GENEALOGY & THE PIANO MAKERS
(Page updated April 2019)
The main aim of this page is to try to give you a clearer picture of what your ancestors might have done if they were in the piano trade. Over the past half-century, I have received many enquiries from descendants of piano makers who want to find out more about their family trees, including four from BBC TV’s “Who do you think you are”. Even if your ancestors were not in the piano trade, it is worth remembering that we have several complete London directories ranging from 1786 to 1892, so we can look up London surnames and scan the relevant parts of the lists, in return for a donation.
These ladies are the sisters of the author Sir Herbert Janes (“Uncle Sherbert”) from Beth’s family tree. They have nothing to do with pianos, I just love the picture! A lot of people are delving into their family history but don’t forget, the older you are, the more history you have inside your head that would interest other people, so please write it down, or record it, and send it to people who are interested.
Even some modern directories and Yellow Pages list “Pianoforte Makers” (although they are not usually real makers) but if you are doing family research in the census records, “pianoforte manufacturer” implies an employer, in business in his own name, and probably traceable from our unique collection – THE WORLD’S LARGEST DIRECTORY OF PAST BRITISH PIANO FIRMS, whereas in census entries or certificates like Arthur Clark’s, above, “pianoforte maker” suggests an employee, and it is almost impossible to track down the thousands of employees of the piano factories by any kind of active research, so we are pleased to receive any information you have about them. Jim Reidford wrote to us about his piano-making ancestors, named Blackhall. Flicking through our many lists of London piano firms, and concentrating on the relevant period from the 1820s to the 1890s, I found many entries for Blackman, a few for Blackley, but not one single piano firm named Blackhall. The obvious conclusion is that they were employees of a factory, and not in business in their own name, but it is possible to be in business, but not pay to be listed in directories. We also have music trades directories, but mainly from the 1900s, details may be found on the Books page.
A useful source online is the London Gazette, which listed a great many pianoforte makers who became bankrupt, but just because the person is described as a “pianoforte maker”, that still does not mean he was in business in his own name, and the bankruptcy is not necessarily that of a company, it is often quite simply that an individual who happens to work at a piano factory finds himself unable to pay his debts. The fact that this happened to so many piano makers across the country leads me to think that probably they were not paid a decent living wage. At the moment, the few pay details I have on file are for apprentices. Another thing worth mentioning is that just because someone was bankrupt, that does not mean they ceased business, they could be released from that state later, and some were bankrupt several times.
Most of the London factories were grouped around the Camden and St.Pancras areas, so knowing where the employee lived doesn't usually help us decide where he worked. It is quite surprising how far these people had to walk to get to work. On the whole, we tend to know more about the pianos and the business, whereas descendants tend to have more information about the family members, so it’s nice to be able to put the two aspects together, for a more complete picture. Often, when I ask descendants of piano makers for help, the reply begins "I'm sorry I cannot help you very much" then continues with a page or two of fascinating facts which may never have been published in any textbook. Sometimes, your ancestors may turn out to be dealers rather than actual makers, and our Names page may help. Some tuners and other tradesmen used to describe themselves as ”Pianoforte Selectors”, implying that they will select the most suitable instrument to suit an individual client, almost implying a bespoke piano.
Often, a senior worker or supervisor at a factory would have a metal stamp made, to imprint his name onto wooden parts in the piano, like this example for John Black. This is a kind of quality control mark to show that he was happy to sign the work he had done. These marks may be all we know of these employees, but at least they may suggest which factory the person worked for.
In the 1850s, Charles McVay worked at the Erard London factory, and was a senior worker who imprinted his name inside the pianos with a metal stamp, as a way of signing his work. The unusual thing about McVay is that we can track his progress, because he set up his own business in 1862, and made pianos for many years under his own name, adding “From Erard’s”.
DESCENDANTS OF PIANO MAKERS & DEALERS etc.
