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History of Piano Tuning
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It was while tuning an elderly upright piano that the possibility of electing piano tuners as a theme for academic study suggested itself to me: I noticed, scrawled on the hammer rest rail of the piano action, the initials and tuning dates of about twenty piano tuners who had worked on this piano over its long life.  There was nothing unusual in finding such a date - they are commonly found when tuning and over the course of fifteen years as a professional tuner I had seen plenty of them.  What had engaged my attention was the fact that I was tuning this piano one hundred years to the very day in 1892 that 'R.W.F.' had carried out that same task.  This set me thinking about R.W.F.  Who had he been?  Where had he lived?  How had he obtained that job?   How had he travelled around?   Why had he become a tuner?   Had he even been a 'he'?


My curiosity piqued, I went home to look up information on piano tuners' lives in the 1890s ... and found nothing.  I transferred my search to local libraries and the Internet, still to no avail.  Whilst there was plenty of information on the design, construction, tuning, sale and playing of pianos, there was little on the people behind the instrument.   More painstaking research revealed information on piano designers, builders, salesmen and pianists, but there was still little to be found on the tuners, and this made me determined to find out what I could about the 'missing persons' of piano history.  E.P. Thompson, the social historian, has written of the:


orthodoxy of the empirical economic historians in which working people are seen as a labour force, as migrants, or as the data for statistical series: [The historians] tend to obscure the agency of working people, the degree to which they contributed by conscious efforts, to the making of history ... Only the successful ... are remembered.


I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who helped me in my research: Professor Cyril Ehrlich; Dr Alastair Laurence; Mr John Collard; Mr Martin Heckscher of Heckscher and Co. Ltd.; Mr Steve and Mr Chris Cook of Fletcher and Newman Ltd.; Ms Elizabeth Dawson, consultant archivist to the Royal National Institute for the Blind; Mr John Morley of Morley's of Lewisham, Mrs Esmé Haily; Mr Ian Pleeth; Mrs Valerie Addis and the Piano Tuners Association; Mr Blaise Compton; Mrs Senior; Mr Bill Kibby; Mrs Wells; Mr Paul Tucker; the Surrey Local History Centre; Mr Gifford, Ms Lucy Coad; Mr Martin Ness; Mr Mel Smith of the Music Trades Benevolent Fund, Ms E Parsons; Mr G Carter and, of course, Mr E Green.


I have concentrated on the period 1837-1913 as it covers the 'boom' in piano ownership and development, while the First World War's consequent loss of life meant the closure of many hitherto successful piano firms.  Also, the founding of the Piano Tuners Association in 1913 meant that a hitherto disparate and isolated group of people suddenly had some organisation and cohesion, and their years of being 'invisible' had come to an end.


Gill Green MA ©2004

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As has been stated in the preface, there is hardly any literature available which details the lives and careers of piano tuners.  Indeed, it could be justifiable to ask why a musicologist should be interested in these people any more than in other tradespeople of the era.   To answer this question, it is necessary first to examine the development of the piano in the period I have elected to study.


Before the piano came to be such a dominant instrument in the average British home, the clavichord and harpsichord were the keyboard instruments which prevailed in the domestic environment.   Clavichords were suitable for small private performances only; the action of the clavichord - if indeed one could call it an action, as it was so very basic - comprised a brass tangent embedded into the end of the key.  The balance rail acted as a fulcrum, and as the player depressed the key, the far end of the key rose and the tangent struck the string.  Since there was no escapement the tangent remained in contact with the string and the player could therefore bend the string by varying the pressure upon the key, similar to the vibrato effect obtained by violinists or guitarists.  The force with which the tangent struck the string was very limited, as the tangent itself was very small and the distance between the tangent at rest and the string was also too close to gather much momentum, even if the player struck the note with some velocity.  Consequently the clavichord was unsuitable for giving performances in public, since the volume required to make the performance audible in a large room could never be obtained.   These instruments are the earliest keyboard instruments in domestic use, dating from the fifteenth century.


Spinets and virginals were small versions of the harpsichord, which was the performance keyboard instrument of choice from the late sixteenth century.  The strings of this keyboard instrument were plucked rather than struck: a wooden jack stands on the far end of the key, and a quill plectrum, set into a tongue inserted into a slot in the top of the jack, plucks the string on the way up as the player depresses the key, and then settles back into its slot on the way back down, passing the string silently.  The plucked string proved to be far more audible to an assembled audience.   Harpsichords grew in size as time went on, with longer strings, heavier frames - to withstand the increased tension - and more manuals.  The one drawback to the harpsichord was that of its inflexibility of tone: regardless of the force applied to the key by the player, the volume remained constant.   This was taken for granted by the players of the time, and they relied on different combinations of stops to give different qualities of tone, but it was difficult to change stops in the midst of a piece.   As there was no alternative to this state of affairs, harpsichordists remained sanguine about the lack of dynamic control - until the invention of the pianoforte around 1700.   Capable of varying tone and volume by touch alone, Bartolomeo Cristofori's new instrument was an almost instant success, and despite a fierce rearguard action on the part of the established makers of harpsichords, the piano became the most favoured domestic and concert instrument.


Burkat Shudi invented a 'Venetian Swell' in 1765 for his harpsichords which he made to great acclaim in his workshops in Soho.   His patent application of 18th December 1769 describes the louvre shutter device covering the strings as 'a piece of mechanism or machinery by which the harpsichord is very much improved'[2] and he was confident that this would see off the threat of the pianoforte.   However, in the same year as his patent, his daughter, Barbara, married his employee, John Broadwood, and in 1790, 19 years after Shudi's death, the firm of Schudi and Broadwood ceased harpsichord production altogether in favour of John Broadwood's new love, the pianoforte.


The first pianofortes were square pianos, actually rectangular in shape, measuring around two feet six inches by five feet, but by the period in which our interest lies the grand pianoforte had begun to displace the square, and was to be found in all the best homes.


The predominant firm in Britain until the end of the 19th century and a few decades into the 20th was undoubtedly Broadwoods, but since the influx of 'the twelve apostles' - a group of piano makers fleeing Saxony's Seven Years War - in 1760, firms such as Kirckman, Pohlmann and Zumpe were renowned piano makers by the beginning of the 19th century.   Collard and Collard, Clementi, Chappell, Brinsmead and Cramer were major English firms throughout the 19th century, and the French Revolution brought the fleeing Erard to our shores from Paris.   The German giants such as Bechstein and Steinway invaded at the very end of the 19th century, which event prompted John Brinsmead to found the Pianomaker to decry all things German in the piano trade.


Examination of London piano firms shows much incestuous cross-pollination, with erstwhile partners drifting off to form new liaisons which in turn bore offspring which went on to form and break new alliances.  The firm of Longman, for instance, became Longman and Broderip in 1778, until Broderip broke away to form Broderip and Wilkinson.  Longman, Clementi and Co. was the next venture in 1773, until Clementi entered partnership with Collard.  Longman then joined Bates who eventually branched out on his own: Longman went bankrupt in 1795.  All this activity took place in less than thirty years, demonstrating the constant state of flux of the piano trade.


Rimbault neatly sums up the importance of the pianoforte by the mid-1850s:


Amongst the entire range of musical instruments, there is not one, in our day, that possesses so many claims to notice as the Pianoforte - the "household orchestra" of the people. [3]


He later waxes lyrical:


the dawn of that day is visible when the 'box of detached strings', giving forth sweet sounds, shall be in every man's house, his comfort, his solace, his companion - aye, his friend!   Let us then look forward to that day.   Shall we not be a happier, if not a better people? [4]






Prior to the advent of the piano, most musicians tuned their own instruments.   This was a necessary part of owning one; to call someone in to tune a harpsichord would have been as preposterous an idea as calling someone in to tune a violin for a professional violinist.   A combination of factors made the harpsichord far easier to tune than the piano: there was generally only one string per note, and where there were more they were easily isolated by use of the stops, while the strings were at a far lower tension than those of the piano.  At first ownership of the instruments was limited to richer families who employed musicians, or to musicians themselves - either way, the musicians ended up tuning the instruments.  However, the setting of temperaments proved more difficult, particularly Equal Temperament: the Pythagorean comma meaning that pure intervals alone being used would result in a 'wolf' interval, wherein the beats 'left over' from tuning the pure intervals accumulated in one very discordant interval - generally that between F# and B.  Equal temperament took over from mean tone tuning, making all keys pleasant to play in rather than a restricted number, but was more difficult for the amateur to tune, and as more and more amateurs were beginning to own instruments, tuning was becoming a task carried out by professionals.


