William Hill Organ – Liverpool

William Hill organ

1841 William Hill Organ in Liverpool

The rebuilding of Liverpool’s Great George Street Congregational Chapel in 1840 also resulted in the city acquiring a significant new organ by the pre-eminent British builder of the 19th century, William Hill. The original chapel, built in 1811, was destroyed by fire 19th February, 1840. The foundation stone for its replacement, designed by city architect Joseph Franklin with a no-expense spared brief, was laid 7th July the same year.

William Hill organ Liverpool

Popularly known as Liverpool’s “third cathedral” while it was a place of worship, the building today has been re-named the Black-E and functions as a community and contemporary arts centre.

The contract for building the new organ was given to William Hill & Son. The firm, founded by William Hill (1789-1870) who had worked for, and married the daughter of, organ builder Thomas Elliot. By this time, Hill had already built the organs at York Minster and Birmingham Town Hall. These had been constructed in the traditional style that carried on the work of “Father” Bernard Smith (c 1630-1708) and Renatus Harris (c 1652-1724) and who had heavily influenced organ building throughout the 18th century and into the early Victorian period.

The new organ in Liverpool was opened 31st December, 1841, three months after the chapel itself was opened. What was significant about this instrument was that it broke with the Smith and Harris tradition and drew influence instead from the organ builders in Holland, France, and Germany – the so-called “Continental organs” – and in particular those built by Christian Müller (1690-1763) at the Protestant Grote Kerk in Haarlem, and the instrument by Andreas Silbermann (1678-1734) in Strasbourg Cathedral. The Liverpool instrument, while built by William Hill, was designed by the Shropshire-born organist and composer Henry John Gauntlett (1805-1876) who was also supervising a similar new organ at Christ Church, Newgate Street, London (see further The Making of the Victorian Organ by Nicholas Thistlethwaite, Cambridge University Press 1999).

The William Hill organ of 1841 was unfortunately vandalised almost as soon as the chapel was closed in the 1970s and eventually scrapped, a victim of indifference at the time to these historically significant instruments along with much else that was Victorian. A similar organ, originally built four years later by William Hill for the Eastbrook Methodist Chapel in Bradford, is now installed at the Wesley Methodist Church in Cambridge.

The foregoing serves as an introduction to an interesting account which now follows, which is a transcription of a report that appeared in the Northampton Mercury of 1st January, 1842, on the William Hill instrument that had been opened the day before. The newspaper article draws heavily (without acknowledgement) on a press release (circular) issued in 1841 by William Hill & Son which was probably written by William Hill himself, possibly with help from Gauntlett. Cross headings in brackets have been supplied by the present editor in order to break up the otherwise large chunks of a nearly a full column of text:


The repeated visits of the great composer and organ performer, Felix Mendelssohn to this country has had a most beneficial effect on the members of the musical  profession, and not least so on our organists. He was the first who introduced to the musical public the brilliant and fantastic forms of the church concerted fugue, as it is found in the works of Sebastian Bach.

[ Samuel Wesley ]

The late Samuel Wesley, lover as he was of the organ, and master of its every power in its English form, declared his inability to comprehend how the fantasia of Sebastian Bach could ever be performed on the organ; for such were the grandeur and solemnity of its composition that he looked upon it as unfitted for that instrument. But Wesley had never heard the Haarlem organ or any grand instrument, like those in Strasburg Cathedral, the Catholic and Lutheran churches at Dresden, the convent  at Mafra, the cathedral at Seville, the Lutheran chapel at Frankfort, the minsters at Beauvais and Freyburg.

[Celebrated organs ]

In this  short catalogue is included nearly every celebrated organ of any merit; and if our readers turn to the pages of an encyclopedia,  or any other book on arts and mechanics, they will find one or  other of them mentioned as masterpieces of skill and well-springs of melody and harmony. The distance between the  subline and ridiculous in music is not very great. The Hallelujah  chorus, on most parish church organs in England, is at once an exemplification of the possibility of the combination of these feelings.

