Father Willis - St John's Church

Cardiff - 1894

April 2020 - a short history of the 1894 Father Willis organ in the City Parish Church of St John the Baptist, Cardiff.

The information and photographs on this webpage are presented by Philip Thomas.

What follows is a brief account of the circumstances leading to the installation of the new Willis Organ in 1894, and the conservation/restoration project that was completed in 2005. Most of the 50+ photographs below are presented in groups - please pinch & expand for a more detailed view.

Background information - Philip Thomas is the Curator/Organist of St John's Church in the city centre of Cardiff where there is a fine 3 manual organ built by the famous Victorian organ builders HENRY WILLIS & SONS, LONDON. The firm had been set up in 1845 by the young Henry Willis who was 24 years old at the time. By 1894 (the year of the St John's organ) his ground-breaking and often audacious achievements had resulted in a considerable number of notable and remarkable instruments such as the great cathedral organs of Winchester, St Paul's (London), Salisbury and Truro, and the monumental concert organs in St George's Hall, Liverpool and the Royal Albert Hall, London. To this day, his many instruments continue to be greatly admired and cherished not only by organists, but by all who enjoy listening to the wide-ranging repertoire of music played on 'The King of Instruments'.

Unlike many of his instruments that have undergone compromising changes of one sort or another - such as having their playing actions modernised, consoles detached/re-positioned, original pipework revoiced/resited or been remodelled with tonal additions - the 1894 instrument in St John's is one of the few to have avoided any of these changes. Importantly, the organ still retains its old sharp Philharmonic Pitch so that today, listeners can appreciate the wide variety of magnificent sounds it has to offer, all without compromise and just as its maker intended!

The New Organ - Father Willis, as he came to be known later in his career, was approached by the Vicar and Church Wardens of St John's early in 1894. The Vicar had been given an anonymous donation in the sum of £2000 at Christmas in 1893, with the specific instruction to buy a new and much larger organ for the recently re-built and enlarged church. Father Willis had already built a new 3 manual organ in 1887 for the nearby church of St Andrew (now called Eglwys Dewi Sant). The Vicar, Wardens and Organist of St John's would have known, heard and played this fine organ, so it is no surprise that Willis was chosen as the preferred builder for their new organ in St John's.

According to a handwritten log maintained by George H Cole, FRCO., (organist at St John's from 1889 to 1933) he met with Willis in St John's on 9th July 1894, to inspect the old organ and discuss the new organ. [It transpires that the old organ was made by Renatus Harris, who built it for St John's and installed it in 1721. The Harris organ is still playable and is in the church of St Paulinus, Llangors, not far from Brecon, Powys]. On 11th September 1894, two months after their meeting, Willis began installing his new organ comprising 3 manuals & 38 speaking stops. It was finished in all respects just 18 days later, which is a remarkable achievement by today's standards, given the technical complexities of the St John's instrument.

The new organ was Dedicated by the Bishop of Llandaff at a special service on the afternoon of Thursday 17th October. This was followed by the Inaugural Recital given by George Robertson Sinclair, the Organist of Hereford Cathedral. Whilst details of the pieces he played have proved elusive, an article in the morning edition of the South Wales Daily News that day records his selections as "......from the works of Handel, Spohr, Haydn, Bach, and other great composers - are such as will serve to demonstrate the power and excellence of the splendid instrument.....". That evening, according to Cole's log, there was a service of Evensong which included Handel's 'Hallelujah' chorus, which must have brought a very special day of celebration to a rousing and fitting conclusion.

The Restoration - By 1998, when Philip Thomas visited the church to arrange an event for local organists, only 60% of the organ was playable. In addition to the many wind leaks, there were notes that did not sound on all three keyboards (7/Sw, 4/Gt and 14/Ch) and only half the Pedal stops worked. The current organist of St John's was not available to play for the event and, to cut a long story short, Philip played instead.

During his rehearsal preparations for the event, it became obvious that the old failing organ was not only an authentic "Father Willis", but that it had survived for 104 years comparatively unscathed. Even though it was in poor condition, the organ still retained its integrity, because the playing mechanism, pipe-work, voicing and old Philharmonic Pitch remained untouched and uncompromised.