Rimbault mentions the tuning of equal temperament in the chapter 'On Tuning' in his 1860 History of the Pianoforte:


[Equal temperament] is now universally adopted throughout Europe.  Its inestimable advantage is that it enables us to employ all the 12 major and minor scales with equal freedom, and without a fear of offending the ear in any of them more than in another; thus giving unlimited room of play to all the wonders of modern harmony. [5]


Loesser wrote of claviers that:


[They] do not present the perpetually acute problem of the stringed or wind instruments - namely, that of making the true pitch.  A key marks it ready-made, and any infant can press down a light lever.  It is true that a clavier must be tuned in advance, but the spread of the instrument among the minimally musical led to the curious consequence that the tuner and the player were more and more rarely the same person.  It is hard to imagine the most primitive player of a fiddle or guitar who did not know how to pull up his own strings to their proper pitch, but among clavier tinklers this incompetence became the rule.  The complication of the tempered tuning may have added to the difficulty. [6]


Loesser was referring to the late 18th century, when ownership of the clavier (a generic term for a harpsichord) was becoming far more widespread in families for the furthering of a daughter's education and, more importantly, eligibility for marriage.


By the time of Queen Victoria's accession to the throne, Britain was consumed by piano fever.  As early as 1800, the piano's battle with the harpsichord seems to be nearing its end: Rosamond Harding notes that "for pianoforte" in large print on sheet music precedes the worlds "or harpsichord" in smaller letters by this time, implying the piano's burgeoning supremacy. [7]


Even the Broadwoods themselves are known to have been involved in tuning: Broadwoods have in their possession a painting from around 1744 which portrays Burkat Shudi tuning a harpsichord said to have been made by the firm for Frederick the Great.[8] Rimbault mentions that 'The Messrs Broadwood possess an interesting portrait of the Founder of their firm in the act of tuning the King of Prussia's harpsichord'. [9]


Piano tuning was a recognised job in the piano factories by the beginning of the 19th century, and two of Broadwood's journeymen fought a duel on Primrose Hill in 1809 over the tuning of a piano - with no result. [10]   By 1834 Henry Fowler Broadwood was running the business, having taken 'instruction in tuning, in which branch of the pianoforte industry his father, James Broadwood, excelled'. [11] In 1838 Henry's uncle, Thomas Broadwood, wrote to him about a wealthy client's complaints regarding a Victoria grand piano which 'does not and will not stand in tune played or not played on, although he has got an experienced Tuner to Tune it ...'.  Thomas sent Merison, 'not being able to spare Murray or Wilkins as well.' [12]  This would imply that Broadwoods had a relatively large tuning department of at least three men by this time.


The square pianos of the mid 19th century could reasonably be expected to remain in tune for around a month to six weeks in the British climate, but extremes of humidity and temperature could lead to even more frequent calls from the piano tuner.  These later square pianos were no longer the delicate instrument they had been - they had six octaves now rather than the original five, and were 5' 7˝" wide, five inches wider than the earliest Broadwood square of 1770.  The metal hitch-pin plate had become standard, allowing higher tension on the strings and giving rise to a bigger, brighter sound.  However, this instrument could never equal the tone of the new grand pianos and was gradually eclipsed: Broadwoods ceased production of square pianos in 1866.


John Broadwood had been working on the grand piano as long as 1783, and his friend, Robert Stodart, had used the word 'Grand' for the first time on a patent application in 1777. [13]


The job of the piano tuner had been created by a gap in the market, a demand caused by the number of amateurs owning instruments requiring maintenance, and leading to a need for visits from a tuner.   Early pianos were of a light construction yet battling with ever-increasing demands of tension from piano players who wanted ever louder and brighter-sounding instruments.   Whilst the up-to-date pianos fared better, with stronger frames and heavier hammers being introduced, then, as now, tuners were having to deal with older pianos.  Piano music itself was changing and making new demands on the instrument, yet people with old instruments were buying new music and requiring performances of which their pianos were not really capable: and then, as now, the client was expecting the tuner to work miracles and transform their dated instrument into the latest one.


The advent of the bigger square pianos and of the grand pianos definitely discouraged all but the bravest piano owner from tuning their own instruments and the career of piano tuner was born.


The growth in private ownership of pianos had created the need for tuners: when only a few people owned pianos, typically the major makers such as Broadwood and Longman and Broderip would have sent out tuners from their own services and tuning department.  But once ownership became more widespread, demand for tuners grew faster than the piano firms could supply them.  Loesser cites remarks from a German writer, Bartold Fritz, in his book Anweisung wie man Claviere Clavecins and Orgeln in allen zwölf Tonen gleich rein stimmen könne ... which he published in 1757 in Leipzig:


... there are persons who live in the country and cannot always get hold of a tuning master.  There are music lovers in cities who would like to undertake this exercise ... there are a lot of teachers ... who have never had instruction in proper tuning ... [14]


He goes on to say that:


'the art of tuning never did catch up with the sale of instruments, especially not after the pianoforte developed its tensions and complications.   Normally, tuning became a special skill after the middle of the 18th century and a separate occupation in the 19th.


Social Standing

The tuner would appear to have been working in the factory yet not regarded as a factory worker.   A plate in Wainwright's book on the Broadwood company [15] shows a tuner at work in Broadwood's factory in 1842.  He wears what would appear to be far smarter clothes than the other men at work in the picture; although he is wearing an apron, he wears a dark jacket over the top and rather than the caps worn by the others, he has a top hat sitting on top of what appears to be a frock coat folded neatly on an adjacent stool.  This would imply that his day could be spent both inside and outside the factory, rather than the modern day practice of employing both in-house tuners and out-working tuners.  Another picture in Ehrlich's book The Piano [16] shows a smart, dapper gentleman in a frock coat and smart shiny shoes tuning a cabinet piano - a very tall instrument around six feet high.


Generally, the tuner in the Victorian/Edwardian age seems to have been regarded as something of a gentleman, since they were neither fish nor fowl when it came to class: they were a breed apart within the factory - on the factory floor, yet not of it; they were tradesmen yet often came to the front door and conversed freely with the lady of the house (and occasionally with the man of the house) since they were working on one of the most prized possessions in the home.



Most piano tuners were trained in the piano factory over a period of between five and seven years.  The Broadwood historian, Dr Alastair Laurence, whose family have worked for the firm since 1787 has said that:


The general practice at Broadwood was for the tuners to carry out a five-year apprenticeship and thereafter, if they chose, to remain with the firm, they did so on a piecework basis. [17]


One of the earliest books on tuning dates from around 1840: The Tuner's Guide: Containing a Complete Treatise on tuning the Piano-Forte, Organ, Melodeon and Seraphine; together with a Specification of Defects and their Remedies. [18]   This anonymous booklet published by the Musical Bouquet periodical offers advice to the would-be tuner, presumably aimed at those in the provinces who had difficulty in obtaining the services of a piano tuner.


The Pianomaker, a magazine ostensibly designed to inform the trade of new developments, was very enthusiastic about the apprenticeship system and keen to prevent its extinction.  In 1913, the publication featured an interview with Frank Challen, manufacturer, and asked him: "Had the apprenticeship system utterly died out in the industry?" and he replied: "It was very nearly dead and could only be said to exist with any degree of animation in the tuning branch of the trade". [19]


A subcommittee of the Piano Manufacturers Association had reported on the indenturing of apprentices, and had concluded that:


only lads of good character, respectably connected, and who have a good school record, preferably at a secondary school, should be indentured at the age of 15˝ or 16. [20]


As to remuneration, they decreed that: [21]


the workman under whose charge he will be placed may add a "tip" of a shilling or so ... the days of the "half-a-crown-a-week" apprentices are gone forever


The following month, Ernest Gowland , an established tuner, wrote to say that:


No lad should be apprenticed to tuning alone.  I think a lad should be taught the main idea of pianoforte construction before he is allowed to go forth as a fully-blown tuner.   Be a man the finest tuner existing, he may do a lot of harm to a piano in his care purely through lack of knowledge of its construction ... all men engaged at any calling should be masters of their craft. [22]


The south London family of Morleys has been associated with the music trade for many years, both in music publishing and in musical instrument manufacture.  Their initial instrument connection was with harps, one of the family having working with Erard at the time of his flight from the French Revolution and subsequently inheriting the Erard patent harp action.  One Robert Morley still worked for Erards in 1871 as a piano tuner and following a brief interlude at Broadwoods founded his own business making pianos in Lewisham in 1881. [23]


Morley's apprenticeship system seems to have been a little more ruthless than that of Broadwoods: apprentices were taken on at 14, 'chipping up' the newly strung pianos roughly to concert pitch.   By the time they got to 21 or so they were competent tuners, and were then actually fired, and replaced at the bottom end of the factory system.  However, they were generally found work with the factory's agent, so the system is not quite as heartless as it might first appear.



