Henry Willis 4: 1927 – 2018

Guest post by Hugh Macpherson

Henry Willis 4:  born 19th January 1927, died. 23rd June 2018

The Great-grandson of ‘Father’ Henry Willis, the builder of the Concert Organ in the Great Hall, has died at the age of 91. ‘Father’ Willis founded the Willis firm in 1845 and completed the Alexandra Palace Organ in 1875 immediately following the monumental Royal Albert Hall organ in 1872 and the disastrous fire at the Palace which destroyed the earlier organ in 1873. Following the vicissitudes of the First World War, in 1929 Henry Willis III restored his Grandfather’s organ and it was in 1930 that Marcel Dupré, the famous French organ virtuoso, referred to the instrument as “The finest concert organ in Europe”

Damage and neglect again followed the Second World War and the fire in 1980 destroyed the huge display of organ pipes along with the entire casework, building frame and mechanism. Fortunately, much of the pipe-work and the console was in storage in the Willis factory at Petersfield in Hampshire – Henry Willis 4 had been persuaded to purchase it from the Alexandra Palace Trustees “to preserve it for the nation”.

In 1982 the Alexandra Palace Organ Appeal was formed and registered as a Charity – the purpose of which was, in conjunction with the Alexandra Park and Palace Trust, to restore the organ to its former glory. In 1989 Henry Willis 4 installed the first part of the restored organ in a temporary arrangement and public concerts commenced. Henry generously gave his own time and money to further the restoration of the organ that his Great-grandfather himself referred to as “My finest work.”

Henry 4 was a ‘Marmite’ character, eccentric, flawed but brilliant. When asked why he styled himself Henry ‘4’ instead of the more usual ‘IV’ he would invariably reply, “How would you like to be called Ivy?”. He lived with his wife Barbara in retirement in India and died on June 23rd at the age of 91. The Willis Company (Henry Willis & Sons Ltd.) continues in Liverpool and is currently working on the organ. For full details of the organ visit www.allypallyorgan.org.uk

The Organ Appeal continues to raise funds for the restoration of the instrument and regular concerts are given in the Great Hall – the next being on the 19th of November when Donald Mackenzie, Organist of the Odeon, Leicester Square will delight us with a selection of 1920s Classic movies accompanied on the organ. Tickets are available here .

The Organ Appeal is looking for volunteers to assist with the running and organising of concerts: anyone interested please contact the Appeal Secretary.