A company of world-renowned organ makers based in the North-East is looking to the future as it celebrates its rich and varied past. Mark Tallentire reports.

THOMAS HARRISON founded what would become Harrison and Harrison (H&H) organ makers in Rochdale, near Manchester, 150 years ago, in 1861.

But after nine years he uprooted and moved to Durham – the company’s home ever since.

Over the next 141 years, the business grew and grew, establishing itself as the biggest organ builder in the country – and one of the most highly respected anywhere in the world.

When Westminster Abbey’s organ needed repairing to give Kate Middleton a pitch-perfect welcome to Westminster Abbey to marry her prince this April, the church authorities had no hesitation in turning to H&H.

Fittingly, the company has celebrated 150 years of trading with an organ recital in Durham Cathedral.

James Lancelot, master of the choristers and organist at the cathedral since 1985, led a programme which included JS Bach’s Passacaglia in C Minor and works by Johannes Brahms, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Percy Whitlock and Louis Vierne.

The evening also included a live demonstration of how an organ works by Mark Venning, a long-serving former H&H managing director and now the company’s chairman.

Meanwhile, an exhibition covering the company’s history, featuring old photographs, documents, drawings and two demonstration organs, continues in the cathedral’s Galilee Chapel until tonight.

In 150 years, H&H has made or repaired organs for cathedrals in Durham, Belfast, Coventry, Edinburgh, Lincoln, Ely, Salisbury and Wells, Windsor Castle’s St George’s Chapel and many other major churches around the world.

Recently, experienced craftsmen finished building a new organ for St Edmundsbury Cathedral, in Bury St Edmunds, which was unveiled by Prince Charles in March.

The biggest instrument in the firm’s workshop, in Meadowfield, near Durham City, comes from the Royal Festival Hall, in London.

Many of its staff have served the firm for decades. Keith Unsworth, now in his early 70s, has worked for H&H continually since 1952 apart from two years of National Service and a five-year period in early retirement at the turn of the century.

But the company is not resting on its history.

It has just recruited three apprentices, hoping they will carry on the refined skills of organ making and repairing for decades to come.

AFTER finishing school, Karl Mountain, 17, from New Brancepeth, spent a year training to be a plumber, before being chosen from the 60-plus applicants for the trainee posts.

“I knew nothing about organs but I like woodwork,” he said.

Karl’s current project is making valves for an extension of the organ at Church of the Holy Spirit, Lake Forest, Illinois, US – an instrument originally built by H&H in the 1990s.

Karl has four months to go on his six-month probationary term, which he hopes will lead to a four-year apprenticeship.

“I love it,” he says, “I love doing work with my hands.”

Across the workshop, Jordan Gutteridge, 17, is tinkering with electro-pneumatic actions for an 1890-made organ from Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street, London.

“It’s good work,” he says, “It’s as good, if not better, than I expected.

Now I’ve been working on organs, I appreciate what goes into the music.”

Through another door, the third apprentice, Andrew Fiddes, also 17, has landed his dream job.

A pianist since the age of 12, Andrew began playing the organ three years ago and now regularly accompanies worship at three churches near his home in Annfield Plain, near Stanley, County Durham.

“It’s soon to be four – I got a phone call last night,” he jokes. Andrew gave up A-level studies to pursue an H&H job, having enjoyed two earlier work experience stints with the firm.

He says: “I enjoy everything about the job.

It’s all new and interesting. It’s a real learning curve. I particularly enjoy the pipework.”

Doing the introductions is John Oliver, assistant works manager, who has been with H&H ever since starting out as a 16-year-old apprentice in 1980.

“I get a lot of satisfaction from the job,” he says, “It’s aesthetically very pleasing.

“When I hear the organ sound, it makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.”

H&H employs about 50 staff, has an annual turnover of £2.5m and bookings until 2015; and their record speaks for itself – work fit for a – future – king.