The Parish and the Vowles Organ

St. Benet’s, Beccles is by any account an extraordinary discovery in the north-east corner of Suffolk. Featured in Pevsner’s guide, the church is referred to as “a remarkably ambitious building”. St. Benet’s (dedicated to the 7th century English Benedictine Abbot, St. Benet Biscop) was originally intended as part of a new Benedictine priory dependent upon Downside Abbey, near Bath; in the event, a new community was not established, but the church remains in the care of Downside. The history of St. Benet’s is, of course, interlinked with that of the neighbouring (and older) Benedictine parish of St. Edmund in Bungay. The organ is part of that history, with its West Country connections, and was built by W.G. Vowles of Bristol, a name well-known to Bristol organists.

From 1657 the Tasburgh family maintained a priest at Flixton Hall, a brave initiative at a time when Oliver Cromwell was still in power as Lord Protector, especially considering East Anglia’s puritan traditions. Through their connections with the Benedictines at Douai in northern France, the Tasburghs were first served by a monk of St. Gregory’s (the community now at Downside). Other English monks followed from communities in France, and from the abbey at Lamspringe near Hildesheim in Germany.

With the passing of the late 18th century Catholic Relief Acts and the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, English Catholics began to find a slightly easier acceptance in society at large, though they carried out the observance of their faith unobtrusively. The emergence of the parish of St. Edmund in Bungay from the Flixton Mission is described in Dom Edward Crouzet’s book Slender Thread, published in 2007 to commemorate the 350th anniversary of that Mission. On Wednesday 18th June, 1823, a ‘New Catholic Chapel’ opened in Bungay; Solemn High Mass at 10.00 a.m. was followed by Vespers, Sermon, and Benediction in the afternoon. Given the religious controversies of the time, the occasion was also one of a remarkable gesture of ecumenical goodwill. In 1823, only eight years had passed since the Battle of Waterloo had ended the threat of invasion by Napoleon’s forces, and the 18th June was Waterloo Day. The bells of St. Mary’s, Bungay, neighbouring St. Edmund’s, were to be rung all day as a mark of thanksgiving; however, the bells were silent during the times of services in the new church of St. Edmund!

The organ now in St. Benet’s was originally erected in that ‘New Catholic Chapel’, though the date is uncertain. The firm of W. G. Vowles did not exist till 1856, though Vowles pre-dated the Norfolk firm of E.W. Norman in Diss (1868) which later moved to Norwich (1887: Norman & Beard). Presumably the proximity of Downside to Bristol was a reason for an order being placed with Vowles; the Bristol firm supplied many small organs in SW England, and there is an organ with a very similar appearance to the Beccles instrument in the Methodist church at Radstock, about 4 miles from Downside.

The decision of John Henry Newman to leave the Anglican Church in 1845 (to be followed by numerous others) and his subsequent ordination as a Catholic priest in Rome, together with the restoration of the English and Welsh Catholic hierarchy in 1850, was the background to much activity in the building of new churches as the pattern of Catholic parishes that we now know began to take shape. By the 1880s, English Catholicism had made great strides in both its public profile and its confidence. In Beccles, there was talk of a new church; at the same time it was realised that the Bungay congregation had outgrown its 1823 Chapel.

The development of parishes such as St. Benet’s depended enormously upon the help of generous benefactors. The most prominent of these in Beccles was John Kenyon, who had been received into the Catholic church in 1870; he discovered the growing parish of St. Edmund’s in Bungay while visiting his uncle at Gillingham Hall. The seed was sown, and plans for the intended priory at Beccles were drawn up. Dom Edmund Ford was appointed parish priest, and (after a sojourn at Gillingham Hall where Mass was celebrated), the first Mass at St. Benet’s was celebrated on the feast of St. Andrew, 30th November 1889, in the dining room of the partially-completed priory. Dom Ephrem Guy from Bungay preached, emphasising what was most important about the occasion; it did not matter that there was no grand procession, no music, no display of gorgeous clerical robes, no incense……it was what they were doing that mattered. From its beginnings, St. Benet’s received the benefit of generous gifts. For that first Mass, the altar was adorned with flowers sent by a lady in London who also donated six brass candlesticks and ‘a handsome lamp’. Chalice, ciborium, etc. were the gifts of convents of nuns and other donors, as were the vestments. Plans for the completion of the priory and church (including costs!) were displayed, and their contents published in the press. A harmonium was placed in the hall of the house. [Presumably this was the harmonium that was later located in the church, half-way down the right-hand aisle, and still used for school services in the 1950s. It was then replaced by a raucous American Reed Organ acquired by Dom Aidan Trafford, parish priest, 1959-1963].

