I think its fair to say that St. Mary & St. John The Divine, Balham has had more than its fair share of bad luck in recent times.
History of St Mary and St John The Divine
Founded around 1805 by dozen wealthy residents of Balham including William Wilberforce, they came together to build a proprietary Chapel at the 5 mile stone between Balham and Tooting. The Chapel opened for worship on the 24th April 1808. Little now exists of this first building, although the walls of the present nave are those of the original chapel.
The building was extended in 1824 by the addition of the two transepts. These now form the Children’s and Holy Family Chapels. On the 24th May 1855 the Parish Church was consecrated and dedicated to St Mary by the Bishop of Winchester.
In 1882, the Chancel, Sanctuary and Reredos, designed by A Cawston, containing elaborate decorations and fine mosaics were added. Other fine features include a painted ceiling in the church; alabaster pulpit; and stained glass by Clayton & Bell in the apse.
During the second world war the church was damaged by enemy action. The stained glass window at the rear of the gallery was destroyed. An incendiary device also fell through the roof of the present Family Chapel but fortunately failed to explode. In 1976 the Family Chapel suffered bomb damage, when an IRA bomb exploded at Irene House next door.
A fire broke out in the early hours of 20 March 1998 destroying the Narthex and Baptistry areas. Fortunately, the remainder of the church suffered little damage
A Pipe Organ beyond hope of restoration
Over the years I have seen inside a great many pipe organs in various states of repair. I do not think I have ever seen an instrument quite so far beyond any hope of restoration as the instrument in Balham though.
I am also confused and intrigued by the NPOR entry for this instrument as it makes reference to a small 2 manual Hill tracker instrument but the remains are of a large 3 if not 4 manual electric action instrument. Pipes are falling over and missing. The swell shutters are gone. The wiring is in chaos. So sad.
I am intrigued as NPOR also mentions ‘this was the organ involved in the notorious ‘Balham Case’ in the Southwark Consistory Court, 1977 (Ref: St Mary’s Balham  1 All E.R. 993); 2004 – instrument has been out of action for many years following major fire; electronic now in use.
We were there to replace an old Makin that I presume will date from the early 1980’s so tying in with the above comments but I saw no signs of any fire damage. A minor hurricane perhaps would explain the state of the organ but that was unlikely inside the church.
So I wonder if anyone can help settle the mystery that is now in my mind. What was the sequence of events that lead to the loss of this large instrument?
Replacing an older electronic organ
I had surveyed the church in late 2019 and this was a relatively straight forward replacement. The only thing that was not at all clear was how the cables found their way from the south side of the choir where the console is located to the north side of the choir where the pipe organ façade and pipe chambers were located. All I could see was a cable heading off further south away from the console and it was clear that the choir floor was solid with no possible route directly towards the speaker location.
So we quoted with a contingency to allow for a possible difficult cable routing job. As it eventually turned out a church member who assisted with the installation of the Makin some 30 years earlier provided the answer.
The nave and areas to north and south of the chancel were raised above a solid floor some 3 ft lower. This void contained loads of cables and central heating pipes. So we were able to use the old cabling to pull through a complete new set of cables.
The hardest part of the job proved to be getting the old console out and the new one into position of a slightly raised stage behind the choir stalls. This required some delicate effort with the organ on its end as a set of wheels allowed it to travel up a ramp and into position.
Hoping our church organ brings much joy to the community
Perhaps the Balham church has been unusually unlucky with its organs as even the cabling of the Makin organ was in a very poor state with joins all over the place.
Apparently, some years back many of the organ speakers were stolen along with the cables and the damage was replaced by volunteers on very much a ‘make do and mend basis’. I am sure it would not have been done in this way by the original factory installation team. Lets hope that our instrument is not molested as its 2 predecessors most certainly have been.
So another post lockdown job completed (also read about the organ installations at Moravian Church and St Joseph’s Church and the bespoke Regent Classic organ at St Andrew’s Church in Sonning) but still a few more to come before we might be twiddling our thumbs for a while.
I have had a passion for church organs since the tender age of 12. I own and run Viscount Organs with a close attention to the detail that musicians appreciate; and a clear understanding of the benefits of digital technology and keeping to the traditional and emotional elements of organ playing.