The Scots’ Church Rieger - Part One

The Scots’ Church Rieger - A virtual odyssey

by Stephen Phillips
Head of Operations
 Inspired Acoustics Australia

The first in a series of articles dedicated to what many regard as Australia’s finest church organ – and the story of its hard-won virtualization by Inspired Acoustics.

Part One: The church and its organs – a review

For much of the historical content of this article, we have been most fortunate in gaining the express permission of John Maidment, chairman and co-founder of the Organ Historical Trust of Australia, for the use of his work, which assistance we most gratefully acknlowledge.

Organs, for the most part, live in churches. An organ enhances any building, to be sure; in the case of a church or cathedral, however, it forms an essential link in the life of the whole enterprise – completing and complementing the liturgy, providing an effective visual and sonic focus while, in a very real sense the instrument itself leans wholly reliant on the architectural structure for support, both physical and acoustical. Viewed from this perspective, the two entities cannot properly be considered in isolation, one from the other. They exist in a powerful but mutually dependent symbiosis resulting in a profoundly compelling experience for those fortunate enough to witness the transcendent force and majesty of which a fine organ in fine surroundings, and in expert hands, is capable.

In the life of any significant church, the resident organ may (to anthropomorphize) expect to see changes take place, from minor tinkering to (eventual and more usual) extensive renovations, and on right through to radical replacement. Such has been the case with Scots’. To gain a better appreciation and understanding of the treasure that is the Rieger of today, we look back over the history of the founding of the church, with an emphasis on its music and music directors. But first, let’s go even further back, to a time when the very idea of a church – Presbyterian or otherwise – must have seemed the most remote of possibilities in this yet-to-be-discovered Great South Land.

rock formation organ pipesThere is, in the country not so very far northwest of Melbourne, the state of Victoria’s capital city, a remarkable natural rock formation known as the Organ Pipes. This grandiose pile of basalt rock unmistakably and eerily evokes the scale and geometry of the facade pipework of a grand organ, At least, that is how Western eyes have seen it. The first Australians, the indigenous Aboriginal people, had long ago developed their own unique take on the principle of sound generation suggested in these ancient stones. I speak of course of the didgeridoo, or didjeridu, a word whose meaning various rival theories compete to explain, while the instrument itself finds a close relation in the orchestral brass family.

The ‘orchestra’, of course, is the product of refinement, of the environment, of the European cultural tradition – the same forces that had overseen the development of the pipe organ, forces globally in evidence in successive waves of missionary outreach and colonization which would so profoundly impact the history of this planet and its peoples. Nowhere would the effects of this force of civilization be more clearly and keenly seen than in Australia. With the arrival of European settlement with the First Fleet of 1788, elements of Old World culture began to establish tentative footholds, even as the dominant concerns revolved understandably around simple survival in the harsh and unfamiliar conditions. Heroic feats of exploration would open up this vast, inhospitable land for those who would follow. Amongst the many discoveries, Tasmania would reveal itself as a yet further outpost with qualities suited to both convict detention and settlement.

map AustraliaIn May 1835, John Batman sailed across Bass Strait from Tasmania in order to explore the Yarra River in the area of Port Phillip (named after Australia’s first Governor and the Captain of that First Fleet). His exploration rapidly led to the settlement of the area which was to grow into the Melbourne of today, to be soon followed by the first move to establish a church in Melbourne. It was Dr. Alexander Thomson who held Presbyterian services on the banks of the Yarra in 1836, soon followed by Rev. James Clow, a retired East India Company Chaplain who conducted his first service on 31st December, 1837. So it was that the Presbyterian Church was the first church in Melbourne; the first Christian denomination to have regular services of worship conducted by an ordained minister.

map VictoriaWhen Rev. James Forbes arrived from Scotland, he ministered to the colony from a temporary wooden building at the west end of Collins Street whilst the congregation applied for an official grant of land. On 18 February 1839 Forbes wrote to Robert Hoddle with the list of allotments they had been able to secure from the Crown. Two acres on the present site were obtained and a school was subsequently built. This school also served as a church on Sundays until a proper church building, seating five hundred, was built in January 1841. This first church, designed by Samuel Jackson, was opened on 3 October 1841. In January 1857 it was decided to place a tower and spire on the church - the existing building was retained but rebuilt in Decorated Gothic style. David Ross, the architect, completed the work in 1859. Only the bluestone fence survives from this building.