Building work continued, and on 26th May 1891 the East Suffolk Gazette gave notice of the ‘Opening of a temporary chapel’ for Beccles Catholics on Thursday 4th June. This ‘temporary chapel’ was the present church hall. Meanwhile, a new church at Bungay had been completed for the growing congregation, ingeniously built around the 1823 chapel which thus had to be demolished from within the new church. The Vowles organ was removed, and taken to Beccles by the Norwich firm of Norman and Beard, at a cost of £11. Meanwhile, a new two-manual organ had been ordered in 1890 from the Norwich firm of Norman and Beard for installation in the organ gallery at Bungay, at a cost of £350. High Mass was celebrated at Beccles on that June day in 1891 by the Prior of Downside, Dom Clement Fowler (Downside was still ranked as a priory, not an abbey), and the sermon was preached by Mgr. Walter Croke Robinson of the diocese of Westminster. Well-known as a speaker and preacher, Mgr. Croke Robinson, a Fellow of New College, Oxford, had been one of the senior staff at the short-lived Catholic University College of Kensington opened in 1874 by Cardinal Manning; his work included a study of the 13th century Suffolk-born statesman and Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste. (This study is still available, and is now published on the internet).

Parish life at St. Benet’s soon gathered momentum. In 1894, about a dozen members of the newly-revived Guild of Corpus Christi visited Antwerp to take part in a solemn procession in honour of the Blessed Sacrament on the Sunday after Corpus Christi; they were led by Major Worsley-Worswick, Mr John Kenyon, and Dom Edmund Ford. A few weeks later, Dom Edmund returned to Downside where he had once again been elected prior. He visited Beccles in February 1895, when the East Suffolk Gazette reported that 140 sat down to tea to welcome him. Dom Edmund commented that at Mass on Christmas Day 1889 he had a congregation of three, but now the Sunday morning congregation at St. Benet’s numbered upwards of 100. Mass was not celebrated on Sunday evenings in those days; indeed the code of canon law of 1917 indicated that Mass should begin no later than one hour after noon. Sunday afternoon or evening was the time for Benediction (perhaps preceded by Vespers and/or a sermon), accompanied by hymn-singing from books such as The Arundel Hymnal and The Crown of Jesus (the first edition of The Westminster Hymnal did not appear till 1912). The organ would have given strong support for singing in the hall. However, all was not plain sailing, despite a congregation of 200+ for 28 confirmations in December 1896 being reported in the East Suffolk Gazette. An hour-long anti-catholic public lecture to a crowded town hall was reported in the same issue. However, there was an unexpected interruption from one of the crowd who had been listening to the lecture. “During a lull in proceedings Father Fulton unexpectedly stood on a chair and told the audience that he was a Roman Catholic priest and a monk and wished to correct some of the statements of the lecturer.” Dom Meinrad managed to make himself heard, offered to speak in any chapel about his beliefs, thanked the audience for their attention, and left!

In May 1898, a procession from St. Benet’s to Gillingham took place; in August, a visit by the Bishop of Northampton for the opening of the new church at Gillingham was reported in the press. In 1899 the foundation stone of St. Benet’s church was laid, the ceremony being led by Canon Duckett from Norwich, whose zeal and energy led to the building of St. John’s church (now cathedral) there. In 1901 the nave of the church was opened. Pontifical High Mass was celebrated on 4th September by the Bishop of Northampton, Dr. Ridell. It must be remembered that, from 1850, the Bishop of Northampton had responsibility for the greater part of eastern England, the catholic population in that area being very sparse; the present diocese of East Anglia was created in 1976 by dividing the diocese of Northampton. Dr. Ridell was accompanied by his vicar-general and two canons. Also present were Dom Clement Fowler (as deacon) and Dom Osmund Knight (as sub-deacon); within a few years, Dom Osmund would become parish priest at St. Benet’s. Dom Hugh Ford (now the first Abbot of Downside) and Dom Cuthbert Hedley (Bishop of Newport) were also present; Dr. Hedley (who was later to chair the Bishops’ committee that produced The Westminster Hymnal) preached the sermon. The organ was played by Dom Bede Cox, a native of Merseyside, and well-known as an organist; he was then serving as rector of St. Mary, Highfield Street, Liverpool, where he remained, much-loved, for 44 years till his death in 1938, in his 85th year! Mass was sung to plainchant throughout, the congregation joining the clergy in alternation with the cantors (it was reported); as was typical for the time, the chant was sung from the Mechlin edition. ‘Mechlin’ is an anglicised version of the Latin for Mechelen/Malines, for centuries the ecclesiastical centre of Belgium (in 1961 the archiepiscopal see of Belgium was re-named Mechelen-Brussel {Malines-Bruxelles}). Chant-books according to the Mechlin tradition were commonly used before Pope Pius X gave the Benedictine monks of Solesmes responsibility for re-editing the traditional music of the church; the 1908 Graduale was yet to come. After Mass, the dedication shown by the two main benefactors (John Kenyon of Gillingham Hall and Frederick Smith of Bungay) was acknowledged by the Abbot, as was the tireless work of the parish priest, Dom Meinrad Fulton.