A.Dimoline J.Dimoline Youatt Weekley Warhurst Chidley Millar Brock Ewing Moore Beadle
Nott Reeve Reeve Grosch Barnes Hart Hart Lawrence Felumb
We have received enquiries about the following surnames, so if they seem to relate to your ancestors, please email me for more information…
Agar Aggio Allan Allen Allin Ansell Archer Ash Bailey Bainbridge Balcombe Bansall Barnes Barr Barratt Barrow Barry Bartley Beadle Begg Bell Bergman / Bergmann Binns Bishop Blackhall Brader Brain Brasted Brider Briggs Brinsmead Brockbank Browne Buchinger Buckinger Buist Bunting Cadby Calcutt Caunter Challenger Chappell Chidley Child Clark Cock Cole Collard Corsby Coverdale Cowtan Crabb Cresswell Culliford Dale Forty D'Amery Darling De Witte Deighton Dettmer Dimoline Dodd Done Dunkley Eade Ealand Eiloart Eld Ellis Emerson Emeny Emery Etherington Eungblut Ewing Fairchild Fawcett Felstead Felumb Ferdinando Fitchett Flocks Ford Forrester Forsyth Fox Freeman Frisbee Frood Fullalove Gamble Garcka Gautier Gibb Gilkes Gillies Gillis Goddard Goudge Greenwood Grosch Hales Haig Hall Hammar Harley Harling Harmston Harper Harrison Hart Hay Haynes Hill Hills Hodgson Holman Holmes Hounam Howlett Hulbert Huntingdon Ingle Ivory Johnson Jones Karsten Keatley Keatly Kemp Kennard Kentfield Kilvert Kirkman Klitz Lahnstein Lawrence Lawson Lewis Lister Loeschmann Love Mann Mardon Margery Matthews Mayell McCudden Micklefield McLachlan McNee Meekings Mertens Midgley Millar Monington Moore Mott Moutrie Muir Wood Mundy Murdoch Newman Nicholas Nokes Nott Nutley Owen Pickworth Poser Prais Press Prior Pull & Field Ramsden Ramsey Ramsay Ratcliffe Reeve Reid Richards Riches Rintoul Robertson Rogers Rolfe Rowed Rudd Sames Schofield Scotcher Scott Scriven Seager Seymour Shenstone Shepherd Shipman Sibley Simpson Skerrett Skerratt Smart Smith Southgate Sparks Speirs Squire Statham Steedman Stodart Strauch Strong Sully Sweetlove Syer Taplin Tayler Taylor Thompson Tolkien Tomkison Trehane Trory Tuck Venables Vickers Wade Wainwright Walden Wallace Warhurst Warrene Waterman Whitelock Williams Windover Winkworth Witt Witte Wood Worley Wornum Wuest Youatt Zetta. See also pre-1830 surnames on our names and aliases page and the list of directories at the bottom of the Index page.
A descendant in Derby told me it was difficult to research his family,
because so many of them were born out of Matlock.
Even if we do not have the person you are looking for on file, we may have other relatives listed in old books. People listed as “Pianoforte Maker” in census records or certificates were often specialists such as music smiths, action makers, or pianoforte key makers, like Nicholas (above) and Harbert...
Also, although “pianoforte maker” may bring to mind a picture of a man making the whole piano from start to finish, in reality, most of these workers specialised in certain specific skills of the many required for the process of manufacture. The Victorian piano trade in London was a huge employer, and we have no way of tracing every single employee by active research, or even finding out which factory they worked for, but we probably have more chance than any other source of something turning up here at random next week or next year, and we try to give you an insight into the work your ancestors did, so keep in touch, and make sure we have your up-to-date email address, or postal address. Another point worth remembering is that around the war years, the armed forces records sometimes showed a person’s previous employer. If you are researching a piano shop or factory, it is a good idea to check its address on Google Earth to see if the building still exists.
Roy Mills very kindly sent me this genuine, original piece of piano ephemera, a stencil used to apply the name of W.G.Margery onto the pianos he sold, with gold paint. This was not a big, main name, it would have been applied to the thin strip of wood just above the keys, which is known as a “nameboard”. We would like to hear from any descendants of the Margery piano firms, whether they were pianoforte makers, or pianoforte key makers.
