Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Whitehouse, Joseph Howell (1874–1954)

by Robert K. Boughen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Joseph Howell Whitehouse (1874-1954), organbuilder, was born on 26 May 1874 at West Derby, Lancashire, England, son of Benjamin Burton Whitehouse, organbuilder, and his wife Lucy, née Howell. Joseph learned his craft with the Norwich firm of Norman Bros (later known as Norman & Beard before amalgamating with Hill & Son). On 24 December 1896 he married Amelia Jones at St Mark's parish church, Birmingham. The couple migrated to Brisbane, arriving on 12 July 1897; there Joseph joined his elder brother Benjamin who had come in 1883 and begun installing organs the following year.

The brothers were at first associated with J. S. Marlor and were listed as importers of pianos, organs and musical instruments. Joseph also tuned pianos and harps, and repaired player-pianos. From 1903 the brothers traded as B. B. Whitehouse & Co., the name which appeared on the organs they built until 1921 when Whitehouse Bros was established exclusively as organbuilders.

Gaining a virtual monopoly within Queensland of organ building, as well as of organ maintenance, repair, tuning and rebuilding, the firm won contracts in that State for at least ninety instruments during Joseph's lifetime; it extended its business, constructing or rebuilding organs in every State. Such success testified to the solid and reliable workmanship in their instruments. The sensitive voicing of their sound might have been questioned: the company never made metal pipes, but installed ranks which were made and pre-voiced overseas. Nevertheless, it did manufacture all wooden pipes, chests and consoles: the first organ made by Whitehouse in 1899 functioned without major repair until its restoration in 1985. The presence of so many organs in Queensland with a design later considered inadequate was due less to requests from largely untrained players than to the forceful personality and stubborn convictions of Whitehouse himself.

To the public, clients and senior members of the organ fraternity, he was at all times a courteous English gentleman; with employees, he tended to dismiss as inferior any opinion other than his own. He never left Australia, nor did any member of his staff. If his attitude to organ design was parochial and insular, his tonal aesthetic both created and reflected contemporary tastes. His early instruments, in particular, sound robust, especially when sited in an auditorium of generous resonance. Survived by his wife, son and a daughter, Whitehouse died at his Toombul home on 28 February 1954 and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at £8950. His son Joseph and grandson Kevin continued the business until 1982.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Cox, Gazeteer of Pipe Organs in Australia (Melb, 1976)
  • G. D. Rushworth, Historic Organs of New South Wales (Syd, 1988)
  • private information.

Citation details

Robert K. Boughen, 'Whitehouse, Joseph Howell (1874–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 31 May 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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