Broadwoods and other leading piano houses began to establish a pattern of service which was quickly followed by the smaller businesses when they could afford to do so.   Piano ownership now was common outside London, and Broadwood started to supply piano dealers up and down the country with their instruments, and occasionally with their trained tuners.   The best tuners were kept in London, catering for the needs of the firm's most important patrons, but the tuners who chose to leave the firm after their apprenticeships had been completed were able to maintain links with their alma mater by going to work for one of their provincial dealerships.   These provincial dealers were carefully nurtured by Broadwoods: James Shudi Broadwood wrote to his son, Henry, in September 1838, stressing the importance of having ready-made stock available for retailers at short-notice:


... these instruments kept in order and as ready to be sent off as those in Purdies, Beales, or any other music shops, so that no retail friend should wait a moment. [24]


It is with these 'retail friends' that the one-time apprentices found positions, sometimes going on to become independent, and perhaps even opening shops of their own.   These men used their links with their old firms to add an air of borrowed respectability to their advertisements: the remnant of a tuner's business card (which had been cut up to pack up a balance rail to the requisite height!) dating from around 1840 seems to advertise the services of a Mr J. England 'late of Messrs Broadwood's, London' as a 'pianoforte maker, tuner &c.' around the Bristol area. [25]   The reverse of the section of card mentions him 'visiting Swansea ... and repairing pianos ... with sufficient encouragement ... of the journey ...'  Other remaining words would seem to imply that '[prices] of tuning out of the [area depend upon] the number of instruments and [the distance] from the town'.


Another later example of advertising professional pedigree is an advertisement from around 1890 painted on wood and framed, which reads as follows: [26]


Established 18 Years

E. Gowland and Son

(from Messrs J. & J. Hopkinsons)

Pianoforte Tuners

Repairers and Dealers

Visits this Neighbourhood Regularly

Orders left Here will Receive Prompt Attention


This advertisement would probably have been displayed in a local shop and the shopkeeper would have arranged the appointments - for a small consideration, no doubt, since he was acting as the tuner's agent.



The larger London piano houses produced many pianos, all of which needed to be strung, chipped up and then fine-tuned, and at the height of the 1850s and 60s boom there were between 60,000 and 100,000 [27] pianos made in London alone, so a huge number of tunings was required in the factory alone, long before the instruments reached shops, showrooms and homes.


Piano demand was from September/October until just after Christmas, [28] so a large proportion of 'ordinary' workers were laid off from the factories around springtime and went into other trades such as building, and returned at the onset of bad weather around September.  The permanent staff consisted of foremen and managers.


Under Morley's system, pianos were then tuned four times a year under contract, and large numbers were being sold.   Tuners who had left the factory were employed directly by shopkeepers.  Depending on the size of the shop two or three tuners would be taken on: more, if the size of the business warranted it.  Each of these tuners would have tuned between twenty-five and thirty pianos a week, which is roughly the same as a modern-day tuner on a five-day week.   Unlike the modern tuner, however, the tuner in the Victorian age had no car.  Various modes of transport have come to my notice: Mrs Wells, whose father tuned in Lewisham around 1900, remembers pictures of him on a bicycle, sporting a top hat.  Edward Elgar's father rode a horse, and later used a pony and trap.   The large piano houses whose tuners tended to travel further afield had to make allowances for mode of travel in their tuning charges.   A Broadwoods catalogue of 1905 lists tuning charges as follows, evidently taking into account the time (and money) which travel cost the firm:


To have one piano tuned four times a year: -


London districts, £1.1.0;

inner suburban districts, £1.5.0;

outer suburban districts, £1.11.6;

country districts - within two miles of a Railway Station, £2.2.0;

Beyond two miles from a Railway Station ... terms on application. [29]

A footnote to the page reads:


It is respectfully pointed out that, as tuning contracts can only be carried on by careful organization and strict punctuality, each visit of a tuner, though he may not be allowed to tune the piano, will be charged for, unless sufficient notice to defer the visit be given by customers. [30]


One of Broadwood's casual tuning books from 1904 lists a claim for 10/6d 'travelling expenses to Colchester'. [31]   (A casual tuning was a tuning which was carried out for a client who did not have a contract with Broadwoods.)   Another claim dated 5th December 1904 lists 'railway expenses to Hatfield Peveril, 6/2d'. [32]


Broadwoods did carry out their threat to demand payment for calls: the Japan Mail Company was charge 4/6d 'for fruitless visit to Away House', on 14th December 1908, and a Miss Dodds objected to paying 'one tuning charged for three refusals - 7/9d'. [33]


The tuner's life could on occasion be made difficult by the client - the Music Trades Review cites a case of a London manufacturer who supplied a lady with a grand piano. [34]   She complained that it was out of tune and demanded that the tuner return, which he did, but could find no problem with the tuning.  The lady then complained again and the owner of the (unnamed) manufacturer went himself, but again could find nothing wrong with the tuning.  'The Lady admitted this fact, adding "It is allright when you play on it, but directly I begin to sing to it, it appears entirely out of tune".  The reply of the manufacturer is not given to us'. [35]



Piano tuners often became shop owners: the initial link with an established piano firm leading to a provincial placement, particularly within a cathedral city.


Cathedral towns had long been magnets for groups of musicians, for the cathedral was one of the main sources of employment for these people.  In the eighteenth century, small groups of musicians could be found in the environs of almost any cathedral.  By the nineteenth century their numbers had swelled, and many of them were teaching music in their spare time.  A rise in teacher numbers meant a rise in pupil numbers and a consequent demand for music.   Stationers and bookshops initially handled this demand, but eventually found the demand overwhelming, and music shops began to be seen in high streets all over the country.   As demand rose for pianos it became worth the music shop proprietor's while to open a piano sales department, which in turn led to a need for piano tuners.  Rimbault quotes Dr Thalberg:


The increase of the number of pianos, compared with the population, is every year more rapid - a circumstance which is not observed in regard to other musical instruments.  This is corroborated by the fact that some years ago piano music constituted only a very modest portion of a music-sellers stock; whereas now it fills more than 3/4 of his shelves and makes his chief business.  The number of teachers is something wonderful. [36]


As the piano became a social necessity, as a mark of respectability, demand spread from the cathedral cities to the industrial towns which were growing apace.   In these cases the need for social cachet fed the fire of piano demand, rather than a surfeit of music teachers, but the ownership of a piano led to the need for a music teacher so the industry was relatively self-perpetuating: it was simply a matter of which way round the circle of supply and demand one chose to travel. Some music shops sold so many pianos that they found they could afford to specialise: specialisation has always depended upon the extent of the market.  Many teachers realised that in certain areas - particularly in London and the suburbs - there was enough work for them to work solely as tuners: the 1840's publication The Tuner's Guide: containing a Complete Treatise on Tuning the Piano-Forte, Organ, Melodeon, and Seraphine, mentioned above, was merely the tip of a publishing iceberg comprising many books offering advice on the art of tuning. [37]   In 1853, Robert Cocks and Co. published An Essay on the Theory and Practice of Tuning, etc., and as far back as 1811 James Broadwood had submitted an article on tuning to the Gentleman's Magazine.


Rimbault's seminal work on the history of the piano, written in 1860, contains advice on tuning in an extensive appendix [38]: 'the unison ... is the interval ... which most frequently occurs in tuning, and which it is of the highest importance should be tuned with perfect accuracy' which statement is followed by 'We will suppose that the student has provided himself with a tuning hammer, and that he has seated himself at the instrument ...'! Small chance, it would be thought, of a student who had neglected to arm himself with a tuning hammer being capable of tuning a unison with 'perfect accuracy'.


