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By Peter Collier, 2011

A History of The Austin Organ at

Park Road Baptist Church

1897 – 2008

The organ label

Jonathan Austin of Podington was a farmer and amateur organ builder who in 1863 installed the organ still standing at St. Margaret’s church, Denton. His son John Turnell Austin was taught organ by the Joseph Enos Smith, the distinguished organist of St. Mary’s church Rushden, & developed a keen interest in organ building. Jonathan’s family had by 1881 moved to Knuston Lodge farm in Irchester. John emigrated to the USA in 1889 where – whilst associated with the organ building firm of Clough & Warren in Detroit - developed & patented a novel system of organ construction [the Universal Air Chest system] which was to revolutionise organ building in the USA. John founded his own company [the Austin Organ Company] in 1898, with premises situated in Hartford Connecticut.

John Turnell Austin [Founder & President] Basil Austin [Vice President] Jonathan Austin [father] at the premises of the Austin Organ Company, Hartford, Connecticut
Whilst associated with Clough & Warren, John manufactured an organ [the 25th made to his novel design] which records show was shipped to his father’s farm in Irchester where they assembled it in 1897 in a barn; a fact attested to by John’s former organ teacher who claimed to be the first to view the instrument in the loft of Jonathan’s barn. This was the first of only 3 Austin instruments shipped to the UK – the other two were delivered to Sir Herbert Marshall of Leicester & London, a supplier of organs to the English gentry. The ultimate destinations of these two later instruments remain unknown.
The organ pipes
The organ pipes
In early 1897, the deacons of the Old Baptist Chapel in Little Street, Rushden set up an organ committee & started fund raising for a new organ. Church records show that John Austin offered the instrument at Knuston Lodge farm to the Chapel for the sum of £400, with half of the price offered by a donor [identity yet to be discovered] on condition that the instrument be installed in the Old Chapel by the end of 1897. The instrument was installed in the Old Chapel in October 1897, with the intention of ultimately installing it in the new Baptist Church [moved and re-built in Park Road Rushden in 1901]. Records show that in this move, the organ was enlarged to an undisclosed extent [possibly by the Austins] – which accounts for the discovery in a survey of the instrument by Nicholsons of Worcester in the late 1930s that its original specification had been enlarged by the addition of two further voices in the pedal department.

The Nicholson survey showed that the organ was in need of complete restoration. Towards the end of the Second World War, the church authorities opened discussions with Nicholsons with a view to restoring & extending the organ. Straightforward restoration was costed [ex purchase tax] at £1278, with the option of a greatly enhanced specification with sixteen additional voices costed at £3,230. Ultimately a compromise involving the addition of 5 voices costed at £1825 [ex purchase tax] was adopted. [the 1897 specification included 14 voices, the 1901 presumed spec., 16 voices; the 1949 spec., 21 voices; Nicholsons’ unadopted spec., 33 voices!]

The instrument was installed in October 1949, & the pitch of the instrument was lowered to modern frequency shortly thereafter.

The 1949 plate
The 1949 plate

Aside from the installation of a solid state electronic control system & the movement of the console to the ground floor, the instrument remains today as Nicholsons left it in 1950 – with Austin’s original pipework and action unaltered & working well.

The plaque
To the memory of
Organist at this Church
Plaques and details
The war memorial plaque
The organ today
The organ today

P D Collier, June 2011

Rushden Echo, 2nd March 1900, transcribed by Kay Collins

An Irchester Inventor
The Boston (U.S.A.) “Congregationalist” in an illustrated article refers in high terms to the organ erected in the famous Shawmut Church by the Austin Organ Company, of which Mr J Austin, son of Mr Jonathan Austin, Knuston, Irchester, is the head.

The organ which is the patent of Mr J Austin, had recently been inspected by a number of experts, who, according to the writer, unanimously pronounced it an artistic success.

Rushden’s Unique, Historic First – Born in a BARN!

We all are familiar with Rushden’s rich heritage as a centre of the leather, shoe & boot crafts. But very few are aware that Rushden has a unique, historic “first” in another craft, in the form of the Austin pipe organ now to be found in the Baptist church in Park Road. The plaque on the console declares that it was built by John T. Austin of Detroit in 1897……but in fact it was built in Knuston by John Turnell Austin, the son of a farmer [Jonathan Austin] who in 1866 built the very first Austin organ which still stands in St.Margaret’s church, Denton.

