Martin Stacey - home

Organ - St Dominic's Priory

Organ of St Dominic's Priory

2012 Concert Series

Forthcoming Concerts by Martin Stacey




Specification and history of the 1883 Father Willis organ

In 1962 a booklet was printed and published at St. Dominic’s Priory entitled The Priory Organ. This was compiled by the late Bernard Taylor, a parishioner and enthusiast who was largely responsible, together with the organist Gerald Smith, for the upkeep, conservation and restoration of the Willis organ we know today. The title page reads, "An appreciation of a masterpiece of Victorian craftsmanship with some account of its restoration and of the life and work of its maker". Although the bulk of its content admits to being extracted from other sources (notably from an article in The Organ, April 1936 - for which Mr. Taylor obtained permission from the author to reproduce), it has served as the only available concise study of the instrument to date. The language is at times a bit flowery and certain features are innocently overlooked, nevertheless it is thoroughly accurate in its descriptions of the various workings and sounds of the organ. The absence of a bibliography makes distinguishing between collected writings and original material impossible, but as the essence of its pages capture the true spirit of The Priory Organ (as Willis himself proudly referred to it) it is reproduced here without modification.

Double Diapason 16'
Contra Gamba 16'
Viol d'amour 8'
Open Diapason 16'
Open Diapason 8'
Open Diapason 8'
Claribel Flute 8'
Bourdon 16'
Viola 8'
Lieblich Gedact 8'
Lieblich Gedact 8'
Octave 8'
Claribel Flute 8'
Salicional 8'
Dulciana 8'
Mixture III
Principal 4'
Gemshorn 4'
Vox Angelica 8'
Ophicleide 16'
Flute Harmonique 4'
Flageolet 2'
Gemshorn 4'
Twelfth 2 2/3'
Mixture III
Flute Harmonique 4'
Fifteenth 2'
Hautbois 8'
Piccolo 2'
Sesquialtera III
Cornopean 8'
Corno di Bassetto 8'
Posaune 8'
Clarion 4'
Clarion 4'

Couplers Sw to Gt; Ch to Gt; Sw Super 8va to Gt; Sw Sub 8va to Gt; Sw to Ped; Gt to Ped; Ch to Ped

Manuals CC to G, 56 notes. “Willis” Pedal Board CCC to F, 30 notes.

Three combination pedals to Swell; Four combination pedals to Great and Pedal

Gt to Ped rocker-pedal; Balanced Swell Pedal


In 1225 the Friars of the Dominican Order, the "Black Friars", founded a Priory at Ludgate (London) from which they were expelled by Elizabeth I in 1559. About three hundred years later, in 1863, the foundation stone of their first Post-Reformation Priory was laid by the Master General where the road to Hampstead from Chalk Farm was met by that from Kentish Town. When a railway station was built with its entrance in Lismore Circus and platforms stretching towards Southampton Road, it was called Haverstock Hill. This station was closed long ago, but it provides a possible reason for the address of the Priory often being given as Haverstock Hill, although that thoroughfare is about a quarter of a mile away.

The plans of the great new church were put before "Father" Henry Willis, the finest organ-builder of that, and possibly any other time. He was asked to design a suitable three-manual organ, but there was a serious hitch. The building of the present church was delayed and a temporary church was opened in the Hall on the first floor adjacent to the clock tower (now the Aquinas Centre) in 1867. By this time Willis had made good progress with the organ, but it was arranged that he should install part of it, storing the rest until the church was ready. In 1874 a fresh start was made on the building and in 1879 the specification of the organ was drawn up with Fr. Antonius Williams, then the Fr. Provincial.

As the date of completion drew nearer, that part of the organ which had been temporarily installed was returned to Willis' Rotunda Works (which were on the site now occupied by St. Richard of Chichester School in Royal College Street NW1) and amalgamated with the other parts from store. For three weeks prior to the opening of the church in 1883, Henry Willis himself came daily to ensure that the instrument was as perfect as he could make it.