Even a 1909 book on the Theory and Practice of Pianoforte Building begins a chapter on how to tune a piano with the words: 'The art of tuning the pianoforte is one of considerable complexity and obscurity'. [39]


The Music Trades Review were often offered books which advised the amateur on how to tune their own pianos, and were asked to review them.  On one occasion, the publishers of the Bazaar magazine - a little inadvisedly, perhaps - proffered Tuning and Repairing Pianos by Charles Babbington for this purpose.  The reviewer set to with a will, and the pen drips with vitriol:


In reviewing this book we can only regret that it has been issued at all ... it pretends to be "the amateur's guide to the practical management of a piano without the intervention of a professional".   It will probably be the best friend the tuner ever had.   It gives full, if not very practical, instructions how an amateur can take a pianoforte to pieces, and the strong probability is that when the pianoforte is thus divided, and the action dissected the professional tuner will have to be called in to put it together again ...


Mr Babbington ... ingeniously says that as one little slip might ruin it altogether, an inexperienced person had better not meddle with it at all.


Piano tuners are poorly paid as it is and any piano may be properly tuned at a moderate sum.  Indeed, even Mr Babbington utterly fails to make out a case for the non-employment of a professional man.


The MTR then cites Mr Babbington's advice on the repair of a broken hammer shank: 'If a clean break, a tuner would have to put a new stem [sic] in ...'.  The reviewer continues:


the proprietors of the Bazaar have ... sent [the book] to us "for review", and for an expression of our opinion, and we can only conscientiously say that the wider this sixpenny pamphlet is circulated, the better it will be for the professional tuners. [40]


Given that a magazine designed for tradesmen was reviewing a booklet designed to cut tradesmen's business, perhaps Bazaar should have thought a little more carefully in seeking a critique.


In 1907, Mr Charles Love was offering a course on how to tune pianos - by post:


Scale of Charges


Instruction in Tuning

lessons £1.1.0


Instruction in Regulating

lessons £1.1.0


By correspondence.   A postal order, value 1/-, should be enclosed for reply to each question asked ...

All correspondence to be addressed to:


Charles W. Love

67, Lady Margaret Road

Kentish Town

London, N.W.



With such advertisements and books available it was little wonder that many amateurs felt tuning to be something they could tackle, particularly with the burgeoning interest in pianos which persisted throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


In a comparison of two towns in Buckinghamshire, this self-training became apparent, although my original intention was to show the rise of the music shop in Victorian England in microcosm.   For my example I compared Amersham, a small market town, with High Wycombe, also a market town but with a fast-growing industrial aspect owing to the rapid growth of both the furniture and paper businesses which flourished in the town.


The census of 1841 shows Amersham to have a population of 3,645 and High Wycombe, 6,480, and street directories show no music shops or even teachers in either town.  In 1842, Richard Pontyfix and Frances Teacher are organist and music teacher respectively in High Wycombe, with none in Amersham.   In 1853 the music shop of Pontyfix and Co., is in High Wycombe's High Street, and Amersham's High Street now boasts Wm. Henry Birch, Professor of Music.  The 1851 census shows 3,662 souls in Amersham and 7,179 in High Wycombe.   By 1854, Frances Treacher specifies herself as Harp and Piano teacher in High Wycombe.  The first piano warehouse in the town arrives in 1863, proprietor Mr Rolls Payne who advertises his services as a 'Professor of Music' in 1864, by which time Amersham has Caroline Batey, Professor of Music.  A note here to those impressed by the number of learned professors in south Buckinghamshire: Cyril Ehrlich cites The Musical Profession (a guide to careers in music) of 1888 which portrays a young man who 'spends a little money in the purchase of sheet music, invests in a brass plate - and lo! he is a professor.  How easily it is done, and what an amount of life-long misery has been the consequence of this fatal facility!' [42]


By 1877, Rolls Payne has a competitor in High Wycombe, Francis Hill who is a 'piano dealer, and fancy repository' and Amersham still has no music shop.  The populations show that by 1881 Amersham's population has dropped to 3,001, whilst High Wycombe now has 13,154 - the disparity between the two becoming ever more marked.   In 1883 Frederick Johncock opens a piano warehouse in the High Street in High Wycombe and three more 'professors' of music are in the town, now with none in Amersham, Caroline Batey no longer being included.   By 1887, High Wycombe has its first tuner, David Nash.  The next directory available - 1895 - shows Rolls Payne as a piano tuner, so he has evidently realised that there is more money and less responsibility in being a piano tuner with no shop: David Nash is no longer listed, and Payne makes no mention of teaching.


The new century sees Amersham's population at 3,209 and their nearest tuner at Chesham, seven miles away, whilst High Wycombe is now a large town of 19,282 people with Johncock as the sole piano shop and Rolls Payne still tuning.  He has competition with Mr Birch in High Wycombe itself and Mr Goodchild at Lane End - a tiny village seven miles from the town.


In 1911, Dysons have bought out Johncock at 22 High Street and added it to their Windsor branch and another tuner has appeared.   Amersham - with a population of 3,392 - has long been outstripped by High Wycombe's 20,387 and still has neither piano shop nor tuner which, given its tiny population, is understandable.



Although the term 'piano tuner' has been used almost exclusively heretofore, the job entailed far more than simply tuning pianos.  Some clavichords and harpsichords were still in existence in 1838, although the Victorian obsession with invention and innovation almost rendered both instruments extinct: they were saved only by the efforts of people such as Broadwood's own A.J. Hipkins who were the trailblazers of today's 'authentic performance' movement.  Hipkins began at Broadwood's in 1840, was a senior workman by 1849 and became Henry Fowler Broadwood's right hand man by the 1860s.  Wainwright says:


It can be claimed of Hipkins that he more than any other man was responsible for the revival of 'ancient instruments'.  A fine executant himself, he virtually re-introduced the clavichord ... He was also noted for his reintroduction of the Goldberg Variations, which he first played on a double-manual harpsichord in 1892.  Hipkins began a trend that paved the way for his rival Arnold Dolmetsch, who built his first harpsichord in 1896. [43]


Piano tuners of the day had to contend therefore with these relics of a bygone age whose owners often were not overly enthusiastic on spending money on them: and as the century wore on the remaining harpsichords and clavichords were getting older and older.


The range of pianos which the tuner was required to work on was breathtaking in itself: square piano production ceased in 1866, but even by 1913 the average piano tuner was still required to carry out tunings and repairs to these instruments.  Grand pianos remained largely unchanged in their action and design apart from the major factor of the full iron frame.  Iron bracing had been in use to withstand the increasing demands for brighter sounds (and therefore higher tension) since the 1840s: an innovation to which both Broadwood and the French maker Erard laid claim.   However, in 1843 Jonas Chickering in America patented the full iron frame which would change the face of the piano for ever.   Coupled with Henry Steinway's patent in 1859 of the overstrung piano, the demands which had been placed on the instrument by composers such as Beethoven through to Liszt would no longer lead to broken instruments.


The tuning and repair of such instruments was no longer such a trial, but only those who tuned in the factories would be working on these all the time: the average tuner working in the client's home was faced with a myriad possibilities when it came to the instrument he might be called upon to tune.  Nowadays, the tuner is generally faced with a choice of either upright or grand when called to visit: within that framework there are quite a few possibilities - and anomalies, such as the early instrument enthusiast or the owner of a 'mini-piano', which are awkward or time-consuming to tune.  The Victorian tuner was working in an age of constant experimentation and innovation, and some instruments, which one can only describe as outlandish, were invented and consequently purchased: in 1866, Charles Hess of the USA was granted a patent for his 'Convertible Bedroom Piano', which was basically like a large square piano with a pull-out bed at floor level, bureau cabinets and drawers round it, and space for bed clothes, washbowl, pitcher and towels, which additions, he averred, 'adds considerably to its reverberatory power'. [44]


The Victoria and Albert Museum now houses 'The Euphonicon', a harp-shaped piano built and patented in 1841 by Dr John Steward. [45]   The combination of piano and harmonium was attempted quite regularly and presumably these instruments were sold and subsequently required tuning.  Where one would begin with such an instrument as that made by Alexandre of Paris in 1854 which incorporated 3 manuals, 16 stops and a pedal board in addition to the usual piano action and strings, one can only guess.


In 1896 Zender sold an upright piano combined with a music cabinet capable of holding 1,000 pieces of music which also boasted a music stand suitable for a singer or instrumentalists at either end: 'not only a great improvement in the appearance of the pianos, but of distinct value in augmenting the tone.' [46]   The advertisement also boasts of having sold 200 of these instruments over the last two months.   Heavy Victorian cabinet work was bad enough to remove and to manipulate, but the idea of the tuner having to relocate 1,000 pieces of sheet music into the bargain evokes pity in this particular tuner's breast.


