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Woodwind Instrument Making in London – a Forgotten History?

Photo of Big Ben with historic bassoons and a title "Woodwind Instrument Making in London – a Forgotten History?"

It is little known today that London was a burgeoning centre for instrument making, including woodwind, in the second half of the 18th century and well into the 19th century, with many different makers covering all types of instrument.

During this period the British economy, and especially manufacturing, was on a strong upward trend. Growth in GDP and GDP per head grew significantly in every decade, despite regular downturns caused by crises in agricultural production and war to name but two.

London’s GDP and GDP per head outstripped Britain generally throughout the period, and it also saw rapid growth in population from around three quarters of a million in 1760 to more than a million in 1800 and then three million in 1860.

This growth in population and wealth supported a significant musical instrument making ecosystem, with dozens of companies and hundreds of sole traders contributing to a dynamic and innovative industry. At the time London was best known internationally for its keyboard instruments, particularly pianos including those made by the Broadwood company, but there were a large number of other instrument makers alongside these, often collaborating and providing specialist skills for each other.

Woodwind Instrument makers in London

One of the best sources of information on firms making woodwind instruments during the period comes from an analysis of insurance policies carried out by Jennifer Nix in her 2013 PhD thesis*. This work shows that in the period 1760-79 there were 25 woodwind makers in London. These were the bigger, more formally-organised companies which could justify taking out an insurance policy. They were supported by a network of suppliers and outworkers, plus companies in adjacent sectors such as cabinet making and metalworking, providing specialist services such as key-making.

The Veriam Music Trust collection has woodwind instruments from a total of 22 London-based makers in the period from around 1760 into the first part of the 19th century. The collection shows that all types of woodwind instrument were being made, from the well-known (to us) flutes and clarinets through to English flageolets (wildly popular at the time but almost unheard of now).

As for bassoons, our special area of expertise, the Trust has identified at least 44 distinct bassoon makers active in the UK (the majority in London) across the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. This number is based on surviving examples of original bassoons housed in collections and museums across the world. There may well be many more makers whose instruments either didn’t survive, or haven’t yet been discovered.

Veriam Music Trust has bassoons made by a total of eight different London makers from the 18th and 19th centuries (Astor, Gerock, Green, Hale, Key, Milhouse, Morton and Preston).

An international dimension

London’s wealth and population size made it a great centre for music in the 18th and 19th centuries, attracting many great names from overseas. George Frideric Handel and Johan Sebastian Bach’s son Johann Christian Bach (known as the ‘London Bach’) are two of the most well-known today.

Many highly qualified instrument makers followed them to support this burgeoning and prosperous sector of cultural life. Some founded their own businesses and others worked for themselves or for already-established businesses.

A well-known woodwind maker of the time, for example, was Christopher Gerock who started life in Ritzfeld bei Weinsberg, Germany then came to London and started his own workshop. We have two Christopher Gerock flutes in our collection and one Gerock bassoon.

Working life for London’s woodwind makers

Workers making woodwind instruments were subject to the same working conditions and times as other workers of the time, with broadly similar levels of pay as other skilled craftsmen (and occasionally craftswomen). 

A typical working day was from 06.00 until 20.00, with half an hour for breakfast, one hour for lunch and another half an hour break at 18.00, making a 12 hour working day plus breaks. Six days per week of course. Working life started with an apprenticeship for skilled workers at 12 or 14, and, with no pensions available, everyone worked until they were no longer able to do so. It is interesting to note that for a great many makers, their period of activity ended in the same year as their death.

Some workers were permanently employed and others were seasonally employed according to the needs of the business. And these were supported in turn by outworkers on piece rates again as the needs of the business dictated.

Until well into the 19th century little or no mechanisation appears to have been used by the vast majority of instrument makers, with workers sitting at benches using hand tools facing windows for maximum light to save on candles.

Most business owners operated either from their own homes or from buildings adjacent to, and usually physically connected to, their homes. Workers lived either on the premises or nearby – given the working hours they probably had little choice.

Most of the businesses, unlike today, operated from premises in the heart of the commercial centres of London, giving ready access to their market of musicians and better-off residents and visitors.

Our perspective

Although Veriam Music Trust collects instruments from all over the world – we have bassoons from 12 makers overseas from five different countries (France, Germany, Czech Republic, Belgium and USA) currently, for example – we feel that British makers of woodwind instruments in this period are often overlooked today, despite making instruments of often-impressive quality which stand up well against their overseas counterparts.

Therefore, being British ourselves and having started Veriam Music Trust with a good selection of British makers’ instruments already, we plan to continue to acquire more so that we build up as comprehensive a collection of British-made instruments as we are able.

View our collections here: Historical Musical Instruments


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