbook (London: The Organ Club, 1976) 83-98

E.N. Matthews, Colonial organs and organbuilders (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1969);

Graeme D. Rushworth, Historic organs of New South Wales (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1988).

Graeme Rushworth, ‘A century plus of Fincham organs’, OHTA News xix, 2 (Apr 1995) 10-21.