Organ History

It is at St George’s that Abraham Jordan’s connection with organ building is first made, indeed this may be his first organ. He was a parishioner and had premises immediately opposite the church and in nearby streets. His son, Abraham Junior, continued in his father’s footsteps and was also the parish organist. The article below has been reproduced by kind permission of Dominic Gwynn.

Abraham Jordan History

Jordan, Abraham (c.1666–1715/16). English organ builder. His family came from Ratbey in Leicestershire, though Abraham may have been born in London, where he was apprenticed as distiller in 1679, perhaps to his widowed mother. In 1686 he married Ann Greenhill, and in 1689 he married Elizabeth Butler who was the mother of his surviving children. By 1694 they had settled in St George’s, Southwark, leasing dwelling house and out-buildings from St Thomas’s Hospital.

Abraham seems to have been a successful businessman, both as distiller and investor in property, with an interest in organs which propelled him into organ building. Sir John Hawkins wrote that “Jordan, a distiller … betook himself to the making of organs, and succeeded beyond expectation”, although he “had never been instructed in the business, but had a mechanical turn”. His route into organ building may have started with organ playing, and continued with an interest in the organ at St George’s Southwark, his parish church, very close to his house. On 12 December 1702 ‘Abraham Jordan Distiller’, signed articles of agreement for a new organ there, already ‘erected and Sett up … being in full perfection and approved of by Dr. John Blow and Jeremiah Clerke’ and valued by them at £600. In fact he undertook to make the organ, provide an organist (his son Abraham junior) and keep the organ tuned and mended for £100 and the old organ, and £20 per annum. It was the first ‘annuity organ’, so far as we know.

Although supposed to be a new organ, what survives in the present organ is pipework from Bernard Smith’s workshop, and indeed Jordan took the old organ in part payment (“Mr. Smith” had worked on the organ in 1683 and 1690). It looks as if Jordan learnt his organ building at secondhand from Smith, an impression reinforced by the similarity between Jordan’s and Smith’s surviving work. It also looks as if Jordan may have used some of Smith’s former workmen after he died, such as William Stephens (Smith’s ‘man’ who became a tenant of Jordan’s), Thomas Knight and Thomas Friend. He may also have taken over some work from Smith’s workshop at Bath Abbey in 1708.

In 1705 Jordan made a new organ for St Saviour’s Southwark, subsequently Southwark Cathedral, at the other end of the Borough High Street from St George’s. This organ had three manuals and 26 stops, including a full set of mutations and most unusually a Double Diapason on the Great. In 1712 Jordan advertised in the Spectator his finest achievement, “a very large organ in S Magnus Church at the foot of London Bridge, consisting of four sets of keys, one of which is adapted to the art of emitting sounds by swelling the notes, which never was in any organ before”. A patent was applied for but never granted, which suggests that the authorship was not clear. It may have been a response to a proposal of Renatus Harris for a grand organ in St Paul’s Cathedral, advertised in the same year, but the ‘invention’ of the Swell organ is certainly Jordan’s claim to fame. In 1714 he made an organ for St Benet Fink in the City of London, an organ which was preferred in competition to an organ of Christopher Shrider’s, unfairly in the latter’s view.

Jordan died in 1716, leaving his business to his eldest son, also Abraham (1690–1755/6). Abraham was organist at St George’s, Southwark, and presumably trained in his father’s workshop and in his office. He was also inventive, in 1730 advertising in the London Journal “An organ made by Jordan, being the first of its kind, the contrivance of which is such that the master when he plays sits with his face to the audience, and … is so contrived that the trumpet base, and trumpet treble, the sesquialtera and cornet stops, are put off and on by the feet, singly or altogether, at the master’s discretion, and as quick as thought without taking the hands off the keys”. These claims were challenged by John Harris and John Byfield.

Like his father Jordan seems to have used the latest opportunities for publicity, advertising the latest projects in the newspapers, including organs made on spec, and sometimes opening concerts on organs destined for the provinces or overseas in his workshop in Southwark. When advertising the opening of the new organ at St George Botolph Lane in the City of London in 1723 he was not afraid to tell the world that “The Maker has acquir’d the Character of an ingenious Artist added to that of an honest Man”. In 1728 and 1729 Jordan joined with Christopher Shrider in making organs for Westminster Abbey and St Alban Wood Street in the City of London. In 1733 he was one of the signatories to the Quadripartite Indenture, an agreement for all to share the proceeds from contracts signed by any one of them, with certain specific exceptions. Previous spats with John Harris and John Byfield seem to have been forgotten. Jordan signed most of the contracts, even when Richard Bridge and John Byfield did the work or collected the money. That may be because his capital enabled him to finance projects. We know of a few organ contracts which specified a single payment after completion and assessment by experts. It tended to be the lesser known builders who asked for instalments.

The result is that Abraham Jordan junior seems to have been the most prolific builder in his day. He made four new organs for the City of London, and for the growing suburbs and the increasing number of proprietary chapels. He made organs for the increasingly prosperous regional centres, particularly sea and river ports like Yarmouth, Portsmouth, Southampton and Maidstone. And organs which went further afield, for Wales and Scotland, for the colonies such as Barbados (at least four) and Boston Massachusetts (for which the assembly instructions survive). Very little survives in a form which we can appreciate now. The closest to Jordan’s intentions would be the 1723 organ for St George Botolph Lane now immaculately restored at St George’s Southall Middlesex. The 1720 organ made for the Duke of Chandos at Cannons near Edgware Middlesex, was moved to Holy Trinity Gosport in 1747, where the case and much of the pipework survive relatively unaltered, though the overall effect is now Victorian.

In 1731, he married Lucy Goodyard, who brought a considerable dowry. He changed his business address to Budge Row, St John Baptist, City of London at the same time, though the Southwark workshop continued in use. It is surprising that he was one of the signatories to the 1733 Indenture since his business seems to have been the most active, and showed no sign of decline during the next 25 years, one wonders why he was willing to share his success. It may be that the newly married Jordan was aiming at a more genteel lifestyle, living off his property dealings and his inherited wealth, and the profits from his organ building business, though his direction was important enough for a “Paralytick Disorder” to hold up progress on the new organ for the Royal Naval Hospital Greenwich in 1754. By 1745 he resided in Camberwell ‘on the east side of the road a little south from the College at Dulwich’ in a house he had inherited. He died in 1756, his wife in 1764; both were buried at Dulwich.

J. Hawkins A general history of the science and practice of music vol4 pp356-7fn (1776)
Joan Jeffery ‘Abraham Jordan’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn (Jan 2008)
Joan Jeffery ‘Organ builder history from fire insurance policies’ British Institute of Organ Studies Journal vol26 pp76-106 (2002)
Paul Tindall Research Notes BIOSReporter vol33/2 p23-30 (April 2009) newspaper adverts
Paul Tindall Research Notes BIOSReporter vol34/2 p23-4 (April 2010) St Benet Fink
David S. Knight ‘The Early History of the Swell’ The Organ Yearbook vol26 pp127-144 (1996)
Southwark Local Studies Library Surrey, deed 1232 (Abraham Jordan 1702 contract)
Barbara Owen, ‘Colonial organs’ British Institute of Organ Studies Journal vol3 pp92–107 (1979)
Nicholas Plumley ‘The Harris/Byfield connection’ British Institute of Organ Studies Journal vol3 pp108–34(1979)
Nicholas Plumley The Organs of the City of London p52 (Positif Press Oxford 1996)
National Archives PROB11/550 will Abraham Jordan, senior
National Archives PROB 11/820 will Abraham Jordan, junior