Much as plastic was regarded as the wonder material to solve every technical problem in the 1960s, so rubber - or gutta percha, as it was more commonly known - was the miraculous cure-all of the Victorian age.   Consequently, the pianos of that time were invaded by gutta percha: C.P. Venables patented the process of covering piano-hammers in gutta percha in 1885 to protect them from damp, 'especially applicable to pianofortes exposed to varying temperatures'. [47]   J. Spear in 1847 proposed the insertion of india-rubber between moveable parts 'to prevent noise'. [48]   1857 saw T. Rolfe's application to patent 'vulcanized or plain india-rubber in place of wire for a 'check' while in 1869 Brewer suggested 'india-rubber tubes for under-coating of bass hammers', and in 1870 Lambert proposed 'india-rubber springs for action. [49]   In 1874, Whiteman, evidently scorning the timid approach, wanted india-rubber used instead of felt in every part of the action.  Even the respected piano historian, Rimbault, said that:


gutta percha before papering, it would effectively deaden all sounds from the adjoining chambers.  Or, we believe, a substitute for this is the gutta percha lining, extensively used of late years in covering damp walls.' [50]


This obsession with india-rubber must have led to considerable problems for the tuners encountering the instruments thirty or forty years after the piano's production, since just as the plastic of the 1960s seemed as though it would be unaffected by age and then suffered fatigue, so the india-rubber began to perish, meaning the tuner had to replace the rubber with felt whenever possible.


In the realms of normal factory-produced pianos, a tuner working in, say, 1895 could quite feasibly encounter any of the following in his day-to-day calls:- clavichords; harpsichords; square pianos; straight-strung grand pianos; over-strung grand pianos; upright grands ('These were ... [pianos] hoisted up vertically on a box with four legs, the mechanism causing the hammers to strike through the space left, as in the Horizontal Piano, between the sound-board and the pin-block' [51]); cabinet pianos (very similar to the modern upright); and the upright (both straight- and over-strung and over-and-under-damped: the first uprights dated from around 1801).


In most industries, a new invention can herald - after an initial flurry of newly created employment - eventual unemployment.   This, however, did not apply when the pianola became the new acquisition which every modern family must have.   Rather than making tuners redundant the pianola created more work on more counts: firstly, it had new mechanisms based on pneumatics which led to books such as From Piano Tuner to Player Expert by M.H.E. Drake [52] being sold in vast numbers to tuners eager to climb aboard this new bandwagon; secondly, the player piano's invention in 1900 suddenly permitted those whose knowledge of music was negligible to astound their friends and family as well as becoming the owner of the latest fashionable acquisition.   Tuners therefore found themselves with a new clientele which they would not otherwise have had and a new source of income, provided they became conversant with the pneumatics involved.   Also, the pianola introduced more men to the piano world, which hitherto had been regarded more as the preserve of women and professional musicians: advertisements often featured men seated at the pianola in an attempt to appeal to this new corner of the market.


Men were believed more likely to be interested in - indeed, to understand - the new and exciting world of science and technology to which this invention belonged.   Also, time was a factor: The Musical Opinion for January 1903 quoted the Chicago Indicator on the subject:


Another cause of the rise of the player [piano] proceeds from our American habits of economising time.  Our citizen loves music, but he has no time to spend in studying a complex technique. [53]


The electric motor's subsequent arrival meant that piano tuners also needed some rudimentary electrical knowledge, but the consolation was that women and children now found the pianola easier to work; it was used more, became out-of-tune faster and therefore the tuner had to come more often.


Advertisements for tuners seeking employment - and being sought - often mentioned harmoniums and American organs, so it would seem it was often the task of a piano tuner to tackle those instruments too.   'PIANOFORTE TUNER (experienced) from Cadby's seeks an ENGAGEMENT.  Understands Harmoniums' reads one such advertisement. [54]   Another seeks 'an experienced Pianoforte, Organ and Harmonium tuner'. [55]


, , , ,

To facilitate the transition from tuning these instruments, Alexander J. Ellis published Easy Rules for Tuning Organs and Harmoniums in Equal Temperament [56] which is 'now presented in a greatly improved form ... it will be found valuable even to pianoforte tuners ...'


The advertisements for tuners' situations give a good idea of the state of tuning in 1879 - no advertisement appears two months running, implying that positions were filled with alacrity.   One tuner offers his 'tuning connection to be let or for sale'. [57]   Some employers seem to require an awful lot: 'WANTED: Pianoforte and Harmonium Tuner and Repairer.   Good violinist who can lead small orchestra preferred'. [58]  


By 1913 the advertisements have not changed much, but the harmonium requirement has been supplemented by the player piano: - 'WANTED, for the North of England, thoroughly experienced repairer and regulator of Pianos and Organs with good knowledge of Players and Bench repairs'. [59]



Such an enormous variety of pianos meant that the tuner had to be equipped with a very wide range of tuning-hammers.  The tuning crank as used by modern tuner, comprises a threaded steel shank inserted into a wooden handle which takes one of a small range of 'heads' with a star-shaped hole (in most cases) which fit today's square tuning pins at a variety of angles.   The Victorian tuner was faced with oblong-headed tuning pins which could only be approached at one of two angles.  Using a modern crank, the tuner can often find the pins at an inaccessible angle, the tuning of which involves the crushing of several knuckles.  The use of the Victorian T-hammer makes this a lot easier, but one needs a strong wrist and careful control, since the modern tuner's practice of resting the wrist on the top hinge of the piano is impossible with the T-hammer.


Rimbault says that:


'considerable practice is required to gain flexibility of wrist, so as to turn the hammer by extremely minute degrees.  These gradations supply the only mechanical helps of which the tuner can avail himself; and without a distinct perception of them through their various degrees it is impossible even with the finest musical ear to tune a pianoforte tolerably'. [60]


These tuning hammers were not uniform in their apertures for the simple reason that piano makers bought wrest pins from different sources and these were not standardised.   In the tuning of early square and grand pianos the tuning pins are far smaller and far more disparate in size since they were all hand-made especially for the respective makers.   An advertisement from 1878 announces that:


Every tuner should have PATENT TUNING HAMMER with three keys, key spacer, toning needle, pin extractor, lengthening stud, three turnscrews, four files, in case,   Price 30s.  Warranted - WB Stokes, Musicsmith, Birmingham. [61]


By 1904, the square wrest pin hitherto found mostly in German pianos had overtaken the oblong, but Fletcher & Newman's catalogue for that year still offers quite a selection of T-hammers with a variety of different length stem, and their 80/- 'No. 1 Tuning Kit' still included 'one T lever with oblong holes in two positions, two 6in. straight stems with oblong and square holes, two 5in. straight stems with oblong and square holes,' as well as 'two bent levers' - what we now call 'cranks' - with star and square holes'.   Also included was 'one wrest pin extractor, one eye twister, and one pair of 53/4in. cutting pliers'.  The 'large tuner's kit' at £7 14. had, in addition to this '1 knife.  1 saw.  3 wood chisels.   1 cold chisel.   1 key spacer.  1 grand set off.  1 large screwdriver.   1 small screwdriver.   1 sticker hook.   2 bradawls.  1 centre bit.  I key file.   1 tuning fork.'. [62]


The tuning kit which reputedly belonged to the Broadwood piano tuner, Alexander Finlayson (who died in 1865) was far smaller, and it consisted of only the following items: set off regulator; chisel; files; saw blade; small screwdrivers and drill bits; spacer; stringing eye hook (all of these fitted into a wooden handle, the metal collar of which could be tightened to hold them securely).  Independent tools included toning needles in a holder, a tuning fork, small rosewood wedge, and a small toggle clamp for bending wires or holding toning needles.   Lastly - and importantly - is a small round token stamped "Broadwood" which could be exchanged for beer. [63]   Two things strike the modern tuner about this list: the absence of a tuning-crank or T-hammer with which to turn the wrest pins (these hammers often get lost or separated from the rest of the tools because of the amateur's persistent belief that 'I could do that job') and the use of rosewood for a wedge, since such a hard substance would surely cause jangling as the strings which it was supposed to be blocking rattle against it (modern wedges are of felt or nylon or rubber).   There is no wedge for tuning uprights in that selection of tools: often a piece of halved bamboo or a thin lath of wood or whalebone would have doeskin wrapped around each end to make a wedge to silence strings to which the tuner did not wish to listen.