In August 1905, Sisters of the Servite Order replaced the Dominican Sisters in St. Catherine’s Convent; the Dominicans had been in Beccles since 1897. On 10th July 1908, the church was consecrated with due ceremonial, but it was never completed in accordance with the original design; for example, a baptistery had been planned, together with an ambulatory and Lady Chapel beyond the present apse. People sometimes ask why a larger organ was not installed in the completed church. Perhaps the economies just mentioned give a clue. In any case, Europe was plunged into war in 1914, and the 1920s brought great economic uncertainty. Another clue to the finances of the parish can be found in Historical Notes on English Catholic Missions published in 1907 for Archbishop Bourne of Westminster; of St. Benet’s, it states: “the congregation – said to be mostly converts – numbers about three hundred.” Amongst those three hundred souls there were many from the poorer sections of society, especially among the converts; the parish always had to rely heavily on the generosity of a few wealthy donors. It seems fitting in retrospect that it was Dom Cuthbert Hedley who preached at the opening of St. Benet’s church in 1901; it was he who had been entrusted by Cardinal Manning with the translation of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical of 1891, Rerum Novarum, still a corner-stone of Catholic social teaching. Dom Cuthbert was clearly an enthusiast for the encyclical; in The Tablet in 1891, he described it as ‘probably the most important document of the present Pontificate’. [In her thesis: The Late Victorian Roman Catholic Periodical Press and Attitudes to the ‘Problem of the Poor’ (2001), Catherine Merrell comments that this remark illustrates “how important the problem of the working classes had become for the Catholic writers.”*]

St. Benet’s now entered a period of comparative stability. Two parish priests served for a total of 25 years: Dom Vincent Corney from 1913-1923, and Dom Martin Campbell from 1924 till his death at Beccles in 1938. During this time, a choir capable of singing a considerable plainchant repertory was established by Dom Alphėge Shebbeare, who was noted for his work in developing the chant in accord with the 1903 Moto Proprio (Tra le Sollecitudine) of Pope Pius X. Seen as a pioneer of liturgical reform, Pius identified wider knowledge of the chant as essential. Dom Alphėge, formerly one of the Cowley Fathers at Oxford, was one of those musicians brought up as an Anglican who gave great service to early 20th century English Catholic liturgy. His contemporary, Richard Terry, another former Anglican, also worked at Downside before being appointed as the first Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral. Terry, deservedly knighted for his work, pioneered the English revival of early music in the Latin liturgy (including much that was almost unknown outside academic institutions) besides commissioning new music; he also understood the place of chant as a frame for the liturgy, and Westminster Cathedral sticks to those principles to this day.

In Bernard Kelly’s 1907 Westminster publication for his archbishop, the high altar of stone and marble at St. Benet’s was described as “especially noteworthy”. That altar, approached by steps, was placed in the apse; it was surmounted by a throne for a crucifix, replaced by the monstrance during Benediction. The choir sang antiphonally from both sides of the sanctuary, the choir seating arranged either side of the crossing. Those singers served the church with great loyalty for many years until old age and the change of liturgy in the late 1960s took their toll. Of course, Dom Alphėge – having many responsibilities – needed somebody to lead the choir Sunday by Sunday. Leo Snowden filled this role, and his daughter, Kath Swallow, sang at St. Benet’s for many years. She once told me that she had also pumped the organ during her younger days! The gentle sounds of the organ, able to speak freely in the spacious transept (a similar position to the organ at Downside Abbey) provided admirable plainsong accompaniment for the singers immediately below. Its position in the loft contrasted with the cramped conditions in many an Anglican church where organs were being moved from west galleries to the chancel at this time. For a while, the organ was unplayed, but in 1934 my father, Reg Jones, began to accompany the services at St. Benet’s. He was later received into the church by Dom Martin Campbell, who suggested a visit Downside to learn more about the chant; while there, my father met the organist of the London Oratory, Ralph Downes, a leader of the ‘reform movement’ in organ design, and to whom the plans for the organ at the Royal Festival Hall would later be entrusted.**

[**It is reported that, at his request, the organ was silent at the funeral of Ralph Downes in 1993; Gregorian chant was sung unaccompanied].

