The organ at Christ Church is first mentioned in 1552 - when Mr John Lylle was paid 8d for playing the organ on Christmas Day. Other references to the organ and organist appear in the Church's records from time to time: the tuner also gets a mention in 1558, when Mr Thomas Teken was paid 5 shillings for "kepyng the organs in teune".
Various other references to that instrument appear, but the organ we know today was a product of the reparations to the Church, after damage in the Civil War: (in 1643, "Pd the Sexton for cleaninge the church when organes and windowes war broken when the souldgers ware there". The wealthy merchants eventually came around to replacing the instrument in 1707, when four meetings with Renatus Harris are recorded - including two at the Nagg's Head, and one at the Rose Tavern.
The organ took a mere eight months to build, and it is Harris's case we see today - even if few of the pipes are his. Both he and his successor Thomas Schwarbrook added extra stops to the instrument. But because Schwarbrook's workshops were in Warwick, local men were engaged to maintain the instrument. These included Brice Seede who in the early 1780s agreed (again after a few drinks in the Nagg's Head) to repair the organ for £30, and to keep it in tune for three guineas per year.
The medieval church was replaced in 1784, and the organ was reinstated - again in a western gallery, but with the woodwork painted white and with gilded mouldings (traces of this coloration still remain). The next rebuild was made by the Bristol builder John Smith - successor to Richard Seede and inventor of the octave coupler - and it is probably from this time that much of today's pipework dates. Wind for this instrument was supplied by turning a handle, which remained available for emergency (if noisy) use until the 1970s.
The organ was next modernised in 1869 by WG Vowles (John Smith's successor): a name familiar to all Bristol organists. He added some new stops, and two more in 1889 when he undertook the next rebuild. Also in 1889, a new swell box was added together with a sub-octave coupler for the Swell. He also added a bottom octave to the swell, providing today's compass of CC - g, but the great and choir windchests still extend down to GGG. The action was modernised, first in 1925 when JW Walkers provided tubular pneumatics (and a super-octave) to the Swell, and again in 1939 when Vowles electrified and repositioned the pedals.
Walkers made the next overhaul in 1973, when a lot of plaster which fell into the organ during the last war was finally removed. But the organ owes its present condition to Roger Taylor, who in 1997 undertook a full restoration of the instrument. He restored tracker action to all manuals, and provided a new capture system with eight channels for both general and divisional pistons. (Hitherto, there had been minimal mechanical aids, with only a few composition pedals, and a Great to Pedal reversible). He also added four new stops: a new 3-rank swell mixture (to replace the one lost in 1826), the Choir Larigot and a new 4' Fifteenth and 16’ Trombone for the pedal. Also the Echo Gamba was removed from the Swell to the Choir.
The organ’s tercentenary year in 2008 was marked by the addition of a new 8’ Solo Trumpet in the Choir Organ - an extension of the 1997 Trombone, which balances well the other Trumpets on the Swell and Great in terms of dynamic, character and brightness. Also, the beam of the Swell/Great Super-octave coupler was reversed to provide a sub-octave coupler, thus giving provision for sound at 16’ pitch on the manuals, hitherto lacking. There are currently 34 speaking stops. The anniversary year was further celebrated by the PCC’s commission of a Paean, dedicated to Jonathan Price and the Organ of Christ Church, City from Dr. John Marsh, Organist of the Lord Mayor’s Chapel and formerly Organist of St Mary, Redcliffe.
The resulting instrument is one which is immensely satisfying to play, and which speaks clearly into the church. To select individual colours for special mention - the Swell strings, the powerful Great 3-rank sesquialtera, the 8’ & 4’ flutes on each manual, the Choir cremona, or the new Pedal trombone - would be invidious, as the whole effect blends very harmoniously. But the organ has its own distinctive voice, and speaks with a definite "Old English" accent. It is perhaps fortuitous that at Christ Church, things change slowly
The History of the Organ is By Jonathan D.R. Price, B.A, M.Sc, (Dunelm) F.R.C.O., L.G.S.M. with acknowledgements to: Brian Bussell, "The organ at Christ Church", (leaflet, 1997) and Article by Esmond Roden in "The Organ", July 1947]