As can be seen from the inclusion of implements such as saw and chisel, the tuner's job often entailed far more than simply tuning.   The saw would be used for cutting out old vellum from its slot when a vellum hinge had given way.   Before centre pins (tiny steel axles) were used to link two moving pieces of action, the use of vellum was the commonest means of creating a hinge.  As with rubber, vellum had a finite life and the constant stress of movement caused fatigue and ultimately a complete fracture.  The introduction of centre pins rather than hinges was a boon, since they wore better, but the first use of the centre pin as in Broadwoods of around the 1870s meant that the bass, middle and treble hammers were threaded on to three long pins, rather than using individual pins on each note.   This meant that to repair one hammer, the hammers of that entire section would have to be removed.   (Since hammer shanks were made of light, brittle cedar and often broke, tuners often had to remove hammers in order to drill out the broken remnant of the hammer shank from the butt.)


Strings were one of the tuner's most common repairs since the damp environment of cold Victorian houses created rust and oxidation which led to broken strings.  Again, the innovation which was the hallmark of the Victorian age created occasional problems for the tuner, and the transition from hammered wrest pins to threaded was a case in point: Broadwood upright No. 64240 (c. 1876) bears the following stern warning:


Notice to Tuners.  Patent pin-piece screw pins.  The Pins, being screwed into the metal and wood, must not be struck with the hammer.   SHOULD A STRING BREAK - Take the coil off without drawing the Pin, then turn the Pin up 1/8 and 1/16, cut the length of new wire off three inches below the Pin and insert the end in the Drilled Hole. [64]


Broadwoods were sympathetic and realised the impact of progress on the provincial tuner who might not be au fait with the latest developments in piano design: the baton over the keyboard on a Broadwood square piano of 1830 has a label bearing a 'Caution to Tuners: Should it be requisite to take out a Key, 1st Remove the slip of Wood on which this placed.  2nd Prefs down the Two Brafs Levers which project in front of the Hammer frame until the Hammers are raised nearly close to the strings, & 3rd. To retain them in that position, fasten the Small Bolts on each side of the Said Levers.   For the Treble or Box Notes, there is a Lever and Bolt which act in a similar manner.  Care must be taken in drawing out or replacing a Key to keep the further end of it close to the bottom of the case. [65]


The wrest pin underwent changes from its oblong form to the square, as already has been mentioned, but the innovative questing minds of the Victorians were far from satisfied that perfection had been reached.   In his History of the Pianoforte, Hipkins wrote:


During all this century there have been frequent endeavours to replace the simple wrest pin ... by a contrivance with a screw that a watch-key, or one with very little more power, might turn; or by such an arrangement and then a secondary pressure tuning after an approximate pitch has been secured ... By such means, tuning would become, it is affirmed, relatively easy ... but however ingenious and reasonable these inventions may seem they have not come into general use.   The professional tuners find them slow of response and tiring to the ear and patience, and the amateur is no nearer to the effective tuning of a piano, inasmuch as hand and ear have still to be trained to go together.  The extremes of a pianoforte ... require considerable practice to hear aright, as professional tuners know, and to tune them accurately is yet more difficult ... [66]


The English manufacturer, John Brinsmead, was one such inventor: his wrest pins were fitted with hexagonal nuts, and the pins were passed through iron fixed at right angles to the direction of the strings.   The string is passed through up centre of the wrest pin, and the turning of the nuts atop the pins raises or lowers the pins, thereby raising or lowering the pitch.  This method, patented by Brinsmead in 1884 necessitated yet another crank to be added to the tuner's armoury for, although the pianos were supplied with their own cranks, these often got lost: another instance of innovation creating problems for the tuner, as well as augmenting his tool bag.



It may seem somewhat strange to allocate part of what is predominantly a social study to a technical aspect of the piano tuner's art.  However, over the period which is being examined, the matter of concert pitch was a source of perpetual upheaval and strife to the piano tuner.


Concert pitch is now fixed at A440Hz, a pitch recognized and adhered to internationally for many years (although the Berlin Philharmonic tune to A444 now, and a few of the Russian orchestras to A446).   This was not always the case.


The nineteenth century was a time of upheaval, innovation and flux in the piano industry: nothing stood still for very long, and today's innovation rapidly became yesterday's news, and this applied to pitch and the piano.


Successive inventions had led to an increase in size and strength of pianos, leading in turn to an increasing ability on the part of the pianos to tolerate higher and higher tension and therefore higher pitches.   Within the space of only thirty years, concert pitch rose from A430 to A450, which created enormous problems for piano tuners.  Broadwood were making bigger and stronger pianos all the time, capable of the higher pitches which were regarded as desirable: in 1860 they were using Broadwood Concert Pitch (A451) which was a phenomenally high pitch, even by today's standards - Clara Schumann complained about the shrillness of that pitch.  Dr Alastair Laurence has a set of tuning forks given to his great grandfather at the 1862 National Inventions Exhibition: the three forks are for Concert Philharmonic Pitch, (C540), Medium Instrumental Pitch, and Vocal Pitch (A430), all of which would have been in current use.   A singer, therefore, might require the piano to be tuned at a lower pitch than a pianist, and pianist might compromise a piano tuner by asking him to tune an old instrument to one of the modern pitches, thereby endangering the strings and frame of the piano.   Concern over this can be seen in a leaflet issued in the late 19th century to piano tuners on behalf of Bechstein, imploring them not to raise the pitch of the delicate-framed instruments. [67]


Doctor William Pole wrote in Grove of 1894 that the high pitches:


altered the character of the best compositions; it tended to spoil the performance and ruin the voices of the best singers; and it threw the musical world into confusion from the uncertainty as to the practical meaning of the symbols used; and all for no object whatever, as no one could affirm that the new pitch was on any ground better than the old one. [68]


The pianist Richard Burnett has recorded a CD called Consolations [69] on a heavily overbarred Broadwood from 1859 which has been tuned to C540/A451, and the sound of the piano is quite different to the usual modern A440, (even taking into account the fact that an 1859 piano is quite different in tone to a modern one).


Bechstein were very critical of the high pitches, and were concerned that constant raising and lowering of pitch was serving to destabilize their instruments, and quite rightly so: pianos cannot keep having their pitch changed arbitrarily, and the problem was so widespread that hiring firms would maintain different pianos at different pitches in an attempt to alleviate the stress of yo-yo tuning on their instruments.


Pitch varied from town to town in England as well, providing another tuning headache: in 1880 Henry Fowler Broadwood wrote to George Rose regarding the difficulty of supplying instruments for provincial tours:


I will not send out new non-concert instruments, therefore the regular concert instruments form our only resource - then again I will not send these packed - but only in a van - and accompanied by a tuner. [70]


A letter to The Pianomaker in 1913 showed the extent to which the problem had escalated: despite an agreement being made in the 1890s to standardize pitch, military bands were a law unto themselves, fuelled by cynical instrument makers in league with bandmasters who changed pitches arbitrarily to force bandsmen to periodically renew their instruments.  T.G. Dyson, then the President of the Music Trades Association of Great Britain, wrote:


So long as the military bands retain their present pitch (C537.5), it must be recognized; but there is no reason why some eight other pitches should not be swept out of the way for musical purposes, leaving the international pitch (C517.3) which is now the only recognized pitch in America as well as on the Continent, and the military band pitch as the low and high pitch of this country. [71]


Considering the 'international pitch' had been in effect for over twenty years at that time, it seemed to have had little or no effect on the music world in general, if Dyson was referring to 'some eight other pitches'.


In 1896 A.J. Hipkins wrote in his History of the Pianoforte that:


The French pitch, or Diapason Normal, is now generally adopted on the Continent and has made its way to the United States of America.  In this country, with the exception of the Italian opera, which has been at the low pitch for the last 15 years, we may say the high or Philharmonic pitch has, from 1846 to 1895, prevailed.  ... The Philharmonic Society, has, however, for 1896, relinquished its high pitch and adopted the Diapason Normal. [72]


Different piano makers had their own pitches: from 1849-1854 Broadwoods used A445.9, escalating to A454.7 in 1874.  Collard's 1877 pitch was A449.9, Steinway (in England) in 1879 used A454.7, Erard used A455.3 and in 1877 Chappell tuned at to 455.9. [73]   So it can been seen what the ramifications were for the piano tuners of the day - they had to be aware of the latest modifications in pitch, had to be aware of the physical limitations of the instruments in their care, and had to be able to explain all these factors to the demanding client who might not understand the intricacies of piano technology.



