HISTORY OF THE 1630 ENGLISH CHAMBER ORGAN
For over 300 hundred years, this beautiful organ was owned by the Le Strange family of Hunstanton Hall, Norfolk, England. The organ was purchased in 1630 by Sir Nicholas Le Strange. Sir Nicholas's father, Hamon, and brothers, Hamon (Jr) and Roger, were all talented players of the viola da gamba. Two teachers of the viol lived in the household at various times and were noted composers of music for the viol. The most famous of these, John Jenkins, wrote much music for organ and viols, and presumably played the actual organ now in Historic St. Luke's Church. Thomas Brewer, who taught Roger on the viol, composed music for voice and string ensemble. Nicholas amassed a collection of 17th Century music in manuscript that is now distributed among four libraries in England and the United States of America.
With the end of WWII, the burden of estate taxes and expenses of maintaining large manor houses was too great for many English families. Hunstanton Hall was sold and divided into "flats". The contents of the hall were sold at auction in October 1949. The chamber organ was described for the sale as "The Unique Tudor Organ - a Positive Organ in paneled oak case, the painted front pipes of wood mounted in perspective (circa 1660). The inner sides of the folding doors are painted with representations of David before Saul and Jephthah's daughter. The Organ has a compass of four octaves and is in playing order."
The organ was bought by a Captain J. Lane, an eccentric collector of musical instruments. In the mid 1950's Historic St. Luke's Church was undergoing restoration. The organ was purchased from Captain Lane, who represented it as a "rare English organ c.1665 and built by Bernard Smith". (Smith was a noted maker of organs in the late 17th Century.) The attribution is now known to be wrong and the instrument has been proven to date from before Smith's time. When the organ arrived in Virginia, it was still somewhat playable, but climatic conditions and amateur attempts to repair it eventually silenced it.
In 1990 an article by Linda McNatt in the Virginian-Pilot began to stir new interest among early music enthusiasts .Andrew Ashbee, a leading authority on 17th century viol music and John Jenkins, had suspected that the organ sold by Capt. Lane was that purchased by the Le Strange's in 1630.
America's Oldest Organ...
In 1994, John and Linda Shortridge and historian, Barbara Owen spent a few days examining and documenting the organ. This led to a re-examination of the instrument's "paper trail" and correspondence with Ashbee and other British historians, as well as organ-builder Noel Mander, who had initially packed the organ for shipment.
The organ is now on display in the church where it has stood for 50 or more years, there for the enjoyment of the public. Organ benefit concerts have been held annually to pay for its restoration and replica.
For more information or to make a donation
contact: Historic St. Luke's Church
14477 Benn's Church Boulevard
Smithfield, VA 23430