31 July 2022

How the Father Willis organ
in Stony Stratford came to
Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church

The ‘Father Willis’ pipe organ in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford, was installed in 1967-1969 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Since moving to Stony Stratford some months ago, I have been attending the Parish Eucharist in Saint Mary and Giles Church each Sunday.

The parish has a long tradition of Anglo-Catholic liturgy, and one of the pleasures there is listening to the choir and the Father Willis organ, under the musical director Jonathan Kingston.

Henry Willis (1821-1901), also known as ‘Father’ Willis, was an English organ player and builder, and he is regarded as the foremost organ builder of the Victorian era. His company Henry Willis & Sons remains in business.

The pipe organ in Stony Stratford is 140 years old this year. It is a three-manual Henry Willis organ that came from Saint George’s Church, Edinburgh – now a register archive office. It was installed in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church in 1967-1969. It plays an important part in parish worship every week and is used regularly for rehearsals of the Parish Singers, concerts, recitals, weddings and funerals.

Pipe organs need major refurbishment every 25-30 years because leathers perish and some moving parts wear out. This organ has been maintained over the years and has had some parts replaced, now at last, after 10 years of fundraising, the organ has been restored and the intended Willis III specification of 1932 completed.

The instrument now has great potential as a recital or teaching instrument. It has a wide range of stops providing rich tone and colour.

FH Browne & Sons of Kent completed the restoration work in December 2015. Before restoration work began in 2014, it was used for recitals, but the action was increasingly unreliable. So, although it was used for regular teaching and as a practice instrument by several young organ scholars, its unreliability limited all players from realising its full potential.

This Willis pipe organ has a fascinating history that encompasses two home locations – in Scotland and England – and reflects the social, economic and industrial changes from the Victorian era to the 21st Century. It is unique as it consists of pipes and action by the first three generations of the famous organ building family of Henry Willis & Sons Ltd and the professional advice and work of the fourth generation of that family.

The Willis organ was built in 1882 for Saint George’s Church on Charlotte Square, Edinburgh, as a two-manual instrument by Henry Willis I, known popularly as ‘Father Willis’. The church had been built in 1814, and for the first 68 years music was provided by an unaccompanied choir, as the tradition in the Scottish church did not include pipe organs.

The 1880s were the height of the organ building period in the late 19th century, when many churches were being built and many town halls were having concert organs installed. Henry Willis I was the most prolific and successful organ builder of that time. However, Saint George’s had previously approached Harrison & Harrison for a quote for an organ in 1879. They provided an estimate for a four-manual instrument at £1,200 and a three-manual instrument at £900.

It was enlarged by Henry Willis I and II in 1896 to a three-manual organ. Some cleaning work was carried out in 1914 and further cleaning was done in 1925, under the direction of Willis III using a local sub-contractor or representative.

Henry Willis III enlarged the organ a bit more in 1932, with further stops of pipes, and he replaced the old console with a new electric console.

Although Henry Willis III planned to include three new stops in the choir – Tierce, Nazard and Piccolo – only the stop knobs were installed in the new console, but the pipes were not included at the time.

A 1933 issue of the Rotunda outlined the restoration and enlargement work carried out by Henry Willis III in 1932 and included a specification, which indicated that he had installed the 16 ft Waldhorn pipes in the Swell.

When Saint George’s closed, the congregation merged with Saint Andrew’s Church in George Street, to become Saint Andrew’s and Saint George’s Church. The building was acquired by the Borough of Edinburgh, was renovated and is now the West Records House.

A post-Christmas fire broke out in Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford, on 26 December 1964, and the old two-manual Kirkland organ in the north-east gallery was destroyed completely.

Saint Giles Church became Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church when it was rededicated on Palm Sunday in April 1968 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Starmer Shaw was about to restore that instrument. Starmer-Shaw was owned at the time by Dr Ingram of Earls Barton, a member of the Ingram family of organ builders of Scotland, which how he came to know of the availability of the instrument.

