A while back my family and I visited a very unusual museum called the Thursford Collection in Fakenham, Norfolk. Inside a dark, cavernous former barn is housed the most remarkable collection of giant street organs, steam-powered tractors and gaudy Victorian fairground rides.

Loud organ music fills the air as gilded carousel horses spin and the street organs take turns bursting into song! (If you’d like to hear the spot-lit De Leewin organ above in action, click HERE.)

Everything sparkles red and gold in the huge hall lined with spotlights. The decorative steam tractor above was designed to replace horses as a means of pulling heavy loads along paved roads (as you can see by the smooth tyres). Larger versions of this sort of vehicle with ridged tyres were used to pull ploughs on farms from the 1850s until the early 1900s. Because they were much heavier than horses, these big iron tractors had a bit of trouble and would often get stuck in a muddy field!

The fancy red-and-gold steam tractor may well have had a “showman” purpose at a fair, where it would have been used to pull a handsome street organ to the fairground. The small one shown above is a street organ built by Carl Frei, a German musician who started repairing them as a young man. Later he went on to modify and improve on the design to create a bigger sound, and he built his own “Traveling Concert Organs” from 1920 until his death in 1967.

The small Carl Frei organ above was built in 1928. (If you look closely you can see several painted ladies in flapper costumes and cloche hats – the height of fashion in the 1920s.) As technology improved and demand for a bigger sound increased, so did the size of Carl Frei’s musical machines! This one below from the Thursford Collection is considerably bigger than his earlier model:

You can see the female figures have also got much shorter skirts! The almost life-size ladies at each end of the display are holding drums which they tap in time to the music. Not only did these amazing machines produce complex pipe organ music, but the figures in front also entertained the audience with their clever mechanised movements.

To understand what went on behind the scenes, I have found a great YouTube video that shows the back of one of these organs in action. You can watch the spinning wheels and pulleys that draw a folded length of card through a sort of “reader” where the holes punched in the card signal a series of notes to be played. (It reminds me of the player piano we used to have at home which played music in the same way using rolls of perforated paper. In that case the power was provided by one of us pumping on the piano pedals!)

This type of organ is most widely known as a Dutch street organ, although most were built in Germany, France, Belgium, England and the USA. It seems they were so popular in the Netherlands that this was where many of them ended up! The organ above was made in Paris, and you can see it must date from around 1900 because it has four elegant ladies painted very much in the style of Alphonse Mucha.

In addition to all these amazing organs and the rollicking fairground rides you can try out, the Thursford Collection also features a daily show in which a Wurlitzer organ is played by a musician with incredible skill. If I show you a picture of the Wurlitzer keyboard you will understand what I mean:

Not only did the organist play all four of these keyboards at once, he was also using his feet to tap on about forty pedals underneath! Talk about multi-tasking! I don’t think I was alone in being very impressed. So if you happen to be in Norfolk, the Thursford Collection is well worth a visit.

There are other street organ museums in St Albans, Scarborough and Utrecht in the Netherlands (and I’m sure other places). There’s even a Fair Organ Preservation Society and a Mechanical Organ Owners Society. Something for everyone!