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Tuesday, August 22, 2017


(Colin Hele)

KZN Organ builder Colin Hele passed away recently and his funeral took place at the Hilton College Chapel.

The musicians present and who performed, at Colin's request, at the Memorial Service on August 14 were Christopher Cockburn (organ); Christopher Duigan (piano); Nigel Fish (cello); Patrick Harty (organ) and David Orr (organ). In his absence, a track from Gordon Stewart's CD recording of the Pietermaritzburg City Hall Organ was played.

Bruce MacLachlan, Director of Academic Administration at Hilton College paid the following tribute, first reading from a letter by Dr Barry Smith:

 “Dear Bruce. Thank you for letting me know the sad news of Colin’s untimely passing. Colin was a lovely man and so kind to me on the occasions that I needed his help. South Africa has lost a first class organ builder when there is already a dearth of them in this country.”

MacLachlan continued:
“May I add my own welcome to you all this afternoon. I know there are some who have travelled from far, some who hadn’t ever met Colin, but are here today because they knew him by reputation, and many others of you who knew him well and were closely associated with him one way or another.

Thank you also to the musicians who have given up their time to honour Colin today. I also welcome you all on behalf of the Headmaster and staff of Hilton College.

Allow me to sketch a little of Colin: the man, the organ builder. Colin was born in Romford in 1937, which as you all know very well, was just before the outbreak of the second world war. During the war, he was, like many other children, evacuated to Cornwall.

Educated in Ascot, Colin started his career in organ building in 1953 and was apprenticed to his grandfather in the family business, Hele Organs. His father had also been in the business, but left to work at the Ford Motor Company, hence Colin’s allegiance to Ford vehicles. Hele Organs had an excellent reputation for their work in the late 19th and early 20th century, having several notable cathedrals in their care including Truro, Exeter, Winchester and Chichester. The spectacular 32’ pedal reed pipes in Winchester Cathedral were the largest ever produced by the company.

While working for Hele Organs in Portsmouth, Colin gained valuable experience in all fields of the trade. When the family business was taken over by JW Walker, Colin became their international representative and this saw him travel to many different and disparate countries around the world, including Ghana, Bermuda, Malta and throughout the West Indies, to work on and build instruments. The excellent reputation which Hele Organs had for their work was ingrained into Colin.

Following changed family circumstances, Colin responded to an advertisement from Cooper, Gill and Tomkins who were looking for builders in South Africa, and he took up a position with them in Cape Town in 1971. After a few years working for them, he started his own business and moved to Pietermaritzburg to take on the rebuild of the City Hall Organ in 1974, as a sub-contractor to Cooper, Gill and Tomkins. More about this organ and Colin’s association with it later.

Colin’s business grew steadily and he found himself working on, caring for, and tuning almost every instrument in KZN at some point or another. Hilton College was Colin’s second contract after arriving in Pietermaritzburg, so we have, apart from the City Hall, the second longest association with his business. It is particularly apt, therefore, for us to be honouring him here today.

Moving to Pietermaritzburg to work in this area was not the only change in his life at the time. Not long after arriving here, Rose Carter caught his eye and their futures were destined to be inextricably linked. Colin always wanted to be sure that his work on every job was carried out to the highest specification, which sometimes lead to completion times being pushed on and on. Rose herself was a victim, if I may say, of this quest for perfection, in that their wedding date kept on being pushed further and further forward, as Colin had said they would not marry until the City Hall job was complete! They were eventually married in 1976.

One of the more interesting jobs which Colin undertook was the installation of the old St Saviour’s instrument into the Cathedral of the Holy Nativity in Pietermaritzburg in the early 80’s. This was in many senses a unique installation: a difficult building, being circular, having no place for the pipework of an organ. No matter to Colin; he sought a plan to suspend the platform on which the wind chests, pipework and action would be located, from the ceiling of the building. It was also the first instrument in which he installed a new transmission technique using a small coaxial cable to connect the console to the action, rather than using a bulky multicore cable. This installation was completed in 1981 with the inaugural recital being played by Barry Smith, whose words I relayed a few minutes ago.

A short list of the many well-known international music figures who have played on instruments in the local area which Colin had prepared for them include: Simon Lindley, Gordon Stewart, Dame Gillian Weir, Nicholas Kynaston, (who played the inaugural recital on the rebuilt City Hall instrument), Simon Preston, Roger Fisher, Andrew Nethsingha, Stephen Cleobury and Carlo Curley to name a few. All of these were always highly complementary of Colin’s work and care of the many instruments under his jurisdiction. Many of these great names were also hosted by Colin and Rose at their home in Moss place.

Following the work carried out on the beautiful Durban City Hall instrument, Colin served as consultant and chairman of the working committee which sought to have this instrument rectified and put back to its former working glory. He met with many of the overseas companies who were quoting for the work, all of whom recognised his competence and skill. With so much money having already being needlessly wasted on this instrument, large amounts of original pipework replaced and later stolen: who knows if it will ever be back in full working order one day?

Prior to my working at Hilton College, I had met Colin, but it was when I moved here in 1991 that I really got to know him and Rose. Colin was very generous with his knowledge and this grew in me a passionate understanding for the workings of pipe organs. We would spend many hours talking about this and that, him explaining to me how to construct something unique to solve a problem on an instrument, what specific wood joint would be suitable in a particular context, how to fashion a piece to fit exactly into a difficult space, how the solid state control systems worked, talking about instruments he built or worked on over the world and so on. He sometimes called me his “unofficial apprentice” when I would go out with him on tuning jobs: here he was even more patient when trying to explain to me just how to get a mixture tuned correctly!