Dr Ingram had previously brought a 50-year-old two-manual Harrison & Harrison organ from Holy Trinity Church, Edinburgh, to Saint Mary’s Church in Haversham, Northamptonshire, in 1962. When the fire happened, Dr Ingram told Father Cecil Hutchings, the Vicar of Saint Giles, and Derek Savage, the organist, of a suitable instrument to replace the old organ when the church was restored. A few months previously he had inspected the Willis organ in the closed Saint George’s Church with a view to buying it.

Dr Ingram trained as an organ builder, but did not do any organ-building himself, leaving all the work to his employee, Pat Malone, who was trained at the ‘Willis’ factory.’

Although both the vicar and the organist agreed, after they had inspected the Willis organ in storage, that it was a good instrument for Saint Giles Church, they could not commit the church to buying the organ until the future of Saint Giles and the neighbouring Saint Mary’s Church was resolved, as the two parishes were about to be merged.

At one point there was a real chance that Saint Giles Church would be closed permanently because of the fire. Eventually, however, it was decided that the larger Saint Giles would be restored and St Mary’s Church closed.

The Willis organ was bought in 1967, and Father Hutchings paid the deposit himself. It was installed during 1967-1969 in the church by Starmer Shaw organ builders. The pipes missing from the Swell organ that had been stolen from Saint George’s, Edinburgh, were mostly replaced with new pipes made by Palmer’s Pipes of Finchingfield, Essex. Only the Waldhorn pipes were not replaced (probably because the space for the organ was tight.

Saint Giles Church became Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church when it was rededicated on Palm Sunday in April 1968 and Canon Cavell Cavell-Northam (1932-2019) became vicar of the now combined parish.

Father Cecil Hutchings cared deeply about music at Saint Giles, where he directed the choir, with Derek Savage as organist. He wrote a letter to the parish in 1967 about the importance of the choir in worship and the community. The installation of the organ was completed in 1969.

A week-long Flower and Organ Festival was held in Saint Mary and Saint Giles in May 1969 to celebrate the organ installation and raise much-needed funds for the restoration of the church because insurance after the fire had not covered all the costs and further restoration work was needed.

Since its installation, the Willis organ has been used regularly to accompany church services and occasionally used for recitals and concerts. It accompanied the visiting choir of Christ Church Oxford in 1970 and in 1976 it was used for incidental music in the theatrical performance of ‘Christ in the Concrete City’. It accompanied the first Lent Cantata performed by the Parish Singers in 1978 and since 1992 it has been used in almost every Autumn Concert and Lent Cantata.

Henry Willis IV moved the console from the north gallery to the choir gallery in 1989 after a fundraising campaign because the console was not serviceable in the north gallery. This means that this Willis organ has been worked on by all four generations with the name Henry Willis.

Derek Savage, who had been organist at the church since December 1955, died in 2003. Donald Mackenzie was appointed the new organist.

The Pipe Organ Restoration Action Group, formed in 2006, organised 150 events to help raise funds for restoration. The restoration of the console was possible in 2011 and this spurred the group on to restoring the whole instrument and completing the specification.

The Heritage Lottery Fund made a grant of £82,700 for the Willis Pipe Organ Restoration and Reach-out project in 2014, the group became a Project Team and Music for all @ SMSG was formed to replace PORAG. The Project Team and wider group of volunteers continue to put on events to raise funds towards the cost of the new pipes and casework.

The organ restoration started in May 2014 and was completed in December 2015. The restored organ was played for the first time on Saint Cecilia’s Day, 22 November 2015, the Patron of Music. It was blessed by Bishop Jonathan Goodall on 1 May 2016, with inaugural concerts in the weeks that followed.

• There is an organ recital by Bucks Organists’ Association in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church from 12:45 to 1:30 tomorrow (Monday 1 August 2022), with optional soup and roll (£4) from 12 to 12:30.

• A leaflet by Anna Page on the history of the organ is available in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church; Music for All @ SMSG is HERE.

