Empire Church Theatre

(formerly Methodist, and subsequently Wesley Uniting Church)

Neil Street, Toowoomba

Whitehouse Bros, Brisbane, 1928
2 manuals, 11 speaking stops, tubular-pneumatic action
Organ console removed c.2000

The Empire Church Theatre, Toowoomba,
originally the Neil Street Methodist Church
[Photograph by Trevor Bunning (November 2011)]


Historical and Technical Documentation by Geoffrey Cox
© OHTA 2011, 2013 (last updated April 2013)

The first Wesleyan Methodist services in Toowoomba were held in 1858, but it was not until 1863 that a permanent minister was appointed. A stone church was constructed in Neil Street in 1864-65, not far from the present site, but it proved inadequate for the growing congregation. It was replaced in 1877-78 by the present building, built to the design of the architect Willoughby Powell, who was in Toowoomba at this time, supervising the construction of the Toowoomba Grammar School. The building is of simple Gothic style, constructed in face brick with rendered masonry and freestone detailing.1 Once the main Methodist Church in Toowoomba, this building has been used since 1998 as a function room within the Empire Theatre Precinct. It is linked to the other buildings by a glassed-in walkway.

The Empire Theatre, Toowoomba
[Photograph by Trevor Bunning (November 2011)]

The former Neil Street Methodist Church, linked to the
other buildings of the The Empire Theatre Precinct
[Photograph by Geoffrey Cox (July 2012)]

There were proposals in September 1900 from George Fincham of Melbourne for a mechanical-action organ of 20 stops,2 but these never bore fruit, despite continuing negotiations.3

It was not until 1928 that an organ was installed by Whitehouse Bros of Brisbane at a cost of £1130.4  It was described as follows in a newspaper report immediately prior to being opened at the end of June 1928:

Neil St. Methodist Church
Dedication on Sunday

Fifteen months ago the then Minister of the Neil-street Methodist Church (Rev. B. Frederick) and the trustees decided that the church was worthy of something better than the old reed organ, which had done service for so many years, and they placed a contract with Messrs. Whitehouse Bros., of Brisbane, for a modern tubular pneumatic organ, to cost well over the thousand mark. Some weeks ago the Brisbane firm commenced the installation of the organ, and to-day the work is practically complete, the finishing touches being put to it by Mr. J. H. Whitehouse to-day.

The instrument, which stands about 15-1/2 feet high, a depth of 9 feet, and a width of 11 feet, presents an imposing appearance in the renovated church, for everything has been done to make the new organ a natural part of the building. The walls of the church have been repainted a light brick colour, and the organ pipes a light colour, while the Gothic carving on the fine silky oak casing has been carried out so as to harmonise with the style of the windows. The instrument itself is of the very latest type in every detail. It has two complete manuals, from cc to c, 61 notes, and 2-1/2 octaves of concave and radiating pedals, from ccc to f, 30 notes. The action is the builder's latest system of tubular pneumatic throughout, with separate pallet to every pipe. This prevents robbing, ensuring perfect speech, whether the manuals are used singly or coupled. There are 600 speaking tubes. The console is detached with a complete system of controls, which include 20 stop keys and two pistons to the swell organ and two pistons to the great organ. The latest system of stop keys is used: they are of finest quality ivory with ebony sharps, and the engraving is old English Gothic. The instrument is electrically worked from power taken off the town current.

As mentioned above, the casing and mounting are done in polished Queensland silky oak of a high grade, and this feature adds considerably to the beauty of the instrument. For the edification of the newspaper representatives, who visited the church yesterday, Mr. Whitehouse played for a short while. The voicing of the pipes is such that it gives power and accurate balance of tone in full combination, with purity and delicacy in the soft and solo registers.5

The 1928 Whitehouse Bros organ
pictured here when the building functioned as a church
[Photograph by Howard Baker (1990s)]

The organ was dedicated and opened on Saturday evening, 30 June 1928, when a recital was given by Mr Robert J. Archibald, a former organist of the church, by this time organist at the Methodist Church, West End, in Brisbane. A report of both the Saturday-evening recital and the Sunday services appeared in The Brisbane Courier as follows:


