Henry Willis, the founder of the company, was born in Spitalfields, just east of the City of London. He was the first of five children, all boys and all, however briefly, associated with organ building. His father (Henry, 1794-1872) was a carpenter who was at one time was the kettle-drummer for Cecilian Society, a well-known local amateur musical group, and he had sung in the choir of the Surrey Chapel in the Blackfriars Road when the organist was the celebrated Benjamin Jacob. From an early age, Henry I learned to play the piano and the organ, the latter in competition with his friend, George Cooper junior, son of the assistant organist of St Paul’s.
In 1835, at the age of fourteen, he was apprenticed for seven years to John Gray (later Gray & Davison). In 1842, he went to work with Wardle Evans in Cheltenham for three years. Evans was a fine violinist who had a music shop, gave music lessons, supplied musical instruments and was developing a reed organ, which he called the Organo-Harmonica. It was through the exhibition of this instrument in London in 1844 that Henry I met and made a profound impression on S. S. Wesley, probably the most celebrated organist of his day.
In 1845, Henry I returned to London and set up in business. Most of his work at this point was in the west of the Country, but in 1851 he made a startling appearance in London with a seventy-stop organ for the Great Exhibition, the first successful organ of this size in the land. This was followed by the hundred-stop organ for the St George’s Hall, Liverpool, ordered on the strength of the Exhibition organ.
Thereafter, for the next fifty years, a stream of organs issued from the Willis works, ranging from the very large to the very small. There is occasional speculation as to how many organs Henry I did build, but we shall never know exactly as the early ledgers are no longer extant. Whilst the surviving work of other nineteenth-century organ builders may be admired, the work of Father Willis is treasured.