History of Organs at St Peter's

The present organ, installed at St Peter’s in 2006 is the third, which has provided instrumental support to the church’s musical tradition. The first, and longest lived, endured many adaptations; the second had a life of only 30 or so years. This latest instrument, by Mander Organs, is one of those on which the competitions at the International Organ Festival take place every two years in St Albans.

The 29th Festival will take place in July 2017. To coincide with this, Kate Morris, local historian and Mayor of the City and District of St Albans in the year following the installation of the Mander organ, has researched the history of St Peter’s organs, from the earliest (and the earliest in the town’s modern history) opened in January 1726 to this last replacement.

St Peter’s first organ was paid for by a parishioner, following the untimely death of his wife. This apparent memorial was suggested by the incumbent, Revd Dr Robert Rumney, who was keen to enhance the church in many ways. In addition to arranging for an organ for the church, he arranged for the building of a gallery at the West end of the church, installed a new pulpit and a gilded candelabra and increased the number of bells

This first organ was not new. It was acquired from the old church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London. The King had commissioned a new organ for the church of this Royal parish as it was being rebuilt. The old organ was sold to the organ builder as scrap and was the foundation of the installation at St Peter’s with its splendid new case.

The first organist to be appointed at St Peter’s was Charles Newton, a local barber and perukemaker, who served until 1750 when he was replaced by Charles Domville. The Domvilles were a substantial local family, one of whom was to become Lord Mayor of London.

Despite the need for other works in the church over the years, the organ served gallantly until 1861, when a major renovation and enlargement took place in the time of organist Henry Schroeder. The work was undertaken by John Godman, who was also responsible for the carillon in the Abbey church. Henry Schroeder had been trained at Windsor where his father played in the Royal band.

In that year the Abbey church’s organ was also replaced, in this case by Hill and Son. Henry Schroeder was invited to play at its opening in August, at a ceremony for which the church was completely full with more than two thousand in the congregation. Schroeder was to make a big contribution to the musical scene in the town by both composing and playing. The report of the Abbey church’s highly successful third Music Festival of 1865 tells of the cantata which he composed for the occasion, when, again, two thousand people are said to have attended. For that festival an express train from London stopped especially at Watford for people to change for St Albans in order to attend.  Schroeder died in 1884 and is buried in St Peter’s churchyard, close to the path to the South door.

By the end of the nineteenth century it became clear that major works were necessary to shore up the fabric of the church and the offer of Lord Grimthorpe, effectively to rebuild St Peter’s at his own expense, was accepted. However, this also meant acceptance of his preferred architectural style. He was of the opinion that it was old fashioned for the organ to be located at the West end of the church, and that it should be under the tower. Part of his plan was to extend the church to the west, and so the gallery had in any event to be removed. The organ, complete with its splendid case, was therefore reinstalled in the chancel. But not everyone supported this move and it was often felt that the organ’s location in the chancel did not enhance its performance or relationship with the congregation.

St Peter’s organ before the Church restoration of 1893

St Peter’s organ before the Church restoration of 1893

But it was not until this organ gave its last, at the Christmas Carol Service in 1973, under the auspices of organist David Bell, that an organ was placed in the nave, where we see the Mander organ today. Bishop and Son were commissioned to build a new organ for the church, which was complete in 1974. It was opened by renowned organist Dr Thalben Ball.

After a thirty-year career, this organ was also to be replaced, this time by Mander Organs. It was completed in 2006, the year before the author of this organ history was privileged, as Mayor, to welcome distinguished jurors and competitors to the 24th International Organ Festival in the town. The new Mander organ became a venue for competitions and recitals during the Festival as well as enabling the continuation of the fine musical tradition within the church and parish. This is now led under the directorship of Nick Robinson together with organist Alex Flood. This gives a second connection for St Peter’s with St George’s Chapel Windsor, since, like Henry Schroeder in the nineteenth century, Nick’s musical training also began at Windsor whilst his father Christopher Robinson was Director of Music there. Furthermore, it is also said that the organ which was installed at St Peter’s in 1725 also started its life at St George’s Chapel Windsor before being removed to St Martin’s in the Fields, though there are those who doubt the authenticity of that story. The illustration of that first organ shows that its case was surmounted by a crown. Some say that that can be attributed to the organ’s Royal origins, though it could also be the trademark of the Royal organ builder who built that case. Certain it is that the parish took great pride in its musical tradition, then as now and that Royal connotations are not inappropriate. 


Renowned organist David Briggs at the console of the new Mander organ with Mayor of the City and District Kate Morris. David Briggs gave a recital at St Peter’s in November 2007. Photo by David Smart.                                                                                                                                                              



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