By 1887 Broadwoods were in trouble for excluding tuners who were not employed by them or their agents;


Messrs Broadwood admit that they send out men through the country to tune their own pianos ...  Messrs Broadwood believe that in certain country districts their pianos have been improperly tuned to their detriment.  Messrs Broadwood may claim that certain unprincipled people have (possibly through ignorance) 'botched' their pianos in tuning.  The tuners then tell the customer: "Ah, this is an old instrument.   It is made by an old firm of makers.   Possibly behind the times.   Why not allow us to get you a brand new German piano?  We will allow you _____ per cent off, would take the old piano in part exchange and would keep the new piano in tune for twelve months. [74]


In other words to a certain extent, the Music Trades Review could understand why Broadwoods had acted in the way they had.   But they follow with these words:


Messrs Broadwood were wrong to invade country districts where some of the best local tuners were employed and where they must necessarily come in conflict with some of the oldest customers of their house ... we believe they were mistaken to interfere with the local tuning business of those who have always cordially supported them.


Mr Dyson, President of the Provincial Music Trades Association entered the fray and said that one of the objects of his association was:


to check the system of allowing full discounts to other than bona fide dealers, and ofmanufacturers invading the tuning and repairing connexions of the provincial trade. [75]


Tuner's Associations



The proliferation of pianos led to a proliferation of tuners, as we have seen.   Regrettably, some people saw this as an opportunity to make money easily, and with the purchase of a few tools - and perhaps one of the dubious teach-yourself books already discussed - regarded themselves as ready to work as a professional tuner.   A letter to the Music Trades Review in 1878 summed this up so succinctly, I quote it almost in its entirety:


'Bogus Piano Tuners'.  Sir ... can any of your subscribers suggest any means of improving the present state of bona fide piano tuners ... often I have had to contend with a class of 'bogus tuners' who gull the public by professing to understand what they really do not.  The secret of their partial success is that those who employ them are often ignorant of when an instrument is in tune at all.   The 'bogus tuner' can simply sharpen or flatten a wire, and as to the number of attempts he has, the 'wrest pins' are often a proof.  He is totally ignorant of regulating, repairing a broken lever, a hammer shank, a sticker-hinge or the size of wire (if he have any) if a string be broken; or of curing the effects of damp, which is often very bad in country houses.   The piano is literally ruined by such individuals.   I could enumerate hundreds of cases if space would permit.


Now if a qualified tuner has to go to an instrument after a 'bogus tuner' and if he spends 2-5 hours hard work at it and does his work effectually and he charges five to seven shillings, he is often greeted by the remark that Mr So and So ('bogus') only charged two or three shillings.  Now sir, this sort of thing is my experience for over 20 years and it is time something was done to protect tuners and the public.   The following are some of the defects occurring in piano tuning with the 'bogus' remedies for them.   Key sticking - Remedy: 'Cut with a penknife the mortices until the key moves up or down, backward or forward' [N.B. there should be no side play at all if possible.]   Broken sticker or lever hinge - 'Adhesive margin of postage stamps' [the Victorian equivalent of adhesive tape]. Broken hammer shank - 'Same shank inserted with same knife, oftentimes 2" shorter' [a new shank should be fitted at exactly the same length as the original].


Sluggish hammer butts - 'Split in 2 then tie with thread or twine' [the centre pin should be replaced].


Broken dampers - 'They may go.'


Wrest pins - 'Require little or no muscular effort to either flatten or sharpen strings.'


Other branches of the musical trade and profession have some protection against pretenders and I would suggest that some society or old-established firms in London and the provinces should undertake to examine and test the abilities of those professing tuning, regulatory &c.  If found satisfactory a certificate should be supplied from the Society ... and no tuner should be employed without one ... manufacturers would have their interests greatly enhanced by having pianos of their manufacture kept in order so as to be a credit to them, instead of being condemned as 'poor instruments' &c., which is often the case after a few tunings by 'bogus tuner' ...


Yours truly, A Tuner of 25 yrs experience. [76]


The MTR agreed:


... many of the leading members of the trade who suffer from having their pianos mauled about by unskilled people will fully sympathise with him.   But we fear the proposed examination would be impracticable ... [77]


Two years later, a tuner wrote to propose a Register of Pianoforte Tuners to which the trade world would subscribe, which he would run from an office 'where the trade can be supplied at short notice with competent and respectable men (only such being registered) at a charge of 21/- p.a. which will entitle Subscribers to all the privileges of the office without further charge ... [78]   However, no further mention seems to be made of the matter.


In 1890, G. Vincent Ennever of Hammersmith, London proposed a tuner's association, and issued a circular to tuners which read as follows:


The entrance fee to be paid on joining the Association is 2/6, Annual subscription 5/-.  AIMS: to form a representative body of the profession to speak with authority on behalf of same.


To take such measures as shall lead to the registration of duly qualified tuners and promote the thorough training of apprentices and others.


To endeavour by all lawful means to get rid of the class of incompetents who having received a form of lessons without any practice, are going about doing serious injury to the profession and to the public, who before engaging them have no means of distinguishing them from practical men.


To establish an employment registry whereby employers and tuners can be brought together according to their requirements without publicity.


To do all such other lawful things as may conduce to the welfare of the profession and the benefit of the public. [79]


Tuners were aware, therefore, of interlopers and frauds within their profession, but little seems to have come of it until 1913, when The Pianomaker announced that the Central YMCA Buildings in London had seen the inaugural meeting of An Association for Tuners in the United Kingdom. [80] 'One of the founders' penned an article in the following issue (signing himself only as 'Lancashire') entitled 'Why We Formed a Tuners' Association'.   He swiftly asserts that 'I hope manufacturers and dealers will not run away with the idea that our Association is in the nature of a Trades Union ... ' but later states, ' ... we wish to obtain a fair wage for our labour, but we also desire to see that the manufacturer gets value for his money'.  Because The Pianomaker was aimed at manufacturers, 'Lancashire' was at pains to point out all the benefits of the Association to the trade; however, the customer would also benefit: 'we want to clear out the incompetent man and put in his place a man who can use his tools in a practical manner'.  'Lancashire' goes on to argue that the bad tuners were happy to accept a low weekly wage and therefore dragged prices down in general.  'To my own knowledge there are certain "slave drivers" amongst the dealers who offer 25/- a week to tuners and expect to get the same value as if they were paying 60/-.'  He goes on to argue that these dealers undercut those paying fair wages and therefore take business away from them.


The piano manufacturers Witton & Witton hosted the next Piano Tuner's Association meeting and it was proposed 'to invite apprentices to become student members' - a practice still carried on by the Association today - 'who would receive instruction in equal temperament and the theory of tuning, thus giving them a better understanding of their profession than it was possible to get in a workshop or factory. [81]


Incidentally, the fact that a piano maker hosted the meeting would indicate that 'Lancashire's' fears that the PTA might be regarded as a Trades Union by manufacturers were unfounded, although one can understand his apprehension - and any reservations on the part of the piano trade.


Another bone of contention between the piano tuners and the trade was the practice of inserting into their contracts of employment a 'radius restriction clause'.  It is unclear whether the Piano Tuners Association was concerned with this matter, but it was certainly the cause of much unpleasantness between tuners and their erstwhile employers once they elected to leave their employ.  The radius restriction clause meant that having left a piano business, the tuner could not carry on tuning with a certain radius of his ex-employer's business - and to prevent any altercation, the centre of the radius was often a church, rather than the shop itself, lest the owner of the piano business decide to move premises: it was reasoned that a church was more likely to remain in perpetuity than a shop.   Tuners seemed to understand the reason behind the radius restriction clause, but disagreements often arose over the radius chosen.  Court cases were relatively common wherein either a tuner and ex-employer were disputing a radius, or a tuner ignored the clause altogether.   A Mr Auty of Dewsbury took a tuner to court who had formerly been in his employ; the tuner had, whilst working for Mr Auty, been tuning in the evenings for clients of his own, claiming that since he was still in Mr Auty's employ the radius restriction clause did not apply.   The judge disagreed and said that the twelve-mile radius was fair.  He granted the injunction and awarded two pounds damages, saying 'dealers who have before them the report of this case will probably only have to show it to an obstreperous tuner and thus save both parties future difficulties or trouble.' [82]


'A Tuner Under A Cloud' wrote to the Music Trades Review in 1894 complaining about the twenty-five mile restriction placed upon him by his employer.  He claimed that such agreements were uncommon in his native Scotland, and had signed the contract believing that he would be able to 'buy himself out', as one does in the armed services.  He subsequently offered his employer the sum of £ 300, or three years' salary to waive the radius restriction, and was refused. [83]


The MTR argued that 'a tuner does not stand in the position of an ordinary employé ... he stands ... in a fiduciary position', and defended the radius restriction provided it be fairly set:


In London, a wide radius would not be recommended, for people do not go far away for what they want.  In the country, on the other hand, where travelling tuners are employed over very wide distances, the radius indisputably must be large. [84]


Indeed, in 1887 a County Court had ruled against a tuner who had operated within forty miles of Bath, contrary to a radius restriction clause, and fined him two guineas. [85]   In effect, upon severing his employment with a dealer, a tuner was constrained to move away from that area in order to be in accordance with his contract.


