Church organist became recording star of the Roaring Twenties

MARVELS OF THE MINSTER: In his latest trawl through the archives, DAVID MORGAN unearths the story of how the organist of what was then known as Croydon Parish Church enjoyed a career as one of the country’s foremost performers

Rowland Tims rose to become one of the country’s leading organists

F Rowland Tims – where the F stood for Frederick – was born in Truro, Cornwall, in 1887, where he began his musical career as a chorister in the city’s cathedral.

Demonstrating some musical ability, young Tims first became an organ pupil there and eventually assistant organist, a post he held from 1902 to 1907, by which time he had become a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists.

This seal of approval of his talents saw him travel the country to become the church organist first in Horsham and then at Croydon Parish Church.

It was a post he served in from 1911 to 1918, his name recorded on the organists’ board.

In those days the fee for playing the organ and conducting the church choir was modest and he would have supplemented his income with some private teaching and some concert appearances.

The Croydon church organist wore white tie and tails when playing in theatres and cinema

It was the latter aspect of his playing that would see his fame grow. In 1923, he became a full-time concert organist, touring theatres around the country with a large transportable pipe organ. In the inter-war years’ era of “variety”, Tims’ performance formed the centrepiece of a concert party of singers, instrumentalists and dancers who were billed as “Vaudeville’s Greatest Attraction – The Musical Romance”.

The programme was based on music’s classics and light classics that were to be heard in the “higher-class” cinemas of the day.

And so it was that Tims’ next career move was into a much bigger and more coveted setting: in 1925, he entered the rapidly growing world of cinema.

Before the “Talkies” came along, the cinema organist had a vital role to improvise the mood of the film with suitable settings and tunes. After a short spell playing at the Regent cinema, Brighton, Tims’ big break arrived when he was hired to play in one of the West End’s smart new cinemas, the 1,500-seater Capitol, later renamed the Gaumont, in the Haymarket.

The Capitol had opened in February 1925, having been built for theatrical impresario Sir Walter Gibbons, before being leased out to Gaumont British Theatres in May 1928.

The Gaumont on Haymarket screened premieres of some of the biggest films of the 1920s and ’30s

The building is on the site occupied by today’s (much smaller) Odeon. Originally, it took an entire block on the Haymarket, between Jermyn Street to the north and St. James’s Market to the south. The cinema’s small entrance was on the corner of Haymarket and Jermyn Street, with signage visible from the busy Coventry Street and Piccadilly Circus area.

The exterior of the building had Classical style embellishments and the northern corner over the entrance had a tower feature which was topped by a giant urn. Specialist cinema websites state that its interior was “a fine example of 1920s cinema design”.

Decorated in a Neo-Classical style, this was the first major work of architect Andrew Mather, and it established his reputation for his later works on the many Odeon cinemas he designed for Oscar Deutsch.

The Gaumont was initially equipped with a Norman and Beard 4Manual/34stops organ. Like many cinema organs of the time, the Gaumont’s was hidden away from the auditorium, only emerging on a mechanical device out of the right-hand side of the theatre wall before the curtain rose on the stage. This organ was specifically designed to accompany silent films, but with a little up-dating was accepted for broadcasting and recording purposes, too.

The heyday of the silent movies’ organists was brief: in July 1929, the Gaumont screened the premiere of the first British “Talkie”, Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, which would run for several months. In March 1931, Bela Lugosi in Dracula premiered here. With films increasingly having their own soundtracks, the need for an organist to provide live music was much reduced.

Tims became a recording artist at the end of the Roaring Twenties

Tims, though, was still advancing in his own career, as he signed a contract as a recording artist in 1928 with His Master’s Voice, HMV, with his first recordings completed in the same year. He recorded Dvorak’s “Humoresque” as a 78, to be played on a hand-cranked gramophone.

In a review of the day, Tims is described as a “clever and fanciful organist”. He was certainly up there with the best. As well as using the Haymarket organ, Tims also recorded sessions on the Compton organ of the New Victoria Theatre.

But this was by now the era of the Great Crash and the Depression, and after only a couple of years with HMV, like a number of other recording artists, he was dropped from their payroll.

Tims, though, landed a job with Union Cinemas as musical director in April 1934 and he went to Liverpool to play the Compton organ in the new Paramount (later Odeon) theatre there. In 1937 he was at the new Ritz, Birkenhead, where there was another Compton organ.

The Haymarket cinema in 1925, where Tims made his name as a performer

It was from a guest engagement at the Regal, St Peter’s Port, Guernsey that he was flown direct to Aberdeen to play at the Capitol there, with a presentation entitled “Holiday Reminiscences”.

Tims settled in Aberdeen and went back to playing again in church regularly. In addition to his Capitol duties, he took up the post of organist at Gilcomston South Church on Aberdeen’s main street.

During the war years, F Rowland Tims was kept busy running a highly successful scheme where members of the forces could write in with their musical requests, the dedicatees of which were invited to come as special guests and hear the numbers played at concerts run by him.

It was a sort of Forces Favourites, but without the radio and just for local folk.

After the war Tims moved churches, becoming the organist at West St Andrews, later Langstane Kirk. He and his wife Violet moved into an upstairs flat just a few doors down from the cinema. He involved himself in the musical life of Aberdeen, at one point he became the conductor of the Male Voice Choir of Hall Russell’s shipyard.

Musicians never find it easy to survive without additional income and Tims was no different. For a time during the war, he and his wife ran the Capitol’s restaurant and later they had a small café on the corner of Bath Street and Windmill Brae, not far from their flat.

Tims left his job at the Capitol in 1950. In retirement he concentrated on his choir work and other musical activities, remaining a prominent figure in Aberdeen until his death from a stroke in 1956.

From Truro to Aberdeen, via Croydon, through his life in music, this organist entertained millions.

  • David Morgan is researching a new book on the Rectors of Croydon in 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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