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 "King’s 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 reads..."

"FATHER" WILLIS

Two hundred 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 - Patented 1851

  • Barker pneumatic lever key action - Pioneering use 1851

  • Pneumatic stop action - Patented 1851

  • Radiating and concave pedal board - Invented 1855

  • Angled stop-jambs - Credited with the invention 1855

  • Simple tubular pneumatic key action - 1867

  • Tubular pneumatic key action to divided organ - 1872

  • 'Servo-pneumatic' or 'floating' pneumatic lever key action - Patented 1884

  • Electro-pneumatic key action - Pioneering use 1885

  • Fully pneumatic key action with pneumatic coupling - Patented 1889

  • Fully adjustable thumb pistons - Patented 1882

 

 

Note that thumb pistons, angled stop jambs and the radiating and concave pedal board have since become standard equipment on organs built in many countries.

'Father' Willis was assisted by his sons Henry II and Vincent, then he was succeeded in turn by Henry II, and by his grandson Henry III who assisted the 9th Duke with the Welte Player installation at Blenheim. The Willis Firm was very badly affected by the Second World War, and its factory in London was entirely destroyed by bombs. Henry Willis III struggled to maintain the reputation of the Company, but in the post-war period its Victorian image became unfashionable. The Company was at length taken over by Henry Willis IV and its unfashionable stance prevented the securing of prestigious contracts.

Since the retirement of Henry Willis IV in 1997, the Company has been under new ownership and management, while maintaining its former premises, staff, skills, capabilities and connections. The new Managing Director, David Wyld, seeks to move the company forward into the 21st century by making use of the finest independent skills available, coupled with a strongly-implemented business ethic. The retention, to a late stage, of Victorian values (especially in standards of craftsmanship so visible at Blenheim Palace) which made Henry Willis & Sons so unfashionable in the 1960s and 70s, is viewed by the new management as an asset and, possibly, something lost and now mourned by many other firms whose fashionability has resulted in the loss of skills.

Henry Willis & Sons still makes its own pipework and casts all of its own pipe metal (Plain, Spotted and High-Tin) on the same casting bench that was in the Ferndale Road, London factory, with its three-inch-thick York Stone casting surface. This enables the Company to exercise complete control over the quality of the metal for the manufacture of its pipe-work. There are few Organbuilders that still make all of their own pipework and therefore Henry Willis & Sons is regularly contracted to manufacture pipes for other firms, or to supply the cast sheet which, in the case of Plain metal, is so difficult to manufacture to a high standard.

The Willis pipe-scaling system (ratio of pipe length to diameter) developed by Father Willis has remained virtually the same since his death in 1901. This system of scaling does not rely simply on regular halving ratios and therefore it is possible to manufacture and voice flue ranks with a smooth 'power curve' throughout the compass - essential in non-church organs such as installed at Blenheim Palace. Many firms have attempted to copy these scales by careful measurement, but have failed. These are secrets which are very much guarded by the firm and only its closest advisers are allowed access to them.

High-pressure reed voicing, such as the 16" Water Gauge pressure found on the tuba stop at Blenheim is of paramount importance in the provision of tone colours pertinent to a concert organ. This has been a speciality throughout the history of the Willis company. 

 

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Photo Portrait : Father Henry Willis (1821-1901)