Keith Smith sent us a recording of his grandfather Charles Smith talking about his grandfather's piano business and the surrounding area. Keith says “The 1881 and 1901 census states Thomas Smith piano maker was living at Alexandra Road, Friern Barnet, but he may well have moved to Southgate by the time my grandfather remembers. I have not yet checked this out." Charles said that the family was originally German, so presumably Schmidt. The full recording of Charles talking about his father Thomas and grandfather "Charity Tom" will take time to digest, and there is some confusion, as one expects when interviewing old people about history, such as the claim to have “invented the check action”. [Some actions had checks by 1709.] There is an element of Chinese whispers in family folklore, I remember when my father told me things “from the horse’s mouth”, his Grandad, but I was misled by what Dad said because his Grandad misled him.
A century ago, many pianos were mass-produced in huge factories, employing hundreds of workers, but it is important to understand that there were still little cottage industries like Smith’s making pianos one at a time in small sheds and workshops in their back gardens, buying in parts like actions, keys and iron frames from specialists, and building the piano around them. Tracing these little firms is almost impossible, most are not listed on the internet, many did not subscribe to trade organisations or directories, and a lot of them used untraceable aliases on their pianos. Some bought in the "strung back" ready-made, and built a case around it, so they could produce a unique design. Firth Brothers made just TWO of these, and then settled for the more usual process of buying in the whole piano from a wholesaler.
It is not unknown for us to receive enquiries from two or more descendants of the same maker who do not know each other. Something quite spooky happens at times, and people from different parts of the world write to me at the same time, about the same subject. For example, I had only worked on one example of a piano by Henry Tolkien, and having tuned it, I received an enquiry from a descendant of Tolkien, then several of his pianos turned up, one after another.
On another occasion, within a week, I received separate emails from England and Canada, about Collard & Collard iron frames found buried in forests. Confusing!
If you are doing historical research, it soon becomes obvious that we don’t know how words and names were pronounced at the time, the written word survives, but the sound does not. For anyone who needs to be convinced, this is the very simple and obvious reason why grammar, punctuation, and especially spelling are so important to written language. We can’t hear the tone of voice, so if the spelling is wrong, we have no chance of understanding words, or following names through a family tree. Unfortunately, human errors have always been around, so they will inevitably place obstacles in the way of your research, and they proliferate on the internet, but please try not to add to them.
As pianos developed and improved, the task of making them became more complex and diverse, so the act of making a whole piano was rarely achieved by any one person, and an apprentice would tend to study certain specified arts within the whole process. Colin Walker kindly sent us photos of this little apprentice piece, which demonstrated the skills of Mrs Walker’s great grandfather, Rayfield Seamer. He made it at the Hopkinson factory, perhaps around 1860, but inside, it has no strings or action, because those were not skills he learned. Mary Stewart wrote “I was very interested to find a mention of Rayfield Seamer on your informative and friendly site. He was an indirect and distant ancestor of mine, born around 1841. His son married my great great aunt's daughter.”
In 1842, the Penny Magazine published an article about Broadwood’s factory, and it was reproduced in their Penny Cyclopaedia, and some items later in Dodd’s “Days At The Factories”, as well as a series of articles by W.H.Davies published in “The English Mechanic and World of Science” in 1878. It writes about some of Broadwoods’ workers, including packing-case makers, bottom makers, square-case makers, and sounding-board makers or belly-men. I have always wanted to find the much-quoted original, so I was delighted and amazed when the bound volumes turned up in a local auction. However, bidding started high, and was beyond our budget, so I went home disappointed. The buyer declined to sell me the piano volume, then he broke up the books into separate articles, and sold them on Ebay. My daughter Sarah saw the piano chapter, and without knowing anything about the background, bought it for my birthday!
We have Tomlinson's "Cyclopaedia of Useful Arts & Manufactures" (1853) and it lists job descriptions of various skills within the piano trade. "In the manufacture of a piano there are, in fact, upwards of 40 different classes of operatives employed, each of whom, with his assistants, is exclusively engaged in his own peculiar branch of the manufacture." Paragraphs are included about the beam-maker, bent side maker, bottom-maker, bracer, brass stud-maker, bridge-maker, canvas- frame-maker, carver, case-maker, check-maker, damper-lifter-maker, finisher, French polisher, fronter, gilder, hammer-leatherer, hammer-maker, key-maker, leg block-maker, lyre-maker, marker-off, metallic brace-maker, metallic plate-maker, music- smith, notch-maker, plinther, regulator of action, regulator of tones, rougher-up, sawyer, scraper, sounding-board-maker, spun- string-maker, steel arch-maker, stringer, top-maker, tranverse bar- maker, tuner, & turner. Only the French polisher was awarded a capital letter.
