E. Wragg & Son
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E. WRAGG AND SON OF NOTTINGHAM

 

 by Colin Pykett

 

Posted: August 2003

Last revised: 1 July 2021

Copyright © C E Pykett

 

 “…a house gone here, a railway bridge no longer there, tree-lined roads unrecognisable…how we take things for granted … the present slips into the past almost unnoticed….”

 

Grenville Jennings [5]

 

Wragg, the former Nottingham organ builder, was described some years ago as “…a man whose [pneumatic] actions (ubiquitous throughout Nottinghamshire) must be the most sluggish in repetition ever made” [1].  Such wholly subjective hyperbole only amplifies the unhelpfulness of this remark, so it is appropriate to level the playing field a little with a few facts.  In doing this, the quotation at the head of this article is apposite in two ways: firstly it appeared in a preface to a collection of old picture postcards [5] of the area of Nottingham in which Wragg lived and worked for many years until his death in the 1960s, and some of the churches which contained his organs are pictured therein.  Secondly it reminds us how important it is to ease the task of future historians by remembering that tomorrow's history is largely based on that mass of today's often humdrum information which is so seldom recorded.  Should anyone wish to undertake a history of the organs of Nottingham and its surroundings during the twentieth century, they will have to devote a substantial part of it to the doings of E Wragg & Son whether they like it or not.  In that event, hopefully this short article might prove useful.

 

The firm was founded by Ernest Wragg in the 1890s after he had completed an apprenticeship with C S Lloyd, also of Nottingham.  Interestingly, another of Lloyd’s apprentices around that time was the young John Compton.  In due course Ernest took his son into the firm.  He was J E Fenton Wragg, who continued working until his death in 1969 when the firm’s interests were acquired by Henry Groves It is quite true that the Wraggs’ work was ubiquitous throughout the area to the extent that much of it still survives, indeed by the mid-20th century it was never a surprise to find that a church in the area had an organ by Wragg.  One supposes that this could make life rather dull for a local organ adviser however, both then and now.  But there are usually good reasons in life generally why people overwhelmingly prefer the products of one firm in preference to others, so let us examine the situation a little further.

 

Given that the particular instrument at Epperstone which gave rise to the utterance quoted above was not removed until 1998, some thirty years after the firm ceased trading and many more since it was installed in 1932, an alternative reading of events might conclude that Wragg's work was in fact pretty sturdy and reliable.  It was also excellent value for money, a not inconsiderable matter for cash-strapped churches.  I can attest to this having seen some examples of the tenders submitted by Wragg for work in competition with other builders.  One concerns a proposal for cleaning and overhauling the organ at All Hallows, Lady Bay in the early 1960s, where they had built a two manual tubular pneumatic instrument some thirty years earlier [7].  This was certainly not one of the “most sluggish in repetition ever made”, at least when I was organist and choir trainer there.  The key and combination actions were still prompt and reliable at the time of the tender, and the biggest, if somewhat trivial, disadvantage was the rather noisy pneumatic slider mechanisms in the small church.  (For what it is worth, my prize for the slowest pneumatic action at that time has to go to the Lewis at St Luke’s, Battersea).  The work tendered for at Lady Bay was in process of being duly considered when a more urgent intervention was required - someone had inconveniently left an open bag of cement under the air intake to the blower, damaging much of the action at a stroke.  I well remember my state of panic having just arrived for a choir practice!  The remedial work was carried out by Wragg.   

 

