Enfield’s First Lady of the Organ

Stan up for women’s rights. Next to his ancestor’s grave.

I have met hundreds of people through family history research. Some are long lost cousins. Others are researching the same ancestors but have no blood relation. An example of the latter is Stan Rondeau. Visitors to the remarkable Christ Church in the old Huguenot heartland of Spitalfields may well have been met and gret by Stan, who provides ‘living history’ as a guide there.

To me, though, Stan is near-miss Huguenot kith and kin: his ancestor John Rondeau (1754-1802) was the second husband of Magdalene Levesque (1756-1840), whose first spouse was James Vernell (1755-1790); they are my five-times-great grandparents.

Stan and I have met to share our research several times. A few months back we were exploring the local history archives in Enfield, where we knew of other individuals from the Rondeau and Levesque families.

My seven-times-great uncle Peter (or Pierre) Levesque was ‘upwards of 50 years organist in this church’ according to the register of St Andrew’s in Enfield’s ancient market square. The words were next to his burial entry on 1 January 1823. He was 78 and lived on Chase Side. By coincidence I went to school opposite St Andrew’s and lived for a while on Chase Side – ancestral footprints and all that.

I hoped the church vestry minutes might provide further information on Peter’s half-century at the Enfield wicket and possibly suggest a new link between the Levesques and the Rondeaus. Well, we learned much, including that in 1811 the parish paid Peter £9 15s 6d per quarter to play and tune the organ – around £1,300 a year today.

Pipe-cleaner and player: Peter Levesque’s contract.

Eleven years later ‘the situation of organist of this parish was declared vacant by the death of the late Mr Peter Levesque’ and a successor was to be chosen a few weeks later, each candidate to perform on the keyboard before a vote took place.

Remarkably, Stan’s ancestor James Rondeau was one of those whose ears would pass judgement.

There were four candidates: Miss Linton, Miss Leach, Mr Arnull and Mr Reeves. Tension rose when the vestry minutes for 6 March 1823 recorded that although, following the auditions, ‘a show of hands appeared and was declared in favour of Miss Leach’, sexism reared its head and a paper vote was demanded. Women were simply not supposed to take music-playing seriously in early C19th England.

‘Ooh,’ winced Stan as we browsed the columns of the voting record, ‘I do hope James did the right thing and voted for Miss Leach.’

Reassuringly, James Rondeau pulled out all the stops and his vote was indeed placed under the original winner, Miss Leach. An anachronistic family crisis was averted. I discovered afterwards that the first female member of England’s Cathedral Organists’ Association was only elected 180 years later.

Organ of progress. St Andrew’s church, Enfield.

Afterwards we strolled down to St Andrew’s church, where Stan inspected James Rondeau’s gravestone just that little bit more fondly. I surveyed the historic organ: tuned and played for 50 years by great uncle Peter, and then striking an early chord for Feminism, four years into the reign of Queen Victoria.

Thomas Britton – Music Pioneer. For The Fancy Of It

Thomas Britton (1644-1714) – concert host, charcoal vendor, alchemist, book hoarder.

At the end of Jerusalem Passage that tiptoes into Aylesbury Street, adjacent to Clerkenwell Green, there is an easily overlooked green plaque bearing the words: ‘Here stood the house of Thomas Britton (1644-1714) the musical coalman’.

The London Borough of Islington’s words act like a thumbnail to a far richer and more fascinating story. For Britton was no less than the first Londoner to stage a regular musical club night. And the capital’s unique nightlife may have developed in an entirely different way without his influential blueprint.

A native of Higham Ferrers, Huntingdonshire, Britton had arrived in London as apprentice to a coal merchant and, like so many rustics before and since, fell in love with the cultural riches offered by the Clerkenwell area, staying to set up on his own account.

At early light each day he was a dust-covered small-coal (charcoal) merchant. But once the sacks were put away he availed himself of antiquarian book and music shops around the neighbourhood and sought out stimulating company.

With his sprightly intellect and fascination for life, science and culture he befriended some of the brightest minds of the day and insinuated his way into higher social echelons at a time of snobbery and exclusion.

Portraits of him – and there were, impressively, several – rarely fail to include a coal bag in the background, as well as his singular library and collection of organs and viols.

