To date the only confirmed facts about the organ are that it was installed in the church for the consecration in 1929, it was the gift of Mr John Hill and was built by Mr P Phipps. There has always been a level of uncertainty as to whether or not the instrument was new or one that came wholly or partly from somewhere else. Anecdotal evidence even suggested that it may have been rebuilt, or used parts from, the organ in the grand salon at Caversham Park. Further investigation was needed and we may now have some of the answers.
Plans from the 1924-29 period have recently come to light and in the first of those plans (fig. 1) it can be seen that the organ was originally meant to be sited on the opposite side of the chancel, where the priest’s vestry is now.
Fig. 2 shows the organ ‘pencilled in’ in its current position. This plan is dated just a few months before the consecration in 1929 so even at that late stage the location of the organ had not been confirmed. This indecision does explain why the organ does not fit very well in its current position and its final location, with the majority of the organ installed in the choir vestry, is one of the reasons for its lack of volume.
So we can deduce that even if the organ was designed for the Church it was not intended for the current position! Was the organ really this much of an afterthought? This plan was approved by the council on 27th February 1929 – less than 4 months before the consecration – and the organ is still only pencilled in!
The Organ Builder
The organ was made by Percy George Phipps (1872-1953) of Oxford. The Phipps company was founded in 1907 and carried on through his sons until 1962. We have been told recently that not all Phipps organs were bespoke and he had a few standard designs and sizes which he would take to a church and then modify to fit on site. This saved on cost and time. The fact that the St Barnabas organ is of one these standard designs was confirmed by one of the Diocesan Organ Advisors who told us that there is an identical organ in Charlton, near Wantage.
With the indecision about the location it can be seen why the church would have opted to modify a standard design rather than have something built bespoke. Cost, or at least concern about how to pay for a new organ, may also have been issue. What we do know is that a benefactor came forward at some point who paid for the organ.
A plaque on the organ states:
TO THE PRAISE OF GOD,
THIS ORGAN WAS GIVEN
TO S. BARNABAS’ CHURCH,
ST PETER’S DAY 1929,
BY JOHN HILL OF
CAVERSHAM PLACE PARK
The reference to Caversham Place Park is probably one of the things that led to the conjecture in the past about the organ coming from Caversham Park. But what was Caversham Place Park? Our initial enquiries led us to investigate Caversham Park (in 1929 the home of the Oratory School and now the BBC Monitoring station) but other than the aforementioned organ in the grand salon there seemed to be no other connection.
We discovered that Caversham Place was a large house built in 1924 that was demolished to make way for Caversham Park Village in the 1960’s. But it was built by Major General Sir C. E. Pereira and remained in the Pereira family until it was sold at auction in the 1950’s. So it was unlikely that John Hill lived there. Another dead end.
We then looked into John Hill: We discovered that he was a director of Hill and Sherwin, an advertising company, located in Greyfriars Road, and the 1901 and 1911 censuses show him living at Rothesay, Grosvenor Road, Caversham with his wife Mary, two nieces and three servants.
Then we found the answer in some books about the history of Caversham in the 1800s and the origin of Caversham place names: Caversham Place Park was the name of the ‘exclusive estate’ which was started to be built in 1846 and whose roads became named Grosvenor Road and Derby Road in the 1890’s as more plots were built on! We now have our connection between the plaque and John Hill. Could, however, our benefactor have seen/been inspired by the organ at Caversham Park, right on his doorstep?
We can conclude that the organ was new at the time of the consecration in 1929. It was built by Mr Percy Phipps of Oxford and it was paid for by Mr John Hill living at Rothesay, Grosvenor Road. It is clear that for whatever reason the final decision as to where to site the organ was not made until just before the building was finished and consequently Mr Phipps had to modify one of his standard instruments to fit the available space, rather than design a bespoke instrument specifically for the church.