The Organ
The Alexandra Palace Organ Appeal
Registered Charity No.:285222, London N22 7AY
The Organ in 1993

This text was written by Henry Willis 4 in 1993 and reveals much about the difficulties he faced in the early days of restoration, and of his thoughts for the future of the project.


Labour of Love

by Henry Willis, 4, 1993.

After my late Father's work on the `Ally Pally' organ which was completed in 1929, I was taken to Cunningham's Re-opening and many of the following organ recitals including at least one by my Godmother, Helen Hogan (Coome), Dupre, Marchal, Goss-Custard, Germani and others. There is a story that during the thunderous applause for Marchal, following a very loud encore, I hid under my seat and subsequently told my father "Daddy, when I grow up you can build the big organs; I will build the little ones". It proved to be true, for I have built quite a few small organs, besides rebuilding or restoring quite a few large ones.

The Father Willis organ in St. George's Hall, Liverpool which I restored to my father's specification and with his guidance and help, was a great apprenticeship for the work on the Ally Pally organ. Much of that pipework too, was severely mutilated and its Restoration was of particular interest to me, especially as I was also dealing with my father's pristine pipework in Liverpool Cathedral at that time.

When Hitler lifted the roof of the Palace, over the organ, many of the parts and pipes were fairly rapidly moved down and into one aisle of the Hall where the roof was sound. One day when my father was on army leave he visited, heard sawing and found that there were signs of someone having been lying down on some of the smaller pipes on one soundboard, causing damage. He also discovered discarded condoms, then unmentionable and going by another name! The organ parts were soon moved to the rooms behind the organ, where they were kept under two locks, with two keys - one for Willis and one for Ally Pally - to ensure only mutual access.

When I visited the Palace several years later, the Willis lock had been struck off with a fireman's hatchet and the pipes had been mutilated, some converted into alcohol and many mixed up. A photograph is available. The organ was put up for sale and I was persuaded to join in a bid - "to make it acceptable" - to save the organ from going for scrap, and as my partner in the bid did not provide either labour or cash, I became the owner of the instrument: I removed some soundboards and the console, and much of the pipework to my Huddersfield factory.

The organ front, including the 32' Open Metal, the 32' wooden side-fronts, the frame and the casework were left in the Hall by mutual consent, because the Palace did not want to have to fill the hole in and I did not want to remove it, as I only hoped eventually to restore the instrument into its proper home. Also in the bottom of the organ was a mass of dismantled bellows-work, and photographs are available. Then came the order to clear up inside the organ with a view to Restoration, but the 1980 fire occurred and all that was still on site, including the building frame and the swell boxes, was totally destroyed. The heat was so great that the metal pipes were not merely melted, but vaporized. A lot of negotiation took place, including my having to write off the £51,504.12 that it had cost me to buy, remove and store the parts. In the 1985 28≠page Contract (with details of the environment and working conditions in the Hall and times for payment etc., which was never honoured by the then Management of the Palace) the price of Restoration was set at the 1968 figure of £66,435 which I had quoted before the fire, up-dated in accordance with the Schedule of the Federation of Master Organ Builders. So the replacement of all of the parts (excluding the casework) and pipes lost in the fire had to be within the pre-fire quotation before the contract was accepted.

Only the Organ Adviser and the Quantity Surveyors honoured their contracts as far as my work was concerned. The price of all of the outstanding work is similarly at the 1985 contract price, updated in accordance with the Schedule of the Federation of Master Organ Builders and without any added storage charges. Please do not allow anybody to tell you that the price has been going up, - it is only the delay and the resulting inflation. And, if you are told that "This job is a 'money spinner' for Willis", please deduct £51,504 at 1985 values, plus the cost of replacing three very large swell boxes and their fronts and two 32' stops, one wood and one metal!

Of course, I had hoped to be given the order to restore the whole organ, but eventually I was given the order for a little part of each of the Great, Swell and Pedal. It was to have been controlled from a 2-manual and Pedal console, to be loaned by me, but the order was expanded to include the console and the Solo Trombas and Tuba. I selected the stops which I thought would be most suitable to produce Music, Municipal Sounds and a flavour of the old instrument, which would indicate that I am capable.

In the event, the little bit that was done was so successful that I was assured that it would be perfectly satisfactory as it was and the organ would therefore never be completed or even enlarged further! Fortunately since that time, the Management has changed and I have been allowed to restore a part of the Choir organ which, despite the entry of water, was finished early in 1994.

