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Home-Made Church Organ at Skeffling

We do not know who wrote the story that follows, or when, (possibly the late 1950s) but it seems to be an extract from some journal of travel. It was found with someone’s personal papers and it is such a charming story, that we felt it should go to a wider readership. Some additional information has been added in brackets were applicable, taken from a report in the Hull Times of February 1925, on the same subject, and a number of photographs have been included to add interest to the story.

On entering the next village to Easington, Skeffling, by the usual double turn in the road, we decided that there would be little interest in this small place. Experience had however taught us that even the remotest village sometimes have interesting features worth recording, so we decided to make enquiries. Little did we imagine how well we were rewarded for doing so. We first called on a resident likely to be able to be of help. He suggested a visit to the Manor House in the grounds of which there is an old archway that came from Burstall Priory, also a mulberry that was planted in the reign of Elizabeth I.

Manor Farm Skeffling
Manor Farm Skeffling
The old archway
The old archway

The farmer who lives there informed us that mulberry trees were first brought to this country about the year 1580 by an ocean-going captain. Because of the fruit and lovely green leaves, the Queen liked them so much that she had thousands imported and planted in the various manor houses throughout England. There are still quite a number of them growing in one place or another, but so far as he is aware this is the only original sixteenth century tree left in South Holderness.

It was early summer when we examined it. The fruit was already ripening-- it never fails to bear. The tree looks healthy and vigorous in spite of its great age and the fact that during the war a service lorry was accidently backed into it, causing nasty split in the trunk. The farmer has had a tie put round it, holding the two parts together, and to all appearances it has recovered from the damage it sustained.

The old Mulberry Tree
The old Mulberry tree

After admiring the mulberry tree, we were advised to wend our way further along the village to visit a house where lived three brothers, (Ward) whose ages range from well into the seventies, to John the eldest who was over four score years. The only other occupant of the house is a lady relative who looks after their creature comforts.

The father of the family, long since dead, was a tailor with a business in the Market Place at Patrington for many years. He had his eldest son (named after himself) as his assistant. The two younger men owned machines going from farm to farm as required to thresh corn grown in the district. John the elder, who lived to be a very old man, (born in 1847) kept himself fit by cycling, and made numerous journeys by that means, to London. He was 77 years of age the last time he went. (It took him three days). It may be wondered why he wished to visit London at his time of life. The reason was, his love of beautiful music, and his ideal in this respect was to attend a service at St. Paul’s Cathedral to hear it. (On his first cycle trip to London, it was during the time of the ‘Green bicycle murder’). In July 1919, a certain Bella Wright was found murdered, and as result he had a somewhat unsettling experience. Near to Finsbury Park he was stopped by detectives, as the cycle he was riding happened to be a green one. Fortunately, however, he was able to prove that at the time of the murder he was at Skeffling, and was allowed to proceed!)

After the First World War he became an ardent supporter of the League of Nations. Many people living in South Holderness remember his lorry decorated with posters displaying peace slogans as it went from village to village, drawn by a lovely old pony, known to all and sundry as Adam. Adam was the pet, friend and gallant steed that had given the first ride to scores of youngsters, he was so quiet they could all sit on him with safety, and though very old for a pony, he always had breath enough left to give a joy-ride to a child. Perhaps John and Adam had learnt something from one another about gentleness and kindness as they travelled around together. Even if the League did not benefit greatly from their efforts, they spread a philosophy that engendered feelings of happy friendship amongst all with whom they came in contact. It may seem strange that in this out of the way part of the East Riding, all the family from father to youngest son, had an ear for music.

Before old John’s death they had a family orchestra, each could play one or more of the musical instruments we were shown in the house. What a collection there was; it included a hurdy-gurdy hymn player, two small pipe organs, one of which was probable built about four hundred years ago and is peculiar in that the notes on the keyboard are black, and the half notes white (just the opposite of normal). The other organ has existed through many generations but both playable, with a bit of tune left in them. In addition to these there was a well-preserved spinet, a piano, a violin, a cello, a concertino, and a cornet, besides two or three old-fashioned musical boxes which are still in working order. During our inspection, John put on a disc record and regaled us with a grand opera overture, which was appreciated by not only his visitors, but also a cat purring happily as it provided nourishment for several kittens in a box nearby.

