The ‘Father’ Henry Willis Organ

There has been a church on the present site of Old Saint Paul’s since 1689 when Alexander Rose, Bishop of Edinburgh, left Saint Giles’ Cathedral, taking with him a number of his congregation; thus began the Scottish Episcopal Church (please see A History of Old Saint Paul’s for more about the church’s historical background).

It is known that the building had an organ by 1712, although this was removed by Bishop Rose in 1716 and eventually found its way to Grantown Episcopal Church. Three further instruments seem to have been in use in Old Saint Paul’s until the present instrument was installed.

The Current Organ

In the mid-19th century the church building became structurally unsound and it was closed in 1873. A new building was completed in 1883; it was extended in 1890 and again in 1905. The present organ was built by ‘Father’ Henry Willis and installed in 1888. It was then presumably typical of Willis’s small instruments of this period: strong and forthright in tone with a robust mechanical action.

Slight modifications were made to this instrument in 1936; it was electrified and enlarged in 1960 when a new console with tab stops was provided. Further tonal modifications and additions were made in 1968.

By the mid 1970s the organ was in need of complete cleaning and the 1960 console was causing problems. In addition, inconsistencies in the tonal scheme had developed over the years. Nicholson’s of Worcester was chosen to rebuild the organ, to replan the specification and to provide a new console.

The work was carried out in conjunction with the then organist, Alistair Pow, and with advice from Roy Massey of Hereford Cathedral. Revoicing in the church was undertaken by Dennis Thurlow of Nicholson’s. Father Willis’s pipework was left untouched: new mixtures were provided on both manuals, and the great trumpet/pedal trombone rank received considerable attention and revoicing. The great dulciana was extended down to 16’ pitch, and several other changes and additions were made. Some repair work was carried out in 2000.

The organ as it now stands is a fine, flexible instrument which accompanies services particularly well and which is also a fine vehicle for much of the solo organ repertoire. Like many chancel organs, it suffers slightly from its position, speaking across the chancel rather than directly into the nave. Nevertheless, it sounds well throughout the building and fulfils its duties admirably.

Full choral services with organ are held every Sunday at 10.30am (High Mass) and 6.30 pm (Solemn Evensong and Benediction), except during July while the choir is on holiday.

Further Information

Please see the organ’s entry in the National Pipe Organ Register website for further details and the instrument’s specification.

See David A. Stewart’s ‘Organs in Edinburgh’ (pub. Edinburgh Society of Organists, 1991) for further information on the early history of organs in Old Saint Paul’s. The above account draws on information from that publication, and also from material provided by Alistair Pow.

The 'Father' Henry Willis Organ

The 'Father' Henry Willis Organ

Detail of the organ console

Detail of the organ console