Blue Coat School secures £162,800 for organ restoration project

Historic Liverpool’s school’s museum quality Father Willis pipe organ dates back to 1874 and its restoration is being backed by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Tony McDonough reports

Blue Coat
Former Blue Coat students Chris McElroy and Lee Ward next to the school’s Father Willis organ. Picture by Jason Roberts


Liverpool school Blue Coat has secured a £162,800 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) towards a project to restore its historic pipe organ.

It adds to the original £17,800 HLF development grant towards the Blue Coat For All project that aims to restore the rare, museum quality Father Willis organ, that was built in 1874 in Blue Coat’s original home in Liverpool city centre (no Blue Coat Arts Centre).

The school, which itself dates back to 1708, moved to its current home in Wavertree, taking the organ with it. The instrument is now listed as part of the school’s Grade II interior.

Finest materials

The organ is of international significance on account of its size and originality, having had minimal alterations in its 144-year history. It was built from the finest materials, including oak, cedar, ivory, rosewood, leather, phosphor-bronze and brass, with spotted lead and tin pipework.  

It retains original mechanical key and stop actions, wind system and pipes. The organ is also unusual in being in a state school and would have been heard daily by John Lennon’s father, Alfred, who was a student from 1924 to 1929.

Blue Coat also raised a further £32,155 in match funding for the project from charitable trusts and donations from friends of the school. As a result, Liverpool-based organ builder Henry Willis & Sons, which constructed the instrument, will undertake the restoration, thereby renewing the historic connection with the company.

Public concerts

Once fully functional again, the organ will form not only an integral part of the school’s music-making, lessons and choral work, but also become the heart of regular public concerts for the first time.

The project will also include forming a 50-member community choir, digitally cataloguing the school archive and making it publicly accessible on a new website, plus developing a community outreach programme with local primary and specialist schools. 

Once restored, the Father Willis organ will be the prominent focal point of a wider major refurbishment of the school’s 1906-built assembly hall, named Shirley Hall, in honour of a former trustee and benefactor WH Shirley.  

Blue Coat
Rare ‘Father Willis’ organ was installed at Blue Coat school’s original city centre site in 1874. Picture by Jason Roberts


Museum quality

Mike Pennington, Blue Coat School headteacher, said: “The Blue Coat For All project, thanks to the backing of the Heritage Lottery Fund, is a really exciting and dynamic project for the school.  

“We shall not only be able to restore the Father Willis organ, which is a rare instrument of museum quality, but also use it as a spring-board to expand into an entirely new realm of public music, by bringing in the community to enjoy concerts at the school.”

The HLF award and official launch of the Blue Coat For All project will be celebrated with a Gala Organ Concert at Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, at 7-8pm, on Wednesday, January 30.

The concert is free entry and open to the public and will feature leading organists who are Old Blues (former students) of the school and the school’s senior and chamber choirs, conducted by the School’s Director of Music Simon Emery. The event will be hosted by BBC Radio Merseyside’s senior presenter Roger Phillips. 

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