The Mystery of the Missing Goodsir Organ

It was certainly the most eye-catching lead I’d ever stumbled onto.

Messrs C. and F. Hamilton, Organ Builders, including letter regarding a ‘really fine’ organ, removed ‘from Dr. Goodsir Danube Street’.”

This 1893 sentence sent me off down a dozen rabbit holes until I located Dr. Goodsir’s really fine organ, hiding in plain sight, in one of Edinburgh’s oldest churches – which is also one of its most popular tourist attractions.

The organ belonged to the Goodsirs of Anstruther Easter. Henry Duncan Spens Goodsir (1819-c.1848), a naturalist and surgeon, had sailed with Sir John Franklin’s doomed 1845 expedition to find a North-West Passage. 

Robert Anstruther Goodsir (1823-1895) travelled to the Arctic twice, hoping to find and rescue his brother. Both attempts were unsuccessful.

An image of organ pipes. The focus is on a shiny plaque fixed beneath them.

The plaque reads:

“This organ was presented to the Lodge Dramatic and Arts of Edinburgh No.757, in November 1893, by Robert Anstruther Goodsir MD, Artic (sic) explorer & traveller, who in March 1849 led a search party to the Artic regions in the ship ‘Advice’ in search of the Franklin Expedition”

There are a few problems with the wording on this plaque, but we’ll get to that later. So for now, let’s look at the history of the organ, and how it got to where it is today.

I first spotted the reference to the removal of the Danube Street organ back in 2018. It showed up in a listing on the Richard Ford rare books site – “Papers relating to Lodge Dramatic & Arts No. 757 (Edinburgh), 1888 to 1909”.

Final home

Danube Street – number 11, to be precise – was the final home of the Goodsir family. Joseph Taylor Goodsir (1815-1893) and Jane Ross Goodsir (1817-1893) bought the house in Edinburgh’s New Town following the death of their eldest brother, Professor John Goodsir, in 1867.

It’s likely that the organ was originally in John’s house in Wardie, north Edinburgh, before being moved to Danube Street. 

His biographer Henry Lonsdale noted that Jane had often played “the organ or piano” to soothe John towards the end of his life (Lonsdale and Turner, 1868).

A beautiful terraced house in Edinburgh's New Town.
No.11 Danube Street, Edinburgh, as it is today. Photograph courtesy of Iain Macintyre.

At this time, Robert was living in Australia, having emigrated following his second unsuccessful search for missing brother Harry and the rest of the Franklin Expedition.

But he returned to Edinburgh in 1882, at Jane’s urging. Joseph’s long-standing mental health challenges had worsened, and he had been committed to Edinburgh Royal Asylum for the third and final time the previous year. 

Jane – a fiercely intelligent and capable woman – was not permitted to manage the family finances alone, simply because of her gender. 

Lived quietly

Robert lived quietly with Jane and their housekeeper Margaret Hodge at 11 Danube Street for the next 11 years. But he lost both Jane and Joseph within months of one another in 1893. Poor Joseph died on 27th April in the Edinburgh Asylum, and Jane died at home on 15th September.

Robert arranged for the organ to be removed by C&F Hamilton just a few weeks later. This same company had actually built the instrument decades earlier:

A maker's plaque, which reads "Hamilton, est. Late Hamilton & Mueller) 1830, Organ Builders, Edinburgh.
The maker’s plaque on the back of the Goodsir organ.

The front plaque tells us that the organ was handed over to the Lodge Dramatic & Arts No. 757 in November of 1893 – presumably after a check up and polish from the Hamiltons – but things get a little fuzzy after that.

The organ turns up in Notes and Queries twice, where it’s stated as still being present in the Lodge house. The first reference is in the 24th August 1912 edition:

This letter was answered in the September 12 edition:

No. 1a Hill Street is now private housing, but Lodge No.1 – believed to be the oldest in the world – meets at 19 Hill Street. Generations of Edinburgh Fringe enthusiasts will know this building as Venue 41: the Hill Street Theatre.

Could the Goodsir organ have been transferred there? 

I wrote to ask if it were on the premises, but was not surprised when no response was forthcoming. (It’s almost like they’re some sort of secret society.)

Trail goes cold

And that’s when the trail went cold.

