Henry Willis

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For other people named Henry Willis, see Henry Willis (disambiguation).

Henry Willis (27 April 1821 – 11 February 1901) was a British organ player and builder, who is regarded as the foremost organ builder of the Victorian era.

Early Life and work[edit]

Willis was born in London, the son of a North London builder, and with George Cooper, later sub-organist of St Paul's Cathedral, he learned to play the organ with some help from Attwood, 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 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 the service.

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".[1]

Growth of his reputation[edit]

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[edit]

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 in 1899, which he voiced himself, although approaching his 80th year.

St Bees Priory organ 1899


Willis died in London in 1901. 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 28 November 1998 the total shareholding of all of the Willis family members was acquired. The Company, founded in 1845, Henry Willis & Sons, Ltd. still makes organs in Liverpool.


  1. ^ Interview in the Musical Times May 1898
  • Sumner W L, "The Organ, its evolution, principles of construction and use". 1973 ISBN 0-356-04162-X

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