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Last Updated: Monday, 18 September 2006, 08:05 GMT 09:05 UK
Organ firm keeps hitting right notes
By Bill Wilson
Business reporter, BBC News, County Durham

Restoration work on Royal Festival Hall organ at Harrison & Harrison
A restorer looks down from the Royal Festival Hall organ

Think of industry in the north-east of England and you will more than likely conjure up traditional images of ship-building, mining and engineering.

In reality, manufacturing in the region is increasingly being replaced by high-tech outfits and small start-ups, more often based in the service sector.

But in one quiet corner of Country Durham, a family firm is still harmoniously making the same product - organs - that it did 145 years ago.

In fact, the lovingly crafted instruments made by organ builders Harrison & Harrison are so much in demand that the firm has a full order book for the next five years.

"Organ building is never going to be a highly profitable industry," admits managing director Mark Venning, a former president of the International Society of Organ Builders, who has been playing the leading notes at the firm for more than 30 years.

"We do our best efforts to make money, but no-one will ever become a millionaire through organ building.

"But we feel extremely fortunate we have the amount of work that we do, particularly when organ making in the rest of Europe is so up and down at the moment."

Harrison & Harrison
Founded in 1861 by Thomas Harrison
Started life in Rochdale
Moved to Durham in 1872
Moved to Meadowfield in 1996
Employs 50 staff
Organs installed around the world and UK

The firm, which individually designs each of its organs to fit into the specific buildings where they are being housed, currently employs 50 people including its team of maintenance technicians around the UK.

And much of the work for the Meadowfield-based concern, which also casts all its own pipes at its workshop, comes from restoring organs it fitted in cathedrals, churches or concert halls decades before.

In fact, the highly trained workforce - of wood, leather and metal workers, electricians, and others - is now painstakingly restoring the Royal Festival Hall's magnificent organ, which the firm originally built back in 1953.

Reducing size

The multi-national staff, which includes workers from Germany, Poland, Malaysia and the US, is pulling out all the stops as it pumps new life into the organ for re-installing in its London home by next year.

The 53-year-old organ, designed by Ralph Downes has been carefully removed and stored for essential renovation to be undertaken.

Work at Harrison & Harrison on the Royal Festival Hall organ
An employee works on the Royal Festival Hall organ console

The first section of the organ is to be reinstated in 2007, "enabling it to be used in an orchestral context" says the South Bank venue.

"We are reconfiguring the organ so that it can fit a smaller space," explains Harrison & Harrison works manager Duncan Mathews, 47, who has worked for the firm since leaving school in 1975.

"The organ will have the same pipes and stops but take up less room."

The organ was dismantled, put into packing cases and transported to the County Durham workshop, where it is being reassembled bit by bit, and parts tested and upgraded one at a time.

Electrical systems

The organ is so large that scaffolding is needed to reach the higher levels, and workers are decked out in hard hats as they move about the structure.

Once completed, the organ will be put back into crates for re-installing in London by Harrison & Harrison, which will also check that the sound and tone are correct.

Some Harrison & Harrison organs
Royal Festival Hall
St Albans Cathedral
Coventry Cathedral
St Davids, Wales
St Albans, Copenhagen
Durham Cathedral
Ely Cathedral
Salisbury Cathedral
Westminster Abbey
St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne
Christ Church, Grosse Pointe, Michigan

"We are saving a lot of space by replacing the old electrical relay systems with new micro-electronics," adds Mr Mathews.

"The old electrics, that took up the equivalent of half a room can now be fitted onto a small board."

In an age of mechanisation and conveyer belts, the workshop is bygone world of glue-pots, sound boxes, bellows, wood, melting tin and lead, and old leather.

Along the walls are stacked organ pipes the size of small ships' funnels. And in the timber store woods include chestnut, walnut, oak, maple, beech, birch, and poplar, among others.

'Job satisfaction'

Walking around the workshop one is taken back in time, to an almost 1950s era of craftsmen lovingly toiling at their work benches, unhurried by production line demands.

Veteran Harrison & Harrison employee Brian Alderson
Brian Alderson: More than 50 years at Harrison & Harrison

The firm, which takes on and trains its own craftsmen, has three members of staff who have been with them since that 1950s era, spending all their working lives and beyond retirement age at Harrison & Harrison.

One of them is Brian Alderson, 67, who says: "I have found great job satisfaction here over more than 50 years.

"When I started in 1954 we were making the Royal Festival Hall organ, and now here we are restoring it."

In fact it is only the modern Newcastle United and Sunderland football posters that bring you back to the 21st century.

'Worrying time'

However another modern blast was sounded recently when the firm was hit by a lead scare, as it was feared EU rules to regulate use of the metal in musical pipes would hit organ makers across Europe.

Harrison & Harrison employee in County Durham workshop
The firm prides itself on its informal and relaxed working atmosphere

Only a special dispensation allowed business to continue as usual, but it was an unsettling time, and one which could have affected business.

Eventually the European Commission relented and this summer said that organ pipes fell outside the scope of its directives on hazardous substances.

Works manager Mr Mathews recalls: "It was a worrying time for us, and some of our customers took the situation very seriously.

"There were people who had signed contracts and were saying they would not go ahead with payments if the directives went ahead.

"We did face turmoil, and some work was suspended."

'Important decision'

However the firm, the largest organ building company in the UK, faces the future with confidence.

"We are committed to building organs in the traditional way, as efficiently as we can, and this new workshop here helps us to do that," says Mr Venning.

"The most important decision we ever made was building the workshop here at Meadowfield 10 years ago and moving out of our increasingly cramped premises in Durham city.

"It was a big step for us to move out of Durham but it has paid off. We have also been able to keep our informal and friendly working atmosphere."

He adds: "If we were working in a stagnant industry we could have stayed put, but I believe there is still a healthy future for the British organ industry."




SEE ALSO
Festival Hall revamp is under way
27 Jul 04 |  Entertainment

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