The Williams Barrel Organ

The Williams Organ was manufactured in 1829 by a church and organ-builder, Mr A Buckingham, of London. The organ was sent from England by Reverend E G Marsh in November 1829 as a gift to his nephews, the Reverends Henry and William Williams who were stationed at the Church Missionary Society Māori Mission at Paihia. Arriving in New Zealand in August 1830, it was the first barrel organ brought into the country. Apparently it caused some powerful reactions in listeners, with Reverend Henry Williams’ wife Marianne writing in September 1830, “All the females as well as the males met in the chapel to hear the new organ the first week it arrived, and I was glad the overpowering sensations which its full and melodious sounds produce and all the recollections it aroused were a little moderated before the Sabbath”.

1. Williams Barrel Organ

The Williams Barrel Organ (Whanganui Regional Museum collection reference:1898.156)

Barrel organs are mechanical instruments constructed using a system of bellows and one or more layers of pipes, housed in a decorative wooden case. Unlike a traditional pipe organ they are not played by an organist. Instead, the barrel organ is performed by a person turning a crank. The pieces of music are encoded onto wooden barrels, which cause notes to sound as would a keyboard in a regular pipe organ.

In 1898 the organ was given to Edward’s son, the Reverend Alfred O Williams, who was at that time visiting the Bay of Islands with Samuel Drew, the Wanganui Public Museum’s founder. Together they brought the organ back to Whanganui. The Reverend Alfred Williams was later a member of the Museum Board of Trustees.

During this time the organ had become damaged so Drew repaired it, and he was known to crank it regularly at the Museum. Its first playing at the Museum after being repaired was in the dead of the night on Good Friday 1898, with Drew stating “… the tunes seemed ghostlike and weird. It seemed as tho’ the organ had died years ago and yet was speaking its music to me, and me alone…”. Some of the older residents in Whanganui may remember paying an extra penny to hear the organ being played when the Museum was still at what is now the Savage Club building.

In 1937 further renovations were carried out on the organ and for five years after that a recital was held at the Museum each Good Friday.

2. Detail of a barrel organ

Detail of inner workings of a barrel organ in Pisek during town celebration “Dotkni se Písku” in 2011, Czech Republic (Photographer: Petr Brož)

In 1995 after the barrel organ’s condition was assessed it was discovered that necessary repairs to the case and mechanism would cost in the region of $12,000. A fundraising campaign began, which many Museum supporters contributed to. A concert series was held and a grant of $10,000 was obtained from the Turanga Trust (a Williams family trust) in Napier.

The barrel organ was most recently played as part of the Museum’s closing weekend gala on Saturday 3 and Sunday 4 September 2016.

Riah King-Wall is the Programmes Officer at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

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