Today (January 23) in London History – the Voice of Jupiter

This one’s about The Voice of Jupiter.


Usual deal. We’ll give the obvious ones a miss. You know the kind of thing I mean. For example, Queen Elizabeth I opening the Royal Exchange on January 23rd, 1571. Ditto the death of the famous Prime Minister William Pitt the younger. Known as the three-bottle man because of his heavy consumption of port wine, Pitt was the chappie who gave us the income tax. He bowed out on January 23, 1806. Died at home. In his house on Putney Green. Or the proceedings in the House of Lords being televised for the first time. Television finally got its snout in the trough in there on January 23, 1985. 

No, we’ll give the achingly obvious ones a miss.

We’ll London Walks January 23rd.

So backing up to get another run at this, here’s a thought for you.

London’s like a musical instrument. A very large musical instrument. Like an organ. Like the organ at the Royal Albert Hall. There was a time when the Royal Albert Hall organ was the largest organ in the world. Just as there was a time when London was the largest city in the world. In our own way we’re all playing that mighty organ called London. Playing it for better or for worse. Finding out what’s there. Finding out what it can do. Yes, discovering it. Making music with it. 

And sure enough, today’s a good day to bring up the Royal Albert Hall organ because it was on this day, January 23rd, 1934 that the Voice of Jupiter reached full maturity.

Now we have to be careful here. The original Royal Albert Hall organ was unveiled in 1871. It was built by Henry Willis, a great organist himself. He called it The Voice of Jupiter. 

Not bad at all. But The Voice of Jupiter became even mightier some 60 years later. The Durham firm of Harrison and Harrison rebuilt the Willis organ. They souped up the Voice of Jupiter. That rebuild – which amazingly isn’t very well known – came thundering onto the world stage on this day, January 23rd, 1934. That’s what we’re looking at here.

A special recital was laid on for the occasion. The star turns – apart from the organ – were the organist of Salisbury Cathedral, the organist of Temple Church and the organist of Birmingham Town Hall. The 800-voices-strong Royal Choral Society was there. Memorable occasion.

But let’s meet the star of the show. The big fella was the finest organ in the world. And no question about it, the biggest organ in the world. The vital statistics tell the story.

The rebuild weighed about 175 tons. It occupied over 65,000 cubic feet of space. It had 10,491 speaking pipes. It had 80 miles of electric cable. It had Seven tonal departments (six manual and one pedal). It had four keyboards. It had 176 drawstops. The blowing plant – described as the most powerful in the country – was comprised of two electric motors, 10 horsepower and five horsepower respectively. They drove the blowers that supplied all the wind up to ten-inch pressure. And there were two eight horsepower motors to drive the rotary compressors that supplied wind up to 30-inch pressure. It took 112 craftsmen nearly six years to build. It cost £26,000. Let’s get that into perspective. Average earnings at the time were £195 a year. You could buy a London terrace house for £395. The price of the Royal Albert Hall organ would have bought you 65 London houses. And tuning the beast: that cost £200 a year. A year’s average earnings. 

Was it worth it? I think so. It was more complete in tonal design than any other organ in the world. It had unparalleled range, power, and flexibility.

And what happened to it? Well, it’s still there. By the end of the 20th century it was in a bad state, so it’s had an extensive rebuild – now it’s just under 10,000 pipes. But by and large it’s the same old Voice of Jupiter. No longer the biggest in the country, that title’s passed to the organ in Liverpool Cathedral. 

But it holds its own. 

And sure enough, there’s a takeaway for me. For one of my walks. Henry Willis, who built the first Royal Albert Hall organ, was a very fine organist himself. He lived up here. North London. He’s still here. He’s in Highgate Cemetery. Best of all though, turns out he was the organist for St. John’s Hampstead, the beautiful old parish church where my Hampstead Walk ends. And on that note here ends the Today in London History podcast for January 23rd.

See you tomorrow. Keep on Londoning. 


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