With the enthusiastic support and encouragement of a former Church Warden of St John's, the late Pauline Grainger (1945-2018), a special meeting was arranged with the Vicar, Wardens and Organist. As a result of his strongly held belief in the organ's significant heritage potential, Philip was given an opportunity to explain and convince them the instrument was of considerable historic importance and worthy not only of restoration, but conservation without any change/compromise - not the cheapest option by far, but necessary if the organ was to survive in its unaltered state.

Naturally they asked what the cost was likely to be. He replied "something in the order of £250K"..... when they had recovered their composure, their reply was "if you can raise the money, then you can get on with it". In the weeks that followed, and with Pauline's help, a Restoration Committee was set up with Philip acting as Project Co-ordinator and fund raiser!

As a long standing member of the British Institute of Organ Studies, Philip knew the benefits of the BIOS Historic Organ Certificate Scheme and on behalf of the Committee, submitted an application for the St John's 1894 Willis to be considered. A few months later, an Historic Organ Certificate was duly issued and was a timely catalyst that encouraged the Committee to forge ahead with the restoration project. In 2003, the Welsh Branch of the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded a grant in the sum of £199K, which together with many private donations resulted in the 'charmed' Restoration Project being fully completed in June 2005. The Conservation was undertaken by David Wells Organ Builders of Liverpool.

The re-Opening Concert - On Monday 22nd August 2005, the Organ was officially inaugurated by the international virtuoso, Birmingham City Organist Thomas Trotter playing to a capacity audience. His programme started with Liszt's mighty Prelude and Fugue on 'BACH' and included works by J de Lublin, JS Bach, Flagler, Locklair, Widor and ended with Elgar's rousing Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 (Land of hope and glory). It says much for the organ that Mr Trotter has returned each year since to play an anniversary concert celebrating the restoration.

A significant anniversary - 2019 was the year of the organ's 125th anniversary and at Thomas Trotter's annual concert in October that year, a specially commissioned book entitled "The Organs and Organists of the Church of St John the Baptist, Cardiff" was launched to mark the occasion. Just before the concert, Captain Sir Norman Lloyd Edwards unveiled a small Welsh slate Plaque marking the 1894 installation and 2005 restoration. On Sunday 20th October, the organ was re-Dedicated by the Vicar, Rev'd Canon Sarah Jones.

The organ today - Father Willis organs are renowned for their inspiring dynamic tonal qualities, ranging from the quietest of whispers to mighty thunderings. With more than 2,200 pipes, the St John's organ is no exception. In addition to a wide variety of solo sounds, its magnificent Diapason choruses and battery of fiery Trumpets are underpinned by monumentally sounding pedal pipes.

More than 125 years on, it stands as a testament to its creator and provides future generations with a valuable primary source of Victorian Heritage. On a more immediate level, it allows organists the perfect opportunity to enjoy playing such a fine and rewardingly responsive instrument, whilst offering listeners a chance to hear its glorious sounds.... exactly as Father Willis meant them to be heard.

Heritage in Action - St John's hosts a series of Lunchtime Organ Concerts showcasing the Father Willis organ. The FREE monthly concerts start at 13.15hrs and last around 30/35 minutes and usually take place on the 2nd Friday of the month, except December. Details of the Series can be found on St John's Church website www.stjohnscardiff.wales on the 'What we do' page > 'What's on' > 'Organ Recitals'. During the period of Covid-19 restrictions, there are no recitals, but you can check the website for concert updates as well as finding out other information about the day-to-day activities taking place in the Church and amongst the Community at St John's.

The special booklet mentioned above and marking the Father Willis Organ's 125th Anniversary is now AVAILABLE Price £6.50 (including p&p) - To place your order, please send a message to the Email address that appears at the very end of this webpage after all the photographs.

The booklet is entitled - THE ORGANS AND ORGANISTS OF THE CHURCH OF ST JOHN THE BAPTIST, CARDIFF - Needless to say the 48 page colour booklet gives a considerably fuller history and details of the 1894 Father Willis organ and its restoration, including contributions from the organ consultant, the Revd Canon Dr Nicholas Thistlethwaite and David Wells of David Wells Organ Builders, Liverpool. Also included is a short account of the 1721 Renatus Harris organ and a list of the organists of St John's from that date up to the present day.

