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 organ’s life. He carefully documented the early years of the organ’s history, and much of the material in this booklet is taken from Perkin’s 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 organ

 

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 organ’s 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 recordings.

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.