31 July 2022
How the Father Willis organ
in Stony Stratford came to
Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church
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.
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.