The booklet was specially commissioned by Philip Thomas from the author, Dr Relf Clark and was designed and produced by John Brennan at the Positif Press, Oxford, and printed by Oxuniprint at Oxford University Press. The booklet includes twenty nine colour photographs, some of which appear below.

All but two of the photographs on this webpage were taken by Philip Thomas.

Copyright information:

The two photographs of Philip Thomas were taken by Joshua Scheide/USA and used here with permission.

All other photographs, captions and the above commentary are by Philip Thomas and added to this site on 19th April 2020.

Father Willis


The City Parish of

St John the Baptist


The organ in the City Parish Church of St John the Baptist in Cardiff, is a fine example of a Father Willis instrument.

The organ dates from September 1894 and retains ALL of its original 38 speaking Stops, playing mechanism and Philharmonic Pitch without any alteration or compromise.

It was fully conserved/restored in 2005 by the Liverpool-based firm, David Wells Organ Builders, and paid for with a large grant from the Welsh branch of the Heritage Lottery Fund together with many private donations.

ALL the ORGAN STOPS can be seen in the split photograph above - for a clearer view, please 'pinch and expand'. Stops for the Swell Department and Couplers appear in the lefthand photograph - those for the Choir, Great and Pedal Organs are shown in the righthand picture.

There are 3 keyboards each with 58 notes for the hands and a pedal board with 30 notes for the feet.

The righthand picture shows the curved ivory label of the Choir Organ with its single vertical row of 8 Stops.

Alongside to the right you can see two vertical rows for the 11 Stops of the Great Organ - below these is another curved ivory label marked PEDALE for the 6 Stops of the Pedal Organ.

The lefthand picture shows the double row of 13 speaking Stops of the Swell Department plus its Tremulant Stop. In the third vertical row to the right are all the Manual and Pedal Couplers.

A close-up of the rather fine Brass Plaque commemorating the generosity of a former Curate of St John's, the Rev Cyril Stacey, who donated £2000 'anonymously' in December 1893 to pay for a new organ following the rebuilding and enlargement of the church.

The Plaque is dated Easter 1894, which relates to the official recording and formal acknowledgement of the anonymous 'gift' at the Annual Vestry Meeting in March 1894.

It was only after Rev Stacey's death on 25th February 1895, when the identity of the anonymous donor could be revealed, that the Plaque was eventually fitted. It is positioned prominently on the console, in the centre of the wooden panel above the music desk. The wording on the Plaque is given below.

+ Laus Deo +

This Brass gratefully commemorating the name and

generosity of Cyril Stacey. M. A. the donor

of this Organ is also designed to keep alive in the

minds of all future generations of worshippers

the memory of an act of singular & devout munificence.

Easter 1894

Three pictures showing the position of the Welsh slate plaque that was unveiled on the occasion of the organ's 125th Anniversay in October 2019. It records the substantial grant from the Welsh Branch of The Heritage Lottery Fund towards the cost of the conservation/restoration of the 1894 Willis Organ in 2005, by David Wells Organ Builders of Liverpool.

Bottom right - This picture is a close up view of one of the Willis brass patent plates, affixed to each of the organ’s pneumatic action boxes.

Patent number 15182 relates to improvements made to the external lever pneumatic action mechanism. It dates from 1889 and was the ingenious invention of his elder son, Vincent Willis.

This refined and extremely responsive Tubular Pneumatic system proved so successful that, twelve months after introducing the sophisticated mechanism into his new instruments, Father Willis announced that the organ had reached 'finality'..... 'nothing more was required' - praise indeed!

Two views of the Organ.... as seen from the main body of the church.

When the organ was installed in September 1894, there was no Chancel screen - it was erected in 1911 in memory of Canon Thompson, who was the Vicar responsible for the re-building and enlargement of the church in the 1880s and the subsequent installation of the new Willis organ in 1894.