Praying with USPG and the hymns of
Vaughan Williams: Sunday 31 July 2022

The Old Vicarage, Down Ampney, where the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in 1872 (Photograph: Colin West 2011 / Panoramio)

Patrick Comerford

Today in calendar of the Church is the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, and later this morning (31 July 2022) I hope to attend the Parish Eucharist in the Parish Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles in Stony Stratford.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose music is celebrated throughout this year’s Proms season.

In my prayer diary for these weeks I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Reading one of the readings for the morning;

2, Reflecting on a hymn or another piece of music by Vaughan Williams, often drawing, admittedly, on previous postings on the composer;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

Luke 12: 13-21 (NRSVA):

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ 14 But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ 15 And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ 16 Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” 18 Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” 20 But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’

The Duomo in Siena … RF Littledale’s hymn ‘Come down, O love divine’ is a translation of an Italian hymn by Bianco da Siena (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s reflection: ‘Come down, O love divine’

Ralph Vaughan Williams was the composer of symphonies, chamber music, opera, choral music, and film scores, a collector of English folk music and song. With Percy Dearmer, he co-edited the English Hymnal, in which he included many folk song arrangements as hymn tunes, and several of his own original compositions. He wrote the tune ‘Down Ampey’ for the hymn ‘Come down, O love divine,’ and thanks in particular to his setting this hymn is loved around the world.

Vaughan Williams named the tune after the pretty Cotswold village of Down Ampney in Gloucestershire, where he was born in the Vicarage 150 years ago on 12 October 1872. Down Ampney is off the A417, which runs between Cirencester and Faringdon in Oxfordshire on the A420, and about 5 km north of Cricklade, which is on the A419 running from Cirencester to Swindon, Wiltshire.

The parish church, All Saints’ Church, was founded by the Knights Templar in 1265, although much of its current shape is the result of a Victorian rebuilding. The spire dates from the 14th century, when the south porch was added.

The church has excellent stained glass, much of it Victorian or modern, including a series of nautical parables given by Admiral Charles Talbot after his ship survived a storm off Sebastopol in 1854. Another window depicting the Resurrection Stone is dedicated to Vaughan Williams’s father.

The composer’s father, the Revd Arthur Charles Vaughan Williams (1834-1875), served in Bemerton – the same parish where the poet George Herbert had been Vicar around 300 years earlier — and at Halsall in Lancashire, before becoming the Vicar of Down Ampney in 1868. He died there on 9 February 1875, only three years after the birth of his son Ralph Vaughan-Williams.

Soon after, Vaughan Williams was taken by his mother, Margaret Susan (née Wedgwood) (1842-1937), a daughter of Josiah Wedgwood III and the great-granddaughter of the potter Josiah Wedgwood, to live with her family at Leith Hill Place, a home in the North Downs in Surrey bought by the Wedgwood family in 1847.

The tune he composed for the mediaeval hymn ‘Come Down, O Love Divine’ (Discendi, Amor santo), written by Bianco da Siena (ca1350-1434), is named ‘Down Ampney’ with affection for and in honour of his birthplace.

‘Come down, O love divine,’ (New English Hymnal, No 137; Irish Church Hymnal, No 294) was originally written in Italian in the 14th or 15th century by Bianco da Siena.

Bianco di Santi (ca 1350-1399), also known as Bianco da Siena and Bianco da Lanciolina, was an Italian mystic poet and an imitator of Jacopone da Todi. He wrote several religious poems that were popular in the Middle Ages. At first he was a wool carder who worked in Siena. He eventually became a member of the Jesuates, founded by Giovanni Colombini. He died in Venice in 1399.

The hymn was first translated into English in 1867 by the Revd Dr Richard Frederick Littledale (1833-1890), a Dublin-born Anglican priest who had been forced to give up his full-time parochial ministry due to ill-health.

Littledale was curate in Saint Matthew in Thorpe Hamlet, Norfolk (1856-1857) and curate of Saint Mary the Virgin, Crown Street, Soho, London (1857-1861), where he took an interest in the work of the House of Charity.

