George Maydwell Holdich

A lesser known Victorian Organ Builder

In March 1996 the Kent County Organists’ Association visited North West Kent, an area that was not particularly well known to many of our members. We visited Greenhithe Parish church to see an 1851 Holditch organ, built for the Great Exhibition. The organ is in almost original condition and the lavish pipe decoration is typical of the period, befitting an instrument built for an exhibition. The decoration is carried to the extreme, with the pipes painted for their entire length and overlaid with medallions and stenciling. The lily-like blooms and stems to the foot of the pipes are particularly appealing. Like the organ itself the pipe decoration is in original condition with a vibrant blue background to the body of the pipes, brown coloured feet and white medallion decoration, gold rimmed. This is an organ that hopefully will be preserved as a musical and artistic statement of its period.

By Victorian standards, the Holdich firm was relatively small. The son of a prosperous country parson, Holdich specialized in modest instruments for country churches, of which he produced a considerable number.

He was apprenticed to J.C.Bishop but left the firm to start up his own business at the tender age of twenty-one, without completing his apprenticeship. For a while he shared Bevington’s factory in Soho (the one mentioned in Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities), before moving to what is now Euston Road in about 1850. The premises were requisitioned for the construction of St. Pancras Station in 1866 and Holdich then moved to Liverpool Road, Islington, where the house, which served as both residence and workshop, still survives. He retired in 1894, selling out to Eustace Ingram and dying two years later.

In his younger days, Holdich was quite entrepreneurial, promoting the modern CC compass and in 1851, at the age of 35, exhibited a specially built three-stop single-manual instrument at the Great Exhibition. This instrument featured Holdich’s speciality the Diaocton. This is not a stop but a coupler — an octave coupler, in fact. The unusual feature for that time is that the soundboard and pipes are carried up an extra octave so that it worked all the way up to the top note.

Holdich exported organs to India, Australia, New Zealand (and Jerusalem!) but, of the 200 or more organs credited to him on the National Pipe Organ Register database, no fewer than twenty-eight are in Northamptonshire, the county of his birth. The design of his instruments remained influenced by his early training with Bishop, with relatively gentle voicing and stop-lists changing little from the style of the 1840s. Most instruments have a Stopped Diapason bass and Clarabella treble as the 8ft flute on the Great, and the Swell organs seem to have been devoid of Celestes. His 1849 instrument at Easton-on-the-Hill, Northants has a portable, "dumb organist" barrel attachment.

Holdich’s largest instrument was for Lichfield Cathedral in 1861; three manuals, and with two Mixtures on a fine Pedal organ which Samuel Spofforth, the then organist, refused to use, saying, "I will never play upon a gridiron". The Lichfield instrument lasted for only twenty-three years before it was drastically rebuilt, and this seems to have been the fate of all his larger instruments, their gentle style losing out to the more aggressive voicing popularized by Father Willis, and by Schulze and his followers. Nevertheless Holdich organs were well made, and a surprising number of country organs survive unaltered, especially in East Anglia, often with simple early Gothic-revival casework. Not all bear evidence of their origins; one instrument recently discovered gave no trace of its maker until the letters "GMH" were found inscribed on the bellows weights.

Our members were captivated by the gentle beguiling tone of his Greenhithe instrument which, although still safely kept at Greenhithe Parish Church, is regrettably now little used.

We acknowledge material by
Gary Tollerfield and John Norman.
Picture by Gary Tollerfield

 

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