Shrewsbury Abbey

Shrewsbury Abbey 1911 Hill Organ


Shrewsbury Abbey is fortunate in having a fine William Hill & Sons organ, installed in 1911. This organ was designed for the restored and extended Abbey (John Loughborough Pearson’s 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. Shrewsbury Abbey’s Hill organ however needs to be restored and renovated, and is still missing many stops.

The information in the web pages in this section of the Abbey’s web site start with an explanation of how an organ works, then have more information about the organ, the work proposed and its cost. Finally there is information about the Organ Restoration Fund appeal and how to donate.

Stay up to date!

There is also more information elsewhere on social media. Facebook, Instagram, and on the Organ’s own Blog. Our Just Giving Page is coming soon:


How an organ works  –  In very simple terms!

Imagine you are about to play a recorder.  You hold the recorder, take a breath, place your fingers on the holes and blow.  What changes the sound you make?  How hard you blow, how many holes you cover with your fingers and the composition & length of the recorder  –  the longer it is and the more holes you cover, the deeper the note.

A pipe organ works in just the same way, albeit on a larger scale and with technical and engineering complexities.

Wind is produced by an electric blower and stored in large reservoirs which have a floating top, weighted to create air pressure.

Pipes are inserted onto “soundboards” which are connected through to the wind supply.  There are different “ranks” of pipes to produce different sounds.   In simple terms, each key on the organ’s keyboards is connected through to a single pipe on each of these ranks. The Abbey’s organ has 61 keys on each of the three keyboards or manuals, so for each rank there are 61 pipes.  “Mixture” ranks have two or three pipes to each note, so each mixture rank can have 122 or 183 pipes.

Each rank of pipes is connected to a “stop” on the organ console.  Each stop produces a different colour of sound and many different pitches.  Sound colour depends on how a pipe is made, wood or metal, and the type of each used;  pitch depends on pipe length  –  the longer the pipe, the deeper the sound;  short pipes produce high pitch.

Stop lettering describe the colour of the sound; they also say how long the longest pipe is,   and that defines the pitch.  The longest (lowest sounding) pipe on an 8’ stop rank of pipes is 8’.  The rank will have 61 pipes, each pipe shorter than the one before and each octave of pipes roughly half the length of the previous octave.

The sound produced by an 8’ stop is at the same pitch as a piano.  A 4’ stop is an octave higher in pitch, a 2’ stop another octave higher but a 16’ stop is an octave lower.

The different key boards or manuals (the Abbey organ has 3) add variety to the sounds produced. They can be used separately or can be coupled together to broaden the sound for effect.  Pedal stops add depth and weight, and again vary the effect and the sounds produced overall

Pallets below the pipes control the supply of air.  These pallets are opened/closed by mechanical, electric or pneumatic leather-hinged motors.   The Abbey’s actions are tubular pneumatic  –  i.e. pulses of air travel through lead tubing to the pneumatic motors.

Timeline of Abbey Hill organ

1808Gray organ installed under the West window of the Abbey. This instrument was moved to the north side of the nave during the 19th century
1890sMajor Abbey restoration and east end extension by John Loughborough Pearson
1911New organ by William Hill and Sons inaugurated in September 1911 at a cost of £850. The organ was incomplete, with missing stops, no casework, and the third manual (choir) was also to follow . Gray organ pipework was not re-used. The 1911 pipework is stamped with Hill’s job number, 2412
Post 1911The missing third manual (choir) was installed at a further cost of £250
1921An electric blower replaced the hand-blown mechanisms, which were disconnected but not removed
1937Hill Norman and Beard installed the great Posaune stop, made the 16’ great double diapason also playable as the missing pedal violone, added a large diapason (HNB manufacture in the 1920s) to the great and cleaned the organ
1937Chancel facing casework designed by Sir Charles Nicholson was also installed, using the pipes of the great double diapason in the display
1945Second hand horn pipework installed on the swell organ. The Hill 8’oboe was transposed into a 16’ contra oboe to tenor C and the top octave of pipes was removed. Also, probably at this time, a fifteenth 2’ was installed on the swell organ
1958Hill Norman and Beard over-hauled the third manual (choir), with two new stops installed (nazard 2 2/3’ and piccolo 2’). The choir box was enlarged also to take in the flue stops (until then it had only contained the two solo reeds), the shutters were re-aligned and two swell pedals replaced the two latch down levers, but remained (unusually) on the RHS of the console. The whole organ was cleaned
1970sA new pedal board was installed
2011Tenders for restoration and completion of the organ. Work did not proceed for lack of funding
20121921 blower failed and was replaced; the asbestos lined blower box was safely removed
2014New chancel facing casework panels and a lockable door from the choir vestry to the console, as well as new realigned stairs
20163 day intensive care visit by GO Organbuilders to correct all the then apparent faults
2017/18Major upper-stonework project at the Abbe
2018Scheme for restoration and completion of the Hill organ put forward by GO Organbuilders

What’s wrong with the Hill Organ?

“We wouldn’t realise there is anything wrong. The organ sounds magnificent.”