Fast-forward a couple of years, past the outbreak of COVID-19 and its associated horrors, and I am doing one of my regular image searches.

And just look at what popped up.

Flickr user JimG-NL had photographed Edinburgh in 2019. They had visited Greyfriars Kirk. This is one of the most interesting churches in the capital and is in the Survival Gothic style, something I can personally relate to.

The Kirk building dates from between 1602 and 1620 and has a colourful history, including a catastrophic fire in 1845.

It’s very beautiful, and is a huge global tourist attraction thanks to the legend of Greyfriars Bobby.

And this is where the Goodsir organ had ended up. In Greyfriars Kirk. It has been here since 1968.

So when Tiny Alison attended this Kirk with her maternal grandmother, her Nana (as I did a few times), the Goodsir organ was right there.

All the times I’ve visited the Kirk’s graveyard (there’s a brilliant virtual tour online here) the Goodsir organ was just metres away from me. 

Franklin Search era

Indeed, I’d very recently scoped out the graveyard for the Franklin Expedition Guide to Edinburgh. It’s the burial place of Sir William Alexander Baillie Hamilton, Second Secretary of the Admiralty during most of the Franklin Search era.

The Goodsir organ is in the north aisle of the Kirk, near the lectern. And while the organ itself is pretty big, the plaque on the front is small and worn.

The Goodsir organ in the north aisle of Greyfriars Kirk.
The Goodsir organ in the north aisle of Greyfriars Kirk.

So I’m very grateful to JimG-NL for spotting it, and for taking these photos and putting them online. We may never have found out about this otherwise.

But how did the organ get from 1a Hill Street to Greyfriars Kirk?

The Lodge Dramatic & Arts 757 appears to have disbanded in 1938. It’s not clear if the organ was still there when this happened. What we do know is that it was “salvaged by Sir Ronald Johnson and then passed to the Rudolf Steiner School” (NPOR). 

Highly respected

Sir Ronald Johnson (1913-1996) was a highly respected senior civil servant in Scotland, a musician, and a supporter of the Steiner method of education.

He had served as organist of St Columba’s-by-the-Castle in Edinburgh, and once left an important government meeting saying he “had to go and tune a virginal” (The Herald, 1996).

Greyfriars bought the organ in 1968 and dedicated it to the memory of Gladys Iverach. It cost £300 – around £5,783 in 2022 terms.

A brass plaque, which reads: In memoriam Gladys Iverach M.A. died 1968.(Gladys was born in Edinburgh’s Morningside district in July 1905. And she presumably was a parishioner. So, if anyone knows more about her, I’d love to hear it.)

Michael Chibbett, writing in 1990, described the Goodsir organ as having “mechanical action and two manuals, with no pedals.

“The swell compass goes to ‘fiddle g’. It is almost in its original state, although the case has been painted and one stop altered.

“A sweet, soft-toned organ, it is extremely useful for continuo playing and accompanying the choir in the chancel. An electric blower has been added, but no old bellows removed, and
the organ can be moved on its own platform.”

I had to see it for myself. Luckily, Henry Wallace – the Kirk’s organist and choirmaster – could not have been kinder or more welcoming.

Sunday Worship

And so I found myself back in Greyfriars Kirk for Sunday Worship, this time without my Nana. The choir sang beautifully. The sermon spoke of inclusion and the power of community.

Afterwards, Henry took the time to discuss the organ’s past and present with me.

And he played a piece of music by Samuel Wesley (1766-1837) that was popular in the early 19th Century… perhaps the sort of music that Jane Goodsir would have played for John, Joseph and Robert.

One of my favourite moments of this day was when Henry explained what the mirror on the side of the organ was for.

It’s a very important piece of kit. It allows the organist to watch the conductor while they are playing.

And if you are thinking of it as a wing mirror, you’re right. It is an actual wing mirror, and it used to be attached to a Lothian Bus.

But now we have to talk about that plaque.

The gist of the story told on this plaque is correct. Robert was an Arctic explorer and a traveller.

But he was involved in two searches for the Franklin Expedition, not one.

He joined the whale ship Advice in 1849, as surgeon under Captain William Penny. This was a whaling voyage, not a search expedition.

