Pipe Organs of Malaysia

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J A Riddell was born in Liverpool in 1893. He was said to have first visited colonial Malaya in 1918 while serving in the merchant navy (his wartime service) at the end of WW1. He did not stay long, but long enough to have met and married his wife, Gertrude Evelyn de Souza. The couple returned to Liverpool where their only son, Walter James, was born in 1920.

In 1925, Riddell came out to Malaya for good without his wife and son to work as an organ & piano builder. He joined the Malayan operations of the Robinson Piano Co. Ltd. of Hong Kong, and became the manager of its fledgling KL branch on 17, Old Market Square, KL. Riddell had his organs and piano workshop on the 1st floor above Robinson Piano Co. Ltd.

He was involved in the rebuilding of the flood-damaged Henry Willis & Sons organ in St Mary's Church, KL and received his first known pipe organ commission in 1933 - to build a new organ for St Francis Xavier Church in Malacca. This was followed by organs for All Saints Church in Taiping (1938) and St Andrew's Presbyterian Church (1939). Wesley Methodist Church did place an order with him but the Japanese invasion prevented him from commencing work on it before he was interned by the Japanese as an enemy civilian from 1942 to 1945. Post-war, the order was cancelled as Wesley Church was suffering from serious financial constraints and had to divert funds to repair its buildings and rebuild its ministries.

Riddell spent the years between 1950 and 1958 repairing and then maintaining most of the surviving organs in Malaya and Singapore. He died in the European Hospital (or Bungsar Hospital) on 20 December 1958 from a medical condition contracted during his time in a Japanese civilian internment camp. When he died, he had 4 completed organs in his workshop. One was known to have been commissioned by a Mr L. V. John but was not delivered to him as he had not completed his payments. After Riddell died, L V John's organ was sold to the British Army Chapel in Port Dickson Army Camp. Of the remaining 3 organs, one is known to have been sold to the British Army Chapel in Terendak Army Camp in Malacca, another was said to have been sold to the Presbyterian Church in Kuantan, Pahang and the last one was said to have been sold to the Read Masonic Lodge (now demolished) on Damasara Road, Kuala Lumpur.

The two army chapel organs may have eventually found their way to British army camps in Singapore in the 1960s after the British military withdrew from independent Malaysia but nothing more is known of what happened to them. No mention was made of the Pahang church organ from the 1970s and it was presumed to have broken down by then and probably decommissioned. Likewise, nothing more was known of the fate of the Masonic Lodge organ as the Freemasons were and still are quite secretive!


Article from Andrew Hwang, Kuala Lumpur, 29 October 2015


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