streetWith the population and congregation continuing to grow, the congregation resolved in January 1869 to build a new church designed by the notable architects Reed & Barnes, the leading firm in Melbourne at the time responsible for such prominent buildings as Melbourne Town Hall, the Independent Church, Wesley Church, the State Library and later, the Exhibition Building. The contractor for this important project was David Mitchell – the father of the famous Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba, at one time a chorister in the Choir. This is The Scots’ Church which we see today, famous for its austere interior including fine timber fittings and magnificent stained glass windows by both local and overseas makers. It was built at a cost of more than £20,000 excluding the fittings. Site works for the present church began in 1872 with the demolition of the previous building. The well-seasoned planks from the pews were sawn up to make into wooden trackers for the 1874 organ.

church towerThe height of the tower and spire was at the time 211 feet, the highest in Victoria at the time. The building, in Decorated Gothic style was constructed upon Bluestone foundations from Barrabool stone from Geelong with cream-coloured New Zealand Kakanui freestone for the dressings.  The foundation stone was laid on 1st April, 1873 and the building opened on 29th November, 1874.

apseWhilst the exterior of the church has changed little in the succeeding century, the interior – particularly the apse – has been altered considerably. The building has a sloping floor, focusing upon the apse, originally dominated by a splendidly carved stone pulpit and reredos erected as a memorial to Rev. Irving Hetherington (Minister: 1847-1875) and his assistant Rev. Peter Menzies (Minister: 1868-1874).  It was Rev. Menzies in particular who played a major part in the design of this church and in the encouragement of music in the Services. This arrangement was later changed and the apse now contains the communion table, elders chairs and a wooden pulpit to the right, all to the design of H.H. and F.B. Kemp. The reorganized apse was dedicated in March 1930. In 1928 and then, in progressive stages, the original Tasmanian Blackwood panelling would be extended to surround the entire nave.  In the late 1930’s the current vestries were added in a style appropriate to the rest of the building. The pews are of cedar. The original carving was executed by Mr Brain – presumably this included the arcading in the apse and the organ case, all designed by Reed & Barnes. The interior is one of considerable simplicity in design and decoration, showing a sense of overall restraint.

Coat Of ArmsThe centenary of the present church building was celebrated on 24th November, 1974. At a service that afternoon Dame Pattie Menzies unveiled a plaque at the west end of the church displaying The Scots’ Church Coat of Arms.

The Scots’ Church Coat of Arms, depicting the flag of St. Andrew, an open Bible, a burning bush, a stag’s head and the Southern Cross constellation.

During a severe storm in 1963, the top of the spire was extensively damaged by lightning and was subsequently lowered by 40 feet.  However, in 1989 the exterior stonework was restored and the spire rebuilt to its original height, regaining its traditionally important position in the Melbourne skyline.

The Scots' Church has ever featured in the Melbournian press from the time of – and even before – its completion. Of early references, that reproduced below is well representative:

