Monday, 22 November 2021

Hopkinson Pianos

In 1835 at Leeds in Yorkshire, the Hopkinson family music-selling business was established. A few years later two of the brothers, John and James had retail premises in the centre of Leeds. Nearby, the Kirk family were making pianos and it is not too fanciful to suppose the Hopkinson brothers would take some of the Kirk pianos to sell in their music shop - the close proximity would have kept transport costs much lower than buying pianos from London or Birmingham.
Elizabeth Hopkins, John and James' widowed mother had a relative working at Kirk's piano building business who's name was Edward Barker Gowland. Barker was Elizabeth's maiden name.

John, the senior brother in the business, took Edward Barker Gowland and set off to London to start building his own pianos in 1846. Edward Gowland was his workshop foreman. James stayed to manage the business back in Leeds.

In 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, the factory was employing nearly 50 men and John had patented a new grand piano action for which he won a Prize Medal! All very good publicity for the relatively new firm which by now was known as J & J Hopkinson. 

At the Great Exhibition there was some reservations about how open some of the exhibitors were about their products. Copying ideas from other makers was thought to be a nuisance. The new, patented action was kept hidden for the duration. Close inspection was thus prevented. Piano actions were notorious for misfiring under certain conditions and the more complicated the design, the more likely problems would occur. 

James came down to join John in 1856 leaving Thomas, the youngest Hopkinson brother to manage affairs in Leeds. The Piano making business continued to thrive so that in 1866 a completely new factory was built at Fitzroy Road, Camden Town.

Having seen the business firmly established at Fitzroy Road, just 3 years later John Hopkinson the senior retired to North Wales. The next generation of Hopkinsons were not so keen about piano making - one eventually moving up to Scotland, the other rather more interested in Zoology. The business was sold in 1919. 

While there was no further family involvement in piano building, the Hopkinson name  was still put on pianos for many decades. The ownership of the names passed through the hands of various makers who's output was very modest. I remember during the 1980s the Hopkinson name appearing on a piano made at Bentley's in Stroud.

©Steve Burden

Friday, 19 November 2021

Eavestaff Pianos

The beginnings of Eavestaff pianos are somewhat vague and uncertain, but it is likely, as with so many manufacturers of the time, they built and supplied pianos to the music trade. This simply means that finding an early Eavestaff piano with their own name on the front is very unlikely.

The first factory was in Euston Road but moved to Salusbury Road about 1911. Clearly, W.G. Eavestaff had a very keen eye for detail and quality control - his devotion to excellence in piano building established a reputation for reliability.

W.G. Eavestaff died in 1912 leaving his 2 sons. The older, William, died in 1917 and the younger brother, Frank eventually sold the business in 1920 to H.F. and R.A. Brasted. It is thought Frank Eavestaff had some involvement for a while but eventually retired to Hastings. 

Henry Brasted had been making pianos since 1870. Like Eavestaff, his pianos were mostly trade pianos. Sadly, Henry was to die in 1908. His sons Henry, Charles, Frederick, Robert, Albert and his daughter Hilda were to carry the business forward. By the 1930s the business was known as Brasted Brothers Ltd.

The 1920s was not an easy time for Brasteds to take on the Eavestaff name. A number of other proud, established piano makers of the time were having to close their doors. Post war difficulties of supply and skilled labour were tough enough but to sell the finished product at a time of austerity was a bold strategy with an eye to the future.

1923, Brasteds moved to new premises at Hermitage Road, Harringay where they remained for 47 years! Production levels steadily increased from perhaps 50 pianos per week in 1920 up to nearly 200 pianos per week by the late 1930s.

The Minipiano was made at Hermitage Road and sold under the Eavestaff name. The mini generated strong sales due to small size and its relative affordability when compared to the more traditional uprights of the time. Today, the Minipiano is not very much liked by tuners and technicians - certainly the early ones - but if you can find a good example of one of the later models, and one that works well, they are easy to play and have a sweet, very musical tone. Alas not many good examples survive! 

©Steve Burden

Wednesday, 17 November 2021

Chappell Pianos

1811, or there abouts, was the start of the Chappell story and at the time the main focus was music publishing. Selling sheet music was very good business in the 19th century - the piano was very popular in polite society and the hunger for more music insatiable. By 1826, Samuel Chappell moved his publishing house to 50 New Bond Street but he died in 1834 leaving his widow in charge of the business.
It was Mrs. Emily Chappell who in about 1840 decided to look into piano manufacture. She had a small factory built off the Charing Cross Road. A Mr. Smith was given the job of organising the new premises, hiring and firing, buying materials and building pianos to meet the growing demand. Immediately the pianos were finished they were taken off to be sold by Chappell and Co. Very sadly, only 20 years later, a devastating fire destroyed the factory, production there ceased and nothing more is heard of Mr. Smith.

Around 1865 a new factory was built in Camden Town. For nearly 30 years, the new premises were managed and run by a Mugridge & Ulph but in 1893 a Reinhold Friedrich Glandt was appointed manager and by 1900 the piano making part of the business was renamed Chappell Piano Company Ltd. R.F. Glandt, while remaining factory manager became a director.

The first World War took the lives of many of the skilled Chappell workers - a loss that understandably dampened spirits at the works. By the 1920s, average weekly production was about 20 pianos and in the 1930s the average was 16. 

From 1942 until 1947, because of the war, production was reduced to roughly 2 piano per week! The first decade or so of the post war period production crept up to about 6 per week. Businesses thrive on big numbers so these dwindling figures paint a picture of gloomy decline!

Perhaps part of the reason is that Chappell were primarily a music publishing business. Piano manufacturing was deemed very much, a lower priority. In the 1970s, Chappells was taken over by Philips Electrical who took the immediate decision permanently to turn off the 'lights' at the piano factory.  

©Steve Burden