The current organ was not
the first to be installed in the library. In 1888, by order of the 8th Duke of
Marlborough, a twenty-eight stop three manual organ was built by the Yorkshire firm of
Isaac Abbott to be placed in the Long Library. Unfortunately it was not a success
whether tonally or mechanically, is not recorded. A few months later the 8th
Duke contacted Henry Willis, the foremost organ builder of the day, to draw up plans for a
four manual organ. The redundant organ was moved to the Anglican Church of St. Swithun, in
Lewisham, London, by the then merged firm of Abbott & Smith.
Henry Willis designed and
built the new organ at the Willis Rotunda Organ Works in Camden, London. It was
transported in sections and assembled in the large bay window opposite the entrance to the
library, and over the next two and a half years, Henry Willis worked on its construction.
Duchess Lillian reported on the "zeal and enthusiasm with which Henry Willis carried
out every detail of his work". The cost of the organ at that time was £3,669
equivalent to approximately £240,000 today.
This grand organ was the
inspiration of the 8th Duke of Marlborough and his wife Lillian, but sadly he
only enjoyed it for one year prior to his death in November 1892. The inscription above
the organ bears the initials of the Duke and his wife (MM and LM), and their prediction
"we leave thy voice to speak within these walls in years to come" is happily
very much still the case.
The first resident
organist was Mr F. Cunningham Woods, MA, Organist at Exeter College Oxford who held the
post for three years. In September 1894 Dr C. W. Perkins was appointed as organist at
Blenheim, moving from his position as Birmingham City Organist. Dr. Perkins remained in
the post until his death in 1923, and presided over an eventful period in the organs
life. He carefully documented the early years of the organs history, and much of the
material in this booklet is taken from Perkins hand-written diary.
The organ was the
backdrop to several famous visits in its early years. On November 23rd 1896 the
Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) visited for 1 week, and greatly enjoyed the organ,
particularly Wagner opera transcriptions. Three years later, the German Emperor visited
Blenheim with His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, and listened to a recital of Wagner
and Handel. He likened playing the organ to "steering a great battleship", and
was so taken by the organist that he invited the latter to play in Berlin, an invitation
that was later accepted.
The four main wind
reservoirs in the cellar below the organ were operated by three hydraulic engines, which
took their water pressure from the lake in the park.
One of three bellows providing wind for the
In 1902, it was decided
to move the organ from its position in the bay window to the north end of the library,
where it stands now. At an age when electric motors were becoming available, the move also
allowed the hydraulic power plant to be replaced with large 50 volt motors. This move was
carried out by Norman and Beard of Norwich at a cost then of £314, who made regular
visits at the time to carry out cleaning and maintenance. The original reciprocating
drives that used to operate the bellows are still in place in the cellar beneath the
organ, and one of these is shown below. The electric motor has been removed from this
view.During the First World War (1914-1918), the Long Library served as a convalescent
hospital, and the organ was much used for the entertainment of the troops. The furniture
and carpets were removed and 50 hospital beds were placed in the library.
There is little record of
the organs use immediately after the war, but in the early 1930s the electric motors
were replaced with more efficient centrifugal blowers, supplied by the "British Organ
Blowing Company", now BOB Stevenson Ltd. in Derby. In 1930 the 9th Duke of
Marlborough enquired of the Willis firm (now Henry Willis III) about an automatic playing
method, which he had heard at a house in America. It was agreed that the Willis firm would
overhaul the organ, add electric actuators to the action, and add a player mechanism that
would operate the Great, Swell and Pedals, as well as the stops and swell shutters.
The new "Welte"
system was installed in 1931. It comprised a separate console, which would take paper
rolls, electrical signals from which were transmitted to the main organ.
At the first
demonstration of the new player (a Wagner transcription), the Duke seemed to loose
interest in the system. The truth was that the paper roll being played was produced on a
small two-manual organ with limited stops, so did not fully exploit the Willis organ at
Blenheim. Aubrey Thompson-Allen (managing Director of the Willis company) re-registered
the music on the Welte player, transforming the sound. The Duke immediately became
enthusiastic, and insisted on learning how to do the registration himself. He did this
later at a concert attended by Thomas Beecham and Henry Wood.
A large collection of
rolls is available at Blenheim, but very few have been specifically registered for this
organ, so the sound is not as it could be. Rolls exist from organists from prominent
composers from the early 20th Century, such as Edwin Lemare, Alfred Hollins and
Marcel Dupré. A project is underway to convert these paper rolls into permanent midi
Successive Dukes of
Marlborough it is said have enjoyed sitting at the console and apparently
"playing" to guests, to whom the Welte-player secret is revealed only after
applause! On one occasion cover was blown, when the Welte mechanism started prematurely
while the Duke concerned was still some distance from the organ. History does not record
what he said about it.
The Welte Player is now
no longer used, and a midi interface was added in 1997 to the organ, allowing recording
and playback if required.