Shrewsbury Abbey’s 1911 Hill Organ

Shrewsbury Abbey is fortunate in having a fine William Hill and Sons organ, installed in 1911. The organ was designed for the restored and extended Abbey (John Loughborough Pearson’s 1880s and 1890s work) and was also designed to fit into a large space to the north side of the new Chancel. Hill was one of the two foremost organ builders of the time and his organs are found in many of the UK’s cathedrals and churches.

This was the second organ installed in the Abbey. There was an earlier organ by William Gray, dating from 1806 which was in use for over 100 years. The Hill organ replaced this instrument, but none of the pipework was reused.

Hill’s 1911 scheme for the organ was not completed. Keys stops were omitted, and there was no front casework. Winding initially was manual. The actions were entirely tubular pneumatic, the latest technology of the day.

Work since 1911

Over the past 100 years, various changes and additions have been made, of varying quality and appropriateness.

  • In 1921 the hand blowers were replaced by a large electric blower, which itself was replaced in 2012
  • Pipework was added in 1937 and 1945 – all good quality, but not as Hill intended. Chancel facing casework was also added in 1945
  • Changes to the choir division were made in 1958, and these effectively muffled sound egress
  • And also in 1958 there was the last major clean of the whole organ

The organ was still missing some key stops, so that it was not sufficiently powerful for the vast space of this building and the east face of the organ was also clearly incomplete and ugly.

Work was still needed

Over the last 50 years, there have been many schemes for the renovation and completion of this potentially fine organ. None were progressed, although fund raising had begun. Meanwhile the organ’s problems were increasing, but the quality of the organ’s tone led many people to ask whether there was a need to do any work at all. By the 2010s, the actions were increasingly failing, winding systems were leaking, the whole organ was overdue a thorough clean, woodworm infestations were increasing, and it was still lacking the punch it needed. But it was realised that, completed and renovated, this organ would potentially be magnificent, of regional and even national importance.

The 2020 Scheme of Work

Carried out by GO Organbuilders, the scheme of work was to:

  • Convert the original tubular pneumatic actions to electro-pneumatic
  • Electrify and restore the console to original condition
  • Complete Hill’s 1911 stop specification with a tuba added
  • Restore and lift reservoirs/blowers above head height to gain storage space
  • Erect new east end platforms for the missing pipework and raised winding
  • Clean and repair all existing pipework; eradicate woodworm infestations

This is the most significant work on the organ since its original installation.

The organ will have three keyboards and pedals, and 43 speaking stops. There will be 2400 pipes, an increase of 450. The electrified console will have a modern multi-channel control system of general and divisional pistons, but the outward appearance of the keyboards and stop jambs will be very little different. Where possible, original materials have been retained, but restored to original condition.

Cost and funding

The whole 2020 scheme will cost the Abbey around £200,000. Years of fund raising together with donations/grants from funds and charities has covered nearly all of this cost, however donations are still most welcome.

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Here is a selection of music played on the Hill organ on Mothering Sunday 2020, just hours before work to dismantle the organ began. The music was recorded live by Nigel Pursey on his mobile phone.