Our first organ was installed in 1869 to facilitate weekly organ recitals, an idea that came from a Mr Philip John Smith, a manufacturer of pianos. This was a very small instrument with only two manuals and a limited number of stops, and from the generous response of the public to these recitals, it was clear early on that a more substantial instrument was needed. In the following year William Henry Wills of the tobacco empire gifted a £5,000 organ to the hall and city. This fitting instrument of four manuals and pedals was built by Messrs’ Henry Willis and Sons, leading organ builders of the Victorian era.
Tragically a fire that spread from the adjacent Clarke’s clothing factory gutted the auditorium on 1 September 1898, and the original Willis organ was lost. Rebuilding of the auditorium commenced swiftly and the hall reopened in 1900. Willis and Sons once again provided another fine instrument. It was built to the specification of Mr George Riseley, organist of Bristol Cathedral, and consisted of four manuals and pedals, with the power for the wind supplied by three electric motors. This was the last large instrument to be constructed under the aegis of “Father Willis”.
Under the guidance of Riseley, the organ was enlarged by Messrs. Norman and Beard of Norwich in 1905. The main features of the design were four massive towers formed of the 32ft Open Diapason pipes connected at the sides by semi-circular bays of smaller pipes and in the centre by flats of similar pipes fitting in with the woodwork of the case.
On 1 May 1909 a political meeting at Colston Hall was disrupted by suffragettes Elsie Howey and Vera Holme, who hid in the organ overnight and shouted “votes for women” from the organ when local MP Augustine Birrell was making his speech. This incident was mirrored a few years later in February 1912 when a suffragette locked herself in the organ loft at Colston Hall and punctuated a speech given by Sir Charles Hobhouse (Liberal MP for East Bristol) with protests and interruptions.
Colston Hall was purchased by the Bristol Corporation (later to become Bristol City Council) in 1919, and seventeen years later the decision was made to modernise the hall and rebuild the Willis organ. With a generous gift of £7,850 from Yda Richardson, niece of Lord Winterstoke (formerly Sir William Henry Wills), it was possible to completely restore the organ. The hall reopened in December 1936, with an instrument that had an all-electric console separated from the organ for the first time. The old Willis stops were restored to their pristine beauty of tone, and additions were made to the specification to provide five manual departments, playable on four manuals. This organ was the pride and joy of the hall, and many famous organists entertained Bristol audiences in the inter-war years and during WWII.
Performances on the rebuilt Willis organ were dominated by well-known theatre organists at the time, such as Reginald Foort, the then-BBC Theatre Organist, Reginald Porter-Brown and Quentin MacLean. These performances went on despite the on-going war, but they had a big part in lifting the spirits of war-time Bristol.
Unfortunately, disaster struck again in 1945. After surviving the Luftwaffe air raids of the war years, a carelessly discarded cigarette butt started a major fire that destroyed the Hall. A newspaper headline of “The Organ Crashing Into A Sea Of Flames” and many memories of that fateful night attest to the horrors of the hall’s destruction that was witnessed by many.
Bristol was hard-hit by the Blitz, and post-war restrictions delayed the reconstruction of Colston Hall until after 1950. The newly rebuilt auditorium finally opened on 7 July 1951, commemorating the Festival of Britain. Messrs. Harrison & Harrison Ltd of Durham, who also built the Royal Festival Hall organ, was commissioned to build a fitting instrument for the modern hall.
The instrument proper is behind a grille and little of it can be seen from the body of the Hall. The organ extends upwards above the level of the panelling, and in the centre is the great organ with the Swell behind it. This organ has 5,372 pipes, ranging from tiny ‘tin whistles’ measuring an inch or so long to 32-foot tall ones that rumble in the bass when operated by the pedals.
The specification of this organ is still unchanged today, but improvements have been made in recent years to bring it in line with modern standards. The console has been upgraded to provide electronic registration to make it more user-friendly, and is still maintained by Harrison & Harrison regularly.