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I actually did meet Henry Willis III towards the end of his life when he showed members of the Friends of the Colchester Museums (of which my late father was the secretary) around the works in the Old Kent Road. I have, however, no recollection of what he was like - I was very young then and had yet to get interested in organs! I first met Henry Willis 4 (and 5) when he took a party of students from Bristol University around the works at Petersfield c.1977. At that point, he had just changed the firm's policy so that nearly all work was carried out on site. I found this interesting, because I had recently been conducted round Walkers' works at Brandon and they had decided that as much as possible should be done in shop rather than on site! I met Henry 4 again when I was organist of St. Magnus Cathedral, where he had rebuilt his father's instrument.

 

I find Henry III fascinating, not only because I admire his instruments and his use of up-to-the-minute American technology (by no means all of which he acknowledged), but because he wrote a fair deal in a style which makes for compelling reading. Apart from his contributions to the Willis house magazine, "The Rotunda", there are a number of articles in "The Organ", such as that on the then new Steinmeyer Organ in Nidaros Cathedral, Trondhjem - of particular interest in view of the recent restoration of that heroic instrument, complete with new Willis reeds to replace those lost in a fire some years ago.

 

A further insight into Henry III's views and prose style is found in Charles Callahan's book "The American Classic Organ", which consists of letters exchanged between Willis and various American correspondents, principally G. Donald Harrison, but also E.M. Skinner, Emerson Richards and others. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in 20th century organ-building.

 

Lastly, in my early years I learned a lot from the old boys in the Organ Club, many of whom had known Henry III well (I remember being amused to hear John Mee refer to Henry 4 as "Young Willis" some years after he had taken control of the firm on his father's death).

 

To some extent, I wonder if he was a disappointed man. Although he travelled widely, knew many continental and American builders and instruments personally, and was a pioneer in introducing tonal and mechanical innovations to the UK, he sometimes lamented that he never got the chance to provide, for example, a really comprehensive scheme of upper-work in a large organ (perversely, though, he was sometimes content to omit a Great Mixture - as at Freemasons' Hall, London or St. Thomas, Wandsworth - relying on a big mixture in the Swell as well as on the Willis principal that the reeds formed a part of most pleno registrations). His London factory was destroyed during the Blitz and his first wife died around the same time (he later married G. Donald Harrison's ex-wife). The economy of the times meant that most of his work consisted of rebuilds and, of his large new instruments, Sheffield City Hall is handicapped by a dead acoustic. Towards the end of his life, he was overtaken by fashion. St. Mary's, Southampton (1956), must have been one of his last big organs.

 

A great character, and a great organ-builder.

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St. Mary's, Southampton (1956), must have been one of his last big organs.

 

 

Slightly off topic....I had organ lessons here for a year at the start of my degree. An interesting instrument and the source of many hours investigation for a young undergrad. It seemed to be able to do a great deal more than one might think from just looking at the stoplist and a concert by the then DoM Jeremy Blandford consisting solely of the JSB Trio Sonatas by all accounts sounded very convincing.

 

A

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I am disappointed my plea for some first hand memories of HW III has up to now , not been fulfilled.

 

I had been hoping perhaps the last pupil-apprentice of HW ,or an organ builder involved with the 1959 Liverpool Cathedral works or colleagues of Noel Rawshorne might be prevailed upon to add a human dimension to this " great character"

 

David Drinkell highlighted something I had not noticed...the big proportion of HW's work was rebuilding rather than new.

Plumley in his book on St Pauls also detected a weariness in HW at having to repeat his work several times during the Dome works etc1925/1930/1960

 

Like David , I too visited the Willis works in Marlborough Grove in 1963 and was welcomed by Peter Hamblen who found the time to show a university student around the factory with its pipe making,voicing shops and most memorably the console shop with the Truro 4 manual console amongst several being completed.

 

I left with several brochures and typed specification sheets and an invitation to visit Ian Frost in the Edinburgh branch when I got back to Scotland. But I did not meet HW

 

The sources mentioned by David Drinkell - Rotunda,The Organ,and Callaghan's book are excellent and worth reading...perhaps I am just a little too late in asking for first hand recollections of HW III

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