Mortier Theophile


The story begins in the small Belgian village of Oostkamp, to the south of Bruges. Ivo Mortier had his blacksmith’s workshop. Here, Ivo met Maria Theresia Verlinde. The couple married. Theophile was their third son that was born on March 11, 1855. Theophile grew up with his parents and two elder brothers. In his father’s workshop, he learned some of practical skills, which would later be useful for him.

Ivo Mortier had his own business; he was able to provide for his family reasonably well. Even so, he decided to leave Oostkamp and move to Bruges. On December 29, 1866, the family settled in Bruges. In the early 1870’s, Theophile got a job in Bruges as a metalworker. After a few years, Theophile decided that it was time to do something else. Above all, he wanted to start his own business. However, life of a blacksmith was not for him. Adventure beckoned. On April 17, 1877, he moved to Antwerp, where there more opportunities. At that point, he had no definite plans and registered his occupation as toolmaker’s assistant in the municipality of Antwerp.

In May 1877, a major enlargement of the docks began, and Theophile was taken on as a foreman. He found accommodation in a boarding house run by Joanna Vermeulen. Despite the age difference (Joanna was 21 years older than Theophile) they got on well together and were married on June 16, 1877. Theophile became the innkeeper. Theophile gave up his job as a foreman and completely devoted himself to his own business. At quiet times, Theophile could be found on the docks, recruiting customers for the tavern. It is possible that the tavern already had a Gavioli organ, but one was certainly there after Theophile arrived, since he saw opportunities to increase his business.

In 1884 Theophile had a dance hall built that was officially called ”New varieties”. In the dance hall, the music was provided by a succession of large, mechanical organs, mostly from the Gavioli firm in Paris. At this time, these were the barrel organs; the book system was not introduced until the mid -1880s. The organs drew Theophile’s particular attention. Thanks to his background, he understood the technical side and saw business possibilities with them. The better the organs played and the bigger they were, the more the dance hall attracted customers. Gradually the business began to take shape. Theophile ensured that he always had the newest organs. Old organs that he did not use were rented out. The majority of hotels and restaurants in Antwerp were eager to present something out of the ordinary. The competition was fierce. Business went well for Mortier.

Doubtless, instruments occasionally went wrong whilst on rental. AS the rented organs remained Mortier’s property, he started his own repair service and as time passed, went on to make new facades more suited to the taste of Belgian customers.

The dance hall, the boarding house and the organ rental business were all doing well and Theophile Mortier was able to accumulate a reasonable capital. Meanwhile he became the major importer of Gavioli organs. The Gavioli firm introduced book-playing organs in the second half of the 1890s. It became much easier and cheaper to obtain new music. The organ trade was further expanded. In 1895, Th. Mortier purchased a house with a joining workshop nearby and opened a beerhouse and barrel organ factory. He directed the factory, but he was not the organ builder himself. As he was a clever businessman, he was able to gather talented specialists around him. Mortier’s business grew and flourished with sale, conversion and hiring organs. Theophile decided that time had come to take a new step forward: that of building a new organ with his own stuff.

In the autumn of 1898, he distributed a handbill in Antwerp, announcing the unveiling on a new “Monster Organ” – something out of the ordinary.

In the years immediately after 1898 Mortier was importing, renting-out and repairing Gavioli organs. Hence, he applied for a patent for a new kind of mechanism for “organs-orchestrions”.

Since 1905, Mortier was no longer making new organs but converting barrel organs to the new book system and planned to convert about eight instrument annually. By 1908, the Mortier firm had already built up a good reputation.

Whilst business continuously improved for Mortier from 1900 onwards, the gradual decline of Gavioli &Co. began. In 1912, the company was liquidated, finally giving Mortier a free hand to further his own business.

Slowly, but surely, the Mortier firm took the lead. The factory built and rebuilt an unbelievable number of organs between 1910and 1914. In 1912, working hours at the Mortier factory were from six o’clock in the morning until quarter past seven in the evening.

August 1914 saw the start of the Great War in Europe, and with it, an end to the 19th century way of life. When German troops invaded the country on August 4, 1914, Belgium neutrality that had been declared in 1839 was brought to an end. Within three months, Antwerp had changed from being a rich and prosperous metropolis to a badly hit war zone. The “Minerva” dance hall became a dining room for homeless war victims.

The Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918 ending the First World War. Antwerp had suffered heavily. Hence, there was optimism for the future. Mortier was 63 years old. He realized that a new era had begun. He took out a loan from the bank and sought for the people with large business experience. He invited various specialists and they created a limited liability company. Thus, the shares were issued to inject more capital.

The company repaired and altered organs. Built the new ones and built orchestrions.

The crush of New York stock exchange at the end of October 1929 led to an economic collapse, During the thirties radios entered the homes of many families, and the cinema s silent films gave ways to “talkies”.

In 1929, there were fewer orders; the company was forced to dismiss some of the factory stuff. In October 1931, all Mortier’s employers received a letter informing them their salary would be reduced. On December 10, 1935, Theophile Mortier stepped down from the board of directors. Mortier was 80 years old. During 1930-1935, Mortier built 34 large dance organs as well a large number of orchestrions. The organs had a more modern sound by experimenting with innovations. He tried to make the organs more attractive. In the middle of the crisis, Mortier had to deal with the emergence of a serious competitor in the already weakened market for organs.

In 1938-1939, Mortier still completed nine large organs. No large organs were built during the Second World War, but a number of orchestrions produced in this time were known.

On December 28 1944, at the age of 89, Theophile Mortier died He was buried in the family grave in Merksem.

After the final large organ had been delivered, the Mortier firm still remained active, but business continued to decline. In 1949, the initial thirty-year period of incorporation of Usines of Theophile Mortier S.A. came to the end.

Based on materials from the book “The Mortier story,” published in 2019 to mark the 65th anniversary of the Dutch organization for mechanical musical instruments