[ Mendelssohn performances of Bach ]

Mendelssohn performed the grand fugue of A minor, the composition of Sebastian Bach, on St Paul’s Cathedral  organ, and also on the organ in the hall at Birmingham; but, although every professor was at once carried away with the great artistical skill of the player, there was no feeling of grandeur or  sublimity excited. Amateurs asked what was the matter with the  instruments. They had been accustomed to hear these organs  with six, or eight, or ten keys held down together, but Bach  permits only three or four together, generally three, the pedal  part for the feet making the fourth, which only appears now and  then. These organs, as Mendelssohn played them, lost all their  adventitious, or rather spurious, grandeur, and it was evident  that, for the purposes of real and legitimate organ performance, the English organs had been misconstructed.

[ Harris and Smith ]

Our organ  builders, for the most part, build their instruments on the plans  adopted by Harris and Smith, who came to this country after  the great fire in the reign of Charles II. As the organ was then  laid out so it is now by our builders in the reign of Queen  Victoria. But not so in Holland, France, or Germany. The  grand organ of these countries is quite a different instrument in its acoustical proportions. Mr. Hill, the builder of the York  and Birmingham organs, erected their monstrous piles of church harmony on the plans of Harris and Smith, which for the purposes  of pure part playing, that is, in other words, using only three or four notes at a time, have proved each of them failures.

[ Christ Church, Newgate Street ]

An attempt was, therefore, made to build an organ on the model  of the gand organ of the Continent. Through the liberality of the parishioners of Christ Church, Newgate-street, who devoted £250 to an alteration of their organ in 1839, and a further donation of £600, the munificent bequest of James Boyer, Esq. clerk to the Coopers’ Company, a son of Mr. Boyer, a former master of Christ Church, and under whom Coleridge and Lamb, and many other celebrated literary characters, received their  early education—the Christ Church organ was pulled down to  the floor and re-erected on the principles of the continental  organ builder. The organ had, within the 10 years previous to  1839, cost upwards of £1,000 in alterations; but as the design  of Mr. Gauntlett, under whose superintendence it was rebuilt,  was to make the instrument the most superb manual organ in  Europe, £900 was found to be insufficient to effect its completion. The money, however, was disbursed in perfecting the  design, which has been done. The only part left unfinished is the putting in of the pipes. The mechanism is all complete, and £300 or £400 only is required to make it the most perfect and  varied organ in Europe. Already there is no instrument on the  Continent with so enormous a body of tone.

[ English tone and German pipes ]

This was bringing  into existence what had long been felt to be a desideratum in  organ building—English tone with the German combination of pipe. Mr. Hill followed the principles adopted by the celebrated organ builders of Germany, in the compass of the manuals and the mode of blending the stops; but in purity, power, and grandeur of tone, he has rivalled the efforts of his predecessors. He has imitated them in the plan of confining the manual to 54 notes (from CC to F in alt), because it condenses within a compass of four octaves and a half every pipe from the  CCCC (32 feet) to the smallest that can be made to speak—a  compass of upwards of seven octaves;—it secures the greatest  weight of tone to the manual that can possibly be given to it; it brings every combination of pipe within the grasp of the performer; and it enables the performer to play as written, and with  ease to himself, the compositions of the most celebrated organ composers. He has, however, increased the extent of the pedal board, which now embraces two octaves and two notes (from CCC to D), a compass which is required in the execution of the  music of Sebastian Bach.

[ A grand organ ]

He has secured the weight of tone necessary to form the foundation of a grand organ, by the introduction of the contrabourdon  and bourdon stops; the first places the CCC pipe on the tenor C of the manual, and in the immediate reach and constant  use of the player; the second, which places the CC pipe on  the tenor C of the manual, he has made an entirely new stop, by an alteration of the scale hitherto in use. The weight of tone  given by these stops has enabled him to introduce the novelties of the quint or double twelfth, and the tenth or double tierce, and to complete a new combination of the compound stops called sesqui-alteras, mixtures, furnitures, doublettes, &c. whereby are produced those brilliant and silvery qualities ot  tone which give life and animation in the ensemble. In all these  alterations from the mode of blending the stops hitherto adopted  in this country he has acted in the spirit of the old and most celebrated builders of Holland and Germany.