After his terrible accident some years ago, I helped him on various jobs which needed to be completed during the school holidays. I remember clearly heading out with him to dismantle a small instrument and then rebuild it a few days later in another church. Colin was largely directing operations, with one arm in a sling, ensuring that I complied with all manner of instructions, including making sure I was using the correct type of screw in a specific location, soldering wires to contacts adequately and so on. Tuning the instrument and having it working again in its new location was a real treat. Every day we went out working on that and many other jobs, there was always a hefty cooler box which came with, filled with drinks and sandwiches made by Rose.

The City Hall instrument, regarded by many as the magnum opus of Brindley & Foster, can probably also be seen as Colin’s magnum opus. It was this instrument for which he had the most affection, one which he described as “embodying all that is best in the late Victorian, romantic style of organ building”, and one which gave him immense pleasure saying “There is nothing more thrilling than hearing the full organ played by a professional organist with people singing their hearts out. This organ always comes through loud and dominant.”

Colin was dedicated to this instrument, and every time there was a concert using the organ, or an organ recital, he made sure that it was prepared and ready for the event. He also used to either sit inside the organ or right next to it throughout the concert or recital, tool kit at the ready, just in case anything went wrong. I was lucky enough to sit with him like this at the most recent performance of the Saint-Saƫns Organ Symphony a few years ago, when Christopher Cockburn - playing here today - played the organ part. What a treat it was to sit with Colin watching his every movement and nuance as the great beast played its part in the performance.

The unfortunate part of all this is that, an instrument which was cared for by Colin since the mid 70’s, faces an uncertain future. Previous City Councils saw fit to employ Colin as the curator of the instrument and to ensure that regular maintenance kept it in superb, playable condition.

However, the current council seem to have scant regard for maintenance in any area. Being unable to provide basic services such as water and electricity to its citizens via failing infrastructures, one just knows that maintaining something which would be considered Colonial and Eurocentric at best, can only be very far off a list of priorities.

An example to amplify this is when a power surge damaged large portions of the Solo Organ some years ago (and which was the subject of an insurance claim) - relevant repair work was never allowed to be undertaken. Not to mention the work which Colin did on many occasions on this instrument, his bills for which were never paid. The last work which was done on the instrument, to replace the electronics in the capture system, was paid for from funds raised from recitals. The final insult was Colin being prevented from doing any work on the instrument in any way. How sad.

I believe that any future maintenance and tuning which needs to happen will have to be privately funded if we are going to see what many consider to be the finest City Hall Organ in the Southern Hemisphere continue in working order. Maybe that is a challenge to someone or some group of people here today: to start a funding mechanism in Colin’s memory to keep the B&F going. Whoever that is, will also have to form a lobby group to make the Council understand WHY this needs to happen.

Later in this service we are going to hear a track from the CD recording which Gordon Stewart made on the B&F. Having turned pages for Gordon on a few occasions previously at recitals, he was keen for me to assist in this role during the recording session, as well as assisting with registrations at critical points. What an exciting evening this turned out to be. When we got to about 11pm, and still had 4 tracks to get down, we decided to push on rather than set up again on a second evening. Colin was, of course, on hand the whole evening in case of problems, and to nip up into the organ and touch up the Tuba, the tuning of which had slipped slightly during the evening. Once again, we were all refreshed during the evening with a large selection of sandwiches prepared by Rose, and we finally crept out of the City Hall way after 1am the following morning.

The last while was not an easy time for Colin. I spent many hours chatting with him during his various hospital confinements and felt honoured to be one of very few to spend vital time with him at this stage, and right up to the very end. When he was very unwell earlier this year, he told Rose on one afternoon, to take out her pen and paper and write down instructions for his memorial. This, I know, upset Rose greatly, but actually was just one further example of Colin’s constant and careful planning and attention to detail. At the time, I told Rose to merely keep the piece of paper to one side, and when the time came, we would do our best to honour his wishes. We have done that today to the best of our ability: everything that is being performed this afternoon either in solo or by us as a congregation, is directly at Colin’s request. He left no stone unturned in this regard.

Just short of a month ago, a small group of us met to celebrate Colin’s 80th birthday. Looking back to that day, this is how I would like to remember Colin: he was on superb form, telling us all exactly what we should be doing and when. The photograph on the service sheet was taken on that day, Colin seated as we all stood to drink a toast, after which we all enjoyed a wonderful Sunday lunch. What a celebration that was of a truly extraordinary man.

To conclude, I quote from two further tributes to Colin:
Paul Joslin, who I am told wrote a thesis on Hele Organs wrote to say: “Colin was part of the finest provincial organ business ever: What a loss to the organ building world.”

And finally, from Gordon Stewart, who so desperately wanted to be here today were it not for a punishing recital tour. He who wrote these words to me for this service. So much of what he says reflects exactly how I feel:
“I first met Colin Hele when I came to South Africa to play at St Mary's Cathedral in Johannesburg and Sidney Place arranged for me to also play at the Pietermaritzburg City Hall. As soon as we met Colin, he realised I was as interested in the interior of the organ as playing it, and he gave me a detailed tour of the City Hall organ from the blower to the very top of the case. I had played several organs built by the Hele company in South West England and it was immediately clear to me that all of the great Hele tradition lived on in Colin. He was in every sense a Master Organ Builder who used his great knowledge in maintaining and rebuilding instruments all over the area and always going, as real master craftsmen do, the extra mile. So many churches will miss his expertise and generosity. I will miss a true friend who taught me so much about the mechanical side of organ building. Always an enthusiast, always keen to read about the latest advances and ready to implement them, he was one of the great characters of South African organ building, and one who lives on in so many instruments.”