An instrument of three manuals and pedals by Byfield was installed in the West Gallery of Reading Minster in 1800. ;This was replaced by the present organ built by ‘Father’ Henry Willis in 1862 for an exhibition in London. It originally comprised three manuals and pedals – there were 11 stops on the Great organ, 8 on the Swell, 7 on the Choir and 5 on the Pedal. This organ was modified and installed in the north transept of St. Mary’s in 1864 – the same year that Willis installed his organ in the Town Hall.
Some time around 1876, the organ was moved to its present site (a chamber on the north side of the chancel) and the Solo organ (fourth manual) added, together with hydraulic blowing apparatus. This work was carried out by Henry Willis.
After around fifty years of use the mechanism was practically worn out and funds were collected for a rebuild. The outbreak of WW1 meant that this work was not completed until 1926. Willis’ estimate at that time was over £3000 and the maximum sum available was only £1600. For this amount, Bishop & Sons rebuilt the organ, including a new action and some tonal changes. One item remaining today from this rebuild is the delightful Viola da Gamba on the Solo Organ.
In 1932 Henry Willis III (grandson of ‘Father’ Willis) visited the Minster to assess the condition of the instrument and by the end of 1935 it finally ceased to work. Canon Parham (incumbent at the time, later Bishop of Reading) and the Dr. Daughtry (organist) raised £5000 and the work of rebuilding commenced in early 1936 and was finished in October the same year.
This work included a ;new organ façade of plain zinc display pipes and casework designed by Harold Rogers FRIBA of Oxford. Many of the original decorated front pipes can still be seen in various parts of the organ on a sunny day. The instrument was technologically advanced for its day and included the existing detached console with electronic action. At this time Willis III lowered the wind pressures on some of the big reed stops (which considerably decreased their effectiveness) and removed the 32ft Double Open Diapason from the pedal Organ.
This is the organ as it is today – 51 speaking stops, 30 couplers and 2,886 pipes. The rebuilt organ has served seventy years with little major expense other than regular tuning and servicing and the present condition of the organ is now sadly run down.
For further details on the work needed to restore the organ and how you can support this venture please visit our Organ Restoration page.