How Leeds Town Hall's Historic Organ is Being Restored To Its Former Glory
Living North learn about the restoration of an historic organ at the heart of Leeds Town Hall
More than 160 years ago, the impressive decorative pipes of Leeds Town Hall’s stunning organ made their debut when the building was opened in 1858 by Queen Victoria. Now they are being restored to their former glory as the town hall’s renewal project continues. One of the largest instruments of its kind in the world, the organ is a huge part of the city’s heritage.
Originally built by Gray and Davison of London to William Spark and Henry Smart’s design, the organ weighs a whopping 70 tonnes. Certainly huge in size, it’s also played a huge role in music making in the city, dominating the Victoria Hall, which is on the ground floor of Leeds Town Hall and is one of the largest spaces available to hire in Leeds for a wide variety of events. The organ was installed in 1856 and completely rebuilt in the 1890s, but stopped working in the 1960s due to lack of maintenance. It was fully restored and rebuilt in 1972 but not everything was replaced, and certain features haven’t aged well – so it’s been a mammoth task to get this iconic instrument back to its former glory.
When the town hall is open to the public, every Monday between September and April, an audience of between 200 and 400 attend free organ recitals given by leading organists. ‘As Leeds has grown as a city, it’s been fantastic to have the organ as an asset,’ says Jonathan Pryor, Leeds City Council’s deputy leader and executive member for economy, culture and education. ‘Taking a look at it before the work, it was clear that it was in need of restoration and that includes over 6,000 pipes and mechanisms that have needed to be taken out, refreshed, cleaned and renewed. The whole facade has also been redone and actually as we’ve been cleaning it, we’ve stripped away layers of the more recent paintwork and have found some of the original designs from over a century ago. Specialist work has taken place in order to restore what it would have looked like 160 years ago, including gold leaf for original decorative artwork.’
Specialist artists Robert Woodland MBE and Debra Miller of The Upright Gilders (a decorative artist group) have paid meticulous attention to recreating the original appearance of the organ pipes, as they would have been when the Victoria Hall hosted Queen Victoria. Using traditional Victorian stencil techniques, they’ve applied gold leaf by hand to recreate the pipes’ beautiful vintage look. Engineers from Nicholson and Co. have also improved the organ’s sound by replacing the ageing parts of the mechanism, including the organ’s soundboards, wind supply and console.
The £1.8 million organ renewal project is part of a wider refurbishment scheme for Leeds Town Hall, ensuring the building can continue to host large-scale events, shows and concerts. In order for vital work to take place, the town hall closed in November 2021. ‘The building has become quite tired over time and in real need of refreshment,’ says Jonathan. ‘Other parts of it have been about improving access and also about improving the venue so we can use it to its full potential, so we can host more events there. That includes making sure catering and bars are up to standard. But of course the main aspect is restoring the building’s original features – this sort of work is once in a generation. We won’t have to keep coming back and doing this again and again, but the organ is the centrepiece of the town hall so it was essential to do this work properly.
‘I think a lot of other places have removed assets like [the organ] and I think that’s what makes this even more important, because there are fewer and fewer of them in the country. The scale and time for this project means it was always going to be one of the more significant ones, but now that there are far fewer of these type of organs, recognising our heritage and restoring it is essential. Particularly as the city grows, it’s important to remember our past.’
The National Lottery Heritage Fund pledged a grant of £249,810 towards the project to restore Victoria Hall and rebuild the organ. ‘We’re in the middle of our Year of Culture at the moment, which has attracted investment and interest too, including that from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Arts Council,’ says Jonathan. ‘The whole point of that is to increase our cultural engagement right across the city. Hopefully we’ll get more people to experience new things and also to see more of the city and what’s on offer. The town hall refurbishment is very much part of that. We’re working closely with the Mayor of West Yorkshire, Tracy Brabin, on increasing that cultural capacity and actually we’re seeing successes already. In the past year alone there have been 48,000 jobs across West Yorkshire advertised in the cultural sector and that’s an increase of 17 percent. So we’re already starting to see a return on that investment in this sector and it’s actually having at tangible impact on the economy. Restoring our cultural infrastructure (as you might describe the town hall and its organ) is essential if we want to keep our cultural work going.’
As part of the organ project, music lovers have also been offered the chance to adopt one of the historic organ’s newly refurbished pipes. This means their names will be added to a book permanently housed inside the instrument when it is completed. The money from this scheme will support the cost of the organ refurbishment. ‘With 6,000 pipes, you can have one dedicated to you or as a gift dedicated to someone else,’ says Jonathan. ‘That means your name will be attached to this incredible legacy right in the centre of Leeds.’
The Brodrick Trust have supported the full restoration and preservation of the organ, to enable future generations to continue to access and enjoy live music, comedy, and film in the city’s town hall. The newly refurbished organ will also be used to encourage and inspire a new generation of players through joint projects with the Leeds Organ School, the Royal College of Organists and Education Leeds.
The organ’s refurbishment is almost complete, and it could be another 50 to 100 years before another major refurbishment like this is needed. ‘Once the project is complete, visitors will be able to sit amongst classic Victorian architecture and design,’ says Jonathan. ‘Opera North will continue using it. We’re blessed in Leeds to have both an opera and a ballet company. We have an orchestral season as well which will be returning, and we’re looking forward to welcoming back the International Piano Competition.’