The Harrogate organ builders preserving an age-old craft
by
Last updated Feb 2, 2024
Organ builders Mark and Ginny Wood of Peter Wood & Son in Harrogate
Mark and Ginny Wood at Bradford Cathedral.

In a modest workshop on a nondescript street in Harrogate, a declining traditional craft is being kept alive. 

Peter Wood & Son is one of a small number of organ builders still operating in the UK. The company is run by Mark Wood, a fourth generation organ builder, and his wife Ginny, a former social worker who is among just a handful of women in the industry. 

The craft of organ building stretches back more than 1,000 years and has a chequered history in England. Many organs were destroyed during the Reformation, but had become an integral part of church music in the early 1800s. By the mid to late Victorian period congregation numbers had surged and the industry was booming. Visit a church or chapel anywhere today and there is likely to be an organ of some sort, often an original that’s a century or two old.

But with shrinking congregations over the past 50 years or so, the industry has declined and many of its big names lost. A framed board in the office of Peter Wood & Son displays the ornate letterhead designs of some of them. They were contemporaries of Wood Wordsworth, founded in Leeds by Mark’s great-grandfather, John Wood, in 1866. Today, the Institute of British Organ Building (IBO) lists just 32 accredited organ builders, most either one-man firms or with just a small team.  

Organ builders Harrogate

Mark and Ginny, who live in Knaresborough, along with two other members of staff repair, maintain, clean, build and manufacture pipe organs. They carry out around three full historic restorations per year, interspersed with repairs and maintenance work. Locally, the company looks after the large organs in St Peter’s, Christ Church and St Mark’s, as well as smaller ones including the Baptist Church on Victoria Avenue. 

Most of the organs they work on are in churches but they can also be found in town halls, schools and private residences. Mark still carries out repair and maintenance work on some of the organs his great-grandfather built in the mid-1800s.

Since 1975, the company has looked after the two organs at Blenheim Palace. One, a Father Willis, is the largest organ in private ownership in Europe, with four keyboards and 2,300 pipes. The other is smaller and is a rare, unaltered example of an organ by Postill of York, built around 1853.

A recent project saw Mark, Ginny and the team carry out the restoration of the swell organ at Bradford Cathedral, taking it back to its 1904 design to more closely resemble its original sound.

A focus on preservation

Mark, 64, has been in the industry for 50 years and remembers his father restoring some very old organs, including one at Temple Newsam from the 1700s. But he also recalls seeing hundreds of antique organs destroyed and replaced with electronic versions. He and his father managed to rescue and restore a lot of them, sending many to Japan to feed the fashion for purpose-built Baroque-style churches filled with original items from British churches. 

Today, though, the focus is on restoring church organs, recognising not just their heritage and history but also their value to communities and congregations who have listened to them through the generations. As a member of the Institute of British Organ Building (IBO), which oversees standards and peer-reviews work, Peter Wood & Son is accredited to carry out such restorations.

Mark, who is also a trustee of the IBO, said:  

I’m a keen advocate for the preservation of organs. I go into them and they are like time capsules. A lot of churches have got an organ and it’s the only one they’ve ever had. It’s maybe 150 years old and we can restore it and it’s like brand new.

“I actively encourage my customers to appreciate their instruments and I support them on the road to restoration. Using IBO-accredited companies gives churches and funding bodies the peace of mind that they are spending money in the right direction with the right people.” 

As antiques, some of the organs have to be treated carefully, and this can be a challenge when working with the wooden components which can expand and contract. This can be particularly critical for the soundboard.

Mark recalls carrying out the historic restoration of the still-working organ at Whittington in Lancashire, which had been in a very cold, damp church, since 1883. They brought it back to the workshop one summer as the weather hit 32 degrees. He said:  

“We had to black out the windows to keep it dark and cool and use lots of buckets of water to keep the humidity.” 

The climate in the workshop can also affect organs brought back from different climates. For many years the company has restored organs in places such as Malaysia, Russia, Australia and Japan. They often dismantle and ship them back to Harrogate as the resources and materials aren’t available to carry out the work in situ. Mark said:  

“There are British organs in the former territories that were built before the First World War and we look after them or repair them when they’re falling apart. There’s one in Madras that’s still there and still playing.” 

The company has had its fair share of ups and downs, and moved from Leeds to Harrogate in the early 1980s. It was based for a long time at Valley Farm in Bilton, before relocating to its current Grove Park View premises in 2008 when Mark’s father retired.

Harrogate church organ restorers

‘It’s so lovely to bring them back to life’

Many of Mark’s career highlights are projects that meant something special to the people involved. One involved the restoration of a large, 100-year-old pipe organ, made in England by Morton & Moody, at the Church of the Assumption in Penang. Mark had cleaned it with his father in 1976 and returned in 2011 to restore it following a massive fundraising initiative by the congregation. By then, the organ had been eaten by termites and was in bad shape.  

When the newly-restored organ was unveiled in 2014, it was not just a special moment for Mark. It was also the first time the former choir master, who was very poorly with dementia, had heard it since he was a young man. 

Mark also remembers the privilege of restoring a very rare church organ in 2016 at All Saints in Roos, Humberside. The 600-pipe organ was built in Hull in 1881 by Karl Christian Reiter and is one of only two to survive in its original state. It hadn’t been played since 1985 and interest was huge among the community, with local school children and residents closely following its progress. The Bishop of Hull conducted a service of celebration, re-dedication and blessing when it was unveiled after being restored. Mark said:  

“It was falling apart and no one had heard it for years. It was such a lovely experience to be able to bring it back to life.” 

Mark and Ginny have noticed a rise in demand for their services, especially since the end of the pandemic. They regularly work 70 to 90 hours a week. And yet the industry is in danger of further decline as it struggles to encourage younger people to develop the skills, workmanship and experience to continue this age-old craft. Mark said:

“The organ builders that are left are few and far between. This is still a very old-fashioned industry and the skills are passed down from person to person. It’s a lifetime of learning. No two organs are the same. I can still come across something that I haven’t seen before, and I’ve seen thousands of organs.”

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