The New Scots' Church, Collins-Street

Of all the many classes of buildings which are being erected in and around the city, there are none which exhibit more the increased wealth of the community, and the improvement in the public taste, than places of worship. Whatever the religious tendencies of the age may be and notwithstanding the diminution in the number, at any rate of male, church goers, the various denominations seem to vie with each other in erecting handsome and costly structures. The latest of these is the new Scots Church at the corner of Collins and Russell streets and there can be little difference of opinion that for elegance of design and elaboration of detail its exterior surpasses that of any other similar edifice in Melbourne. The site is commanding, and the building is in every way worthy of it. The principal material used is Barrabool-hill (Geelong) stone, which being of a neutral warm colour contrasts exceedingly well with the pure white New Zealand freestone plentifully employed in the dressings. The style of architecture is early English, and the general plan is cruciform. Looking at the church from Collins-street on the right hand of the facade stands the tower with the main gable of the nave in the centre, and a porch and turret on the other side. The tower is at present only partly erected, but it will be finished with a spire carried to a height of 211ft, which, when completed, will be the most conspicuous elevation in the city. The first four storeys are solid in character. Above these will be the belfry, having large louvre windows with pointed gables, surmounting which will be the parapet from which springs the spire. Its shape will be square, with the angles taken off and it is to be pierced with numerous gabled dormer windows. Three angles will be finished off with the graceful pinnacles of which there are so many about the church, and the fourth with the stair turret. In the centre of the front or the main gable is a very large traceried window which lights the nave, whilst the wall above, following the rake of the roof, is relieved by an open arcade in white stone, which forms one of the most peculiar and pleasing features of the building, imparting, as it does, an air of lightness and beauty to the edifice. The apex is surmounted by a cross which by the way, is much more freely used than is usually the case in Presbyterian churches, every gable being terminated by one. On the western side of the facade is an entrance porch approached by a flight of steps, and attached to an octagonal turret finished with a stone spire. The side elevations are divided into five bays, separated by buttresses surmounted by pinnacles, there being in each bay a two light window above and below. The parapets and enrichments are of pierced and handsomely carved white stone. In the end of the transept is a large traceried window similar to that in the front and at the other extremity is another entrance porch. The roof is covered with slates cut into various shapes and the ridge is finished with an ornamental iron cresting. At the junction of the nave with the transept the roof is surmounted by an elegantly-shaped spire ventilator. The appearance of the interior, which in its unfinished condition does not approach that of the exterior, is nevertheless very fine, the ample space and bold curves of the roof giving an effect of extreme lightness to the building, which, when the walls are adorned and the windows filled with coloured glass, will be vastly improved. The body of the church consists of a nave 46ft. and side aisles of 8ft. wide, from which the nave is divided by pointed arches supported by polished Malmsbury bluestone pillars. The aisles by "a happy thought" are intended to serve only as passages, the whole of the congregation being seated within the nave and transept so that the columns form no obstruction, as they ordinarily do, to the view. The nave, which is lighted by clerestory windows and the large window in the south gable, is crossed by a transept 30ft. in width behind which is an apse, or semicircular recess lighted by three lancet windows, and forming a platform for the pulpit, which is of carved freestone. One end of the transept is fitted up as a chamber for the organ, which is being erected by Messrs. McKenzie and Co. The ceiling is plastered and divided into panels by gothic oak principals and purlins, and when properly painted and decorated will have an excellent appearance. The two principal entrances are connected by a lobby at the south end, which is cut off from the church by an open screen with a small gallery above it. The total internal length of the building is 126ft. Ample provision is apparently made for ventilation, both in the floors and ceiling, and all the doors open outwardly, in consonance with the requirements of the Central Board of Health. The architects are Messrs. Reed and Barnes, and the contractor Mr. David Mitchell, the amount of contract for the building alone without the fittings being £20,000. The seats, etc., which are to be of French polished cedar, will be supplied by Mr. Mc Ewan. These with the organ and other fittings, will cost an additional £5,000. At present temporary benches are provided. It is intended to send to England for gasaliers, sunlights being meanwhile used. The carving about the place which from its admirable quality is worthy of notice, has been executed by Mr. Brain. The church, although unfinished, will be opened for Divine service on Sunday.


Some of the significant events that have taken place in this building include the funerals of Dame Nellie Melba and Sir Robert Menzies, the wedding of aviator Charles Kingsford Smith and several visits by Her Majesty the Queen.

organ old photostop contra bourdonThe original organ was built by Mackenzie, Lee & Kaye in 1874 and was (with the Hill & Son organ at St Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney) one of the two largest church organs in Australia at the time. It was also one of the first to appear in a Presbyterian Church, where use of such instruments was earlier opposed. It was a three-manual organ of 37 stops with Barker lever and mechanical action. Additional reed stops were supplied in 1883 by the London firm of Hill & Son, these including the Great Trumpet 8 and Clarion 4, and the Pedal Trombone 16, of wood. The tonal design was informed by contemporary Hill & Son practice; Mackenzie had come to Melbourne to erect the Hill organ in Melbourne Town Hall. The console was detached from the organ and appears to have drawstops with coloured faces, to distinguish the different divisions.