It was when he started his regular Thursday evening music sessions that his status as a class-morphing hipster of the late Stuart era was assured.

Neighbour, publican and Clerkenwell chronicler Ned Ward composed the following doggerel for Britton:

Upon Thursday’s Repair

To my Palace, and there

Hobble up Stair by Stair;

But I pray ye take Care

That you break not your Shins by a Stumble,

And without e’er a Souse,

Paid to me or my Spouse,

Sit as still as a Mouse

At the Top of my House,

And there you shall hear how we fumble.

Britton’s club was held in a room ‘very long and narrow’ with ‘a ceiling so low that a tall man could but just stand upright.’ It was just above the filthy rudiments of his coal yard, and reached by a narrow, risky outside staircase. Still, the performers who turned up to play with him included no lesser lights than George Friderik Handel and Dr Pepusch, arranger of Gay’s famous ‘Beggar’s Opera’.

The audience, forking out one penny for a saucer of coffee, was equally stellar. The near-contemporary historian of English music, John Hawkins, inquired about the concerts and relayed what he knew: ‘Britton’s mansion, despicable as it may seem, attracted to it as polite an audience as ever the opera did; and a lady of the first rank in this kingdom, the duchess of Queensbury, now living, one of the most celebrated beauties of her time, may yet remember that in the pleasure which she manifested at hearing Mr Britton’s concert, she seemed to have forgotten the difficulty with which she ascended the steps that led to it.’

The site of Thomas Britton's yard, dwelling and music sessions.

Visiting Leeds merchant Ralph Thoresby, in his ‘Diary’ entry for 5 June 1712 related, ‘In our way home called at Mr Britton’s, the noted small-coal man, where we heard a noble concert of music, vocal and instrumental, the best in town, which for many years past he has had weekly for his own entertainment, and of the gentry & c., gratis, to which most foreigners of distinction, for the fancy of it, occasionally went.’

This was a club as cool as any modern Hoxton basement, a must-see for the most discerning tourist, and the hottest ticket in town.

There was yet more to Renaissance man Tom Britton, however. He practised chemistry experiments and had a bewildering array of interests, curiosities and, perhaps, hang-ups – as came to light following his death in 1714.

Britton shuffled off this mortal coil when a practical joke went horribly wrong. A local blacksmith who practiced ventriloquism was induced to throw his voice, pretending to be a supernatural messenger and scaring poor Tom literally to death.

Tom’s widow eventually put his hoard up for sale on 24 January 1715 at St Paul’s Coffee House. The catalogue makes absorbing reading.

Apart from scores indicative of his unusually pluralist music taste, there were several self-diagnosis health books, ‘The Art Of Speaking And Gesture’ and Howell’s ‘Vertue Of Tobacco And Coffee’.

The list also included tomes on physics, chemistry, exploration, bees, Merlin, polygamy, ancient leaders, the gunpowder plot, Judaism, Islam, non-conformism, Rosicrucianism and a tract on ‘The Liberty Of Conscience’.

He owned several volumes by philosopher and ghost hunter Joseph Glanvill, investigations of black magic, ‘A Cat May Look Upon A King’ and a pamphlet, ‘The Hog’s Faced Gentlewoman Called Mistris Tannakin Skinker, Born At Wirkham And Bewitched In Her Mother’s Womb’.

Then comes a surprise: what might represent a c17th rake’s porn stash. Here we find ‘The Secret Mysteries Of Man’s Procreation’, Cleveland’s ‘Rustic Rampant’, the novel ‘The Fair One Stark Naked’, ‘Young Lovers Guide’, ‘Comforts Of Whoring’, ‘Rowland On Farting’ and ‘Petre On Venereal Disease’. Oh and, perhaps understandably, a guide to divorce law.

Among the hundreds of books in this fantastically revealing collection, lovingly compiled by one of London’s great cultural pioneers, there was just one book on coal. And that, my friends, is a proper Londoner’s work/life balance.

The Temple Church Soundclash, 1684

Big up Father Smith, big up all crew.

“The sound and general mechanism of modern instruments,” says Mr. Burge, “are certainly superior to those of Father Smith’s, but for sweetness of tone I have never met in any part of Europe with pipes that have equalled his” Walter Thornbury, 1878

1644 was a fateful year for church organs in London, as in other parts of the country. Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth abhorred over-indulgence, and on 4 January an ordinance from Parliament sounded the death-knell for the heavenly pipes.

