Estimated reading time:5 minutes, 35 seconds
Over a cup of tea, two of St Thomas’ super-musical organists, Robert Shrubsall and Andrew Greer, explain why they’ve launched the St Thomas’ Organ fund to raise £80,000 for essential repairs. Interview by Nicola Baird. Photos by Kimi Gill.
A few years before St Thomas’ parish church opened its arched Victorian doors to the new residents settling in Finsbury Park this area had just been fields. Now in place of the hedgerows and tracks were suddenly paved roads, privet hedges and net curtains. That was back in the 1880s: since then most of the Victorian houses have been given a makeover, even the church has had years wrapped in scaffolding. But nothing – besides a bit of tuning – has ever happened to its hard-working organ.
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“Alfred Monk, an organ builder based in Holloway Road, built it,” explains Robert Shrubsall. Robert was the church organist from 2009-13 but is now based in Cambodia as an English language (TESOL) teacher. Robert’s a talented musician who was first attracted to the organ at his choir school at All Saints Margaret Street and then went on to do Grade 8 in this unusual instrument during his A levels.
Robert, who celebrated his 73rd birthday at a Grand Organ Gala at St Pauls (that’s how much he loves organ music), reckons that most churches budgeted funds for their organ upgrades from time to time, especially, “in parishes where music is important and has both choirs and organ. St Thomas’ organ is a real antique and one of the last intact Monk organs around. But it’s got problems, with, for example, the action, which is very stiff when you couple the great to the swell making it really hard to play, especially fast; the quality of the pipe work is uneven and some of the reed stops can sound a bit raucous.”
Time may have done some of the damage, but so too has direct sunlight from a south facing window and the temperature fluctuations.
Places Robert and Andrew like in Islington
- Andrew – the Woodbine on 215 Blackstock Road has great food and is very friendly. They are so supportive took they’ve got a bucket collection in the pub for the organ.
- Robert – I live in Cambodia but when I visit Finsbury Park I like to run around the park. Lara’s on 16 Blackstock Road is friendly and has nice food – I’ll have a salad and a healthy juice.
- Andrew – I prefer relaxing in Clissold Park. I do a lot of sunbathing… Most Sundays after church I often go to Small & Beautiful on 171 Blackstock Road. It’s a place that does everything. I like their Chicken Valentina with mushrooms, ham and rice.
Since 2015, Andrew Greer, 31, has been St Thomas’ organist. As he also runs Thursday’s choir and leads the carol singers it’s no surprise that the organ’s need for TLC is causing him some pain. “It’s been used every Sunday for 120 years but sometimes now the notes just linger on. It’s so embarrassing – I just put up my hands so the congregation can see it’s not me,” says Andrew demonstrating. He starts to play The Lord’s Prayer ready for the Sunday service, lifts his hands off the notes but the organ takes a long time to rumble to a stop. “They are terribly expensive instruments. We used to have it regularly tuned by Monk & Gunther. Now organ specialist Bishops and Sons, say it needs to be properly sorted out. Top of the job list is replacing the leather in the bellows.
And here lies the problem – modern tuners just aren’t slim enough to fit into the access space on the right and behind Monks’ organ. “Nor is it safe to do so with today’s health and safety regulations until the organ is moved forward by 12 inches,” explains Andrew diving into the bowels of the instrument and beckoning me to follow. Islington Faces had no idea you could get lost in an organ, but thanks to Andrew’s knowledge, and his iphone torch, he points out what needs attention, and manages to ensure we both escape.
“It’s going to cost £80,000,” says Andrew. “We’re starting to fundraise – we’ve had two bucket shakes for Arsenal fans and we did well at the recent concert. So with a £25,000 grant from Cloudesley, we’re on £30,000.”
The plan is to keep the organ’s character – the wooden panelling, all the little scratches, name carvings, and brass plates – but make it easier to play and repair.
As Robert is rarely in the UK and Andrew works full time, training to be a primary school teacher in Newham, St Thomas’ organ fundraising is clearly going to need some extra help. So please look out for any events the church is running or do offer support in any way you think would help. Until then, when the organist stops playing, but the organ doesn’t, there’s no need to worry that there’s a bird trapped in the pipes, or the organist is turning into the Phantom of the Opera.
- You can make a donation to revive St Thomas’ organ via https://www.justgiving.com/stthomas-finsburypark
- Join St Thomas singing group on Thursdays, 7.30-9pm. There’s a holiday in August and then it starts again on 14 September.
- Highbury Chamber Choir, conducted by Nicky Spice, rehearses Tuesdays, 8-10pm at St Thomas’
- More info about the church here, www.stthomaschurch.co.uk
Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com.