In 1937, my father enlisted in the army. My mother was persuaded to fill the role of organist, which she continued to do throughout World War II and after; troops from various nations, allied or PoW, attended the church. One of the organist’s duties at this time was to persuade men of the parish to pump the organ! After various changes of parish priest during World War II, Dom Rudesind Brookes, who had distinguished himself as an army chaplain (being awarded an MC), served as parish priest from 1948 till 1953. At this time, Leo Snowden died, and my father took over responsibility for the music, spending many hours in writing notes and notices (calligraphy was one of his interests). The biggest liturgical change of the 1950s was the huge revision in the Liturgy of Holy Week, the services of the Triduum being altered to something like the current pattern. Our choir booklets (produced, in those pre-copier days, courtesy of the Pye TV factory at Lowestoft) were printed from a typed and hand-written master copy.

In the early post-war era St. Benet’s was much as it had been in the 1930s. Most of the church was still lit by gas, though the organ now had an electric blower. Changes to the buildings were needed, and Dom Benet Innes, who arrived in 1953, was a man of decided ideas and activity. Gas lighting was finally replaced by electricity; no longer did altar servers need to tour the church after Benediction on a dark Sunday evening to turn off the gas lights! Dom Benet’s initiatives included turning the rambling old presbytery (the projected priory) into the present school, and building a new presbytery. In October 1957, Abbot Butler (who had made a formal visit to the parish in 1954) opened and blessed the new school, such a welcome development for the pupils and the religious sisters who taught there. The sisters also ran St. Mary’s School (in Grange Road) and looked after the sacristy. The church heating system was renewed, and a new font presented to the church. But Dom Benet also considered liturgical change; he wished to promote congregational singing at Mass, and introduced Dom Gregory Murray’s People’s Mass, which took its place alongside the chant sung by the choir. Of course this was the first edition of Dom Gregory’s setting, i.e. in Latin, rather than the later English version. This prototype congregational Mass setting had been written as early as 1949 for the parish of Hindley, Lancashire; a Downside mission of that era. Dom Benet left Beccles in 1959, being appointed to the Liverpool parish that Dom Bede Cox was serving when he played the organ for the opening of St. Benet’s in 1901.

During the last years of Pope Pius XII (d. 1958), vernacular hymns were allowed at Low Mass. In time, an unfortunately partial understanding of this move evolved into a habit of focusing upon singing at Mass rather than singing the Mass, as the incipient new liturgy of the late 1960s was put into parish practice. Pius had always wanted congregations to know especially the simpler Gregorian melodies, but these were forgotten and often replaced by music of very low quality; the Fathers of the 2nd Vatican Council couldn’t have bargained for the rapid development of copying technology! It was also forgotten that, in the 1958 instruction De Musica Sacra, hymns were then allowed in addition to the liturgical texts, not in place of them. Many documents have followed those of the 1950s, and the story of liturgical reform will continue to unfold.  Happily, the 50th anniversary of the 2nd Vatican Council has prompted a re-assessment as to what liturgical reform really entails, and in such discussions the internet is invaluable. I have just read (online) a stirring pastoral letter (Ecclesia Semper Reformanda – 2009) from the Bishop of Sioux City in Iowa concerning the mystical nature of the liturgy (reflecting the Heavenly liturgy) and the need for reverence at Mass; how small details can make our liturgy beautiful or banal; how there is need for an authentic liturgical spirituality, as well as the need to avoid ‘utility music’ and superficial interpretations of ‘participation’. It was put to me by a priest friend that the documents of the Council of Trent wouldn’t have been disseminated as they were without the invention of printing; the church in our age has to use the internet effectively. A decade before he called the Council, Pope John XXIII was particularly impressed by the work of the French Dominican Yves Congar in his True and False Reform in the Church (1950). Sadly, this influential book was not available in English until 2011, when a translation by an American Dominican was published by a Benedictine abbey in Minnesota. Our progress is sometimes uncertain.

