Author Topic: Willis History  (Read 19406 times)

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David Pinnegar

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Willis History
« on: March 22, 2013, 02:23:44 PM »
Hi!

A friend has given me the tip-off that the Willis firm is likely to be the source of the most wonderfully colourful stories of all organ builders. Episodes include eccentricity, authoritarianism and a heirarchical structure, all ingredients for the breeding ground of a good story.

One perception is that really it was the Lewis firm that took over Willis with Willis' firm's finances in a parlous state but it was Willis' name which endured. Apparently documents relating to a possible bankruptcy were pasted on the under-side of the soundboard of a major instrument.

These snippets are hints that people's recollections of the history would make good reading.

Best wishes

David P
David Pinnegar, BSc ARCS

David Wyld

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Re: Willis History
« Reply #1 on: March 22, 2013, 03:34:05 PM »
Here we go again!

This is ALL nonsense I'm afraid.  I get VERY angry when this sort of rubbish raises its head, regularly, on various lists - does no-one ever read ANYTHING written anywhere else??   I posted this on the Mander forum some time ago:

*************************

HW1 did leave things in a mess in 1901, but that didn't bankrupt either the firm or the family: The family did want to wind everything up and share out the 'dibs' but HW2 resolved to pay all his father's debts (when at that time they could actually have walked away from the situation) and in so doing he put both himself and the firm in a difficult position - which ultimately resulted in his failing health and mental breakdown. He died in 1927.

After Lewis got his own firm into financial difficulties (not for the first time) he was bailed out by John Courage, whom he knew through the Architect, Bentley and it was Courage who set up Lewis & Co. in 1901 - under the Co. Reg. No. 70718. Bentley designed and built the new Lewis factory premises at Ferndale Road in Brixton, again funded by Courage.

After the end of WW1 Lewis had lost the greater part of its Staff, John Courage had had enough of losing money via organbuilding ventures and Willis were looking for larger premises:  it was 'arranged' that the Partners in Henry Willis & Sons would purchase the shareholding in Lewis & Co. This had to be the case since at that time it was legally impossible for a Partnership - i.e. a non-limited Company - to take over a Limited Company. The sale of the shares was assisted by Courage himself who took a debenture over the Company with its new "Willis" Directors, loaning the money of the purchase of the shares by the Willis partners.  Due to the legal requirements, on the purchase of the Lewis shares, in 1919, the Company was then renamed Henry Willis & Sons and Lewis & Company Limited.

Of course the same thing had occurred in 1915 between Hill & Son & Norman & Beard Ltd..

John Courage remained on the Board of the Company for several years (his name/signature appears regularly in the Directors meetings book) and in 1926, or thenabouts, the Lewis part of the name was dropped - presumably there was a seven-year rule to be passed before the new 'owners' could revert to their own name.

I was appointed as Managing Director in October 1997 and arranged the purchase of the entire shareholding from the remaining family share holders in November of that year and it was as a part of THAT process that I discovered that, even though it had all been repaid, the Courage Debenture still remained on the Companies House records and an application for its removal was submitted and accepted. We (Henry Willis & Sons Ltd.) are still the same Company, registered under the same, originally Lewis & Co., registration number, 70718.

*****************

So, can we have this right please - there has never been any Willis Bankruptcy and I would question entirely the assertion made that there are papers pasted in any soundboard saying anything of the sort.

By the way, these are not "recollections" of the history, they are the facts as documented in the firm's archives.  Your friends tip-off is nothing other than rumour and scandalization!

David Wyld

David Pinnegar

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Re: Willis History
« Reply #2 on: March 22, 2013, 06:03:25 PM »
Dear David

Thanks

Most interesting. One suspects that the facts might be enlarged in the telling at times perhaps. It's been said that in victorian times the factory ran by "Willis time", with the implication of a rather authoritarian regime imposed on employees then. Again this might have been a necessity as at some stage before the introduction of standard time with the railways, different towns ran by different clocks. . . .