Being plain old-fashioned Church of England people, the church of St.Helen’s attracted them, and they were regular worshippers in this ancient, rather musty smelling, lovely building, which years ago had close associations with Burstall Priory. This Priory was built near the banks of the Humber, half a mile away, early in the thirteenth century. It had about twenty inmates, all Benedictine monks, who were brought over from the Abbey of St.Martin in Normandy, and appeared to have lived on the produce of the toil of the local inhabitants.

When the Wards arrived in Skeffling, the church was badly in need of a musical instrument, but unfortunately there was no money available for providing one, so they set about the building of an organ themselves.

They knew little of the finer technicalities of organ construction, but they kept going to the end, never doubting that they would ultimately be successful in their self-imposed task. The only help they had was given to them by Tut Lawton of Easington. Before we go any further, let it be said that Tut Lawton was a joiner, with a reputation for excellent craftsmanship unrivalled in this part of Yorkshire. Everything he laid his hands to had to be as near perfection as his great skill could make it. (He was 75 years old at the time; he had considerable experience in the building of organs, having worked for Messer’s. Forster & Andrews of Hull and also Messer’s. Wadsworth of Leeds)

Hearing that some second-hand pipes, and a few odds and ends taken from an organ that was being dismantled at Kings Lynn, were being sold for scrap. The Wards risked £4.10s.0d (£4.50p) and bought what they thought might be of use to them in their venture. They set to work and looked upon it as a labour of love in which they could serve their Master and give something to the Glory of God. That was their motive and inspiration. After many months of thought, ingenuity and perseverance the day came when wind could be pumped into the bellows and John could sit and play the chants and hymns which he loved. It is by no means splendid in appearance, nor is it a wonderful instrument as organs go, none of them had the experience necessary for producing that, nevertheless, John coaxed sweet music from it which more than made up for any shortcomings.

It was a lovely summer’s day when John escorted us to St. Helen’s church to see and hear the organ they had built. I took a seat in the nave whilst my travelling companion went to the back of the instrument to work the pump which provided the necessary wind. John immediately started playing, and as he did so, the thought came to me. Surely this was more than just an old man playing an organ; there was more to it than that! Perhaps I was tired and drowsy, for it was a warm, sunny afternoon, with scarcely a breath of wind, but as I listened- John was now playing a well-known chant- the church was suddenly filled with men and women choristers singing the jubilate with sublime power and sweetness such as I had never previously known.

As the Gloria ended the singers faded away and I gradually became aware that the music had ceased, and I was hearing John’s voice telling me of the extraordinary ability of Tut Lawton for making joints, which brought me back to earth again.

We left St. Helen’s shortly afterwards to resume our journey, the music still singing in my ears. Laugh if you will – say I had fallen asleep and that it was all a dream or imagination – but let no-one attempt to rob me of a delightful experience, which will remain with me while memory lasts. We had expected so little of interest in Skeffling, and found so much.

John Ward snr, John Robert (Tut), John Ward jnr
John Ward snr, John Robert (Tut), John Ward jnr. Photo circa 1925.
Mr. John Ward working on the organ at St. Helen’s church
Mr. John Ward working on the organ at St. Helen’s church taken March 13th 1937

John Ward jnr. died in October 1962 aged 87 years, his brother William died March 1965 aged 78 years and the third brother, Wilfred Augustus Ward died March 1970 aged 87 years. They lived at The Elms in Skeffling. All three are buried in Skeffling churchyard.

A sketch of Skeffling church
A sketch of Skeffling church
The church interior
The church interior

Note: The story behind the mulberry bush. After Queen Elizabeth I (1558 – 1603) had them imported, her successor King James I (1603 – 1625) decided that England should have its own silk trade, and as silk worms favour the leaves of mulberry bushes, had many of them planted on what is now the site of Buckingham Palace. Unfortunately silk worms like white mulberry bushes and King James imported black ones! So hence no silk trade.

Compiled by Mike Welton (2014)