It is indeed a fine Chancel Screen, but it has, in a small though perceptable way, affected the overall sound of the organ in the body of the church.

Top left - a glimpse of the organ facade pipes and the console as seen through the doors of the Chancel Screen.

Beneath is a view of the spotted metal case pipes directly above the console.

To the right is a photograph of the handsomely appointed console with its solid ivory stop knobs.

The elegant brass commemorative Plaque can just be seen at the top of the picture.

A general view of the organ from the Choir Stalls.

As a point of interest, the two pillars either side of the console, and the arches they support, date from the 13th century.

A side view of the console and a close up of the unique ‘Willis’ style round-fronted black keys and the 2 engine-turned brass Thumb Pistons, which operate the Swell to Great and Great to Pedal Couplers.

The console picture also shows the 7 Composition Pedals that players can use to change the stops without using their hands. There are 3 Composition Pedals for the Swell stops and 4 that operate the Great and Pedal stops combined. Each of the 7 pedals has a pre-fixed combination of Stops set up as they would have been in 'Victorian' times, ranging from the quieter stops to the sound of Full Organ.

General views of the organ plus a close up of some of the case pipes showing their spotted metal finish. Those on either side above the console belong to the large 8ft Open Diapason - the pipes of the central flat in between are some of the smaller pipes belonging to the 16ft Double Diapason. Both stops are played from the middle keyboard of the Great Organ, which has all of its pipes located behind these front case pipes.

The keyboard above operates the Swell Organ which is positioned further back in the Organ Chamber. Its pipes are enclosed in a large expression box which has horizontal louvres that open and close directly behind the pipes of Great Organ. Whilst the most of the sound from these two departments is directed across the Chancel, their sounds can still be heard through the archway behind the Violone Case - see the picture below.

The lowest keyboard operates the Choir Organ - its pipes are on the same level as those of the Great and Swell.

However, the Choir Organ is turned through 90 degrees and, as you can see in the photograph, it is located in the archway immediately the behind the tall metal pipes of the Violone Case.

This means the Choir Organ speaks directly into the main body of the church. This advantageous position imparts a greater presence than would usually be expected and offers players a wider range of possibilities when choosing the stops for their music.

In the foreground you can see the narrow cylindrical hooded resonators of the Clarionet Stop. Towards the back you can see the wooden pipes of the Hohl Flöte and just behind those are the mitred basses of the Viola da Gamba. Beyond those, you can see the backs of the tall metal pipes of the Violone Case - just visible are some of their tuning slots.

In the top right photograph you can see the hooded resonators of the 3 high pressure (HP) reeds inside the Swell box. Please 'pinch and expand' for a clearer view.

The picture on the left shows a close up of the Tenor C pipe (resonator) of the Swell 16ft (HP) reed. The pipe maker’s scribe-mark clearly reads ‘Dou Trum’ (Double Trumpet) and therefore it is not a Contra Hautboy as appears on the Stop knob which you can see in the picture to the right.

This was a last minute substitution made on-site during the organ’s installation in September 1894. The roof over the organ chamber is quite low, and it is assumed Father Willis preferred the fiery sounding Double Trumpet to the much more polite sounds of the smaller scaled quieter Contra Hautboy!

The photograph on the left shows the 3 Swell to Great Couplers. NB the Swell Octave and Sub-octave couplers only couple to the Great and do not act on the home keys of the Swell organ.

The picture to the right gives a partial view inside the Swell box. In the foreground you can see some of the small hooded resonators belonging to the top few notes of the Contra Hautboy on the High Pressure windchest. Behind, you see the Low Pressure windchest and the trebles of the 8ft Hautboy with the 8ft Vox Humana behind it. Against the back wall of the Swell box are some of the pipes belonging to the 16ft Lieblich Bourdon.

Here is a closer view of those pipes. In the foreground of the left hand picture you see more of the hooded resonators belonging to the 16, 8 & 4ft (HP) reeds.

Behind these on the Low Pressure chest are the Hautboy and Vox Humana stops - the distinctive shape of their resonators can be seen in the right hand picture. Please 'pinch and expand' for a clearer view.