However, I hope that in spawning this thread anyone with personal recollections and first hand information might be persuaded to write about it. . .

Of course all these things relate to people long passed away and have no bearing upon the present firm. But a colourful history presents all the more interesting heritage upon which a future is built.

Best wishes

David P
« Last Edit: March 22, 2013, 06:06:11 PM by David Pinnegar »
David Pinnegar, BSc ARCS

Pierre Lauwers

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Re: Willis History
« Reply #3 on: March 22, 2013, 10:17:20 PM »
There are "stories" and "games" within the every other family, and
business, on earth,
so that the historical interest of such material is rather limited I am afraid.
We are so tiny things !
So it might be better to stick to the facts I believe.

Best wishes,
Peter

David Drinkell

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Re: Willis History
« Reply #4 on: March 23, 2013, 12:07:00 AM »
I've known a good few Willis-trained organ men over the years.  All testify to the excellence of their tutelege.  It was a strict regime, but no more so, I think, than most craft shops in those days.  I visited the works at Petersfield in about 1978 and it was still a tight ship.  HW4 could appear imperious, but he was a kind-hearted and generous man beneath it all.

revtonynewnham

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Re: Willis History
« Reply #5 on: March 23, 2013, 10:09:43 AM »
Hi

Thanks to David Wyld for putting the record straight from historical sources.

Every Blessing

Tony

pcnd5584

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Re: Willis History
« Reply #6 on: March 25, 2013, 09:39:41 AM »
Stories and rumours aside, one only has to read back-issues of The Rotunda to gain an insight into the character of HWIII. He was probably one of the most innovative, well-travelled and open-minded organ builders of his time. Many instruments which bear his name were ground-breaking in one sense or another. That at Westminster Cathedral was (and is) a truly stunning instrument - with a scheme which illustrated clearly that HWIII was not content simply to produce yet another 'Edwardian' * cathedral organ.

This said, I do not believe that he was always right - but then, who is? Even his schemes showed many similarities and a clear, often predictable 'house style' (although this is probably inevitable). The work undertaken at Southwark Cathedral, in 1952, was nothing short of disastrous and perhaps indicated that, as HWIII approached old age, he became more intransigent, less able to distinguish true genius in the work of other builders.



* Yes, I know that George V was king at the time, but I regard  the description of an organ as 'Edwardian' to be sufficiently identifiable to warrant its use, here.
« Last Edit: March 25, 2013, 09:41:29 AM by pcnd5584 »
Pierre Cochereau rocked, man

David Pinnegar

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Re: Willis History
« Reply #7 on: March 26, 2013, 12:58:30 AM »
Hi!

The thread is developing with hints of exactly why the Willis heritage is so very important and deserves documentation as a matter of historical record. The firm has reflected both organ building trends and social history over a considerable period and the documentation of this would very much widen the reach of organ building as a matter of general interest. To do so would be to the benefit of organs in their perception as part of the country's heritage to be valued and the current Willis firm in particular.

Hopefully therefore people with recollections and first hand knowledge might come forward . . .

Best wishes

David P

David Pinnegar, BSc ARCS

David Drinkell

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Re: Willis History
« Reply #8 on: March 26, 2013, 01:25:47 AM »
Stories and rumours aside, one only has to read back-issues of The Rotunda to gain an insight into the character of HWIII. He was probably one of the most innovative, well-travelled and open-minded organ builders of his time. Many instruments which bear his name were ground-breaking in one sense or another. That at Westminster Cathedral was (and is) a truly stunning instrument - with a scheme which illustrated clearly that HWIII was not content simply to produce yet another 'Edwardian' * cathedral organ.

This said, I do not believe that he was always right - but then, who is? Even his schemes showed many similarities and a clear, often predictable 'house style' (although this is probably inevitable). The work undertaken at Southwark Cathedral, in 1952, was nothing short of disastrous and perhaps indicated that, as HWIII approached old age, he became more intransigent, less able to distinguish true genius in the work of other builders.