For the rest of his life, Littledale suffered from chronic ill-health. He took little part in any parochial duties and devoted himself mainly to writing. Until his death, he continued to act as a father confessor, and next to Edward Pusey is said to have heard more confessions than any other priest in the Church of England. Through William Bell Scott he came to know and influence the poet Christina Rossetti.

Littledale was a contributor to many newspapers and publications, including Kottabos (a college miscellany in TCD), Notes and Queries, the Daily Telegraph, the Church Quarterly Review, and The Academy. He wrote many books and pamphlets in support of Anglicanism in opposition to Roman Catholicism.

In conjunction with the Revd James Edward Vaux, Littledale wrote The Priest’s Prayer Book (1864), The People’s Hymnal (1867), The Christian Passover (1873) and The Altar Manual, of which 46,000 copies were published.

The People’s Hymnal (1867) included the hymn Come Down, O Love Divine, translating the Italian of Bianco da Siena. The original poem was included in the Laudi Spirituali del Bianco da Siena of Telesforo Bini in 1851.

He died at 9 Red Lion Square, London, on 11 January 1890. A reredos to his memory was erected in the chapel at Saint Katharine’s, 32 Queen Square, London, in March 1891.

In 1906, Littledale’s version of Come Down, O Love Divine was included in the English Hymnal, edited by Percy Dearmer and Vaughan Williams. It was set to this strong, eminently singable, tune specially composed for it by Vaughan Williams, with a unique metre. Indeed, many regard this as the most beautiful of all his hymn tunes.

’Come down, O Love divine’ (‘Down Ampney’) by King’s College Choir, Cambridge/Thomas Williamson/Stephen Cleobury

Come down, O love divine,
Seek Thou this soul of mine,
And visit it with thine own ardour glowing;
O Comforter, draw near,
Within my heart appear,
And kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.

O let it freely burn,
Till earthly passions turn
To dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
And let thy glorious light
Shine ever on my sight,
And clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

Let holy charity
Mine outward vesture be,
And lowliness become mine inner clothing;
True lowliness of heart,
Which takes the humbler part,
And o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.

And so the yearning strong,
With which the soul will long,
Shall far outpass the power of human telling;
For none can guess its grace,
Till he become the place
Wherein the Holy Spirit makes his dwelling.

The Piazza del Campo in Siena … RF Littledale’s hymn ‘Come down, O love divine’ is a translation of an Italian hymn by Bianco da Siena (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer:

At the annual conference of the USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) in High Leigh last week, we were updated on the work of USPG’s partners in Ukraine, Russia and with USPG’s partners with Ukrainian refugees.

The theme in the USPG prayer diary this week is ‘Refugee Support in Poland.’ The Revd David Brown, Chaplain of the Anglican Church in Poland, spoke to USPG earlier in the year about the conflict in Ukraine and how it has affected churches in Poland. The situation may have changed since he wrote:

‘There are many refugees from Ukraine who have travelled to Poland. These people come from all sections of society and some of them have existing links to family and friends in Poland. Many thousands of refugees don’t have such links and are simply trying to find a safe place to stay. Major train stations are used as transit points for refugees with volunteers from many different organisations offering basic supplies there.

‘Our chaplaincy is small in number, so it is difficult for us to take collective action. Instead, individuals from our congregation are volunteering at help centres and providing shelter for refugees, who are often shocked and traumatised by their experiences. It can also be a struggle for both refugees and their hosts to acclimatise to each other. The chaplaincy continues to hold daily services and offer pastoral care and support to all affected by the current situation and those in Poland who are facing problems unrelated to the conflict in Ukraine.

‘We recognise that the fallout from the situation in Ukraine will pose long-term challenges in the coming weeks, months and years. Our chaplaincy will be here to offer support wherever possible.’

Sunday 31 July 2022:

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Welcoming God,
you taught us to befriend the stranger.
May we offer hospitality and support
to all in need.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org