The problems of piecemeal restoration weigh heavily on any Master Organ Builder, and not only from the tonal viewpoint; the whole work was broken down into phases, each with part of the quotation allocated to it. So the Restoration had to be designed so that each phase carried its own share of building frame, bellows and swell boxing. Only the electric blowers and the console were considered as complete items in themselves, and of course the unusable parts there suffer from age, dirt and wear (in the case of the blowers).

The central feature of the organ, the Great Arch and the pipes which stand above it, was the first part to be Restored and the Great stoplist was chosen partly to provide a similar appearance to the original with all original metal stops on view including the tiny mixture pipes. The front pipes above the arch had to include six pipes of too large a scale to use in that preliminary partial Great and I have loaned these until they are paid for as a part of some future phase.

The lengths of all the Father Willis original soundboards are the same, at 10 feet 6 inches. They were so cumbersome and heavy to remove that I cut them all in half and fitted an extra central soundboard rail to carry the joint. The soundboards have wide, central passage boards which allowed me to wind them in `sides' with a bellows immediately under each set of pallets, of which there are two, - so there are four bellows under the present small Great and four bellows under the present small Swell (which temporarily stands where the next two Great soundboards will stand) with the Choir box front on it. In the old organ, the distance from the bellows up to the soundboards caused winding which was, then, quite acceptable to people. Modem critics can hear it on the old recordings if they listen for defects rather than to the music - a common contemporary approach.

It may seem very wasteful that temporary action such as this should be taken, but because of the way the building frame has been redesigned and restored, the required alterations will occupy a very small proportion of the total time required to manufacture and restore each phase.

The front soundboard of the Choir organ has been restored with nine ranks of original pipes, set out in a more convenient order than the 1929 alterations. The rails for the back soundboard are ready, waiting, and when that is provided the choir organ can be enclosed. It is at this stage that I might be in trouble, because the Choir box is, presently, around the temporary Swell, immediately in front of the Choir! It may well be necessary to provide the Swell lower-level building frame above the Choir (as it was formerly) and then to move the temporary Swell box there. If the order for more of the Swell organ is broken down as the order for the Choir organ has been, then we may have to provide a further temporary swell box (as the proposed, vast, double-height, double-width swell box could not be provided within the price of a `reduced' phase) but this would suit the Solo organ later!

Each time tonal additions are made, the pipes are physically restored and then balanced against the existing installed pipework and set to Willis balance. How much easier it would be to do it all together! This tall and skinny central feature needed both physically and aesthetically to be supported by things at the sides. The temporary old Willis Pedal Open Wood 16' (to be the extension of the 32') is set up in two `sides' each with its own building frame and bellows and attached as stabilizers to the main frame. But now we have the Choir building frame attached behind, the physical need is less. The Pedal Open Woods are designed as part of the fronts at each side of the organ, to be restored in much their original positions with more than the expected octave of pipes below them to allow the original scale to obtain, preferably after there is more Pedal 16' stuff to balance against the manuals. Again the alteration will occupy a very small fraction of the cost of that phase. How much easier it would be to do it all together!

Fortunately, my career-long colleague Peter Cobon and my Son, John Sinclair Willis, have participated with me in the pre-fire inspections and the post-fire planning and restoration; so, when other organ builders rejoice at my demise, Peter and John will happily be able to continue the work entrusted to me on his deathbed by my Father.

Henry Willis, 4



When Mr. Willis refers to converting organ pipes into alcohol, he is not being at all facetious and in fact the worst possibility one can bring to mind is exactly that to which he refers. For reasons that will soon become apparent, pipes of roughly 5-8ft in length were ideal subjects for the conversion. The converter would firstly stamp the pipe flat and bend it into a circle such that it would wrap around his waist. Thus secreted, the pipe could easily be removed from The Palace, and remain undetected until it was extricated at the establishment of the converter's friend, who was of course a scrap metal merchant. The remains of the pipe would thus be exchanged for its scrap metal value in money. The final stage of the conversion was the easiest and required only the services of a local hostelry

It is incredible to think that some of Father Willis's original pipework, from the organ Dupre called "The Finest Concert Organ in Europe" should be melted down for scrap metal to pay someone's bar bill.