[ Variety of tone ]

But in variety of tone he has made improvements, which he ventures to suppose  have not been surpassed any builder of ancient or modern  times. In the reed stops, he has invented seven new forms, as  exemplified in the grand ophicleide, the contra-fagotto, the  trombone, the clarion, the corno-flute, the cromorne-flute, and the clarionet, or chalemeau. In the flute stops he has adopted  wald-flute, oboe-flute, suabe-flute, flageolet, and two kinds ot  piccolo; and he has enriched the swell organ by the introduction  of the new stop called the echo dulciana cornet, a stop of five ranks of pipes, of the delicate scale and voicing in use for the  organ of the drawing-room, and which has proved a most valuable addition to the resources of the performer. These  principles were carried out subsequently in the organs of St.  Peter’s, Cornhill; St. Luke’s, Manchester; and St. Paul’s,  Sheffield, and that in the noble church at Stratford-upon-Avon. But an opportunity was wanted to bring the grand organ of Genuany into its primary use, to bear upon some two or three thousand voices singing the psalm tune like the Lutherans of Upper Germany, and the Protestants in Holland.

[ A Protestant organ ]

The grand organ is, in reality, a creation of the Protestant church. Great congregations require great organs; and there would have been no Haarlem organ but for the Haarlem Protestants. The destruction  of Dr. Raffles’ chapel at Liverpool, about two or three years since, has opened the way for the introduction of the grand organ amongst the independent dissenters. The chapel has been  re-erected without reference to expense, and is one of the most  splendid edifices in England. The building of the organ was  given to Mr. Hill, and the design left to Mr. Gauntlett.

[ Number of manuals ]

The  subscription being only about £1,000, the whole of the details  of the continental organ could not be brought into operation. But it was determined to avoid the rock on which the English builders had wrecked themselves. The English builder makes  an organ of three rows of keys, none of which are grand. The German builder, if he has not money enough to make an organ  of three rows of keys, makes one of two rows, if not enough for  two rows, makes one with only a single row of keys; but then  it is a grand organ. The money divided into three rows of keys makes an organ on which to play pretty and soft music; but the grand style of accompanying a psalm, the grand chorus or fugue is unapproachable on such an organ, in fact impossible. Noise and confusion takes the place of sublimity, and music is deprived  of its power over the hearts of its worshippers.

[ The Liverpool plan ]

The Liverpool organ has been constructed as nearly, therefore, on the plan of  the Haarlem as the funds appropriated to its erection would  permit. To make a large pedal organ (for the feet) without having an equally large manual organ (for the hands) would to commit the error which has recently been perpetrated in that noble building, Dr. Hook’s new church at Leeds, and also by  the founders of the organ in Exeter Hall. The first row of keys in the Haarlem contains 16 stops. That at Liverpool contains  19. The second (equal to the English swell) contains 15 stops,  the Liverpool 20, being the largest swell yet erected in Europe. The choir organ of the Haarlem has 14, the Liverpool eight stops. The height of the chapel at Liverpool forbade the introduction of the 32 feet pedal pipes, but the pedal organ has been made as weighty and as solemn as possible by three CCC pipes  and there a preparation for one CCCC. The octave and  mixture stops in the pedal have been obtained means of a copula from the fine and magnificent swell organ.

[ Opening events ]

The instrument was opened on Friday, before an auditory of upwards of 2,000 persons. The whole of the vocal strength of Liverpool was gathered together, and some of the choicest  movements of Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Mozart, &c. were  sung with great taste and precision. Mr. Gauntlett presided,  and the value of the many different flute, reed, and diapason stops became very apparent in the changes made in the accompaniments. In addition to these novelties there is the tuba mirabilis, of which the only other yet made in Europe is that added to the Birmingham organ for the festival of last year. On  Saturday and Monday Mr. Gauntlett performed many of Bach’s most celebrated fugues, and the organ was pronounced, by those who had heard the great continental organs, to be surpassed by  none. On Sunday, when the place was crowded to the ceiling, and all present may be said to have sung, nothing short of the tuba mirabilis in the Luther’s Hymn could be heard paramount, such was the body of tone from so numerous a choir. The Liverpool instrument is at present the finest in England, because  perfect. The Christ Church organ has only to be finished to make the object universal attraction and curiosity.

Northampton Mercury, Saturday 1st January, 1842, page 2

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