Some useful thoughts on how the Willis organ might have sounded were provided in an essay on the late Stephen Bicknell's website, no longer available. In "The History of the English Organ" [CUP 1996] however, Bicknell describes the Willis sound as having "...astonishing boldness and impact", "...with fire and bravado", of "smooth intensity";   the Durham organ was noted for "its extreme brilliance, particularly in the upperwork on the Great". Everything Willis did created a stir.

 The Durham organ was essentially built to the design of a mechanical instrument, including coupling at the console, with the organ in two halves with a tubular pneumatic connection between, first used by Willis at St.Paul's Cathedral in 1872.  There is a description of the arrangements used in the exactly contemporary, and in many respects similar - though with sides reversed - Salisbury Cathedral organ [in Rotunda V, 3, 1934/6]: 
"[The action] consisted of touch-boxes placed at the base of the [console] side, operated by trackers from the keys, the depression of which opened a pressure-valve and closed an exhaust, so charging a tube of 7/8" diameter with wind at the main pressure of 171/2". These tubes ran under the chancel to the [other] side, where circular membranes were inflated, pulling down and opening the manual pallets by means of long trackers...The Pedal mechanism was on similar lines, generally speaking...but the pneumatic tubes ran direct to the chests."
This relatively simple arrangement was able to be improved upon in later installations by use of Vincent Willis's lever system (Patent No.15,182 of 1889). It seems from comments in a letter from Dr.Armes, the Cathedral Organist, to the Dean & Chapter in 1898 that Willis would have liked to up-date the out-moded membrane blocks at Durham. 

These aspects of the organ's design and construction, particularly the crude pneumatic actions, integrating separate elements across the Quire, and the hydraulic blowing arrangements, tested the limits of the technology of the time, and were to be the first parts to falter. Gas engines soon replaced the water engines, but then fumes corroded parts of the action and pipes, such that a major overhaul was required by 1903, which is a story for another occasion.  Prepare to celebrate the centenary of Harrison & Harrison's first rebuilding of the organ, re-opened in July 1905.

A brief history of the Cathedral organs

  Father Willis webpage

This information was placed by Richard Hird, who is co-author with James Lancelot, the Cathedral Organist, of the definitive booklet about the Cathedral organs (available from the Cathedral Bookshop), and is recognised inter alia for his researches into and knowledge of Durham organs past and present.  Locally he is Organs Adviser to the Diocese of Durham, and nationally has advised on Heritage Lottery Funding for historic organs, is a member of the Organs Committee of the Council for the Care of Churches, and a Council member and Treasurer of the British Institute of Organ Studies <>.

Return to Durham Cathedral organs history page.