Cathedral steward, Les Clark shares the fascinating history of the Father Smith organ case that graces the cathedral’s west end.

Following the Reformation, a strong prejudice had grown against the use of the organ in public religion.  Puritans thought the organ a hindrance rather than assistance to spiritual worship.  After 1590 most London church organs were disused and left to decay.  In 1643, Parliament ordered that ‘all organs and the frames in which they stand in all churches and chapels aforesaid shall be taken away and utterly defaced, and none hereafter set up in their places’. A letter in Bishop Cosin’s correspondence complains about a new pair of organs at Durham which were commanded to be played at the 6am Morning Prayer and had hence driven away scholars and others who ’were wont to frequent that Morning Prayer, when it was short and plainly said’ [sic].  Similar objection was made against organ use in the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. The height of objection was reached under Cromwell and the Puritans, when monarchy was replaced by the Commonwealth in 1649.  Organs were taken out of almost all churches and many destroyed.  Organ pipes from Westminster Abbey were pawned at several ale-houses for pots of ale.

By the Restoration, when the Church of England recovered with the Monarchy, demand for organs was high, but English organ builders were few in number and their competence had declined during the long gap in their trade.  Taking advantage of this, two young continental organ-builders came to England.  Bernard Schmidt was German, the other, Renatus Harris, had English parents but trained in Paris.

Schmidt (Smith) built many organs in London and became ‘The King’s Organ Maker’, and had apartments in Whitehall with a salary of £20 per annum in 1681.

He was responsible for the Durham Cathedral organ; work started in 1683 and finished in around 1685, and it was known to be one of his finest instruments.  He used the best materials, and worked to his own high standards, with the result that the final price often exceeded the agreed contract.  In a letter to Mr. Wilson, Registrar to the Dean & Chapter of Durham, dated Nov. 1686, he says ‘As for the organ I have made for your Catedrall Church, I know it is so good and sound mad as anny in the holl worrelt.  I must confes I have out gon the pris, for this I declare that it cost mee a bove a thousent pound, let anny boddy think or say what the pless.  For carving and painting I have been too curious, in which I could have savet tree part in for, and no bodd should have found foult with it. [sic]’  (It would certainly have been interesting to see the response from the Dean!)

The ‘Father’ Smith Organ Case currently situated at Durham Cathedral’s west end

When the choir stalls were rebuilt after the Reformation, they continued across the front of the choir as an organ screen, with the organ mounted high above, cutting off the choir, and services, from the nave.  This typical arrangement of the time can still be seen, for example in some of the Cambridge college chapels.  The blocking effect of the organ on the view along the cathedral is clearly shown in the painting of the Assize Sunday service, 1835, hanging in its usual position near the night stair in the Monks’ Dormitory.  The organ was taken down to open up the view in Victorian times as part of the Gilbert Scott changes at the crossing and a Willis organ installed in its place.  This in turn was given a major upgrade by Harrison & Harrison, who still maintain it today.

Durham Cathedral’s Father Willis Organ situated in the Quire

With acknowledgement of information from The Father Smith Organ in Auckland Castle by C.K. Pattinson- Organ builders are traditionally known as ‘Father …….’



  1. In this fascinating and educative essay about less enlightened times. I see only part of the Smith case and wonder if my computer management is lacking? I have a dream (and I’m not the first) to see the Smith case incorporated into a West division of the main instrument. When will this take place?

  2. Some of the “facts” in this piece about the Smith organ case are inaccurate. For instance it was taken off the screen in 1847, not when Scott commenced restoration of the building. Significant corrections needed using properly researched facts in “Durham Cathedral Organs”: ISBN 97860000035433

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