Today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry “Father” Willis (27 April 1821).

Father Willis built major cathedral organs across the country, some of the most famous being at Hereford, St Paul’s, Salisbury and Truro. When Father Willis built the organ in Hereford, he was already over 70 years old and had built a huge reputation for his engineering and musical skills, as well as his keen business sense.

To mark today's anniversary, we have created a video exploring the intricacies of the Hereford Willis organ with Peter Dyke and delved into our archives to find out more about our much loved organ.

The Father Willis organ at Hereford Cathedral

You can watch and listen to more of the Father Willis organ on our YouTube channel including our Christmas Sparkle and Easter Monday recitals - click here.

Timeline of the Willis organ at Hereford Cathedral

Early 14th century

Hereford Cathedral has had an organ since at least the early 14th century – records of payment to Giles, clerk, called tailor, keeper of the organs

Early 16th century

A new organ is built in the early 16th century, but is destroyed in the Civil War


The Renatus Harris organ is built, paid for by public subscription


The Harris organ is dismantled to allow structural repairs to the tower crossing


Gray and Davison build their organ designed by Gilbert Scott, using some of the Harris organ and adding a pneumatic action


Dr G R Sinclair appointed as organist and choirmaster – he seems to be dissatisfied with the organ which leads to a rebuild in time


Henry Willis I takes charge of the organ for the first time and makes small modifications.  He had been a pupil of John Gray (afterwards of Gray and Davison) and then set up on his own


The current organ is built by Henry Willis – basically a new organ using only a few of the existing pipes.  The console at this time is within the organ case and it is the first cathedral organ in the country to have adjustable pistons that have recently been invented by Willis


Thorough cleaning, minor alterations and additions are made by Henry Willis II


Further cleaning and overhaul of the organ and the lowest octave of wooden pipes is replaced with zinc pipes by Henry Willis II


The organ’s pneumatic action is wearing out and the instrument is conservatively rebuilt by Henry Willis III.  The console is moved to the north side of the choir, an electro-pneumatic action is installed and electric blowing apparatus supersedes the 5 hydraulic engines


The original console with adjustable combination mechanism which had been preserved at the Willis factory since its removal in 1933 was destroyed by enemy action


Contracts with Henry Willis and Sons for tuning the organ


Restoration work is undertaken by the Durham form of Harrison & Harrison – they have looked after it ever since


Further restoration of the Willis organ by Harrison & Harrison supported by, among others, the then Heritage Lottery Fund.

From the archives of Hereford Cathedral

HCA 6558 Copy of letter re 1891 Organ Restoration Appeal (Pg. 1)– a copy of a letter dated 18th May 1891 appealing for subscriptions towards the “contemplated Re-building of the Organ in Hereford Cathedral”. 

The letter from Dr G R Sinclair, organist at that time, goes on to explain “As the Organ is as present, it contains many serious defects, a few of which it would be well to mention” – they include the oboe reeds being worn and that the organ’s action is clumsy and noisy and thus can be heard in the Cathedral, but emphasises “All parts of the old Organ which are in good condition will be retained”.  Subscriptions could be forwarded directly to Dr Sinclair or to the account of the Hereford Organ Restoration Fund at the Capital and Counties’ Bank in Broad Street (on the corner of Broad St and High St). 

To encourage giving, a list is enclosed of the 90 subscriptions already received, ranging from the Dean and Chapter who have given £250, the Dean himself who has given a further £100, through to the Bishop who gave £20, The Custos of the Vicars Choral – Rev Duncombe and his wife who gave £10, the Precentor who gave 2 guineas, and Messrs Marchant and Matthews who gave 10 shillings and sixpence.  According to the 1895 Jakeman and Carver’s City of Hereford Directory Marchant and Matthews were family grocers, provision merchants and Italian warehousemen – their shop was at 3 High St, just doors away from the bank – handy to make their deposit!

HCA 5902/1 – plan c1900 of the water supply for the 5 hydraulic engines that blew the bellows for the organ.  Chapter Act book HCA 7031/23 17 November 1890 says “Resolved that water be laid on for blowing the Cathedral Organ according to the plan submitted by the organist.  The cost to be paid out of the money at present subscribed for the rebuilding of the organ”.  And again 10 October 1892 “Resolved that the water be laid on for the purpose of blowing the Cathedral Organ at a cost of £60”

But – the documents don’t tell us where the engines were actually located, known only to be in the vestry entrance – this remains something of a mystery!

HCA 5917/1 Report, specification and estimates with logo – front cover of the Report, specification and estimates provided by Henry Willis & Sons Ltd re the 1933 restoration, complete with finely detailed company logo.

HCA 6066 signed contract for annual tuning of Willis organ – Tuning Contract Form, signed by Dean Waterfield and Henry Willis for twelve days of organ tuning between 1 July 1943 and 30 June 1944, at a cost of £44.  The contract excludes “attention or repair to the Blowing machinery”

HCA 6527/7 new piece for the organ written for the reopening 2005 plus intro – this piece was written by Lindsay Lafford, Lord of Ridley, who had been a chorister at Hereford Cathedral from 1922, before becoming an articled pupil and then assistant organist to Percy Hull, before moving to Hong Kong in 1935.  Thus, he was present at the restoration in 1933 and had some marvellous anecdotes about the occasion.  Lafford died in 2014 and his ashes are interred at Hereford Cathedral.

We hope you have enjoyed this glimpse into the Father Willis organ at Hereford Cathedral as much as we have enjoyed creating it! We know how many people appreciate and care for this wonderful organ and we are very grateful to all of those who have supported us over the years. If you would like to make a donation to support the work of Hereford Cathedral, please click here.