The 1911 organ does sound magnificent and is much loved by the congregation, choir and organists, visitors and visiting musicians. That is because of the quality of the core Hill pipework which produces superb blended Victorian tone, and because of the vast space in the Abbey as a whole and specifically around the organ

But there is much not right with the organ and faults are increasingly common. These are some of the problems:

  • First and foremost, the original 1911 actions are failing and must be restored, otherwise the organ will become increasingly unreliable and will eventually cease to work. The original actions are tubular pneumatic, the best technology available in 1911. The winding systems also leak, so the full amount of wind is seldom available within the instrument, resulting in loss of power and sluggish responsiveness to the organist.
  • The organ is incomplete. The missing stops are those needed to give the organ the punch it needs in such a large building. Consequently the instrument does not give sufficient lead to big congregations. And some of the well-intentioned additions/changes made during the 20th century actually detract from the Hill brand quality and ideally should be reversed.
  • There has been no general clean of the pipework or the organ itself for over 60 years. It is filthy. Such a clean is now long overdue and once carried out will add brightness to the sound of the organ and will also help improve its reliability.
  • Casework is still missing – the view of the instrument from the east end of the building is one of an unfinished, incomplete organ needing to be finished in a style which would complement the fine Nicholson case facing the Chancel.
  • The fine original Edwardian console is also showing signs of wear, particularly the manual keys (i.e. notes) in the middle registers. The console panels need restoring to bring the console back to its 1911 glory. Post 1911 draw-stop lettering is incompatible.
  • There is woodworm in the casework and platforms, all of which requires treatment or replacement to prevent further spread.
  • Finally, access into and around the organ and its platform needs to be improved to make safe, and ladders/handrails put in place.

2018 Project Work

The Abbey has been quoted for renovating and completing the Hill organ

This work would involve:

  • Replacing the current tubular pneumatic actions with electric-pneumatic, following the conclusions in a recent condition survey report from a nationally renowned organ consultant.
  • Electrifying and restoring the console whilst maintaining patina.
  • Completing the organ with salvaged contemporary and appropriately scaled Hill pipework.
  • Cleaning and where necessary, repairing all existing pipework.
  • Tuning and re-balancing existing and salvaged pipework.
  • Cleaning and overhauling all slider soundboards, fitting slider seals and all-electric solenoids on new timber shelves.
  • Restoring and where necessary repairing the winding systems and trunking, removing redundant mechanisms and lifting the remaining double rise main reservoir to create new space under the organ platform, with all new bedding to all faceplates.
  • Cleaning and repairing casework, woodworm infestation to be eradicated by removal of side case panels, replacing with new, and with stain and polish to match.
  • New handrails, ladders and fall arrest hooks installed.

The work would take up to 6 months during which time the Hill organ would be completely out of action

The Abbey cannot commit to this work until it has an up-to-date faculty (i.e. diocesan permission to proceed), and until it has funding in hand or pledged to cover a significant proportion of the total cost

Proposed Organ Specification

It is planned to complete the organ using salvaged, appropriately scaled contemporary Hill pipework. The availability of all the pipework required has still to be confirmed, so the stop lists below are provisional. However, the plan is for the completed organ to have the following specification:

Pedal Organ
Open metal 32’Currently missing. Salvaged pipework with quinted bottom 5 notes
Violone 16’Currently uses great 16’ double. Replace with salvaged pipework
Open wood 16’1911 pipework
Bourdon 16’1911 pipework
Octave 8’From open wood. 1911 pipework
Base flute 8’From bourdon. 1911 pipework
Cello 8’Missing. Reuse large 1937 great diapason and rename as principal
Trombone 16’Missing. Extension from 8’ tromba and salvaged pipework
Tromba 8’New additional stop using revoiced present swell 8’ horn
Swell organ(enclosed)
Bourdon 16’Missing. Salvaged pipework
Open diapason 8’1911 pipework
Stopped diapason 81911 pipework
Salcional 8’1911 pipework
Voix celestes 8’1911 pipework
Principal 4’1911 pipework
Flute 4’Missing. Salvaged pipework
Fifteenth 2’1945 addition
Mixture 3rks2rks 1911 pipework. Missing prepared for 3rd rank added
Oboe 8’Currently 1945 contra oboe 16’. Return to 8’ with new trebles to scale
Double trumpet 16’Missing. Salvaged pipework on electro-pneumatic soundboard for reed chorus
Trumpet 8’1945 second hand horn pipework to be reused as pedal tromba. Salvaged pipework to replace on soundboard as above
Clarion 4’Missing. Salvaged pipework on soundboard as above
Great Organ
Double diapason 16’1911 pipework
Open diapason no 1Inappropriate 1937 pipes to pedal organ. Salvaged pipework replaces
Open diapason no21911 pipework (originally intended to be the no 1 diapason)
Hohl flute 8’1911 pipework
Principal 4’1911 pipework
Harmonic flute 4’1911 pipework
Twelth 2 2/31911 pipework
Fifteenth 2’1911 pipework
Mixture 3rks1911 pipework
Posaune 8’1937 addition. Rescale and revoice to give better blend
Tuba 8’Choir tuba also to be playable from great
Choir organ(reduced choir box so that Hill reeds only enclosed, as intended in 1911
Dulciana 8’1911 pipework
Viol di gamba 8’1911 pipework
Lieblich Gedact 8’1911 pipework
Saube Flute 4’1911 pipework
Nazard 2 2/3’1958 addition to be retained
Piccolo 2’1958 addition to be retained
Clarinet 8’1911 pipework
Orchestral oboe 8’1911 pipework
Tuba 8’New additional stop. Salvaged pipework. Also playable from great

Money matters

The Abbey has to raise at least £150,000 for this work. The table below shows the costs and funding needed:

Cost of the organ contract, including a contingency sum and allowance for a price rise180
VAT on the organ contract36
VAT recovery through diocesan scheme-36
Scaffolding and incidental costs15
Total costs195
Earmarked funding already raised - about 1/3rd of the total cost80
Fund raising target: funding from
local and national Trust funds; donations; fund raising events etc
Total funding needed195

If we are able to raise more money than the new £115,000 target, it would be used to:

  • Install 5 new full length pipes to the pedal 32’ double open, replacing quinted pipework in the tendered scheme, including one new electro-pneumatic chest and stays, and at a cost of around £25k
  • Extend the pedal 16’ trombone to create a 32’ contra trombone, including one new electro-pneumatic chest and stays, and at a cost of around £25k