I'm a great admirer of Henry Willis III.  While agreeing about the historically disastrous effect of his work at Southwark, I think he made a conscientious attempt to improve certain unsatisfactory aspects of the organ as Lewis left it.  For a start, it's very badly positioned and a long way from the choir-stalls.  Willis tried to improve matters by moving the Choir Organ to a position directly behind the north stalls, with the console next to it - and both are still there. Hindsight may not have proved him right, but the logic is clear.  Again, the Lewis Swell was reckoned to be buried, and Willis sought to improve it by upping the pressure and fitting his amplifiers to the flue pipes.  No doubt he changed the character of Lewis's pedal reeds completely, but (according to Ralph Downes) he did the same to his grandfather's reeds at St. Paul's.  I haven't heard the organ since it was restored.

The late Harry Coles, who wrote screeds of ever more flowery prose about Southwark, said that funds wouldn't allow HWIII to do as much as he wanted, so he never made much of it in his advertising.

Barrie Davis

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Re: Willis History
« Reply #9 on: March 26, 2013, 01:43:33 PM »
I really wish the Rotunda could be printed in some form to make it available for people to see how Willis were developing at this time. I borrowed some copies some 40 years ago and they were most enlightening. One issue ,emtions St Judes Thornton Heath, I did message Carlo Curley to find out what was happening to this instrument, but due to his death never got a reply. Does David Wylde know the fate of this instrument?

Best wishes

Barrie

rh1306

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Re: Willis History
« Reply #10 on: March 27, 2013, 12:03:45 AM »
I believe the Thornton Heath instrument went to Japan...

revtonynewnham

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Re: Willis History
« Reply #11 on: March 27, 2013, 07:07:55 AM »
Hi

NPOR records the following about the St Jude Thornton heath Willis' fate:-

1980s (late) - organ removed from church;
1997 - in storage "somewhere in the country" the property of Carlo Curley,
who bought it to save it from going for scrap;
1999 - organ appears to be in an organbuilder's workshop in Tokyo;
(still there in 2009 (TGi);
2004 - believed to be destined for one of the (24) civic halls in Tokyo;
(further information as to the organs current whereabouts would be
appreciated -Ed.)

Every Blessing

Tony

David Drinkell

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Re: Willis History
« Reply #12 on: March 28, 2013, 06:01:48 AM »
St. Jude's, Thornton Heath was a fabulous beast!  From the outside, no one would guess that such a little church would contain that amount of organ (outside of the USA, anyway).  The effect, though massive, was not too much for the building, and the enclosed Great was very useful.  Everything was of the highest quality and the tonal finish was immaculate.  It was the more remarkable, given that the voicing was normal Willis III - pretty lively.  The console was a sight to behold, with its five balanced pedals (Great, Swell, Choir, Chancel and Crescendo), and full Willis provision of rocking tablets and pistons.  It was incredibly versatile, and the variety of individual tones (including Sylvestrina and a really good French Horn) was positively Skinneresque.

The St. Magnus Cathedral organ had Willis and Lewis bellows weights (it was built in 1925).  I have one which I use as a paper-weight (pace DW, there were several spares lying in a corner!).

It has been suggested that the Lewis connection secured Willis the Westminster Cathedral contract - a sort of inheritance after the merger - although Harrisons' certainly tendered for it as well, so there is no question of Willis having been a shoo-in.

The Steinmeyer at Trondhjem Cathedral is hopefully going to be restored to its original condition, including the Willis-style reeds (which were destroyed by fire while in store after the last rather unfortunate rebuild).  It would be rather splendid if the present Willis firm did the job, or at least supplied the new reeds.

