The project, called Blue Coat For All, will restore the school’s rare, museum quality 1874-built Father Willis organ with a £162,800 Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant. Once fully functional again, the organ will not only form an integral part of the School’s music-making, lessons and choral work, but it will 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.
The grant is the second round award of the Blue Coat School’s total £180,600 bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund, having already secured an initial £17,800 Development grant. Blue Coat School 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 Ltd, which constructed the instrument will undertake the restoration, thereby renewing the historic connection with this renowned company.
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, 30 January, 2019. The concert is free entry and open to the public. It will feature leading organists who are Old Blues and the School’s Senior and Chamber Choirs, conducted by Mr Emery, our Director of Music. The concert will be hosted by BBC Radio Merseyside’s senior presenter Roger Phillips.
Once restored, the Father Willis organ will be the focal point of the refurbished Shirley Hall. The organ began life in the original Liverpool Blue Coat School building (now Bluecoat Arts Centre) in Liverpool city centre, in 1874, and 32 years later it was moved to the school’s present premises at Wavertree, fatefully saving it from destruction in the Liverpool Blitz. It is now listed as part of the School’s Grade II* interior.
The organ is of international significance on account of its size and originality, having had minimal alterations in its 144-year history. The instrument was superbly built from the finest materials: 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 (student 1924-9).
To create a legacy using the restored Father Willis organ, the School will launch a Blue Coat Organ Scholarship scheme for pupils and external students, with a pilot starting this year. Tuition will be not only on the Father Willis organ, but also the School Chapel’s Walker organ and their ‘big brothers’ – Liverpool Cathedral’s Willis and Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral’s Walker organs.
This will offer an unsurpassed training at a national level and also help address the UK’s shortage of organists plus boost the paltry number of female players, as we are a co-educational school. The organ scholarship will reinforce the city’s premier place on the classical music map and is actively supported by the Directors of Music at Liverpool Cathedral and Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, Dr Chris McElroy and Lee Ward, respectively, who are both Old Blues (pictured top with the Willis organ). This is the first time both posts have been occupied by Old Blues simultaneously.
The School will appoint Community Volunteers to help digitise the School’s archive, as well as to stimulate public awareness of the restored organ by supporting concerts, increasing local residents’ involvement and raising local pride in the school. The ‘Father Willis’ Wicked Workshops’ programme has been created to use the organ to lead interactive music, heritage and science workshops for primary school pupils from disadvantaged areas of Liverpool and for specialist school pupils, such as The Royal School for the Blind Liverpool. As an example, the Willis’ Waves workshops will use the organ’s mechanics to teach the principles of stationary sound waves, led by retired Blue Coat physics teacher Mr Caulkin.
In addition, eight Blue Coat Ambassadors were invited to promote the Blue Coat For All project within their own professional areas: Lord Alton of Liverpool, ex-Liverpool MP and School Governor; Julia Bryan, National Museums Liverpool Senior Education Manager; Dr Chris McElroy, Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral Director of Music; Carol Midgley, The Times Columnist; Roger Phillips, BBC Radio Merseyside Senior Presenter; Prof Peter Toyne, founder Vice Chancellor Liverpool John Moores University; Prof Ian Tracey, Liverpool Cathedral Organist Titulaire; and Lee Ward, Liverpool Cathedral Director of Music.
Headteacher Mr Pennington 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. Our organ scholarship proposal, combining the organ resources of our school with those of the two great Liverpool Cathedrals, will create an unsurpassed national music training opportunity for young people.”
Tom Bell, Royal College of Organists’ Northern Director, said: “Blue Coat’s Father Willis organ is a very special, rare instrument, retaining its original fantastically rich, fulsome sound, but after 144 years of use it clearly now needs major restoration to remain operational and play a future role in music-making for the school and the wider community. Working with Blue Coat School is also a wonderful chance to help our goal of promoting organ music to the community and young people. The UK desperately needs more organ players and we want to attract young women to learn to play.”
Nathan Lee, Head of HLF North West, said: “This is excellent news for Blue Coat School. We are delighted that this historic Father Willis organ will be restored to full working order and the young people of Liverpool will have the chance to take advantage of such fantastic music training opportunities thanks to National Lottery players.”
* Blue Coat For All Gala Organ Concert at Liverpool Cathedral, at 7-8pm, on Wednesday, 30 January, 2019. Free public entry – everyone welcome.