In July 1876 it was reported:

The Scots' Church

There was a large gathering of this congregation – as well as of many others who do not belong to it, at the church in Collins Street last night on the occasion of an organ recital which was given by J.R. Edeson, the organist to the church, assisted in various vocal selections by Miss Pitts, soprano, Miss Jukes, contralto; and Mr. E. Exon, tenor. Before the musical performance commenced, a meeting was held at half-past 7, at which the Rev. C. Strong presided, which was opened and closed with prayer. The business at this meeting was the naming of eight gentlemen for election to supply the places of an equal number who retire annually by rotation from the board of management. The following were those nominated: John Anderson, John H. Blackwood, the Hon. John Cumming, Alexander Dick, John Falconer, James Lyall, Dr. Alexander Morrison, Thomas Russell, and William Strachan, It was also agreed to hold a social meeting of the congregation in the Town Hall on Wednesday, the 23rd August, that day being the anniversary of the arrival of the Rev. C. Strong. 

The musical performance was full of interest, both on account of the organist, who is comparatively new to Melbourne, and of the instrument he played upon, which is one of local manufacture and the next best to, although a long way after, the magnificent organ in the Town Hall.


The instrument at the Scots Church was built by Messrs. Lee and Kaye, associated with Mr. Mackenzie, who came here from the house of Hill and Sons in London. We have described this organ before in the terms of the general specification. In its finished condition it presents a very handsome appearance, although it is hidden away from at least one-half of the congregation. The building generally in its interior fittings, and especially as regards the gas lighting arrangements, shows that a large amount of money must have been expended under the guidance of very good taste. Mr. J.R. Edeson, the organist, had most of the work to do, his selections consisting of Mendelssohn's sonata No. 1, the first movement from Spohr's quartett in G minor, a "Fanfare" by Lemmens, the fugue in D minor by J.S. Bach, the concerto in B flat by Handel, the offertoire No. 5 by Lefebure Wely, an adagio movement by Mozart, the chorus "But the Waters" by Handel, and a march by Scotson Clark. In his performance of these nine different numbers, Mr. Edeson displayed good taste in selection and grouping, and power in the management of the numerous stops contained in the instrument. The "Fanfare" mentioned above was an excellent performance, and the performance of the Handel concerto No. 2 was admirable. In the grand chorus by Handel, "But the waters,'' the player showed a masterful command of pedal passages; and throughout the whole evening, whether as solo organist or in playing accompaniments to the voice parts, he acquitted himself in a manner most satisfactory to the congregation who heard him. And this was afterwards expressed in a vote of thanks, proposed by Mr. Thomas Bailey, in which the vocalists were also included.

In June 1883, it was reported:

The organ in the Scots Church having lately been improved and enlarged, Mr. J. R. Edeson and the choir gave a vocal and instrumental concert in the church last night. The building was crowded. Mr. Edeson, the organist of the church, being unable to play any of the works of the great masters with satisfaction on the original organ, which was built in 1875, submitted to the board of management some time ago a plan for enlarging and improving it, and these alterations have been successfully made by Mr. G. Fincham. Among the improvements and additions are re-stocking and re-fitting of the great and pedal actions, new action to swell and choir, remaking of pneumatic chests and pallets, renewal and enlargement of choir and pedal sound-boards, revoicing and regulation of the old stops, and the addition of various reeds. The engines for working the bellows have also been improved, and are now perfectly silent. On the improvements over £100 has been spent, making the total cost of the instrument about £2,500. It is said to be now in every respect the largest and finest church organ in the colony. Certainly it gave intense satisfaction last night, and fulfilled all requirements. Subjoined are the programme and names of the principals in the concert - soprano, Mrs Palmer, contralto, Miss Jukes, tenor, Mr. Watmuff, bass, Mr Juniper, organist, Mr. Edeson. Programme - Part I - Organ concerto (B flat), Handel, adagio (quartet op 75), Haydn, allegretto, Lemmens, Soprano solo, "Angels ever bright and fair," Handel; andante (1st symphony), Beethoven, prelude and fugue (G major),  J.S. Bach, quartett and chorus, "Judge me, O Lord," " I will give thanks," Mozart. Part II - Grand offertoire (C minor), Batiste, contralto solo, "Evening Prayer" ("Eli"), Sir M Costa, "But the waters" (for pedal obligato), Handel, vocal quartet, "God is a spirit," Sir W.S. Bennett, organ sonata (No. 5), Mendelssohn, "Hallelujah chorus," Handel.