Pierre Lauwers

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Re: Willis History
« Reply #13 on: March 28, 2013, 07:14:49 AM »
The Trondheim Steinmeyer is in quite good hands anyway
with the outstanding Kuhn firm (Männedorf, ZH / CH):

http://www.orgelbau.ch/site/index.cfm?1=1&laufnummer=801590&fuseaction=orgelbau.orgelportrait&ID_SITE=52&id_art=4437&vsprache=EN

"The original specification of the organ will be reinstated, the pipes restored or reconstructed"
(Quote)

Best wishes,
Pierre

pcnd5584

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Re: Willis History
« Reply #14 on: March 28, 2013, 10:43:06 PM »
The Trondheim Steinmeyer is in quite good hands anyway
with the outstanding Kuhn firm (Männedorf, ZH / CH):

http://www.orgelbau.ch/site/index.cfm?1=1&laufnummer=801590&fuseaction=orgelbau.orgelportrait&ID_SITE=52&id_art=4437&vsprache=EN

"The original specification of the organ will be reinstated, the pipes restored or reconstructed"
(Quote)

Best wishes,
Pierre

This is good news. This instrument has had a somewhat unhappy existence to-date, being unceremoniously butchered in the 1960s. It is good to see that it is to be restored to its 1930's state.
Pierre Cochereau rocked, man

David Wyld

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Re: Willis History
« Reply #15 on: March 28, 2013, 11:51:04 PM »
David's comments are extremely flattering.   

Perhaps now is the appropriate time to announce that HW&S have been contracted to make and voice the following stops for the 'new' Trondheim organ:

Solo: 
Stentor Diapason
Stentor Gamba
Contra Tuba
Tuba
Tuba Clarion
Orchestral Trumpet

Swell:
French Horn

We have a long association with the Steinmeyer family and Paul Steinmeyer and I had discussed the matter of the Trondheim organ some time ago. Kuhn have visited us here at the factory in Liverpool and we have an extremely close working relationship in this project.

Luckily we have original records from 1929 to allow us to recreate these stops AND, even more luckily, some French Horn shallots!!  All of the blocks are cast for the new reeds, the shallots prepared and immediately after the Easter break we begin the 'fitting up'.

We are very privileged to be involved in this project - which I had kept under wraps until now, but as the cat does appear to be out of the bag, I'll be happy to keep the list posted, if that would be interesting?

Exciting times!

DW

David Drinkell

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Re: Willis History
« Reply #16 on: March 29, 2013, 07:39:31 AM »
That's great news.  Even in its mutilated form, Trondhjem was an impressive instrument - there was that aura about the sound which only comes from a tremendous number of pipes sounding together (as at Liverpool or, perhaps more similarly, Weingarten) - but it needed the big reeds which it lost in the sixties.  I'd be very interested to know how the work is going, and what is being done about a case since the old one went back  to clothe its original instrument when it was reinstated.

The article in 'The Organ' about the Trondhjem organ was HWIII at his most omnipotent - very good reading!
« Last Edit: March 29, 2013, 07:43:58 AM by David Drinkell »

revtonynewnham

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Re: Willis History
« Reply #17 on: March 29, 2013, 09:46:40 AM »
Good news indeed David (DW). 

Every Blessing

Tony

Pierre Lauwers

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Re: Willis History
« Reply #18 on: March 29, 2013, 03:53:34 PM »
Would the times be changing ????
Fine !
Pierre

David Pinnegar

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Re: Willis History
« Reply #19 on: April 20, 2013, 01:06:15 AM »
Hi!

What encouraging news!

I hope that perhaps some historical documents might be hidden under the new rebuilt instrument's soundboards as they were at Faversham, I'm led to believe, but now relating to joys rather than sadness.

Increasingly I'm viewing heritage as something that helps us relate to the story of humanity, the human story, and it's very apparent that the Willis firm is very much part of this. The history of the firm in all its human colour would put the organ  into perspective perhaps even surpassing the popularity of Gosford Park or Downton Abbey.

Best wishes

David P
« Last Edit: April 20, 2013, 10:23:12 AM by David Pinnegar »
David Pinnegar, BSc ARCS

 


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