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The Hele Pipe Organ at St Mary’s Church, Tamerton Foliot

There has been a Church on the site of the present Parish Church in Tamerton Foliot for over 1000 years, but the present building dates from the middle of the 1400s with later additions and alterations. The last major refurbishment of the Church was in the 1800s when the north aisle (facing the village) was widened and the porch extended on the south side (nearer the road).

In the later 1600s and 1700s we know that music in the church was provided by a village band and a choir; organs had been banned in 1644 by the Puritans as ‘superstitious’ and it is not known whether there was one in the church before then. The parishioners obviously aspired to having an organ because in 1822 the Churchwardens paid a man £3.8s.0d to paint and fix a sham organ on the singing gallery at the back of the church. In 1846 an harmonium was obtained, but it was not until 1895 that a pipe organ (the present instrument) was installed for the grand sum of £395.

Figure 1. The Hele organ at St Finbar’s
Catholic Church, Glenbrook, NSW, Australia.

The organ was built by Hele and Co. of Plymouth who were a well-respected firm with a national reputation. George Hele founded the company in the middle of the 19th Century and the company became very successful building instruments not only in Devon and Cornwall as several Hele organs still survive in East Anglia. Hele organs were also built as far away as Australia, e.g., St Peter’s Anglican Church, East Sydney, NSW (Hele & Co. 1880: now transferred to St Finbar’s Catholic Church, Glenbrook, NSW – see Figure 1). Hele’s also became responsible for the maintenance of several Cathedral organs including Truro, Exeter, Winchester, and Chichester. At its peak, the company employed 40 people in Plymouth.

Sadly, many fine Hele organs were destroyed during WWII and after the war the company never regained the status that it had enjoyed previously. The business declined, though not the quality of its products, and its doors finally closed in 2007 following a merger with the The Midland Organ Company under the new name, Midland Organ Hele and Company Ltd.

Figure 2. The Hele organ at St Mary’s Church,
Tamerton Foliot,Plymouth.

The organ at St Mary’s Church (Figure 2) in Tamerton Foliot is important in that it is one of the few Hele organs remaining locally. It is also relatively unchanged since it was built in 1895; the only tonal change has been the replacement of one set of pipes in 1936, but this was not ideal for church purposes (mainly the support of congregational singing).

St Mary’s organ has two manuals (i.e. it has two keyboards) and a set of pedal keys played with the feet. There are 11 ‘speaking stops’, each stop bringing into play a set of pipes (56) and one stop controlling the ‘bourdon’ (pedal activated) pipes of which there are 30. All in all, therefore, there are 646 pipes (This is a small organ; the organ of the Royal Albert Hall has 111 stops and 9997 speaking pipes and the largest fully functioning organ in the world, the Wanamaker Organ in Philadelphia, has 28,750 pipes!)

Figure 3. Some of the smaller metal pipes in the swell box (for scale, see £2 coin)

Most of the pipes cannot be seen as they are hidden behind larger pipes; some of them are small, only a few inches in length giving the higher notes (Figures 3,4), whilst the deeper note pipes are several feet long (Hele’s made some pipes 32ft in length for Winchester Cathedral!). Some are made of metal and some of timber depending on what sort of sound they are designed to produce, perhaps a bright ‘brassy’ tone or a mellow woodwind tone. Each rank of pipes is controlled by a ‘stop’ which is given an appropriate name (e.g ‘gamba’, ‘oboe’; Figure 5) and when that stop is opened it allows air to that particular set. Of course, you can modify the overall sound that the organ produces by opening several stops at the same time and what you get very much depends on the skill and artistry of the organist.

When the organ was built originally, air was pumped by hand (the handle still exists) and in 2017 there were still men around who remembered pumping the organ as small boys. However, there is now an electric blower.

Figure 4. The smallest pipe (arrow) of the refurbished organ lying in the mouth of the biggest pipe (see coin to right of arrow for scale).

A further feature is the grouping of ranks of pipes into the ‘great’ organ or the ‘swell’. The pipes of the great are exposed and the volume of sound cannot be changed, but those of the swell are enclosed in a large chest with shutters on one side that can be opened or closed by the organist operating a foot pedal, thus changing the volume (Figure 6)

Figure 6. Inside the organ showing the exposed pipes of the ‘great’ on the right and the moveable shutters of the ‘swell’ on the left (before refurbishment)
Figure 5. Stops for the ‘swell’ organ
Figure 7. Part of the tracking system after refurbishment showing
the renewed felts.

In addition to all this, there is a complex tracking system between the keys and the pipes so that air is allowed only to pipes of a particular pitch (C, C#, D etc.) for which there are stops open (Figure 7).

Even on a small organ such as that at St Mary’s, there are many moving parts and, over the years, these become worn. In addition, there are numerous seals to prevent air escaping, and the instrument overall accumulates dust and grime. All this affects the functioning and sound of the organ and from time to time, therefore, it is necessary to clean and overhaul the instrument, blow the dust of ages from the pipes, and to replace worn parts.

In 2014, Michael Farley, a Devon organ builder was approached with a view to cleaning and restoring the organ and he wrote that, “Whilst the basic structure is built like a battleship which will last indefinitely there is much dirt choking the pipework. Action parts are worn – many of the felts and leather bushes have worn or disappeared. Therefore, it is now due for restoration work involving a thorough clean, overhaul and restoration throughout, taking up of the wear and tear on the action parts, renewing felts and leathers”.

As it was approximately 35 years since any maintenance work was carried out (after the church fire of 1981, which, fortunately, the organ survived unscathed) it was accepted that the time had come for such work to be undertaken. At the same time, it was decided to take the advice of experts that the unsatisfactory rank of pipes installed in 1936 should be replaced with a new stop (the ‘Fifteenth’) which would give the organ a brighter sound, much more supportive for worship and singing.

An intense fund-raising programme was therefore undertaken to raise the necessary £24,000 and the work was completed in 2017. It is agreed by organists, choir and congregation that the project has been a great success and it is hoped that the refurbished organ will serve the Parish into the next century and beyond.

Further Information

Liddicoat P., 2008. Hele & Co. (c.1860–2007): 150 Years of Service.

Bebbington, P.S., 2013. St Mary’s Church, Tamerton Foliot: A History and Guide (3rd Edition).                                  
Publ. St Mary’s Church, Tamerton Foliot, Parochial Church Council. (St-Marys-Church.pdf)