Kemble pianos of the 1920s were labelled on the back with a quality check signed by several different tradesmen, with headings like Back, Belly, Mark Off, String, Chip Up, P & C, Fit Up, Finish, Polish Parts, Polish Case, Rough Tune, Fine Tune, Flyfinish, Regulate. These labels are not usually found unless the back-cloth is removed.
Early directories are usually alphabetical in layout, and some are peculiarly listed in trades within each initial, very confusing! The kind of classified lists of trades we expect from modern Yellow Pages mainly came into London directories in the mid-1800s (before that they were just alphabetical) but Johnstone’s 1817 directory of London lists 34 Piano Forte makers, as well as other music firms who applied their names to pianos. In 1819, I find about 54 possible piano makers. By 1848, I find 104 alleged “Pianoforte Makers” listed alphabetically in London, and no complete trade lists yet.
In 1853, Tomlinson said "The manufacture of piano-fortes is an important branch of industry in the metropolis. In the London Directory of 1853, the names of upwards of 200 "piano-forte makers" are entered; although many of these are sellers, or retail-dealers, as they may be called. ~~~~~ It was estimated at the time of the Great Exhibition that the number of piano-fortes manufactured in London was about 450 per week, or upwards of 23,000 per annum; that some of the largest houses made from 1,500 to 2,500 per annum each, or one-tenth of the whole; that of the annual make, between 5 and 10 per cent might be estimated of the grand form; about the same of the square; and the remainder, forming by far the largest portion, of the upright." In other words, at least 4 times as many uprights as other kinds. The following estimate of the value of piano-fortes made in London, is from the able paper last quoted;-
1,500 grands, bichords, and small grands, at, say £110 each - £165,000
1,500 squares at £60 each - £90,000
20,000 uprights of various kinds at £35 each - £700,000
23,000 Total Value £955,000
or nearly a million pounds sterling per annum. The number of workmen engaged in this production is estimated at between 3,000 and 4,000. The export trade is also large. The extent of the manufacture in France is only about one-third that of England. We are assured that this estimate is much too low for the present year, 1853. The piano-forte makers of London are not only in full employment, but are not able to keep pace with the demand. We are informed by an eminent maker who is now producing at the rate of from 40 to 50 pianos per week, that he could readily dispose of three times that number if he were in a condition to make them. A gentleman intimately connected with the piano-forte trade, has furnished us with an estimate of the produce of the various makers of Great Britain, from which it appears that about 1,500 pianos are manufactured ever week, by far the larger number of which are produced in London. Of this number, 35 are grands, 20 squares, and 1,450 uprights of all kinds, including cabinets, cottages, semi-cottages and piccolos. (As described in our Victorian page.) Of these varieties, cottages and semi-cottages are made in the proportion of 300 per thousand, piccolos 699 per thousand, and cabinets only 1 per thousand. In taking this weekly produce as above stated, and assuming the prices to be the same as those given in the "London Journal", we thus arrive at the annual total of the piano-fortes manufactured in Great Britain:
Grands 25 x 52 = 1,300 at £110 each = £143,000
Squares 20 x 52 = 1,040 at £60 each = £62,400
Uprights 1,450 x 52 = 75,400 at £35 each = £2,639,000
77,740 Pianos per year to the value of £2,844,400
Tomlinson’s words imply that London made about a third of the British pianos, I would have thought it was more. Here are a few of the 13 ancillary trades listed in our 1892 Post Office London Directory. These secondary firms were often quite small, sometimes only one person, but as the number of piano makers exploded through the 1800s, so it was with the ancillary workers whose little cottage industries were a lifeline to the makers. By 1892, we see about 230 London firms listed as “Pianoforte Makers”. Once again, some were retailers who did not really make the pianos, some real makers were not listed, so we can only guess at the genuine figure.
Here is an 1897 scene from the Royal Normal College for the Blind, Hereford, where blind students were taught piano tuning and repairs. Because piano tuning makes very little use of sight, it was traditionally an occupation for blind as well as sighted and semi-sighted workers, especially in an age when most towns had hundreds of pianos within walking distance. The RNCB at Hereford only closed recently.
