History & Interesting Facts – The Organ

Restoration of the Father Willis organ, St. Tanwg’s Church, Harlech, 2010/11

The organ at St Tanwg Harlech was built around 1860 by Henry Willis, arguably the best and most innovative organ builder in Britain. As a mark of respect to his mastery he became known as Father Willis. He made over 2000 organs and some of his best known ones are in the Royal Albert Hall, St. George’s Hall in Liverpool, Alexandra Palace, and the Cathedrals in Canterbury, St. Paul’s, Durham, Gloucester, Hereford, Lincoln, Salisbury, Ripon and St. David’s.

The organ at St Tanwg Harlech is one of his earlier organs, although its initial history is not adequately recorded. We think that it may have originally been installed in a large private home, possibly that of Mrs Ashley-Symes, who was a great benefactor of large churches in the area, including St. David’s Church in Bangor, where it was installed when it was built in 1888. In 1906 it was purchased by Denys Finch-Hatton and his mother and moved to St. Tanwg’s Church.

The restoration, undertaken by Keith Ledson under the guidance of organist Alastair Sampson, was conducted in 3 phases starting in the Spring of 2010 and completed in July 2011. The pedals were repaired, re-polished and improved. This involved replacing worn out pedals by ebonized beech, replacement of felts and defective springs. The pedal coupler lever beams and trackers were repaired by replacing the phosphor bronze centre rods and wires, leather buttons and cloths. The blower cabinet was replaced and the bellows checked and cleaned out.
In order to facilitate safe working on the swell box and pipes above the organ a steel access platform, supported by a steel beam and wall brackets, was designed by Keith Baker, approved by Gwynedd Council, manufactured by Dyffryn Iron Design and installed by them and Wigglesworth Builders. Once this had been completed the third phase of the restoration was undertaken. This involved removing the swell box and pipes from above the organ and making the upper boards true and lubricated. The soundboard slides were removed and repaired where appropriate and pull-down wires replaced. The oboe stops were repaired and all the pipe work cleaned before replacement. In addition the Great Three Rank Mixture, which was missing when the organ was installed in Harlech was replaced. This involved the manufacture and installation of 162 new pipes. These were made by S Booths and Son, Leeds and they have added an extra dimension to quality of the sound of the organ on account of the harmonics they have introduced. Finally 2 heating elements were installed in the organ to help combat the cold and damp of the winter months to maintain the tuning.

The cost of this restoration was approximately £22250. We received grants from the Pilling (£5000), Manifold (£1000), Broakes (£1000) and Piggot (£750) Trusts, Other funds were raised by various means which resulted in a surplus of just over £2000 which will be used to support on-going maintenance of the organ.

To celebrate the completion of this restoration, Thomas Trotter, City of Birmingham organist, generously offered to perform a recital on the organ on August 12th 2011.

Since then we have held a series of organ recitals as part of the St Tanwg season of Summer concerts