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George Maydwell Holdich and the haunted church organ of Wiggenhall

The final resting place of the famous Victorian organist and organ builder George Maydwell Holdich lies close to the pathway alongside the boundary wall in Ladywell cemetery with only the residual border containing a faded inscription on a curbstone visible to the knowing observer.

George Maydwell Holdich 

[The only known photograph of George is from the collection of John Maidment]

Intriguingly when researching George's life for this article I lighted on a news report from 2018 appearing in the Eastern Daily Press which seemed an appropriate coda to the traditional Christmas ghost story which referred to a haunted organ built by George Maydwell Holdich at St. Mary the Virgin Parish Church, Wiggenhall, Norfolk which I thought readers would find of interest!

George 's pipe organ inside St Mary's Church at Wiggenhall St Mary. Picture: Ian Burt - undated.

Weird Norfolk: The haunted Victorian pipe organ at Wiggenhall

In the heart of the Fens is a fourteenth-century church which, legend has it, makes its own entertainment thanks to a haunted Victorian pipe organ

An article in Norfolk Fair in the summer of 1986 recalls the strange story of St Mary's haunted Victorian organ. Built by George Maydwell Holdich, the organ was donated to the church by the village squire, George Helsham. 'Quite a different kind of ghost is said to haunt the church of St Mary the virgin at Wiggenhall,' the article reads, 'Now redundant, it is no longer used for services but an atmosphere of unease was said to pervade it when it was in use. What was so astonishing was not any spectral apparition but the fact that strains of organ music would be heard, as if some outstanding performer were seated at the instrument. Upon investigation, however, no-one could be found, although the organ felt warm. In fact, the generation of heat seemed to be one of the manifestations of whatever moved within the building as it would become warm for no apparent reason. This was especially marked at a wedding at which guests became uncomfortably hot and one bridesmaid fainted, yet outside the weather was autumnal and chilly. Sometimes the organ behaved so erratically the organist had to give up playing. Yet two or three days later it would perform perfectly.

On one occasion, workmen carrying out repairs to the fabric were scared out of their wits when the organ started playing of its own accord. They fled the church in panic and only with great difficulty were they persuaded to return. 'Later visitors to the church have spoken of the strange atmosphere inside the church, which is only open to the public at certain times and which is world-renowned for its exceptional collection of early 16th-century wooden benches with ends carved with likenesses of saints, the detail on which is breathtaking – many believe the endearing faces may well have been based on parishioners of the time. Perhaps today they are entertained by spectral music.

George Maydwell Holdich

George was the fourth son of the Reverend Thomas Holdich and his second wife Elizabeth (nee Maydwell). He was born in August 1816 in Maidwell, Northamptonshire. His father, Thomas, was rector of the parish church, St Mary the Virgin. George attended Uppingham School from February 1829 until December 1832 after which it is said he went to Cambridge, although there is no record of this at the University.

However, he became apprenticed to the organ builder James Chapman Bishop of Marylebone and in 1837 started up in business by himself. In 1842 he moved to share a factory with another organ builder, Henry Bevington at 12 Greek Street, Soho. Running off Greek Street is Manette Street, described in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities as “… where church organs claim to be made…”

The earliest Holdich organ known of is that at Southwick Northamptonshire. Redenhall is also an early example as is All Saints’ Laxton, Northamptonshire  the organ dating from c1843 and having connections with the Holdich family. The organ at Sparham, Norfolk is another early organ likely to be by Holdich and it was originally in a former school in Laxton.

Between 1848 and 1851 a fire destroyed the Greek Street factory and George moved to 4 Judd Place East, New Road, King’s Cross, which was renumbered and renamed 42 Euston Road in 1858.

In 1851 George built an organ for The Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, now in Wiveton. 1861 saw George build his magnum opus for Lichfield Cathedral – an organ of 52 stops. This organ was quite radical for its time, including a comprehensive pedal division of which the cathedral organist, Samuel Spofforth, observed “You may put them there, but I shall never use them!” Sadly, little of this organ survives at Lichfield.

George remained in the Euston Road factory until 1866 when the site was acquired by the Midland Railway Company, and so he moved to 24 Park Place West, Liverpool Road, again renumbered to become 261 Liverpool Road, Islington in 1869. It was from this factory that he built the Hinckley organ in 1867, although of course its original destination was much closer to home – Union Chapel, Islington. It was planned to move this organ to the new chapel, but George seems to have objected to the proposed site. George removed the organ and in 1878 installed it at the Borough Congregation Church, Hinckley. George built well over 400 organs during his career, including one for the English Cathedral on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, as well as instruments for South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India and Mauritius. His organs were generally conservative, certainly from a tonal perspective, but as indicated by the Lichfield instrument, at times he could also be forward-looking – he introduced a type of octave-coupler called a diaocton.

George nonetheless enjoys a reputation for building fine Victorian organs. Many of his smaller works survive, particularly in East Anglian rural churches. George retired on 10th January 1894 and his business was sold to the organ builder Eustace Ingram. The business traded from the same premises for a while under the name of Holdich & Ingram before being sold to Gray & Davison. On his retirement George lived in a nursing home at Forest Hill where he died on the 30th July 1896 aged 79. George who never married was interred in Ladywell cemetery on the 1st August 1896.

( Source : The Holdich Family History Society)

For a fuller account of George's life and work as an organ builder this 2013 biography most likely offers the definitive account.

Footnote :

George is in good musical company in this section of Ladywell cemetery as two other noted organists are buried nearby :

Dr William Joseph Westbrook (1831-1894) Composer, who for many years was the organist at St. Bartholemew's Church, Sydenham. His arrangement of In dulci jubilo ( In sweet rejoicing) one of the most recognisable and joyful melodies of the middle ages became a huge festive hit when released as an instrumental version by musician Mike Oldfield in 1975.

Elizabeth Stirling /Bridge ( 1819 -1895) Organist and Composer, who in 1856 passed the examination for the degree of Mus.Bac. at Oxford (her work was Psalm 130 for 5 Voices, with Orchestra.) but, ironically, her earned degree could not be granted to a woman!

Article by Mike Guilfoyle, Vice-Chair FoBLC