Originally, the three sets of bellows required four men to operate them by hand, but in 1915 slow speed electric motors were installed to operate the same bellows by levers and cranks. This system was replaced by a modern type rotary fan blower in 1937. The church being of such generous proportions (200ft long and 87ft from the floor to the apex of the roof) it provides the necessary spaciousness for this magnificent instrument to speak with power. Apart from the Swell organ, no part is enclosed so that there is little to impede the sound either laterally or vertically. There is no artistic case-work or decoration of the pipes, and this is in keeping with the plain white stonework of the slender pillars and high arches. The organ stands behind the choir stalls on the Gospel side (left) as one faces the alter.

Inside the case there is a grand spread of pipe-work, nearly 2000 individual pipes. ample wind reservoirs (the largest 12ft x 6ft) and spotted metal in generous profusion. There are 35 speaking stops, three manuals each of 56 notes, and a pedal-board of 30 notes. There are the usual couplers including Swell to Great at 16’ 8’ and 4’ pitch, but no Swell to Choir (which seems to be a common omission on many Willis instruments of this type). Three combination pedals operate the Swell stops while four operate the Great and Pedal combined. The Swell is completely enclosed in a box with horizontal shutters, controlled until 1962 by a trigger type pedal at the console (this action is now balanced).

Great Organ: Although there is only one unison Diapason, it is characteristic of “Father” Willis – amply large and powerful, loose in texture and of quick silvery speech. The diapason family also includes a Principal, Double and Fifteenth, a Twelfth and a 3-rank Sesquialtera. There are two flutes, Claribel and Harmonique, and a Viola. The Great is completed by a magnificent Clarion and Posaune, which show the marvellous perfection which Willis was able to achieve when other builders were floundering – indeed these reeds are still claimed to be superior to many made today.

Choir Organ: While the different ranks of pipes in this department are admirably chosen and voiced, they are perhaps too loud to provide a suitable accompaniment for plainchant. There is a chorus of three flutes (Claribel, Flute Harmonique and Piccolo) covering three octaves. The second and third are far removed from the colourless tones of common practice, having a marked harmonic development. The Viol d'amore has a quick attack, almost like the twang of a lute, but the Gemshorn has a rather horny quality. The Lieblich Gedact is one of Willis’ specialities. For some reason, no one else has succeeded in capturing the same "husky chime". But the loveliest flowers in the tonal garden are the Dulciana and Vox Angelica. It is rare to find them unenclosed except in Father Willis'own concert organs. It is said that they suggest "mellowing sunsets and a quiet end" and Willis has managed to get a kind of throb going on underneath the beat which adds to interest. The Corno di Bassetto is a normal Willis clarinet of the period; full of colour but loud compared with the other ranks.

Swell Organ: The whole of this department is served with low-pressure wind and it has only one set of pallets so that the reeds have no advantage in wind pressure over the flue pipes. As a result there is no surplus power and the full swell does not carry down the building as well as some would like. Nevertheless, it teems with life and blends better with the rest of the organ than some of Willis' later swells on heavier wind. The whole is enclosed in a fine big box that is not too thick. The softest stop is the Salicional, a little jewel of the first water. There is a Contra Gamba and a Lieblich Gedact very similar to that on the Choir. The beautiful Hautbois has a tonal consistency of about thin cream and the Cornopean and Clarion have a free and racy quality.

Pedal Organ: For an English organ of it's time, this department would have been regarded as luxurious and seldom was Willis able to persuade clients to include a Mixture here. The one he has provided is, however, mild and unassertive and can be used solo-wise. Even today, if the make-up is stripped from a modern pedal specification, it is found that Father Willis’ has quite as much stuffing in it. The Open Diapason is one of his typical "tub-thumpers"of generous scale and indefinite timbre, whereas the Bourdon has a "quinty" tendency. The Ophicleide (a bass trombone) is a beauty. With the inspiration that comes only to a genius like Father Willis the pipes are placed at the back of the organ - even behind the swell-box - a seemingly hopeless position, but nevertheless its tones filter through perfectly, without any fussy explosion in starting up.

We can sum up by saying that although this organ may appear undeveloped besides the latest work of Willis and other firms, it has a freshness and fragrance of its own that are much too good to lose.

The original cost of the organ

(from Henry Willis' letter book, 10th March 1879)

Great Organ £385
Swell Organ £310
Choir Organ £255
Pedal Organ £290
Plus 7% for spotted metal £86
Deduct for Swell (not what was paid, but) what it is now worth, viz. £310 plus 7% £331
Total cost of completing the organ £995