With the development of new forms of liturgical music, the requirements for organ accompaniment in the liturgy became more varied. These changes included the regular use of responsorial psalms, though such psalmody – pioneered by Fr. Joseph Gelineau – had been available since the early 1950s. The Vowles organ in its original state had served the liturgy appropriately till this time; however, its specification being typical of many a small organ of the late Victorian era the effect in such a large resonant church was rather sombre! The distance of the organ from the congregation and lack of sparkle were limiting factors for the role it was now required to fill. Consequently, in the mid 1960s, two ranks of pipes were replaced to try to add more variety, the work being undertaken by W & A Boggis of Diss.

For a few years, during the early highly experimental period of the new liturgy, there was no choir at St. Benet’s, but Dom Aelred Watkin encouraged my sister, Hilary Wells (who was in the process of taking over the music from my father) to form a new choir when he arrived in 1975. Like Dom Bede Cox before him, Dom Aelred was titular Abbot of Glastonbury. Immediately after the 2nd Vatican Council, many Catholic churches were re-ordered to allow for the new liturgy. St. Benet’s has seemed to be in a constant state of re-ordering for the past few decades! The old high altar is no more, the current arrangements having been effected after a period of uncertainty and change and completed around the time of the millennium. With a further shift towards the (ecclesiastical) west and re-positioning of the choir, the organ was too detached from the action to provide for the liturgy as it was evolving; an electronic organ nearer choir and people was introduced around the turn of the century.

From some years the Vowles organ therefore remained silent. That was until July 2008, when Cardinal Murphy O’Connor visited Beccles as part of the celebrations marking the centenary of the consecration of the church. The music for the Mass (a memorable occasion) was accompanied by the electronic organ situated near the choir, which included singers from the present choir as well as others from the deanery and old friends returning for the day. As I was directing the music for the Mass (with my sister playing the organ), I decided it might be a good idea to play the final voluntary on the Vowles organ, on which I had spent so many hours in past years, playing all manner of repertory. The organ hadn’t been used (or tuned) in years, so I ran through the Festival Voluntary by Flor Peeters before the service to find out if all was well. Apparently those in the church enjoyed what they heard. However, I was told after the Mass that the voluntary did not make the impact it might have done had I played it on the Vowles’ electronic cousin. The reason was plain to me; the level of post-Mass chat in our churches (magnified on such a big occasion) has now reached a pitch that will easily drown any musical offering such as a voluntary (probably regarded as background music rather than the final moment of our worship). But I am glad I did play the Vowles organ again; perhaps the old lady still has something to teach us about the respect we owe to the liturgy.

Richard Jones, Bristol, September 2012.

© Notes: Copyright Richard Jones, 2012.


Specification of the Organ

  Compass:             Pedals C – f’         Manual C – g’’Manual   (before alteration)

Open Diapason                                    8’            unenclosed

Horn Diapason                                    8’            enclosed

Stopped Diapason                               8’            enclosed

Gamba                                                  8’            enclosed

Principal                                                4’            enclosed

Flauto Traverso                                    4’           enclosed


Bourdon                                                16’

Manual   (present specification)

Open Diapason                                    8’            unenclosed

Stopped Diapason                               8’            enclosed

Gamba                                                  8’            enclosed

Principal                                                4’            enclosed

Twelfth                                                  2⅔          enclosed

Fifteenth                                                2’           enclosed


Bourdon                                                 16’

Couplers: Octave Coupler; Manual to Pedal.               Two combination pedals: one selects the gamba and stopped diapason (but if the principal is already drawn, it does not retract); the other selects all manual stops. Swell pedal: hitch-down; Pedal-board: radiating and concave, but narrower than later examples modelled on the 1904 RCO Norman and Beard organ.


Crouzet, Dom Edward: Slender Thread (Downside Abbey Books)

Gordon-Gorman, William J.: Converts to Rome: a biographical list…. (London: Sands, 1910) (Canadian Libraries online)

Kelly, Bernard W: Historical Notes on English Catholic Missions (London: Paul Trench 1907) (University of Toronto Libraries online)

Merrell, Catherine B.: *The Late Victorian Roman Catholic Periodical Press and Attitudes to the ‘Problem of the Poor’ (De Montfort University, 2001)

  • Websites:
  • The British Institute of Organ Studies:
  • The National Pipe Organ Register;
  • The Catholic Herald Archive;
  • The Downside Review (1901);
  • The Foxearth and District Local History Society (East Suffolk Gazette);
  • The Vatican website: Tra le Sollecitudini (Pope Pius X, 1903) and more recent documents;
  • etc.


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