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90-key Street organs

De Witte

This organ playing "Roses d'Amour", hand-turned

Two of these organs were built - one by the Page & Howard partnership in Brixton, London, and one in Pembroke Dock, South Wales. The first is hand-turned, and the other is fitted with a centrifugal blower. Each have identical pipework (321 pipes in all), Please see specification.

The design was inspired by the Carl Frei organs in The Netherlands, notably de Harmonica (town organ of Den Helder) which sports a piccolo on melody, de Negentiger (one of the first 90-key organs) which has a cello on counter-melody, and de Rosita (built by Anton Pluer, apprentice to Carl Frei) - now in Scarborough, which has a quint-bass. All these features are present on my 90-key organs.

The piccolo is a one-rank register playing at 4-foot pitch (one octave higher than the bourdon and violin), and is very effective in solo with the tremulant; the one-rank cello is also useful for solos; the quint bass is a rank of stopped pipes mounted underneath the organ's floor, playing seven notes higher than the usual bass pipes (a musical fifth), together producing a sound one octave lower, effectively 32-foot - an acoustic illusion resulting from the difference between the pitches of the two coupled pipes.

The first set of pictures is of the first of these organs to be built, shown above with Judith Howard hand-turning. (the sound recording at the top of this page was turned by myself. Details of the second 90-key organ.

Below is shown the main chest. The centre section is a conventional "bar" chest, with channels for the melody pipes and its registers. Unit chests are mounted over the three rows of holes, each operating a register: two ranks of bourdon in front (at the top of the picture), two ranks of violin in the centre, and two ranks of violin celeste at the back. Register control is by membrane action, operating in reverse, i.e. charged for "off" and exhaust for "on". The piccolo action is entirely separate. Either side of this section are holes for wind supply to the accompaniment chests and counter-melody bifoon (pronounced "bee-phone") and trombone.

Above left: An innovation for register control was incorporated into these organs. Ventil units were fitted into the main chest from below, which can be readily removed for maintenance without disturbing any pipes. Above right: Both "charge" and "exhaust" versions of this unit are used, allowing a simple means for providing the counter-melody tremulant, which acts upon the pipe wind, and not the note action as with the melody tremulant.

Once the main chest had been installed into the case, the bellows crank was set-up. The bellows and turning wheel were from a Mortier owned by the late Brian Oram. Brian had installed a blower system and the bellows became redundant. The Mortier crank was used at first, but my customer wanted more wind, so another crank with increased throw was made. He asked for the wheel to be fitted by a screw action to prevent reverse turning which would damage music. You can see the screw thread on the right (above left). The small crank, for a 52-key organ being built at the same time, is shown for comparison). Above right: The crank installed into the 90-key case, together with the two connecting rods and double keyframe pulley.

Key frame design is based on the successful Mortier system with three touch-boxes and valves spaced at 10.5mm. Above left: Exhaust valves actuated by push-rods beneath the keys. Above right: The three touch-boxes installed in the frame.

Above left: Anna became my keyframe expert. As each key goes in she meticulously checks their operation, as this would become difficult once all keys were in the frame. The push-rods under each key have to be adjusted for length so all keys sit at the same height. Above right: The frame is now tubed-up to its various relays and actions. The small box at top right of the picture is the keyframe wind supply, which shuts off when the frame is opened or the music ends, to mute the organ.

Above left: The register box automatically selects registers according to relevant holes in the music. Each register can be manually selected by flicking the levers on the top, especially useful during tuning. Above right: The melody pipework, with the bourdon in front, and violin celeste at the back behind which can be seen the accompaniment pipes which sit on a riser just in front of the keyframe. The piccolos are positioned either side of the bourdons, in front of the counter-melody bifoon.

Above left: The trombones are seriously mitred in the roof of the case to accommodate their length. Behind them can just be seen the bass cellos mounted horizontally in the roof, also shown in the picture (above right). Below them are the mitred accompaniment basses.

The drums are mounted in the side cases, the snare above the counter-melody cello pipes (above left), and the bass drum with its cymbal behind the counter-melody unda-maris (above right).

The picture above shows my last sight of this organ before being shipped to the USA. Panels on the façade were left blank, as it was planned for them to be decorated by arrangement of the new owner. The organ is now well-known in the eastern States under the name "de Witte". Those of you who have seen it recently will notice it has now been fitted with a glockenspiel (not by me) which, frankly doesn't suit the organ at all.


In 2017 I caught up with De Witte at a rally on the shores of Lake Ontario at Olcott Beach. The present custodian is John Ravert, who has added two extra ranks of bass pipes as fitting the organ into a trailer restricted the original bass sound. He has also added an impressive array of percussion, utilising some of the unused keys. (These are still indicated as "not used" in the registers list.) He has also added a MIDI player to the organ, which allows him not only to play files supplied online, but can select music to play remotely while lounging several metres away. I hasten to add that it can still be played from the original keyframe, but not now hand-turned because of the need for more wind.

The glockenspiel is now quite at home with the new sound. All the original pipes are still playing, but the additions have transformed the organ into an impressive "concert organ".

Heller Stern aus der Süden

The name is German for "Bright star from the south". Just why it's German, when the organ clearly has Dutch influence, is beyond me, but the customer is always right! In fact, this organ was delivered without a façade, see photo above, taken in the doorway of my new workshop in Pembroke Dock, just before collection in 1991.

This, my second 90-key organ was ordered by an enthusiast after attending my works open day with de Witte. The customer wanted it to have the same specification, but not hand-turned. So I proceeded on the understanding that it would be powered by a centrifugal blower, and equipped with a variable-speed keyframe motor. The motor used was a geared type supplied by Parvalux, set-up with a thyristor speed controller.

As the keyframe wasn't to be driven from the turning crank on this organ, it could be mounted on the end of the case, behind the snare drum. Instead of making an expensive bellows and crank system, a simple single reservoir fed by a blower would suffice. It only needed an inlet butterfly valve to prevent it over-blowing. I decided to change the layout of the counter-melody unda maris and cello, as they didn't match the façade openings. These registers were also swapped sides, but the reason for that is now lost in the mist of time.

Above left: The plinth section of the case, shown upside down. It houses the 16-foot bass pipes, and connected to them, the quints. It's worth mentioning here that the term "16-foot" is relative. Normal pitch for melody is 8-foot (the length of the largest pipe in a church organ at normal "piano" pitch). The normal pitch of bass pipes is 16-foot. In a church organ a 16-foot bourdon pipe is "C", 8 feet long (stopped); the lowest note here, nominal "G", transposed up three notes, is approximately 4½ feet long. Above right: the reservoir - ribbing in position ready for leathering.

Above left: The empty case on its plinth. Above right: the main chest, or wind box, looking inside from the bottom. The bottom board has yet to be fitted. This extends my design of using a wind-box to connect action tubing to unit chests, and register ventils mounted from below (only used on the outer sections of the chest in the other 90-key organ). The large holes are the ventil valve seats.

Above left: After abandoning my use of the Mortier type of keyframe, this organ has the more straightforward Limonaire design. It has only two touchboxes instead of three. The picture shows them from the bottom, with the exhaust valves mounted at 7mm pitch. Above right: the register box, just like the other one, shown with the top cover removed.

Below: Heller Stern, playing in a Milton Keynes housing estate. The children were nowhere to be seen until the organ began to play. The organ was exported several years ago, and now resides in northern Tasmania.

This organ playing "de Valeta wals"