Noel Mander

Restorer of the St Paul's Cathedral organ
Click to follow

For over 50 years, as a leading exponent of British organ building, Noel Mander restored, built and designed many of the most influential instruments of the 20th century. From modest beginnings in 1936, his work and ideas culminated in the major rebuilding of the St Paul's Cathedral organ, completed in 1977.

Mander was born in 1912, at Crouch, near Wrotham, in Kent. Aged two, he moved to live with his grandparents in Brockley, south London. Schooldays at Haberdashers' Aske's were endured rather than enjoyed and as soon as was practical, he left to join the publishers A. & C. Black. Unhappy once more, as the 1930s got under way, Mander took advantage of an old family friendship to join a London organ builder, Ivor Davies.

Success soon brought independence and, in 1936, Mander set up his own business, N.P. Mander, based in Bethnal Green. Over the next three years, particularly within the Diocese of London, his astute business sense was more than matched by the quality of his workmanship. Sadly, much of his work at this time was to be lost during the Second World War.

In October 1940, he joined the Royal Artillery travelling through North Africa and then Italy. Wounded at Salerno, Mander then moved briefly to the Pay Corps before joining the Army Welfare Service in Naples. Back in civilian life, in 1946, he returned to Bethnal Green, took over the former buildings of St Peter's School, turning them into St Peter's Organ Works where the company remains to this day.

Initially most of the early post-war contracts involved the cleaning and repairing of many of London's bomb- damaged instruments. While this kept the company buoyant, a chronic shortage of materials and severe financial constraints kept innovation to a minimum. In time, however, more enterprising projects could be attempted. These included instruments for St Michael's Church, St Albans (1951), St John's Church, Cambridge (1952), and Christ Church, Isle of Dogs (1955).

In the 1950s the reconstruction of two distinguished Victorian organs further consolidated Mander's reputation. The first was at St Pancras Parish Church, Euston Road, London, where, instead of removing the organ for scrap as he had initially been asked, he undertook a very successful rebuild. In 1954, this was followed by a similar operation at St Michael's Church, Croydon.

Running parallel with the larger church contracts was Mander's particular interest in smaller historically important instruments. In 1959, he was given the opportunity to undertake two particular challenges. The first was the 17th-century instrument at Adlington Hall, near Macclesfield, Cheshire, the second being the organ at St Mary's Church, Rotherhithe, built by John Byfield in 1765. They lent a particularly distinctive character to much of the firm's later restoration work, in particular, the organ in St Vedast's, Foster Lane, London (1962), the Snetzler in Peterhouse, Cambridge (1964), and the instrument in the Livery Hall of the Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors (1966).

During the 1960s, the company of N.P. Mander was able to move to constructing new instruments which paid special homage to the older tradition of tracker action. Examples included St Martin's Church, Basildon, a superb neo-classical instrument for St Paul's School, London, and, in 1968, an instrument in similar style for Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. However, for once, at Corpus Christi, Mander did not achieve his intended aim - his original concept for a small two-manual tracker organ, with the advent of extra money and "design by committee", became something bigger and somewhat controversial. Whatever disappointment he may have felt at the time was soon to be redeemed by the overwhelming success of his design for St Giles' Church, Cripplegate, in the City of London.

Apart from work at Sheffield and Canterbury, throughout Mander's long career the company had little practical contact with the cathedral organ loft. However, in 1970, all that changed dramatically with his new role at St Paul's Cathedral. Mander was asked to restore, rebuild and realign the cathedral's large Father Willis organ. Undaunted by the enormous scale, complexity and controversy surrounding the project, he took a most pragmatic approach to problems, be they tonal or structural. The five-year project, running from 1972 until 1977, provided a stunning backdrop to the Silver Jubilee celebrations. For Mander himself, it provided a fitting testimony to a lifetime of achievement and the following year he was appointed MBE.

In 1983 Mander was succeeded by his son John; nevertheless, in retirement he still kept a benevolent eye on the family business. He was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and for many years his wide interests included membership of the Council of Christians and Jews. Throughout his career, he was a regular contributor to learned journals, and in 1996, the 60th anniversary of N.P. Mander, friends and scholars published Fanfare for an Organ Builder, an apt tribute to one who successfully bestrode the often narrow confines of his art with such distinction.

Kenneth Shenton