Fenton Wragg was living in the Nottingham suburb of Carlton at the time of his death.  The firm’s premises were not far away and were perched above what was then a railway cutting below the B686 (then it was the A612) as the road climbed out of Nottingham towards Southwell at its junction with Porchester Road.   The building looked as though it had been either an unusually ostentatious signal box or an unusually unassuming Nonconformist chapel because of its wood construction and Gothic design.  By the time this note was first written (2003) both railway and building had long vanished [8].  Some Wragg organs were of moderate size and with some notable features, such as the three manual electro-pneumatic instrument installed at St Paul’s church in Carlton-in-the-Willows (pictured left [6]) in 1937 which, among other things, contained a substantial amount of 18th century pipework.  The church itself is pictured on page 10 of [5] as it appeared in 1920.  In 1998 BIOS (The British Institute of Organ Studies) examined this instrument at my suggestion, finding it worthy of retention because of the distinction of its ensemble and certain of its ranks [2].  Their report also noted that the organ was still in complete working order some 60 years after its installation.  Independent information in my possession shows that, although it was overhauled in the early 1960s (by Wragg), no major work had been done on it at the time of that report.  This could be deduced because of the presence of the original cotton-covered wiring and many original components.  As far as I know the organ still survives in 2021 - in 2006 the church told me that it was in regular use, and the NPOR suggests that it is still playable [6].  All this scarcely chimes with the impression that a naïve reader might gain from the remarks in [1].  It confirms again the durability and quality of Wragg's work.

 

Fenton Wragg also tended the four manual Nottingham Behemoths at St Mary’s church and the Albert Hall, both of which were important in the musical life of the city then as now.  The former was a Romantic Walker, tonally glorious but in terminal mechanical decline and it was removed in the late 1960s [3].  However some idea of its magnificence can still be obtained from its smaller relative at another St Mary’s, at Portsea in Hampshire, which currently (2021) is the subject of a vigorous restoration campaign.  The organ at the Albert Hall was the now thoroughly restored Binns [4].  The then titulaires at these consoles, respectively Russell Missin and Fred Garnett, were scarcely likely to have welcomed an organ builder with the reputation implied by [1] because both organs had pneumatic actions.  From them I learned at first hand the value of the work that Wragg actually did to keep these ailing instruments in speaking condition.  At St Mary’s he had also re-modelled the choir organ [3], and his work at the Albert Hall has been acknowledged independently [4].  He was also retained by the important city centre church of St Peter, where he had done major work in the 1950s.

 

Fenton Wragg’s temperament had both irascible and flamboyant elements.  The firm’s massive accumulation of work in the area kept him very busy, but he was always content to let you look over his shoulder provided you did not get in his way, and from such a man one can learn a lot.  Before the second world war the Wraggs were inventive and flexible in their approach to organ building, having designed and made much of their own electrical equipment such as reverser actions.  As far as I am aware no account of the firm has been compiled.  If there is a budding historiographer out there who is looking for a project, perhaps this is a suggestion that might fill the gap while there is still sufficient of its work remaining to flesh it out.  The Wraggs were probably the major force in remodelling the organ landscape of Nottinghamshire and environs during the last century, and this fact alone calls for a dispassionate rather than a dismissive study.

 

References

 

1.  Paul Hale, Organists’ Review, November 2001, p. 336

 

2.  Christopher Gray, private communication,  BIOS, 1998.

 

3. "The Organs and Organists of St. Mary’s Church Nottingham", A Abbott and J Whittle, Rylands Press 1993.

 

4. "The Restoration of the Binns Organ in the Albert Hall, Nottingham", D Butterworth, Organists’ Review, May 1996.

 

5.  "Carlton, Netherfield and Colwick",  Grenville Jennings, Reflections of a Bygone Age (publisher), Nottingham,  November 1992, ISBN 0 946245 64 9.

   

6. I am grateful to St Paul's Church, Carlton, Nottingham for permission to use this picture of their organ. 

    

    Further details of the instrument are on the National Pipe Organ Register at:

 

    http://www.npor.org.uk/cgi-bin/Rsearch.cgi?Fn=Rsearch&rec_index=N13631

    (accessed on 1 July 2021)

 

7. The organ at All Hallows, Lady Bay is pictured on the National Pipe Organ Register at:    

  

   http://www.npor.org.uk/cgi-bin/Rsearch.cgi?Fn=Rsearch&rec_index=D06997   

   (when last accessed on 1 July 2021 its stop list and many other details were not included).

 

8.  A photograph of Wragg's organ works before it was demolished c. 1979 is on the website of Henry Groves & Son Ltd at:

 

    https://henrygroves.co.uk/about-our-history.htm/

    (accessed on 1 July 2021)