Further back, behind the Vox Humana, are the Flue Pipes, ranging from the 3 rank Mixture, 2ft Flageolet, 4ft Gemshorn then all the 8ft stops and finally the 16ft Lieblich Bourdon at the very back. All the larger bass pipes are not in view, because they are arranged along the side walls of the Swell box.

The picture on the left shows some of the other Swell Stop knobs.

To the right, and below the picture showing the mouth of one of the Dulciana basses of the Choir Organ, you can see some of the pipework on the Great, namely the two high pressure reeds..... the 8ft Trumpet and 4ft Clarion (note the top notes of the 4ft Clarion are flue pipes, not reeds).

You can also see the pipes belonging to the 3 rank 'Tierce' Mixture and the 4ft Flûte Harmonique.

The Stop knobs for all four appear in the picture on the bottom right.

A few more general views of the console and stops, including a photo of the Curator and Organist of St John’s, Philip Thomas, who co-ordinated the Project and fundraising for the instrument’s full conservation and restoration which was completed in 2005.

The Project included repairs to the fabric of the Organ Chamber, re-siting of the church mains electrics as well as the removal of dangerous asbestos and the re-positioning of some central heating pipes, installed in 1920 and which ran underneath the pneumatic action pedal touch-box!

Here we see the carefully refurbished ‘Willis’ pedalboard.

You can just make out the lower front edges of the Willis house-style curved 'Swan-neck' accidentals.

Alongside is a picture of the organ’s six pedal stops with their distinctive Willis house-style curved ivory department label engraved PEDALE.

This photograph shows the rather fine pipes of the 16ft Violone and its minimal wooden casework, as viewed from the West end of the inner South Aisle.

2 closer views of the Violone pipework and the somewhat typical minimal wooden case.

Father Willis preferred his instruments to look business-like.... as he had little time for elaborately carved casework and finely decorated front pipes.

These pictures show 3 pipe mouths of the 16ft Violone, some of the large scale open wood pipes belonging to the 16ft Open Diapason and their respective ivory Stop knobs.

Top left - one of the Tell-tales for the organ’s wind.

Top right - more of the wooden pipes belonging to the 16ft Open Diapason.

Bottom left - the brass plaque commemorating Rev Stacey’s munificent donation. The plaque is located above the music desk.

Bottom right - shows the inscription on the book presented to Philip Thomas by the Church Committee in August 2005 following completion of the organ's restoration/conservation. Appropriately the book contains music by JS Bach - The Orgelbüchlein.

General views of the organ, including a close up view of the organ pedals and a small knitted woollen mouse - that 'appeared' on the music desk, along with with several small chocolate eggs one Easter Sunday morning!

The chocolate eggs ‘disappeared’ very quickly after the service, but the little mouse has taken up permanent residence in one of the pipe mouths of the Open Wood!

One sunny day in 2005, local artist Jane Gagg visited St John’s, along with her husband. This was a result of an earlier telephone conversation with Philip Thomas, who wanted to commission a small oil painting of the restored organ.

A most engaging conversation followed, with Jane taking some photographs and Philip playing a short ‘concert’ exploring and demonstrating some of the many beautiful sounds of the Willis organ.

Jane said she would study the photographs and pick out a particular element as the subject of her painting. Three weeks later, she most generously gave the picture to Philip saying...... “from one artist to another”...... kind words indeed and most appreciated.

This snap-shot photo only shows part of her charming little oil painting that has captured the ‘chosen’ element in her delightful and witty impressionistic style.

In 2003, prior to the Organ’s restoration, Philip Thomas commissioned a water colour painting of the organ for his house by the local artist Colin Bishop.

The delightful picture you see was much admired, so much so that a second, though slightly different view, was commissioned and raffled, raising much needed additional funds for the restoration project.

Thank you for your time reading through this information about the organ in St John's. If you have any comment/query, then you are welcome to send an email to the address on the left.

This is not a Blog and emails will probably be checked/read every couple of days or so. Apologies if you do not receive an immediate response.

To place your order for the specially commissioned 125th Anniversary Organ Booklet, please send your request to Philip Thomas, c/o the Email address shown on the left.