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Restoration of the ex-Irvin's Marenghi


This article is a full account of the restoration of one of the most well-known fairground organs in England, a task which took almost exactly two years to complete. It was fraught with problems a restorer usually encounters, and some he should never encounter,

The general order of work undertaken is listed below.

Bass pipes and chest
Main chest
Main riser and back pipe chests
Violin and baritone chests
Saxophone chests
Violin chest installation
Register box
Reed pipes
Installation of pipes
Façade decoration
Main action relay
Keyframe and tubing
The home straight

First, a potted history of the organ, the 89-key Marenghi of Irvins of Ashford, Middlesex. The picture above was taken in 1940, when the organ was already about 30 years old. It was bought by the Irvin family in 1914, after two earlier instruments had played themselves out and been tipped off the trailer and burned in the yard. Along with friends Judith Howard and Andy Tidman I first came across this magnificent organ at the Christmas fair in Covent Garden in London in 1982. It was playing abominably, and we agreed to help improve it for its next outing at Hampton Court the following Easter. Its owner then was the late Benny Irvin senior, the great grandson of the first Irvin who owned the organ. Benny had lost the details of where it came from, as it hadn't been new. It was originally built in the Paris workshops of C H Marenghi et Cie, we believe in 1909, with serial number 2308. Charles Marenghi had been foreman to the Gavioli works, also in Paris. He used the basic Gavioli 89-key scale for his organs with slight alterations, notably with the violins on counter-melody and lower-pitched baritones on melody. His the normal Marenghi 89-key scale is called "VB" for that reason. I should note here that Gavioli never built a VB organ. All those that now exist have been modified to the VBscale as VB music had become more widespread and less costly.

It was discovered during our work in 1983 that the organ had undergone overhauls in 1947 by Ben Varetto and in 1974 by Victor Chiappa. The only work we did in 1983 was re-leathering the action, resetting the keyframe, and some attention to the reed pipes. The pipework was in a poor state of repair and not generally playing well, but Benny would not have this work done for cost and time reasons. However, we did the best we could, and the organ played well at the 1983 Hampton Court Easter fair, in the family's 3-abreast gallopers as usual.

Some work was carried out in 1990 by someone who shall be unnamed here. It was not of the best quality. Suffice to say that Benny Irvin was reluctant to spend serious money on the project.

This grand organ operates with cardboard book music, which runs through the keyframe mounted on the end of the organ, shown here when the organ was borrowed to play in the Rodeo Switchback at the Great Dorset Steam Fair in 1984. 89 holes distribution

The organ arrived at the yard on 5th September 2003, over a year after towed away from Irvin's premises for the last time. I had asked for a down payment to arrive with the organ, but there was no sign of it. Was this an omen for the future, I wondered. The organ was housed in a large lorry fitted with plywood or chipboard sides and a thin ply roof, which was evidently not suitable for housing any organ, let alone a historic one of this importance. The lorry was too high to be driven into the shed, so was at the mercy of the weather. The sides and roof acted like giant radiators which became too hot to touch whenever the sun shone causing the internal temperature to soar. Apart from this, there was no ventilation to aid air circulation. I sensed that I was going to have a rough time with this job.

The saga had begun in 2002, when I was contacted by Ian Cottam who, I believed at the time, had bought the organ. His name was unknown to me. Significantly, I estimated that the job would take only about six months, working alone aided only by Judith Howard working on the pipes. Our previous work on the organ had taken only three months part-time, so I thought this was feasible. After all, most of the action work had already been done in 1983 and 1990. Mr Cottam seemed keen to get started with the suggestion that I remove some pipes during the organ's journey north from Ashford. This I did at Newport Pagnell motorway services on 6th August 2002, and the pipes (from the clarinet mixture) taken to Judith's workshop in London. During the following months we exchanged several emails while Mr Cottam tried arranging the organ's transfer to another vehicle. I was arranging to start on another project, but if the Marenghi arrived soon, I would work on it first. By December I decided not to wait any longer, and embarked on the other project. The Marenghi would have to wait.

The truth was eventually revealed to me that the organ was actually in the ownership of Graham Atkinson of Scarborough. Now the job took on a more important feel. With Mr Atkinson, it was owned by a perfectionist in presentation, but with a reputation for letting historic organs be altered out of almost all recognition. Rather than a mere overhaul it now needed to be a significant historic restoration. I had completely forgotten my six-month rough verbal estimate (made to Mr Cottam over a year before, so was now out-of-date anyway) and, together with a complete lack of a written order from Mr Atkinson, I omitted to warn him that the job would take longer, though in subsequent correspondence I kept him informed of progress and unforseen delays.

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