Heritage: The life of Henry Willis - Hampstead Parish Church organist and master organ builder of the Victorian age

Trailblazing innovations saw master organ builder Henry Willis become the darling of the Victorian age - and his work can be seen to this day at Alexandra Palace and cathedrals across the country, discovers Adam Sonin.

He was the greatest organ builder of the Victorian era and founded a firm which continues to produce, arguably, the finest instruments of their kind.

The foundations of Henry Willis’ success lay in his excellence as an inventor and engineer and in the personal attention that he paid to every aspect of production. He registered 19 patents between 1851 and 1893.

Born into a musical, but far from wealthy, family Willis played the organ from an early age. His first major commission, to rebuild the organ at Gloucester Cathedral, came in 1847.

At the Great Exhibition four years later he achieved a major triumph when an instrument, equipped with a number of improvements he had devised himself, was chosen to give a recital for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

For the rest of the century he and his firm built or rebuilt thousands of organs around the Empire, from Calcutta Cathedral to the Royal Albert Hall.

Away from his work, Willis was a dedicated and passionate yachtsman. His first vessel, the Vigilant, was run down in the Solent by a German tramp steamer in 1878. But he later succeeded in circumnavigating the British Isles in his third yacht, the Opal. In recognition of his brilliance The Musical Times dubbed him ‘Father’ Henry Willis.

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Henry Willis (1821–1901), organ builder, was born on April 27 in north west London. His father was a modestly successful builder and carpenter with a love of music. Willis senior sang in the choir of the Surrey Chapel, Blackfriars, and played the timpani in the orchestra of the Cecilian Society.

At an early age Henry learned to play the organ and acquired a knowledge of its design and mechanisms. At the age of 14 he was articled to the London organ builder John Gray, founder of Gray and Davison. During his apprenticeship he became organist at Christ Church, Hoxton.

After rebuilding the organs of Tewkesbury Abbey (1846) and Gloucester Cathedral (1847), the latter of which he described as his ‘stepping stone to fame’, Willis was ‘presumptuous enough to marry’, on April 7, 1847, his organ pupil Esther Maria Chatterton. The couple had five children: two sons - Vincent (b. 1848) and Henry (II) (b. 1852), who became partners in 1878 - and three daughters. By 1848 Willis had returned to London and established his workshop in Foundling Terrace, Gray’s Inn Road.

In 1851 Willis took a gamble. He raised money and entered The Great Exhibition at Hyde Park, London. Confident in his abilities and innovations he competed against established organ builders. The instrument Willis built and submitted was the first organ to incorporate thumb pistons – which allowed for greater control by the player.

Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort visited the exhibition to see and hear this new organ. A short recital was given and included a piece by H.R.H. Prince Albert named Schlaf, Schlaf, mein Kindelein, part of the overture to La Gazza Ladra by Rossini, and by request of the Queen, the March from Mozart’s Die Zaubeflöte.

Willis said: “The exhibition organ was the great pioneer of the improved pneumatic movement. A child could play the keys with all the stops drawn. It never went wrong.

“The instrument was absolutely my own in every detail. Not a ghost of an individual had any part or lot in its conception or design.”

Not strictly true.

Willis was an original thinker but also took the ideas of other organ builders – including those on the continent – and simply tweaked them to better effect. As a result of his hard work and tremendous self belief Willis won a medal and with it, a reputation. Numerous highly profitable commissions would follow.

Soon after the exhibition a committee from the recently completed St George’s Hall, Liverpool, attended an audition to find a builder best suited to their needs. Well known Liverpudlian organist W.T. Best demonstrated the three instruments on display, playing the same piece on each.

Both of Willis’s rivals’ contraptions required assistants to help the player but when the selection committee came to hear his creation the assistants were dismissed. His clever idea of thumb pistons paid off and Willis was awarded the job.

“It was a splendid performance and I was told that the organ was quite a revelation to those Liverpudlians,”, Willis later recalled.

Fresh from his success Willis took on the role of church organist at Hampstead Parish Church. During this time he built another of his instruments. Years later, c.1884 – when the building underwent a substantial extension – Willis, then at the height of his career, was invited back to build a larger version.

In 1859 Willis moved his works to 119 Albany Street, Regent’s Park. At the Industrial Exhibition of 1862 he exhibited an organ which would later be installed at the newly built Alexandra Palace.

Willis landed the commission to design and construct an organ for the Royal Albert Hall in 1871. Apparently “the powers that be” didn’t even bother to look elsewhere or put the job to tender, such was his rapidly growing reputation.

A year later Willis sat on a large committee to decide the future of the organ at St Paul’s Cathedral.

“When Willis was asked his views he was forthright and told the members ‘The placing of the organ in the position in which I think it should be involves a stupendous question’, he announced,” it was reported. “‘Namely, the removal of the statues of Lord Nelson and Lord Cornwallis.’

“The old organ case was unique in that it was the same, back and front. Willis had the idea to cut the case in half and place one half of the organ on each side of the choir. His plan also allowed the committee to move the choir closer to the dome which, to this day, means that they can be heard far better than before.

“The members of the committee were plainly shocked by this idea and asked Willis to leave the room. A few minutes later he was asked back into the meeting and questioned.

“They could see merit in his idea, but there was, they thought, one insurmountable problem. His plan would, surely, require two organists!

“Henry assured them that this would not be necessary. The committee agreed to his plans and the organ bears testament to Henry’s foresight to this day.”

Henry Willis III wrote: “Following the tremendous success of the Royal Albert Hall organ my grandfather was commissioned to build an instrument, upon very similar lines, for the old Alexandra Palace Company in the Great Hall.

“Sir Michael Costa was called into consultation with ‘Father’ Willis, but, as at the Albert Hall, there can be no doubt that my grandfather was left to have his own way, the specification and general design being entirely his.

“This first organ was completed and ready for the opening of the Palace in May, 1873.

“A bare three weeks had elapsed after the opening when the Palace and the organ were completely destroyed by fire. My grandfather was in the Palace at the time and, in his eagerness to save some of the pipework, very narrowly escaped serious injury from the crashing falls of red-hot glass. No time was lost and the story goes that the order for a replica instrument was placed ‘before the molten pipe metal was cold’.”

The second Willis organ at Alexandra Palace was originally powered by two steam engines had five keyboards, 101 stops, eight thousand pipes and was close to 100 feet tall. The organ drew huge audiences over a 40 year period from the Palace’s second opening in 1875.

Over the course of his career, Willis built or rebuilt over 2,000 organs, and his works are to be found in such cathedrals as Durham, Lincoln, Salisbury, Truro and Wells. His firm – based from 1866 at The Rotunda, 67–71 Rochester Place, Camden Town – also produced small ‘Scudamore’ organs, specifically designed for quaint country churches.

Willis – dubbed ‘Father’ in 1898 in a complimentary allusion to the famous 17th- and early 18th-century organ builder ‘Father’ (Bernard) Smith – lived from 1867 until 1895 at 9 Rochester Terrace, where a roundel honours him. He could have seen his organ works from the rear windows of the house.

Willis lived in Kentish Town – an area known more generally for piano making – for the rest of his life: first at 57 Lawford Road and from 1899 at 2 Bartholomew Road.