Gilbert Reines: The ‘ingenious dreamer’ who shipped a 3,000-pipe organ from Canada to Hornsey

Gilbert Reines, the organist at Holy Innocents church, has died aged 87. Picture: Manus Fraser

Gilbert Reines, the organist at Holy Innocents church, has died aged 87. Picture: Manus Fraser - Credit: Archant

“Gilbert was a nutter. Anything which an average person would regard as an obstacle was more like a red flag in front of a bull for him. He was willing to try anything.”

Regent's Park councillor Robert Rigby (left) and MCC assistant secretary Robert Ebdon. Picture: West

Regent's Park councillor Robert Rigby (left) and MCC assistant secretary Robert Ebdon. Picture: Westminster City Council - Credit: Archant

In 2002 Gilbert Reines shipped over a 3,000-pipe organ from Canada to Hornsey for Holy Innocents church in a 40-foot container.

Gilbert, an organist himself and ever the optimist, made it his personal project to reassemble it piece by piece, pipe by pipe.

On August 10, after 18 years of graft and his beloved organ on the verge of completion, Gilbert died aged 87.

In 2017, Crouch End’s Manus Fraser started making a film about Gilbert looking at how the construction of his organ reflected a deeper connection to his upbringing.


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“Gilbert’s story is one of dogged determination. Never giving up and never giving in ran through his core,” Manus told the Ham&High.

Born in 1933 in Cape Town, Gilbert left apartheid South Africa in 1960 in search of a new start.

Gilbert at work. Picture: Manus Fraser

Gilbert at work. Picture: Manus Fraser - Credit: Archant

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He arrived at an underwhelming bedsit in Hampstead with a set of tools, his trusted records and “mountains of stuff” for his South African diaspora in the UK.

To earn a living in his new surroundings, his first job was at a car warehouse. Gilbert then retrained for three years to become a teacher.

He soon climbed the ranks, working at Alexandra Park School and The King Alfred. He later became headmaster at St Mary’s in Kilburn where he played an integral role in rebuilding the school.

In the 1960s, Gilbert and his wife Ursula, an artist and teacher, bought a house in Golders Green which they lived in for the rest of their lives.

Ursula, who died in 2016, was ten years Gilbert’s senior. They first met in Cape Town when Ursula was Gilbert’s boss at an arts centre she ran.

Once in the UK, Gilbert continued his musical passion and was an organist at a number of north London churches including in Gospel Oak – before he settled at Holy Innocents.

Gilbert in Canada with his sister Pauline for her birthday in March. Picture: Clement Carelse

Gilbert in Canada with his sister Pauline for her birthday in March. Picture: Clement Carelse - Credit: Archant

Coming from a devoted and skilled family of organists, the instrument was always a central plank of his life.

Gilbert’s friends and family told this newspaper that his “magnetic” and “inspiring” character will be dearly missed.

“He was that kind of character who could win people over to his cause no matter what it was,” Manus recalled.

The videographer, who spent days on end with Gilbert making his film, recalled how he soon found himself spending more time building the South African’s organ - which originated from Czechoslovakia - than recording his own documentary.

“He would inspire confidence just through listening or encouraging you to do something,” Manus said.

“I had never done anything like working on an organ and suddenly I found myself mending pipes, doing wiring and all these things I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing – just because Gilbert was so calming and inspiring.

A film has been made by Manus Fraser about Gilbert and his construction of the organ. Picture: Manus

A film has been made by Manus Fraser about Gilbert and his construction of the organ. Picture: Manus Fraser - Credit: Archant

“He was warm, witty, ingenious and cheeky. There was always a sparkle in his eyes and he always looked to the positive. He would put his hands to anything.”

Fr Ben Kerridge, the vicar of Holy Innocents, said Gilbert’s improvisations on the organ were “completely out of this world” and that his love of music was “infectious”.

“He was an absolutely extraordinary person, incredibly kind, great company and a dynamo of energy,” Fr Kerridge said.

“He would always be great fun and had a mischievous sense of humour.

“He was always dreaming – whether that was with the organ he built or with some complicated piece of music.

“At the end of a service he would just start riffing on the theme of a hymn and it was incredible to listen to.

Gilbert's improvisations on the organ were described as "out of this world". Picture: Fr Ben Kerridg

Gilbert's improvisations on the organ were described as "out of this world". Picture: Fr Ben Kerridge - Credit: Archant

“He was quite a scary person to sing for because he would spring difficult things upon you, but somehow it would always work out in the end and be really beautiful.

“His music was so him, nobody else could replace that. We will miss him extraordinarily.”

Clement Carelse, Gilbert’s nephew, described him as a “renaissance type” that “had a way of hectoring”. He called Gilbert the “older brother he never had”.

“He loved a good argument and he was willing to try anything – but sometimes that bit him on the backside,” Clement said.

Speaking over WhatsApp from his home in Canada, Clement closes our conversation by recounting a story.

“When Gilbert was about four years old he had a budgie which would call him by his name.

Gilbert (right) and his nephew Clement, who described him as the "brother he never had". Picture: Ma

Gilbert (right) and his nephew Clement, who described him as the "brother he never had". Picture: Manus Fraser - Credit: Archant

“The budgie died so Gilbert made it a coffin, which stood on trestles in the middle of the dining room table, until his mother got fed up and told Gilbert he needed to bury the budgie.

“So he put the budgie in the back of his toy lorry and he towed this thing down to the back of his garden where he and his sister held a funeral - and they sang hymns.”

In August, Gilbert died after his health deteriorated from a fall.

His funeral was held at Holy Innocents in September and he is survived by two sisters, Pauline in Canada and Annette in South Africa.

To donate to a fundraiser to finish the work on Gilbert’s organ click here.

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