Lancaster Sound

Penny had argued with his employers for the right to conduct a search after his quota was achieved. This request was granted. But the Advice was stopped in her tracks by a fierce storm in Lancaster Sound and proceeded no further.

Men from the Lady Franklin and Sophia search ships in winter quarters, Assistance Bay, 1850-51. Some are pulling a sled across ice, others are standing near a tent. There is a sled dog playing nearby.
Men from the Lady Franklin and Sophia search ships in winter quarters, Assistance Bay, 1850-51. From volume two of Peter C Sutherland’s expedition narrative.

Robert made a second voyage with William Penny, this time on a dedicated Franklin search mission.

They sailed on the Lady Franklin in 1850. Robert was the first to discover the three graves and Sir John Franklin’s 1845-46 winter quarters on Beechey Island.

But the expedition – four Royal Navy ships, Penny’s two brigs, Old John Ross in a “flimsy cockleshell”, Lady Franklin’s private search ship the Prince Albert, and two US Navy vessels – ended the following year in a storm of disagreements.

Too many errors

So why wasn’t this second expedition mentioned on the plaque? Maybe it’s because Robert didn’t write it, or see it before it was attached to the organ. There are simply too many errors.

This brings us to the inscription on Robert’s gravestone in Edinburgh’s Dean Cemetery.

Robert Anstruther Goodsir’s grave in Dean Cemetery.

It’s almost identical, although the Advice mission is framed a little more accurately, and the Lady Franklin expedition is included. It’s possible that this inscription is based on the plaque fixed to the organ.

And, as such, it may not be the epitaph Robert would have chosen for himself.

In 1880, Robert wrote an account of his 1850-51 expedition and the discovery of the graves on Beechey Island. It was published in The Australasian newspaper under the pseudonym “An Arctic Man of Two Voyages”.

In it, he said: 

Looking back through the long-intervening past, I feel as if I have only been an outside spectator of all I narrate.”

And this is a constant theme in all things Robert. He didn’t write enough about his own story, or he didn’t write it under his own name. And so his own truth has been lost, and other people – like me – now have to go in search of it.

Sweet sound

But this is a good reason to celebrate the pieces of Robert’s life that have endured into our own time. Like this house organ, which sounds as beautiful today as it must have done in the 19th Century.

We can close our eyes, listen to the sweet sound, and imagine it bringing joy to Jane, John, Joseph and Robert in happier times.


Thank you

Henry Wallace, Greyfriars organist and choirmaster


Allison Lane

& Iain Macintyre



Chibbett, Michael – Organs in Greyfriars, Edinburgh (1990)

The Goodsir Papers (GB 237 Coll-28), Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh.

Goodsir, Robert Anstruther – An Arctic Voyage to Baffin’s Bay and Lancaster Sound in Search of Friends with Sir John Franklin, Jan Van Voorst (1850)

Goodsir, Robert Anstruther – A Fragment from the Story of Franklin’s Fate, The Australasian, (1880)

Gordon, Eleanor & Nair, Gwyneth – The economic role of middle-class women in Victorian Glasgow, Women’s History Review, 9:4, p791-814 (2000)

Lonsdale, Henry and Turner, William – The Anatomical Memoirs of John Goodsir Vol 1, Adam and Charles Black, (1868)

The National Pipe Organ Register listing number D06991

Notes and Queries, 24th August 1912, p146; 21st September 1912, p226

Obituary: Sir Ronald Johnson – The Herald, 16th March 1996.

Richard Ford rare books website – Papers relating to Lodge Dramatic & Arts No. 757 (Edinburgh), 1888 to 1909.

Ross, W. Gillies – Hunters on the Track: William Penny and the Search for Franklin, McGill-Queens University Press (2019)

Sutherland, Peter C. – Journal of a Voyage in Baffin’s Bay and Barrow Straits in the Years 1850-1851, Vol 2, Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans 1852)

2 thoughts on “The Mystery of the Missing Goodsir Organ

  1. I really enjoyed this multi-sensory look into the life of the Goodsirs! Your blogs are always both very interesting and very touching. I love that this detail stuck with you and you followed the path of this organ until you found that it had been in your own life all along! Thank you for including the video of the organist, it was lovely to imagine Jane playing for her brothers.

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