In this example, you can see that computer folders adapt very well to providing a framework for a family tree, and the successive generations move to the right. Of course, in the same way that a sheet of paper never seems to be big enough, computer folders also have a finite amount of space, especially if you use long folder names, and you may have to sub-divide them. If, on the other hand, you are typing lists in a normal document, remember that history is chronological, so try to arrange them so that each line is a separate item, beginning with the year, that way you can use the computer’s ability to sort them into chronological order. I use the “ish” sign ~ after the year to indicate that it is an estimated date.
A lot of our information comes from our unique collection of directory lists, but these mainly help if the person was in business in his own name. My musical Preston ancestors ran the Preston Ropeworks at Preston Road, and it would be nice to imagine that they might have been connected with the Prestons who made instruments in the 1700s, but no such connection has been found.
Piano-making often used to run in families. This is known in Norfolk as “hairy-ditary”.
An item in the Family Circle magazine, 1897, is entitled "Origin of Journeyman: There used to be a very good law in Germany which required every mechanic at the expiration of his term of apprenticeship to travel about from place to place for the next succeeding three years. He was not allowed to remain over three months in one town, but must keep moving on like a wandering Jew. In several of the large places through which he passed there were inns where he might get a supper, lodging and breakfast, as well as a few groschens to enable him to continue his journey, all at the State's expense. At the end of the allotted three years the wanderer was supposed to have seen something of the world, and was then permitted to settle down where he liked, and work at his trade - hence the origin of the word journeyman.” The journeyman was actively discouraged from setting up business in the same place where he had learned his trade.
“It was a journey, but he nailed it, gave it 110% and made it his own.”
Kathleen emailed "Can you please tell me how would a person have been trained in the making of pianos 1820-1840, given that the apprenticeship scheme started much later?” I would have to disagree, there were apprenticeships for hundreds of years before there were pianos. There are transcripts for other trades online from the 1800s and earlier. From the 13th century to the 16th, apprenticeships were done by voluntary arrangement between employers and parents. From the early 1600s, a parish could arrange apprenticeships for orphans and pauper children. For two-and-a-half centuries, between 1563 and 1814, no craftsman was permitted to practise his craft legally without being a journeyman, although it is difficult to imagine how this could have been enforced. Sadly, quite a few of these journeymen ended up in debtor’s prison or bankrupt, so newspapers and legal records sometimes mention them.
Some wills are available online, as well as records of graves, but piano apprenticeship indentures are much harder to find. The term "indenture" is not exclusively connected with apprenticeships, but is also applied to various other legal documents where the copies were made from a single sheet of paper, and the pages were "indented" or cut in a freehand curving or zigzag fashion, so that the genuine matching halves could be identified by the way they fitted together – like a love token. When these documents had ceased to be indented, and were on ordinary oblong pages, the term “apprenticeship indenture” still survived.
There would be copies for the employer and the apprentice, so considering how many thousands there must have been, it is surprising that in half a century of research, I have only managed to uncover actual copies of a handful of apprenticeship indentures for pianoforte makers, plus a few transcripts. There doesn’t seem to be any single concentration of apprenticeship information, it is spread around randomly, so we probably have the best available set for pianos, and it provides useful insights into the terms of employment, although we are always looking for more.
An 1809 apprenticeship to Jacob Erat, harp maker, says…
He shall not waste the Goods of his said Master nor lend them unlawfully to any;
He shall not commit fornication nor contract Matrimony within the said Term;
He shall not play at Cards, Dice Tables, or any other unlawfull Games
whereby his said Master may have any loss.
He shall not haunt Taverns or Playhouses.
An 1897 apprenticeship to Rogers offers…
The hours of business for the said Apprentice shall be
from seven o'clock in the morning till seven in the evening.
No wages in the first 18 months to May 11th 1898
5/- per week the next 9 months to Feb 11th 1899
7/- per week the next 9 months to Nov 11th 1899
9/- per week the next 9 months to Aug 11th 1900
11/- per week the next 9 months to May 11th 1901
13/- per week the next 9 months to Feb 11th 1902
15/- per week the next 9 months & 17 days to Nov 28th 1902
A Journeyman (like John Rambo) is someone who has served his apprenticeship, and is qualified in his trade. [The equivalent German word is Verbunkos.]
