Father Willis Organ
The Father Willis organ is the centrepiece of Reading Town Hall’s beautifully restored Concert Hall. It was originally built for the Small Town Hall, now known as the Victoria Hall. It is significant as the most unaltered example of a Father Willis concert organ to survive in this country. The acoustics of the Concert Hall are regarded as the perfect complement to the organ.
The organ was built in 1864 as part of a refurbishment of the Victoria Hall. It was commissioned by Reading Philharmonic Society from Henry Willis, one of Britain’s foremost organ builders. Willis built over two thousand organs during his career, including the one in the Albert Hall. He is commonly known as ‘Father’ Willis, recognising that he was the greatest organ builder of the Victorian era.
The original instrument had 1660 pipes and cost the Society £770, while Reading Corporation paid £320 to adapt the Hall. Unfortunately the organ was incomplete for the opening concert on 6 October 1864, for which S.S. Wesley, organist of Winchester Cathedral, had been engaged to play ‘a series of Classical pieces’. Despite this, it was formally handed over by the Society to Reading Corporation at this occasion. By Christmas the organ was finished, and Willis himself gave a recital on 17 December 1864.
Between 1872 and 1875 a new building was added in front of the Victoria Hall containing the Council Chamber, offices and a clock tower. This building was designed by Alfred Waterhouse, the architect of the Natural History Museum. In 1879 it was proposed to build a new concert hall and move the Willis organ into it. The organ was dismantled and Henry Willis was asked to rebuild it in the Concert Hall designed by Thomas Lainson. £800 was spent upgrading and re-scaling the organ to match the tonal qualities of its new location. The Concert Hall opened on 31 May 1882 and the first performance was the Hallelujah Chorus. The organist was Walter Parratt of Magdalen College, Oxford.
The organ received regular tuning, and underwent a major clean and repair in 1936. In 1947 the pitch of the organ was lowered. This was the only major change to Willis’s original design, the organ otherwise being the most unaltered example of its kind surviving in this country. The organ was restored in 1999 by Harrison & Harrison with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund. It was then decided to restore the pitch to that intended by Willis in 1882. The Concert Hall was reopened in 2000 - it now hosts regular organ recitals and is also a venue for conferences, dinners and weddings.