The Neil-street Methodist Church was filled to overflowing on Saturday evening, when the new pipe organ was dedicated by Rev. T. R. Thurlow, and a recltal was given by Mr. R. J. Archibald (Brisbane), who was organist of the church 30 years ago, and came specially to Toowoomba to officiate at the opening. Mr. Archibald's numbers included "Grand Choeur" (Faulkes), "Marche Triumphale" (Lemens), "Fanfare" (Ascher), "Chorus of Angels" (Scotson Clarke), and the inspiring "Hallelujah Chorus." He also played several delightful lighter numbers, including "Cradle Song" (Lange), bracketed with "Air de Dauphin" (Rockel), and "Daybreak," and "Sunset," and the beautiful "Andantino" (Lemare), and "Mignon Gavotte" (Thomas). The soloists were Mrs. R. G. Allen, Mrs. E. V. Bradfield, and Mr. R. L. Wishart, all of Brisbane. Yesterday morning a special service was held, when the preacher was Rev. B. Frederick, who was minister of the parish until a few months ago, and who also came from Brisbane for the dedication. Mr. Archibald presided at the organ, and the choir sang the anthem, "O, Father, Whose Almighty Power." Mr. Frederick also preached at the evening service, Mr. Archibald again presided at the organ, and also gave a recital in the afternoon. At both services there was an offering for the organ fund.6

The console (since removed) of the 1928 Whitehouse Bros organ
[Photograph by Howard Baker (1990s)]

This organ was one of the standard pneumatic-action instruments built by the Whitehouse firm in the period from c.1910 onwards. The specification was identical to that of the instrument completed by the firm less than a year afterwards in 1929 for St Paul's Anglican Church, Roma. The presence of a Horn Diapason 8ft on the Swell of both these instruments was unusual, the designations 'Violin Diapason' or 'Open Diapason' being more common.

The Toowoomba instrument was overhauled by Whitehouse Bros in September 1943 at a cost of £79,7 and it survived without alteration for some seventy years.

The organ remains intact in its original location, which is now a function room associated with the Empire Theatre, although it is no longer operational. The console was removed around 2000 in order to create more floor space, and is reportedly in storage.8

The 1928 Whitehouse organ as it survives without its console
in the Empire Church Theatre
[Photographs by Trevor Bunning (November 2011)]

The specification is as follows:

Open Diapason
Stop Diapason
Harmonic Flute

Horn Diapason
Lieblich Gedact
Echo Gamba

Bass Flute

Swell to Great
Swell to Pedal
Great to Pedal
Swell Octave to Great
Swell Sub to Great
Swell Octave
Swell Sub-Octave





Swell tremulant
Detached stop-key console
Compass: 61/30
Balanced swell pedal
2 thumb pistons (blind) & cancel to Great Organ
2 thumb pistons (blind) & cancel to Swell Organ
Tubular-pneumatic action.9

A planning application in mid-2012 for 54 & 58 Neil Street includes 'Demolition of a Place of Potential Cultural Heritage Significance'. It has been ascertained that this referred to the former church hall at the rear of the church, and not to the church itself.

Notice of proposed development, mid 2012
[Photograph by Geoffrey Cox (July 2012)]

Stained-glass window in the Empire Church Theatre
[Photograph by Trevor Bunning (November 2011)]


1 Queensland Heritage Council, Queensland Heritage Register, location 601695; Donald Watson & Judith McKay, Queensland Architects of the 19th Century: A Biographical Dictionary (Brisbane: Queensland Museum, 1994), pp. 146-48.

2 Fincham Letter Book 16 (27 September 1900), p. 22 (State Library of Victoria).

3 Fincham Letter Book 23 (27 November 1908), p. 157; Fincham Letter Book 22 (1909), pp. 106, 113, 159; Fincham Letter Book 23 (20 January 1911), pp. 423-29.

4 Whitehouse Bros Ledger (1922-1940), p. 338.

5 Unidentified newspaper clipping [probably Toowoomba, late June 1928], supplied to G. Cox by Mr Howell Whitehouse, 2010.

6 The Brisbane Courier (2 July 1928), p. 23.

7 Whitehouse Bros Ledger (1940-1954), p. 394.

8 Personal communication to G. Cox from Leslie W. Rub, June 2003.

9 Specification noted by G. Cox, February 1974, with additional details noted from the Collected Organ Specifications of Bernie Brohan (c.1952).