In 1998, I met Bob Clark, who lived in Lowestoft, and was 89 years old. His Dad, who died in 1926, made pianos under Bob's Mum's name, J.S. Clark. They had two factories, a two-storey one at Kentish Town (later taken over by Dunn Shoes) and a single-storey one at Holloway. Bob said they made pianos for the trade, including Murdoch and Dale Forty, and did not usually have their own name on them. They used a bow-drill to make over 200 holes in each wrestplank by hand, which must have been a difficult and slow method, even by 1920s standards!
Many years ago, I was tuning a piano in a private house while the decorators were working on the windows: Out of the blue (or was it white?) the painter said "One of my ancestors used to make pianos". He turned out to be a descendant of Bernard Brock, and gave me the address of his aunt, Evelyn Fisher, who was Brock's niece. Evelyn answered my enquiry with some fascinating points about the man himself, and although Brock was not regarded as one of the "great" piano makers, his story may nevertheless be of interest to anyone who has a piano made by his firm. Most of the pianos bearing his name were made after his death. As often happens with family folklore, there are some claims that cannot be substantiated, such as the idea that Brock invented the baby grand.
Mary Godward wrote to us about her ancestor, Gilbert Gillies, who was a cabinet-maker in Edinburgh and moved to London with his family some time in the early 1820s, where he became a pianoforte maker. Two of his sons, Peter and John Betzen Gillies, are said to have continued in the business, but we have no record of the family working under their own name, so they were probably employees. John moved to Argentina in 1857, where he continued making pianos in Buenos Aires as “Alberto”.
Lawrence P. H. Bradley emailed from Tacoma county, USA: "I am searching for information about one of my ancestors, Frederick Henry Browne. He was an Organ builder in Canterbury and Deal in the late 19th / early 20th century. Any information anyone can share about F. H. or his son William would be greatly appreciated!" Our 1883 Broadwood, by coincidence, was supplied by Browne.
We have taken a special interest in William Howlett, because he was the oldest, biggest name in pianos in East Anglia, where he claimed to be the only pianoforte maker, and said he had established his Norwich business in 1820. We have heard from descendants of Howlett, the earliest reference we have been able to find so far is 1830, when he was based in Pottergate Street, but this seems to refer to the village of that name, not a street in Norwich itself. If anyone can help with earlier information, we would be pleased to hear from you. We have a 1907 upright piano bearing the Howlett name in our museum.
Can anyone help us with more details about George Green Ward, who was making piano-fortes in Southtown around 1830? He may have moved to Ontario. Imagine if they were making pianos in the same house we lived in for ten years!
It also seems that Moses Agar, a relative of the Dimoline piano family, died in 1858 in Southtown, although local graves of that era are difficult to trace. Abraham Dimoline was “formerly of Lincolnshire” but is thought to have had family in Southtown, Norfolk.
Here’s a happy coincidence that connects piano history with my family history. Gill Green kindly sent this, and some of my family worked for Carreras, Spencer Press, BDV and Black Cat cigarettes. The factory backed onto the old Kemble piano factory, now the location of Piano Lane. If you are interested, look at my Memories page.
“Just a quick note to say ‘thank you’ for your website. I discovered this year that my great-great-grandfather was a piano forte maker, and your website has given me a great deal of insight. Lesley”
"About 25 years ago I employed a genealogist in London, though he was nowhere near as thorough as you."
"Hello Bill, I wanted to thank you for the booklet on Stodart pianos. It's more thorough than I could have imagined and I'm sure my Dad will be fascinated by it all. He's always keen to know more about the family pianos and he may even have something to contribute to your research. Regards, Fay Stodart"
"Dear Bill, Thank you so much for writing. I have been trying for many years to find more information about my maternal great-great-grandfather."
"Thank you so much for the information regarding the Moutries as piano makers. What a fascinating website."
I am intrigued to learn that my surname Kibby appeared on player pianos, and I would be pleased to receive more information. Without donations, I will be fine, but our collection may not survive. If every visitor to this site made a donation, we would have better displays for our museum building, and much-improved facilities for research within our own archives.
Pianogen.org panio paino pisno pinao piano history museum