The Salomons ‘Welte’ Organ

David Salomons’ historic house, near  Southborough, Kent, perpetuates the memory of the two remarkable men who were responsible for its creation: Sir David Salomons and his nephew David Lionel Salomons. Work started on the house in 1876 with completion in 1896. The last section of the house to be constructed was The Science Theatre, the largest privately constructed Theatre in England at the time.

     The Science Theatre is the location of what is probably the finest Welte player pipe organ ever installed in Britain. It is, in fact, the only one of its type left in the world as the only other example was at the Welte factory in Germanywhich was destroyed by allied bombing during the Second World War. Sir David Lionel Salomons and his wife, Laura, were obviously music lovers, having installed no less than three Welte pipe organs in their home. The first was a No 4 Concert Orchestra, followed by the larger No 10 Orchestrion with 700 pipes which was installed in 1914 at a cost of 4,050. The earlier No 4 instrument was taken in part exchange. This represented a very considerable sum in 1914.

     The Welte Organ is unique, also through its situation in the Science Theatre, as this outstanding example of a private Victorian theatre is largely untouched by time and unravaged by man. To walk into this superb building is a breath-taking experience and one is aware of the theatre’s almost cathedral-like atmosphere, as the sunlight filters through the windows high up above the galleries on each side.

     It is doubtful if the Theatre was used for theatrical performances to any extent. It is known as the “Science Theatre” because it was there that Sir David Lionel demonstrated his scientific inventions and discoveries to his scholarly friends and colleagues who sat upon plain wooden benches set in rows. The two side galleries connect with another gallery which runs along the back of the Theatre incorporating a projection room where the unique brass switching and meters are still in their original positions on the wall.

     At the opposite end of the Theatre, the stage, upon which the main organ is installed, is extremely large with lighting arrangements, which must have been unique and very exciting in their day. Dimmer switches and facilities for colour mixing of side and footlights are still on the walls a veritable museum of brass and mahogany stage equipment and meters which are all original. Huge scenery rolls lie on the floor, just waiting to be hoisted to the fly; their beautiful hand painted scenes are as fresh today as they were 90 years ago and it is believed that they were never actually used. Gazing upward from the stage one can see the many pulleys and festoons of ropes to manipulate the heavy scenery and a king-size projection screen, dating from 1900. The screen would originally have been raised or lowered in a few minutes by electric motor. Today, this operation takes all of 20 minutes to roll or unroll by a self-sustaining hand winch. A most ingenious mechanism is installed for mechanically drawing shutters over all the windows when necessary for complete “black-out”.

     In January 1988, an open meeting was held in the Science Theatre with a talk illustrated with slides and Welte Organ recordings entitled “Sounds Interesting” presented by Richard Cole, Curator at London’s Science Museum. This event proved to be highly popular, with the Theatre packed with organ enthusiasts. At the end of the talk, the house lights were dimmed and the curtains on the stage drawn, revealing the organ, splendidly floodlit from end to end highlighting the burnished tin front pipes. There was a brief silence and then an audible gasp of wonderment as this instrument was revealed in all its majesty. The Welte Organ has not been played since Sir David Lionel’s death in 1926.

     Although the main part of the Organ is situated on the stage, a vital part is the Echo Organ, which is at the back of the Theatre in a special room above and behind the projection rooms, some 200 ft from the main organ. With the support of the Sir David Salomons Society, the Echo organ has been restored. It is now possible to give recitals and provide organ music to accompany Wedding Ceremonies in the Science Theatre. The organs can be operated from the main console of the Welte Organ. It is also possible to provide organ music by way of a computer disc playing through a data filer, which is located within the structure of the Welte Organ.

     In the same area of the building is Sir David Lionel’s photographic studio together with two dark rooms all of them still largely in their original state. Leading off one of the galleries is another unique feature an original Victorian toilet complete with air-conditioning and exquisite Royal Doulton chinaware with brass taps.

     The Science Theatre is the principal Conference venue at Salomons and is in daily use for training purposes, meetings and major conferences. It is also frequently used for private parties, receptions and banquets. Along with the Gold Room, the Science Theatre is licensed to enable Wedding Ceremonies to be performed.

     In March 1998, the Trustees of the Heritage Lottery Fund offered a Grant towards the cost of the complete restoration of the Welte Organ. The total cost of the restoration programme is estimated to be 400,000 which, after the award of the grant of 316,000, leaves a balance of 84,000 to be raised. Through a combination of gifts and small grants, some progress has been made towards this target. However, fund raising efforts are continuing and it is hoped that work can commence on the project in the very near future. Further information is available at “Salomons”  Tel: 01892 515152

Click here to return to the contents page