Symbolically, like men hanged, drawn and quartered for treason, churches were to have their organs removed. To Cromwell and co, these instruments had come to symbolise a superstition and vanity that had to be expunged from the house of the Lord.

Very few survived, and among those destroyed was one at Temple Church, off Fleet Street. Although the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 mean that churches could once again be filled with the joys of piped music, indigenous organ-building skills appear to have been lost. Of course many entire places of worship would also need rebuilding following the Great Fire in 1666.

Eighteenth century musicologist Dr Burney reports that ‘it was thought expedient to invite foreign builders of known abilities to settle among us; and the premiums offered on this occasion brought over the two celebrated workmen Smith and Harris.’

Bernard Schmidt (ca 1630-1708), a German better known in England as ‘Father’ Smith, was ‘renowned for his care in choosing wood without knot or flaw, and for throwing aside every metal or wooden pipe that was not perfect and sound. His stops were also allowed by all to be singularly equal and sweet in tone.’ (Walter Thornbury: ‘Old And New London,’ volume one.) With first mover advantage, Smith rapidly signed up several churches around the City of London and became the king’s organ maker.

Soon, though, he found himself losing business to a modernising young upstart, Renatus Harris (ca 1652-1724), the son of an English organ builder, born in France during Cromwell’s rule. Each swiftly built up a loyal following of supporters and detractors throughout the City and beyond.

Smith was first to approach the Temple Church, one of London’s most prestigious places of worship, and offer to install a new organ on a trial basis. In February 1683 the Temple Master and Benchers asked him to build one – but in neighbouring premises owned by the Inns of Court.

The German was convinced he was alone in tendering, and was reportedly vexed when he learned that bitter rival Harris had successfully argued to be allowed to compete.

In a neat piece of one-upmanship, Smith managed to convince the church Benchers that his instrument should be installed within the church itself, rather than in an adjoining lawyers’ hall.

When Harris was informed, he demanded and was given parity. As a result, Smith’s grand pipe organ would be built on one side of the church, and Harris’s on the other.

If that sounds like a classic British compromise, the rivalry during the design and construction phase escalated into a musical arms race.

Both builders attempted to outdo each other in scale, numbers of pipes and knobs, new effects and the like. When Harris built in a vox humana or violin emission, he threw down the gauntlet at Smith to do likewise. It would almost ruin both financially.

With the two great organ builders pulling out all stops (quite literally), by early 1684 both wind-beasts were finished. The biggest instruments ever known in London faced each other across the church floor, and a date was set for the sound contest.

Anyone who attended a ‘clash’ between London’s reggae sound systems of the 1970s and 1980s would recognise the format.

In 1684 the two crews employed similar tactics to a Saxon or a Channel One sound system, too: they looked to sonic novelty and innovation, and even subterfuge, to win over their audience.

The night before the soundclash, Harris’s helpers were accused of slitting the bellows of the Smith organ, so that ‘when the time came for playing upon it no wind could be convaeyed into the windchest’ – the equivalent of nicking your opponent’s amp from his Transit van.

Just as a reggae soundsystem would recruit the best selectors, dub plates and singers available, Smith and Harris recruited the great and good of European music to play for them.

No less a figure than Henry Purcell was among the many to tinkle the ivories for Smith, while Harris borrowed the queen’s pet organist from France, Mr Lully.

The ‘battle of the organs,’ which went on for almost a year without a winner, caused a sensation in London and no little PR for the combatants.

Eventually it fell to the infamous Lord Chief Justice Jefferies to decide in favour of Father Smith. Finally, on 20 June 1688, the German was recompensed £1,000 (just under £90,000 today) for his most generous organ donation.

Having been substantially overhauled over the intervening years, what remained of Father Smith’s Temple organ was completely destroyed by incendiary bombing on the night of 10 May 1941.

The present instrument, built by Harrison and Harrison of Durham, was donated by Lord Glentannar and installed – without challenge – in 1954.

Part of Harris’s losing contraption wound up at St Andrew’s, Holborn, while some of the victorious pipes from that epic soundclash are still on display today in the vestry of the Temple Church.