Barrel Organs

Barrel organs. Mechanical instruments featuring a barrel-and-pin mechanism turned by a crank which activates a set of organ pipes or metal tongues. Those with pipes usually are stationary, the others portable.

Mechanical instruments featuring a barrel-and-pin mechanism turned by a crank which activates a set of organ pipes or metal tongues. Those with pipes usually are stationary, the others portable. Although known in the 16th century and possibly earlier, barrel organs enjoyed their greatest vogue in Great Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Some 500 were used in British churches about 1850 and several were installed in Canadian churches, since their player mechanisms provided psalm and hymn singing with an accompaniment more reliable than that of the amateur instrumentalist. Thus St George's Church in Kingston, Ont had a barrel organ before 1800. St John's Church, York Mills, Toronto, preserves an organ with three interchangeable barrels of 10 hymn tunes each. It was purchased in London in 1847 and until 1864 provided the only accompaniment for congregational singing. The only known Canadian-built instruments are those of Richard Coates, two of which survive. One with 20 tunes on two interchangeable barrels was built ca 1818 for the Children of Peace. After restoration by Geoffrey Payzant and Stewart Duncan in the 1970s it was still on display in 1990 at the Temple in Sharon, Ont, and one hymn tune, Timothy Swan's 'China' played on it can be heard on the recording Music at Sharon (1982, Melbourne SMLP-4041).

Not all barrel organs were intended for use in church. This is probably true of 'a compleat new chamber organ, with two barrels and the most favorite new tunes' advertised in the Quebec Gazette of 12 Jul 1787 and of the 'barrel organ that cost sixty guineas in London' auctioned in the same city 3 Apr 1797. It certainly is true of the barrel organ carried by the English explorer William Edward Parry (later Sir) on his arctic expeditions (1819-20, 1821-3, 1824-5) and used to entertain, to accompany physical fitness exercises, and to amuse the Inuit children. Parry's instrument survives in Cambridge and has been recorded (Saydisc SDL-234).

Another English instrument had found its way to Victoria by 1859, and one with 30 hymn tunes on three barrels, built in London ca 1845, was for some time in St Stephen's Anglican Church, Chambly, Que, but was sold in 1856 or 1857 to St Thomas' Anglican Church, Rougemont, Que, where it still could be seen in 1990. An instrument with 15 tunes (9 of them secular), presented by King George III to the famous Indian chief Joseph Brant (1742-1807), was acquired by the Château de Ramezay museum of Montreal. No inventory of barrel organs preserved in Canada had been undertaken by 1990.

The 'hurdy-gurdy' of the organ grinder, common on Canadian streets and at fairs during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is of the type using metal tongues.


Further Reading

  • Schau, Barbara Ann. 'Sacred music at Sharon,' MA thesis, Carleton University 1983