Martin Holloway
The oldest organist in the country?

Having just celebrated his 97th birthday this summer, Martin Holloway, organist of St Bart’s Hospital, Sandwich, must surely lay claim to being the oldest serving organist in Great Britain.  His son, David, also an organist at All Saints with St Nicolas in Icklesham, East Sussex, pays tribute to his father’s longevity.

We have both been members of our Kent County Organists’ Association for many years, but looking back over sixty years, I remember as a child growing up that Sundays revolved around Dad’s organ playing. Breakfast had to be well out of the way for Dad to get to 10.30 Matins, lunch waited until Dad got home (he always spent at least an hour practising after morning service) and afternoon tea was scheduled for 5.00 to allow Dad time to draw breath before Evensong.  I think we had to move tea forward to 4.30 when churches found they had to reschedule evensong to finish it in time for the Forsyte Saga!

   Dad started playing the organ when he was at school after the First World War. Growing up in a house with both a piano and a harmonium (his mother had played the harmonium in a tiny Berkshire church years before), he had been having piano lessons from the age of ten with Miss Hortense Brown, a pupil of the pianist and composer York Bowen, but did not play a pipe organ until he was asked by a fellow student at school to ‘pump’ the organ he practised on and, as a reward, was allowed to ‘have a go’ whilst the older student pumped for him.  Dad was the pianist at school morning assembly, which involved a different hymn each day which he says put him in good stead for future sight-reading.

   After leaving school, he worked as a research engineer with the Gas Light & Coke Company, taking his B.Sc degree at evening classes. In 1935 he moved to Birmingham to work with the Parkinson Stove Company, married my mother and had three children, of whom I was the last in 1944.  Dad’s contribution to the war effort was to work as a Gas Identification Officer and he also taught navigation to RAF cadets.

   He had played the organ for occasional services in the Mint Walk Mission Hall in Croydon before moving to Birmingham  — he also played percussion with the Croydon Symphony Orchestra in a performance of The Dream of Gerontius, conducted by Elgar himself — but his first full-time post was at Hampton-in-Arden from around 1940 when he also started organ lessons with Christopher Edmonds at the Birmingham School of Music. We moved south in 1948 when Dad was appointed Senior Lecturer at Westminster Technical College which, also being a hotel & chef school, provided fantastic lunches! He also very quickly  became organist at the church in Longfield village where we lived.

   During the 1950s, I was a chorister in the cathedral choir at Rochester, so Dad got to know both H.A. Bennett and Robert Ashfield well and says he got some really helpful advice from them. He would regularly come to Sunday evensong — then held at 3.15 p.m. — allowing him to get back home in time for his own evening service. Mr Bennett even played as his deputy on one occasion! One of Dad’s closest friends and neighbours at this time was Jack Snelling-Collier. He was a fine organist and clarinet player and had been Assistant to Harvey Grace at Chichester Cathedral, so Dad always had someone to talk organs to.

   Organists’ posts followed at Shorne, Longfield — this time he and I were able to share the job — and Southfleet, and while Dad was still working in London, he was lucky to have a good 3-manual organ in the church next to the college where he could practise during his ‘off’ periods. As if that was not enough, he also practised on other organs in London, including a Mark 1 Hammond organ and the organ at Lambeth Palace Chapel. The highlight of his career was to give a pre-meeting recital at a conference of the Institution of Gas Engineers on the fine organ at Central Hall Westminster.

   Working in London provided the opportunity of hearing several of the world’s finest organists in the opening recitals at the Royal Festival Hall and lunchtime recitals at St Margaret’s Westminster. He can remember hearing: Marcel Dupré, Jean Langlais, Fernando Germani, Gaston Litaize, Harold Darke, Geraint Jones and Herbert Dawson, as well as so many others he has now probably forgotten. He took me to the inaugural organ recital at the Fairfield Hall Croydon given by Flor Peeters in 1962 and I remember vividly being somewhat distracted by being able to see the Swell and Choir box shutters opening and closing as they were facing the audience.

   Dad retired in 1971 and the following year moved to Eastry, where as a sprightly sixty-two-year-old he was quickly snapped up by Eastry Parish Church where he played for two years before moving to St George’s Deal and then in turn to Ramsgate Baptist Church and St Mary’s Walmer, also deputising at St Andrew’s Deal.  At this time, he decided to start taking organ lessons again and studied with Stephen Darlington and David Flood at Canterbury Cathedral. In yet another example of son following father I, too, have just re-started organ lessons at roughly the same age!

   For the last few years, Dad has been the resident organist at St Bart’s Hospital church in Sandwich and also plays one Sunday a month at the United Reformed Church in Ash and at Woodnesborough church. He occasionally plays for me at Icklesham and we both enjoy going to the recitals on the Father Willis organ at All Saints, Hastings each summer.

   There can’t be many organists still playing with such enthusiasm in their nineties and I’m prepared to bet that no one is still playing regularly in their 98th year!


Martin Holloway in action



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