Thomas Lewis – Organ Buiilder

T. C. Lewis was born in Kennington in 1833 and died in Clapham in 1915 and was buried in Streatham Cemetery. His early life is somewhat of a mystery but his career was unique – architect, bell-founder, inventor, piano-maker as well as organ- builder. All that is known of his architectural profession is a house, Sunnydene, that is situated in Sydenham. In 1874 he married Ellen Hillier Sutton in Christ Church, Clapham. They had two children. He began bell-founding in 1878 but this activity was short-lived and he sold the business to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 1999. The piano-making activities were even more curious and there is little evidence of this work except that he continually wrote deploring unmusical tone finally summed up his own book A Protest Against the Modern Development of Unmusical tone.

It was to be his organ building for which he will long be remembered. The firm Thomas C. Lewis first traded from 5 Union Grove, Clapham. In 1866 the firm moved to new premises in Shepherd’s Lane, Ferndale Road, Brixton. Lewis’s approach to the tonal aspect of organ building was influenced by the work of the German organ builder Edmund Schulze and the French builder Aristide Cavaille-Coll. The “Handel Organ” in the Crystal Palace built in 1857 by Gray & Davidson included many features, unique to England, after Cavaille-Coll, Schulze made an organ for the 1851 Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park.

It is not surprising that Alfred Eyre, when given the authority to plan for the organ in St John’s still under construction, should turn to the “local” firm of T. C. Lewis knowing of its reputation for not only superlative workmanship but for tonally superb organs. There are many fine examples of Lewis’s work around the country but St. John’s has one of the largest of his parish church instruments. His piece de resistance are those organs in the cathedrals Southwark in London and Melbourne, Australia.

From 1903 onwards the firm and Lewis led a chequered life until, after a complicated set of deals, the firm became linked with that of his greatest and most despised rival Henry Willis. Henry Willis sold his organ building works in Homerton and moved to Ferndale Road.

Adrian Adams

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