Henry Willis & Sons
Ltd. is one of the oldest and most famous organ building companies active in the world
today, having been in continuous operation since 1845 and with over 2,500 organs built up
to the present day.
In his lifetime (27th
February 1821 11th February 1901) the founder of the company, 'Father'
Henry Willis, built the most famous organs in Britain. As well as the instrument at
Blenheim Palace, notable instruments include St. George's Hall Liverpool, The Royal Albert
Hall, Alexandra Palace, St. Paul's Cathedral, and the cathedrals at Gloucester,
Winchester, Wells, Carlisle, Salisbury, Durham, Exeter, Hereford, Glasgow, Canterbury,
Truro and Lincoln.
Henry Willis was born in
London into an artisan family. His father (also Henry) was a builder, but was also one of
the "Old Stagers" of the Cecilian Society where he was kettle-drummer, and also
a choir member. With his musical up-bringing the young Henry began playing the organ at a
very early age. He formed a friendship with George Cooper, who was assistant organist to
Attwood at St. Paul's Cathedral, and later became organist of the Chapel Royal. Cooper and
Willis played the organ together, and each tried to outdo the other with their pedal
playing, which, according to Father Willis was a neck-and-neck rivalry - in advance of
anything of the kind in those days.
When Henry was 14 he was
apprenticed to John Gray (Later Gray and Davison). Even as a young apprentice he showed
his ingenuity inventing his special manual and pedal couplers which he used in organs
throughout his life. During his time with John Gray, he also tuned organs, including that
at St. George's Chapel, Windsor. Here he met Elvey who took him under his wing.
After his apprenticeship
Henry went to live in Cheltenham in Gloucestershire where he worked for William Evans, an
organ builder who also kept a music shop. Whilst living in Cheltenham, he played the
double bass at the Gloucester Musical Festival in 1847. Here, the young Henry met, and was
befriended by Dr. Samuel Sebastian Wesley .
Why was he called
"Father Willis?". Well, this was due to a parallel being drawn between Henry
Willis and the 17th century "Kings Organmaker", Father Bernard
Smith. The Musical Times, in their edition dated 1 May 1898, presented an extra supplement
: "a Portrait of Mr. Henry Willis". The final part of the article
years ago there lived in this country a great organ builder whose instruments were the
glory of their maker. Two of his nephews were associated with him in his business. Partly
to distinguish him from his younger relatives, but more especially as a mark of high
appreciation of his great abilities and artistic worth, he was canonised (sic), so to
speak, with the title "Father". His name is familiar enough in the history of
organ building - Father Smith. Henry Willis is also assisted by a younger generation,
having two sons - Vincent and Henry - working with him, in whom he has great confidence
and hopes. It is natural, therefore, that he, the greatest organ builder of the Victorian
Era, will be called Father Willis."
During Father Willis'
lifetime his company was noted for much technical innovation, including the following
inventions and pioneering or early uses of special mechanisms:
Thumb pistons -
Barker pneumatic lever
key action - Pioneering use 1851
Pneumatic stop action -
concave pedal board - Invented 1855
Angled stop-jambs -
Credited with the invention 1855
pneumatic key action - 1867
Tubular pneumatic key
action to divided organ - 1872
'floating' pneumatic lever key action - Patented 1884
action - Pioneering use 1885
Fully pneumatic key
action with pneumatic coupling - Patented 1889
Fully adjustable thumb
pistons - Patented 1882