church old photoThe organ was extensively rebuilt by George Fincham & Son in 1909 at a time when English-trained Herbert Palmer was on its staff. It was enlarged to four manuals, with new stopkeys and imported keyboards inserted within the original console cabinet, the fourth manual being an Echo Organ, with the pipes located above the south window and connected to the main organ by electro-pneumatic action, the first instance of its use by the Fincham firm. Tonal additions included a large Open Diapason 8 and a Wald Flute 8 to the Great Organ, the placing of the Swell Cornopean 8 on a unit chest and its extension to 16 and 4 pitches together with new string ranks, and a wooden Violone 16 to the Pedal.


Scots Church Organ

The congregation of the Scots Church Collins-street, have just been spending £1,000 on the renovation of their fine organ. The old pipes were as good as new perhaps even better, for an organ pipe mellows with age, like a violin, but the mechanism was old fashioned and worn, most of it beyond the possibility of further use. A thorough overhaul of the instrument was made by Messrs Fincham and Son, and as the result it was determined to rebuild the organ, retaining the old pipes, but installing entirely new action and blowing plant. The work has been carried out entirely by that firm and the result shows that there is no need to go outside Melbourne in order to get the best and most modern style of instrument.
The bellows are the lungs of an organ, and unless they are ample the best pipes and mechanism are wasted. A completely new set of bellows has been provided blown by a powerful electric fan and capable of supplying the full power of the organ without a gasp or a tremor. The entire action is on the tubular pneumatic principle except in the case of the echo organ which is connected by an electric cable with the keyboard. The old fashioned drawstops have been replaced by stop-keys as in the Town-hall organ and every modern device for giving the performer the most perfect and instantaneous control of all the possible combinations of his instrument has been employed. Any desired combination can be prepared and brought on when wanted by the pressure of a single button. Changes can be made either by combination pedals or buttons placed under each manual at will. Two poppet tablets enable the player to couple or uncouple his pedals and manuals by a touch whilst the full power of the organ can be at any moment brought on by a single movement of the foot. The instrument has been retuned to normal pitch with the best effect both for choir and congregational singing; and a few new stops have been added by the advice of the organist (Mr. W.F.G. Steele) including an open diapason of noble quality on the great organ, some excellent string-tone stops, and some reeds on extra wind pressure. The effect is well balanced and satisfying. A new feature is the echo organ of five stops, which is placed in a swell-box over the large stained glass window at the south end of the church. Although so far away from the main instrument, the electric action causes it to speak instantaneously, and it is possible to play a solo on it with an accompaniment on the choir or swell organ without the slightest want of perfect synchronism. This is the first example of the kind in Victoria, and it renders possible a series of novel and striking effects.The organ will be opened by Mr. Steele on Thursday March 17 when Sullivan's fine "Te Deum", composed for the thanksgiving service after the South African war, will be sung.

organistIt was rebuilt in 1959 with the addition of a number of stops, conversion of the action to electro-pneumatic, and provision of a new detached drawstop console, with the couplers controlled by stopkeys.

In 1992, the organ was overhauled by the South Island Organ Co. Ltd, of Timaru. New Zealand. Many of the ranks were regulated or revoiced and new Mixtures were inserted on the Great and Swell in place of the previous stops. This organ was removed to storage at the premises of Wakeley Pipe Organs Pty Ltd at Lilydale, Victoria in February 1999 and is now stored at the firm's Bayswater factory. It is destined for the Gulangyu Organ Museum in China.

Further information on the earlier organs of The Scots' Church, including exact specifications, can be found at the Organ Historical Trust of Australia website:

In Part Two, we turn to the fascinating story of the present Rieger organ, the fruit of the unique passion and experience of today’s Director of Music, Douglas Lawrence OAM.


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