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The Christchurch
Town Hall organ


Is there a Father Christmas? The tooth fairy is real, isn't she? The Barker lever was invented by Barker or was it?
David Bridgeman-Sutton puts on his sleuth's cap and reports
*See footnotes
(updated August 2010)

Welcome to the website of the Rieger
pipe organ home
in the Christchurch Town Hall,
New Zealand

Musings & Amusings
Charles Barker
Charles Spackman Barker
thanks to Warwick Henshaw)



Was Charles Spackman Barker (1804-79) an accomplished and innovative craftsman — or was he an incompetent, accident-prone organ-builder who "borrowed" the invention that made his name?

"Barker's" lever appeared just when organs were outgrowing the strength of organists. T.C. Lewis estimated that a pressure of several pounds was sometimes needed on each key, while Dr Camidge thought the effort required at York Minster "enough to paralyse" most men.
The lever inserted bellows or motors ~ one to each note ~ into tracker action to do the hard work of opening the pallet. Figure 2 shows the general arrangement. All the keys had to do was to move the flap valves (1 and 2, see fig. B) controlling the flow of wind into and out of each motor (3). The result was a light and rapid touch, even with full organ. There is no "feel" between key and pallet, but then immensely heavy mechanical actions offered little scope for finesse in this respect.
A detailed description of the action will be found here

English builders showed no interest in obtaining licences for its use. Perhaps they suspected plagiarism by Barker: more probably, to avoid royalty payments, they decided to do a spot of plagiarising themselves. Barker departed to Paris, took out a French patent (1839) and negotiated a licence with Cavaillé-Coll, who employed the lever in a number of large instruments. For a short time, Barker worked for Cavaillé, but soon moved to the firm of Dublaine et Callinet.

click to enlarge
Fig B.
Barker's lever - thanks to Shoichiro Toyama
(Click image for a larger view)

Eventful years followed. Callinet, deranged by worry, took axe and saw to the Cliquot organ of St Sulpice, which his firm was rebuilding. Care of the severely damaged organ was then passed to Cavaillé-Coll and the present renowned instrument — incorporating five Barker machines — was the result.

St Sulpice


Despite the departure of Callinet and the award of a contract for a new organ at St Eustache, Paris, poor M. Dublaine's troubles weren't over. Barker was the culprit this time, his mishap with a lighted candle destroying the St Eustache instrument when it was only six months old. The firm survived these disasters only because it was purchased by a financier, M. Ducroquet, who then appointed Barker as Manager.

During the 1850s and 60s Dublaine et Callinet again flourished as Ducroquet. Work was steady and gold medals for excellence were awarded at both the Great Exhibition (London 1851) and the Paris Exhibition four years later. The French government conferred the title of Chevalier of Honour on M. Ducroquet, who then retired. Barker worked for a time with another Paris builder, before going into partnership with a M. Verschneider. Their enterprise was brought to a sudden end with the Franco-Prussian war (1870) when their premises were destroyed by artillery barrage.

St Eustache today

St John's Edinburgh
(thanks to Stephen Todd)

Barker moved to Dublin, where a new organ was wanted for St Mary's Cathedral. Despite his buying in many components from well-established builders, the challenge proved too much for the ageing Barker. Hilborne Roosevelt, the well-known American builder, who was visiting Europe, went to Dublin to try to sort out the muddle: he left shaking his head.

It had been suggested that Barker, never a competent workman himself, had been fortunate during his years of success in having skilled foreman and partners. Certainly little of his work has lasted.

In 1835, before anyone had heard of Barker, David Hamilton, had built an organ for St John's Princes Street, Edinburgh, providing it with a pneumatic lever of his own invention. Was this the first-ever application of the principle? He failed to patent his work until 1839, when a model was exhibited in public.

Years later, Hamilton observed that Barker's mechanism bore a strong resemblance to his own, earlier one.

Is it really Hamilton's lever after all?

David Bridgeman-Sutton - 2005

FOOTNOTE August 2010

Dear Sir,
To complete your information on Barker, may I draw your attention on two recent articles:
" Charles Spackman Barker : a reassessment of the earlier years of his  career" in BIOS Journal N°33, 2009 (Positif Press, Oxford)
"Apparition et  Developpement des Applications de l'Electricité dans l'Orgue au XIXème siècle", with Dr Hemsley- L'Orgue, 2008-II, N° 282, Symetrie (in French....)

(thanks to Philippe d'Anchald (Paris) for this update)

(December, 2006)
The above, based on Dr Hinton's writing, may not be entirely fair to CS Barker. Nicholas Thistlethwaite
The Making of the Victorian Organ devotes some space (pp 352-4) to the question, and provides diagrams and text showing the differences between Hamilton's and Barker's arrangements. Whether Barker developed Hamilton's ideas or if the two achieved similar results independently will probably now never be determined.
Hinton knew many of those concerned and may have taken a personal dislike to Barker.

Barker certainly had a commercial success in promoting his scheme, especially in France. Perhaps this compensated for ill-fortune that seemed to dog him; even the bi-centenary of his birth in 1804 was celebrated two years late!!

*More about Barker and his times will be found in Story of the Electric Organ by J.W. Hinton
available from

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A sample of other musings in Views and Reviews: