Vernon and Vowles’ venerable organ

The soothing sounds that greet visitors to Glenside Museum have a history all their own

If you visit Glenside Hospital Museum on a Wednesday morning you may be greeted by the dulcet tones of an ancient organ. Providing the calming atmosphere to a place devoted to mental health is 81-year-old Vernon Hendy. 

Born in Fishponds but now living in Nailsea, Vernon has been pressing the pedals and pulling the stops in the chapel for more than 50 years.

The organ itself is a museum piece dating back to 1881, the handiwork of one of Bristol’s best known organ builders William Gibbons Vowles (1826-1912).

Vernon’s choices of tunes range from Bach to the Beatles, and from Simon and Garfunkel to songs from the shows, as the mood takes him. He is humble about his talents, “I just try to play all the right notes,” he grins.

His links to Glenside date to childhood. His dad Frederick was a stonemason at the Hospital but gave piano lessons in the evening at home in nearby Forest Road. Vernon learnt from him and the Salvation Army services in Channon’s Hill. He continued his experience of church music when the family switched to the Congregational chapel in Lodge Causeway.

Vernon spent 5 years in an apprenticeship with Old Market building firm William Cowling, but when his dad heard of a vacancy for a fitter at Glenside in 1959, Vernon began a 34 year association with the hospital. His first ten years were spent working days.  

Vernon on a Wednesday at the Vowles organ

Vernon spent 5 years in an apprenticeship with Old Market building firm William Cowling, but when his dad heard of a vacancy for a fitter at Glenside in 1959, Vernon began a 34 year association with the hospital. His first ten years were spent working days.  

“We fitters were often kept busy in the laundry,” he says. “It took in linen from all the Bristol Hospitals. We had very little direct contact with patients, unless we had to enter wards to repair fuses. There were no qualifications for all the things we had to do in those days. ‘If you feel comfortable, do it; if not, don’t’ was what we were told.” 

His family were now attending the Morley Memorial Congregational chapel where organist Eric Ward was looking for an assistant. Vernon was taken on but soon realised he needed to up his skills and took lessons with Garth Benson, the celebrated organist at St Mary Redcliffe.

“I got up to Grade 8, but never went on to do a Diploma,” he explains. “You had to write music for string quartets. I think I knew enough for my purposes.” 

In 1967 he discovered the hospital chapel had an organ. With the consent of the hospital’s Deputy Secretary Norman Kearns he obtained a key and during lunch breaks he could hone his skills ahead of church services. 

Vernon was now married to literacy teacher Vera and soon they had two daughters Kathryn and Gillian. He transferred to the better paid shift system at Glenside, working from 6am to 2pm, 2pm to 10pm or 10pm to 6am. In quiet moments at night he would repair to the chapel and practise in the gloom.

As a member of the Bristol and District Organists Association Vernon is likely to have played on other organs constructed by Vowles who had helped to rebuild the Bristol Cathedral organ in 1860, and the one in St Mary Redcliffe in 1867. Vowles also built the organ for the Lord Mayor’s Chapel in 1888. The pedal pipe organ he built in 1878 for St Nicholas of Tolentino Roman Catholic Church in Easton is now for sale on the website of Irish organ builder Stephen Adams.

Vernon was made redundant on the closure of Glenside hospital in 1994, but continued to work on site as a cleaner with the University of the West of England which took over the buildings. When consultant psychiatrist Dr Donal Early leased the chapel as a museum of mental health, Vernon was invited back to play the organ. Another former Glenside colleague Derek Painton from Pill, who died in 2021, also played on Saturday mornings for many years.

The organ’s decorative pipework were hand-painted by Vowles as a goodwill gesture to the hospital.

“They are just for show,” explains Vernon. “The real organ pipes are behind them, and they are really in need of repair. The organ stops, which limit the amount of air passing through the pipes, betray weaknesses in the leather seals.“  

The wooden pedals have already been replaced, but upgrading the organ itself could cost at least £30,000. 

“It would be difficult to justify spending that sort of money,” says Vernon. “Especially  when we don’t know how long the Museum will last in this building.”

Vowles learned his trade from organ master Joseph Monday and married the boss’s daughter Eliza, making the firm his own when her father died. A thriving business with as many as 50 staff, he passed it on to his two sons. The family firm was taken over by J.W. Walker & Son Ltd. in 1958.

Meanwhile Vernon makes sure his Glenside organ still brings tranquility to museum visitors.

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for writing this. Vernon is my father and I had no idea he had been interviewed (he’s very modest!). I remember visiting him at work at Glenside when I was a child and my sister and I have been to Glenside Museum to hear him play more recently.

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