His son John was a keen musician & was taught the organ by Joseph Enos Smith, the then organist of St. Mary’s church Rushden, who remained a life-long friend. John emigrated to the USA in 1889, where in 1893 he developed an entirely novel design for pipe organs of which he built some 25 in association with the firm of Warren & Clough of Detroit. The patented design [called the Universal Windchest Organ] used as windchest an airtight room with the action of the instrument mounted on the ceiling [thus permitting easy access for installation & maintenance] with the pipes mounted externally on top. All but one of these were for American churches, the exception being the organ at Park Road Baptist church, which was the first to be exported to England in 1887. John went on in 1898 to found the Austin Organ Company of Connecticut which has since installed over 2000 organs – but only two in England, of which no trace can now be found. The Rushden instrument remains the only European example of John’s successful design.

The Rushden instrument was not first assembled in the Baptist Chapel, nor in the current Baptist church, but in father Jonathan’s barn at Knuston Lodge Farm, a fact confirmed by Joseph E. Smith’s recorded eyewitness account of this event. We surmise that John wished to show his father how to build a better organ……or more likely, to provide a sales example for the English market for church organs, which was burgeoning at the time. In January 1897, the church records of the Little Street Rushden Baptist Chapel show that an anonymous donor proposed the purchase of a new organ, offering to pay £200 [or half the cost, whichever the lesser] for a new instrument, on condition that it be installed by the end of the year.. The chapel records also show that John Austin offered the Knuston instrument to the chapel at the carefully calculated cost of £400!.

There then ensued a debate amongst the deacons of the Chapel as to whether the instrument should be immediately installed in the [Old] Chapel in Little Street, or installation delayed until the planned [New] Church was built nearby in Park Road. Enquiries were raised with John Turnell as to whether the instrument could continue to be stored until the new church was built. The chapel organ committee ultimately settled the matter by organizing the organ’s installation in the Old Chapel on the grounds that monies earned from concerts there would be useful in funding the new church building [also no doubt encouraged by the donor’s condition that installation be complete by the end of the year!]

The new certificate
The new certificate
On completion of the new church on Park Road in 1901, the organ was moved to this new location. Records so far found reveal nothing further about the Rushden instrument until the mid-1930s, when they show that Nicholsons of Malvern had a contract for tuning & maintenance. By the late 1930s, the instrument had developed major problems &. Nicholsons recommended a complete rebuild – which because of the war & the consequent requirement for licencing of limited metal supplies – was delayed until 1945, when discussions with the church deacons were resumed. Discussions rumbled on until in 1947 Nicholsons proposed three alternative specifications for a restored instrument. The first – a basic restoration to the then current specification - was costed at £1,278. The second was an enhanced specification costed at £1,825 for restoration with the addition of a new console, blower & five new voices The third was a much more ambitious specification ultimately costed [at the insistence of the then organist] at £3,230. This proposed the addition of a further 19 voices which was claimed would give “a bolder ensemble & better accompaniment for large congregations”. This third specification would have more than doubled the size of the organ, making it a truly magnificent instrument of 33 voices capable of rendering demanding recital works. It would also have incurred spacial requirements which could not have been met within the existing organ chamber, but would have called for additional side chambers intruding into the choir pews. Not surprisingly, the church elders settled for the second specification, which was contracted in 1949 for manufacture & installation. Work began on October 3rd 1949 & was completed in time for the dedication service in December 1949 – just in time for Christmas.

The research of this history, conducted in association with the archivists of the church, the Austin Organ Company, Nicholsons & the Rushden History Society, has resulted in the award from the British Institute of Organ Studies of a certificate of recognition of the organ’s position as an English historic first & unique example of John Austin’s design.

The instrument continues to give reliable service in services & concerts: a tribute to John Austin’s ingenious design & Nicholsons’ sound craftsmanship. Designed & built by a local lad who formed an American company which has since installed over 2000 pipe organs, this is a heritage of which Rushden can be justifiably proud.

Peter Collier 2011

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