was a British organ player and builder, who is regarded as the foremost organ builder of the Victorian era.
Early Life and work
Willis was the son of a North London builder, and with George Cooper
George Cooper was an English organist and music educator. Born in Lambeth, Cooper was the son of organist George Cooper, Sr. He succeeded his father as assistant organist at St Paul's Cathedral in 1838; having already substituted for his father periodically since 1831...
, later sub-organist of St Paul's Cathedral, he learned to play the organ with some help from Attwood
Thomas Attwood was an English composer and organist.The son of a musician in the royal band, Attwood was born in London. At the age of nine he became a chorister in the Chapel Royal. In 1783 he was sent to study abroad at the expense of the Prince of Wales , who had been favourably impressed by...
, the St Paul's organist. In 1835 Willis was articled to organ builder John Gray for seven years. During this time he invented the manual and pedal couplers which he used throughout his later career. He also became organist of Christ Church Hoxton, which was the first of a series of organist posts; Christ Church, Hampstead
Christ Church Hampstead is a Church of England church in Hampstead, London. It is the original church of Hampstead and the Heath.-History:The present church was erected between 1850 and 1852 to designs by the architect Samuel Daukes in the Early English Gothic style. In 1860 a timber gallery was...
from 1852 to 1859, and for nearly thirty years at the Chapel-of-Ease, Islington. He was renowned for always arranging his business trips so he could return by Sunday to play for service. His middle names were Aethel-Billop.
Following his apprenticeship he worked for three years in Cheltenham, assisting an instrument maker, W E Evans, who specialised in free reed instruments. Willis later attributed his personal skill in reed voicing to this experience. Willis met Samuel Wesley at Cheltenham, and this led to the re-building of the Gloucester Cathedral organ in 1847. Willis had become an independent organ builder and commented; "It was my stepping stone to fame...I received £400 for the job, and was presumptuous enough to marry".
Growth of his reputation
For the Great Exhibition of 1851, Willis erected the largest of the organs exhibited. He introduced several novel features, which had a significant effect on organ design. Piston buttons were inserted between the manual to allow automatic selection of blocks of "stops", and Barker lever servo action was used on the manuals to enable the size and complexity of the instrument to be released from the constraints of tracker action connecting rods. After the exhibition ended, the instrument was erected as a cut-down version in Winchester Cathedral.
The Foremost Victorian Organ Builder
The Exhibition organ led to the contract for St George's Hall, Liverpool, where the virtuosic playing of W T Best drew large crowds, and also spread the fame of Willis as a builder still further. In a long career stretching to the end of the Nineteenth Century, Willis subsequently built the organs at the Alexandra Palace, the Albert Hall, and St Paul's Cathedral. Of the approximately 1,000 organs he built or re-built, were the cathedral instruments at Truro, Salisbury, Carlisle, Exeter, Canterbury, Lincoln, Durham, Glasgow, Wells, Gloucester, and Hereford. In addition there were a large number of concert and parish church organs of note, including the organ at Windsor Castle. The last major instrument which he personally supervised was at St Bees Priory
St Bees Priory is the parish church of St Bees, Cumbria. The Benedictine priory was founded by William le Meschin, Lord of Egremont on an earlier religious site, and was dedicated by Archbishop Thurstan of York sometime between 1120 and 1135...
in 1899, which he voiced himself, although approaching his 80th year.
His instruments can be found across the world, particularly in the former British Empire, and his superb reed voicing and excellent mechanical craftmanship can still be experienced on many instruments today.
Four generations of the Willis family continued the family tradition of organ building until 1997 when Henry Willis 4 retired, and the first non-family Managing Director was appointed. On the 28th November 1998 the total shareholding of all of the Willis family members was acquired.
The Company, founded in 1845, Henry Willis & Sons
thumb|250px|St Bees Priory organ, the last major instrument to be personally supervised by "Father" Henry Willis, 1899Henry Willis & Sons is a British firm of pipe organ builders founded in 1845 in Liverpool. Although most of their installations have been in the UK, examples can be found in other...
, Ltd. still makes organs in Liverpool
Liverpool is a city and metropolitan borough of Merseyside, England, along the eastern side of the Mersey Estuary. It was founded as a borough in 1207 and was granted city status in 1880...