Henry Willis & Son

Organ builders

Henry Willis (1821–1901) was the leading organ-builder of the Victorian era. By his death, he had built organs nationwide for cathedrals in Canterbury, Carlisle, Durham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Gloucester, Hereford, Lincoln, Oxford, St David's, Salisbury, Truro, Wells, and, pre-eminently, St Paul's Cathedral, London . He flourished within a period when organ building was greatly expanding. The adoption of the German system of organ-building after 1840 meant that every notable organ in England had to be rebuilt or replaced. The construction of municipal concert halls in every town required the building of dozens of instruments, and the growing preference in parish churches was for an organ and choir. 1

Apprenticed to John Gray in 1835, Willis had set up shop on his own in Camden, London by the early 1840s. Aged 30, he exhibited an organ in the 1851 Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace to a curious specification, archaic in some ways and advanced in others. It featured a wasteful 70 speaking stops, but also innovative thumb pistons, and improved pneumatic action. The impression made gained him a commission to build a new organ for St George's Hall, Liverpool (1855), regarded as his masterpiece, while the Exhibition organ went in reduced but improved form to Winchester Cathedral (1854). An office and works were established at Liverpool in 1854, with a major factory, the Rotunda Organ Works, established in Camden in 1866. Among the hundreds of instruments Willis subsequently built, the large-scale organs in the Albert Hall (1871) and Alexandra Palace (1873) cemented his reputation as the Brunel of the organ-building profession. 2

Willis took his sons, Henry and Vincent, into partnership in 1878 and a Glasgow office for Henry Willis & Sons is listed in the Glasgow Post Office directories from 1881 at various East End addresses. 3 By the end of his career, Willis was described as 'the greatest organ builder of the Victorian Era', and was henceforth to be known as 'Father' Willis. 4 He retained complete control of the company and was active up to his death. When he died leaving huge debts of £15,000, his sons quarrelled, one wanting the company wound up to clear the debts and the other wanting to continue. The debt made it difficult for Willis & Sons to offer competitive prices, and potential customers began to turn to less well-known companies for important contracts. But there was also a general decline in the trade. By building thousands of organs of high quality, the Victorian builders had flooded the market and the great period of church building was over as congregations started to dwindle. After the massive new organ at St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin (1902), the Willis company would build only two further landmark organs: Liverpool Anglican Cathedral (1926) and Westminster Roman Catholic Cathedral (1932). 5

In 1919 the company moved to Brixton and merged with Lewis & Co. The company was briefly known as Henry Willis & Sons and Lewis & Co. to satisfy a legal point, then reverted to Henry Willis & Sons. The company has been in continuous operation ever since, and until 1997 was still run by descendants of Willis. The head office and factory are in Liverpool, and the company retains a representative, though not an office, in Glasgow. 6

Notes:

1: Stephen Bicknell, The History of the English Organ, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 257–64.

2: Stephen Bicknell, The History of the English Organ, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 243–5; Cecil Clutton and Austin Niland, The British Organ, London: Eyre Methuen, revised edn 1982, pp. 88–91.

3: Glasgow Post Office directories, 1881–1915.

4: F. G. Edwards, 'Henry Willis', Musical Times, 39, 1 May 1898, pp. 297–303.

5: Stephen Bicknell, The History of the English Organ Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 304–8.

6: Henry Willis & Sons Ltd company website, www.willis-organs.com [accessed 17 February 2012].