All things bright and musical
PUBLISHED: 11:57 05 December 2016 | UPDATED: 11:57 05 December 2016
Lindsay Want enjoys some tuneful blasts from the past at the 30th Fairground Organ Enthusiasts’ Day held at Mid Suffolk’s bright and beautiful hidden gem, the Mechanical Music Museum, Cotton. Photography: Sarah Lucy Brown
Full of smiles in the museum yard sunshine, John Loades stands by his little pride and joy as it peeps, pipes and parps a time-honoured tune. Around him, the merry collection of other musical visitors reminds him of good ol’ Christmas times past.
“When I was a lad, Christmas meant the great Carl Frei organ up on Ipswich Cornhill,” reminisces the proud organ owner from Westerfield. “Robert Finbow would take it there, to brighten things up for late night shoppers and put them in the festive mood. Oh, it was wonderful. Such cheery tunes too. My dad knew Robert very well, and he’d let me feed the cardboard books of music through the old machine.“ He pauses, looking back, a second of regret, perhaps, that his modern 65-key street organ gets many of its merry tunes as digital files off Ebay?
“Of course, there was always another whipper-snapper in the wings,” he adds, rather more loudly. And as if by magic, with a gentle flourish of appropriate showmanship, Jonny Ling, the young curator of the Mechanical Music Museum arrives right on cue.
With 28 visiting organs on site from up north, down south and all over East Anglia, plus the truly amazing permanent collection lurking inside the unassuming exhibition ‘shed’, you’d expect Jonny to look at least a little flustered under his jolly tweed cap. Instead, the farmer by day, organ-grinder by weekend, is a beaming face – a contented chap who clearly thinks he’s gone to heaven for the day.
As the men reminisce, everything starts adding up – young Jonny now owns Robert’s Cornhill Carl Frei, and built John’s much-loved street organ, pipe by pipe, back in 2004. He even adorned it with carved figures from that nostalgic organ for old times’ sake.
John’s Christmas entertainment connection still continues through his family business as a designer of large scale seasonal lighting. But above all, both share fond festive memories of that organ-owning old boy, Robert Finbow, whose house clearance and furniture business spawned the museum’s visionary collection of all things musical and mechanical, and so much more. The motley mayhem of exhibits was first shared in Bacton at Finbow’s Yard, before being moved to its current site in Cotton in 1975.
The men talk of days out at vintage rallies, the arrival of the Wurlizter from Leicester Square cinema, via David Ivory’s house in Diss in 1980, and the site’s official opening as a museum two years later.
Thirty years ago, the first annual Fairground Organ Enthusiasts’ Day saw only a couple of visiting organs, but with the museum gathering momentum as a Charitable Trust following Robert’s death in 1994, it is now a real magnet, drawing exhibitors and interest from all over the UK and sometimes overseas too.
More than just pipe dreams
“It doesn’t matter whether the organs are from Belgium, Holland, Germany, or even Jonny-made,” explains the curator. ”Whether they were built to play at fairgrounds, dance halls, cafés or just in the street, what’s important is that they hail from an era when machines were made to be taken apart and mended. They can be played and played, but with a little TLC will always have a future, because the leather bellows and the other bits and pieces can easily be replaced.”
The proof of the pudding is in the little green meadow round the back, where bowler-hatted chairman of the Mechanical Organ Owners Club, Alan Smith from Hoxne, divides his affections between a gorgeous, but gaudy Parisian Gasparini and the more refined dames adorning the Dutch Verbeek, ‘de Jonker’.
He soon reveals his artistry, as he explains how he tackled the cosmetic restoration of the beautiful 1926 Dutch 72 key organ, taking care of all the re-polishing, the delicate repainting and gold-leaf work, while Jonny set to on the pipes. But the gaudy Gasparini has its own well-travelled tale to tell.
“Its name, ‘De Wonderling’, means ‘The Foundling’,“ explains Alan, who relates how the organ was neglected when the Nazis banned all street music in Holland during the Occupation. “After the war, it was one of three organs left, in hope, on the doorstep of a repairer. Then a US general, who recalled it playing in Rotterdam, bought it, shipped it to America and it toured coast to coast for 50 years, before being sent back to Europe in a sorry state.”
But once the Alan-Jonny partnership heard about it, there was no stopping them. Encouraged by friends, and inspired by the exhibits at the Speelklok Museum in Utrecht, they even styled a new case front, and the whole rebuild was completed in just two years.
Music to make you smile
The rest of the field is filled with organ-restoration specialists and enthusiastic amateurs, each sharing the colourful mechanical musical friends which they have literally in tow, propped up in the car-boot or wheeled out especially for the occasion.
While de Jonker is doing the Vila Loba, Los Tubos, Bella, Jenny Wren and John Rowe’s Suffolk ‘Harvester’ from Sweffling get into a different sort of swing of things, and a little barrel organ turns out a high pitched rendition of Edelweiss. ‘Happy music’ is what 86-year-old Dennis Dickerson from Thorrington in Essex calls it. He designed and built his own 48-key organ back in 1979 and you get the impression he has been smiling ever since.
Inside the magical museum shed, Ray Keeble has a glint in his eye as bright as the golden trumpets on his favourite Gavioli barrel organ and an infectious grin to match. Surely no one could be more in tune with the whole place, than the trustee who hasn’t missed a single Enthusiasts’ Day in 30 years. He thinks nothing of travelling from Stowmarket, with his wife, Phyllis, up to four times a day to welcome visitors, work behind the scenes, or organise the annual dusting party.
“I hope he’s washed his hands,” he jokes to Jonny as the contented companions acknowledge Alan Hines waltzing up to take his seat at the mighty Wurlitzer. Just moments earlier the organist from Wattisham who “just loves to sit and play” had been steaming up the showman’s engine out the front and all covered in coal dust.
Within seconds, the music swells to fill the great hangar, together with all the hearts in the room. But Ray whispers a tiny note of concern: “Did you fix that pipe in?” “Yes,” replies Jonny gently, “did it yesterday.” And they both just enjoy the music and smile. The future is in safe and efficient hands.
When to find it
The Cotton Mechanical Music & Bygones Museum (IP14 4QN) is open June-September on Sunday afternoons and accepts group bookings throughout the summer. Fairground Organ Enthusiasts’ Day is the first Sunday in October. 01379 783350 / www.mechanicalmusicmuseum.co.uk