Another matter which seemed to have been a cause for concern was how a tuner would be able to exist if his work should be curtailed through illness.  In an article headed 'A Provident Fund for Tuners', the Music Trades Review discussed this 'most desirable novelty', deeming it a good idea, yet expressing their surprise 'that the tuners have not organized something of a similar sort for themselves', given that 'their earnings hardly suffice to lay up much against a rainy day'. [86]


The idea of such a fund was that the tuners should subscribe a certain amount on a regular basis to pay their beneficiaries a certain sum per week in the event of disability or sickness, a fixed sum to relatives on their death and a small pension (to those who paid extra) at the age of 60 or 65.


The MTR need not have worried, though, since the Secretary of the London Friendly Institution replied in the next edition that his Society had invested funds to the value of £29,000 and already had 'artisans and tuners' on his books. [87]


It would appear that on occasions firms looked after such matters themselves; a Broadwoods cash book from 1896 shows a payment of 5/- made to 'A.D. Ettrick - a decayed tuner ... ' [88]


Some tuners simply left the profession - a tuner appeared in Wood Green Court in 1904 over unpaid debts.   The judge asked him why he was out of work, and the tuner said that he had had to leave the profession or he would have been in a lunatic asylum: 'It was such a dreadful noise.   There are more piano tuners in lunatic asylums than any other trade'.  Intrigued, the Music Trades Review made their own enquiries and found that the London County Council said that they had admitted two piano tuners last year and the Metropolitan Asylum Board said that they had admitted one.  Neither organization had admitted any tuners the year before. [89]


Interestingly, the founder of the Pianoforte Tuner's Association wrote some eleven years later;


The remark was made some time ago that if a lad was deficient in mental capacity he could always be appointed as a tuner. [90]



Piano tuning is nowadays regarded as an unusual profession and upon meeting me for the first time, many people express surprise that I am a) female and b) sighted - not necessarily in that order.  One person memorably said 'but I thought you had to be deaf ...'


The entire responsibility for the association of piano tuning with the blind in Britain rests squarely with one man.   Thomas Rhodes Armitage, M.D., M.R.C.P., was born in 1824 and pursued a successful career as a doctor in London:


In 1860 ... [he] was told that if he wished to retain even a small measure of sight, he must retire from active practice.  Already his sight had so far deteriorated that he could no longer read print. [91]


Armitage investigated the existing facilities which were available to help the blind, and was shocked at the dearth of assistance which he encountered.  Being a wealthy man, he could afford to travel, and did so widely, all the time seeking ways in which the blind could not only be helped, but learn to help themselves.


Some institutions did exist, such as the Plymouth Institution which trained the blind to play and teach the organ.   In 1861 it moved to larger premises in Coburg St., Plymouth and took in its first resident pupil (or 'inmate' as they were called).   Within four years seven ex-pupils had become church organists in the immediate neighbourhood, but to train as an organist required a talent for music, particularly if one were blind. [92]


In 1862 an act of Parliament was passed which allowed Boards of Guardians to maintain and educate blind children in certified schools.   One of the problems with this, although it was a good beginning, was that a high percentage of people became unsighted as adults, either through accidents or through illness - very few were actually born blind.  Armitage, whilst financially secure himself, was deeply sympathetic to the plight of men who, like himself, had lost their sight later in life.


In 1868, Dr Armitage founded the British and Foreign Blind Association, using his own home at 33 Cambridge Square, W. London as its headquarters.  In 1932 Wagg, in his Chronological Survey of Work for the Blind wrote:


The primary object of the Association was the employment and education of the blind and the provision of embossed literature.  The Braille system was adopted and the Association soon became the centre for supplying printed books, maps, music, frames for the writing of Braille and other educational apparatus. [93]


1869 was the year in which Armitage travelled to Paris.   By this time five institutions in Britain had introduced the Braille system to its residents, and several more were about to do so.  Armitage was very keen on the promotion of music as a profession for which the blind could be trained, and had found that Braille 'lends itself more readily than any other to musical notation; and it would seem that the power of readily reading and writing music is almost as essential to the blind as to the seeing if they are to become thorough musicians'. [94]


Armitage had opined that:


In all those who are of the class which finds admission into the public institutions, the object constantly to be kept in view is not to make them first-rate readers, writers, geographers, mathematicians, &c, and then to allow them to starve or be a burden to their friends or community, but to enable them to earn an honest livelihood.  That branch of industry, therefore deserves to be most cultivated which pays the best ... [95]


To this end, Armitage had spent some time in Paris visiting the institution, the École Braille, where his intention was to gain a practical knowledge of Braille musical notation.  From L'École Braille, a primary level school, the children went to L'Institution Nationale des Jeunes Aveugles at the age of 13.   It was here that Armitage encountered a structured piano tuning course with 250 pupils being trained.   The course had begun more or less by accident; about 1830 one of the pupils of the Institution, Claude Montal, and his friend were practising on one of the pianos there which was tuned (not very thoroughly) by a sighted tuner.   Dissatisfied with the sound of the piano, Montal and friend attempted to tune the piano.  The tuner found out and complained to the Director who forbade them to touch the insides of the pianos ever again, and reprimanded them both.   Undeterred, Montal and his friend acquired an old piano which they were allowed to keep at the Institution.   They practised dismantling and reassembling it and tuned it again and again until they had completely repaired and retuned it to their satisfaction.  The Director was impressed with what they had achieved and gave them permission to rebuild and repair the chapel organ belonging to the Institution.   He allocated two sighted workmen to them, and they rose to the challenge, restoring it as well as a professional could.   Convinced of their abilities, he permitted them to tune one of the Institution pianos, and then another - until they were eventually given responsibility for all the pianos there.   The Director then made Montal head of a course teaching tuning to the blind.  He studied tuning to a high degree, eventually evolving his own improved method of tuning, but when he tried to work on his own as a tuner was rebuffed by a public who did not want to entrust their precious instruments to a blind man.  However, a professor at the Paris Conservatoire had heard of his abilities and, to test him, gave him two pianos of different makes to put into exact unison: he achieved this, and other professors at the Conservatoire and some professional musicians began to use him on hearing of his outstanding work.


In 1832 he gave a series of lectures on tuning and in 1834 wrote a short treatise on tuning which he sold at an Industrial Exhibition where he had been employed to tune the pianos.  He expanded this treatise into a full book in 1836.   Meanwhile, a steady stream of Montal's pupils had been leaving the Institution as fully-fledged tuners and finding employment as the public became used to blind tuners.   Factories even began to send blind tuners to their more exacting clients, and the Institution gave certificates to those of its graduates who were regarded as 'masters of their art. [96]   The Paris Institution became intent on training tuners more than any other trade.  Armitage was enormously impressed and very admiring of Montal, 'to whom', he later wrote, 'the blind are indebted for their introduction to one of the most useful and remunerative vocations of which they are capable. [97]   Indeed, Armitage was impressed to learn that between 80 and 150 pounds a year were common incomes, and one tuner was reputed to make £250 per year.  Inspired, Armitage returned to England and in 1872 founded the Royal Normal College and Academy of Music for the Blind with Sir Francis J Campbell at Norwood in Surrey.   ('Normal' in this instance was used in the French sense as in École Normale, meaning a school or college for the training of teachers.)  Armitage wrote that:


... by the establishment of the Royal Normal College, [piano tuning] has been prominently brought before the public, and the blind in England have proved themselves no way inferior to their French brethren, though even long before there were not wanting in England isolated instances of thoroughly competent blind tuners. [98]


Here, he was undoubtedly thinking of:


Mr John Taylor, of Birmingham ... known as the best tuner in that town.   He was trained at the Edgbaston Institution, and had the advantage of careful private music teaching as well.   He is a first-rate mechanician, and when I visited him in Birmingham in 1870 I found him engaged in putting up large clock dials in every room of his house, all being electrically connected with his kitchen clock. [99]


The Music Trades Review was full of admiration for Armitage's efforts on behalf of the blind:


The keen ears of the blind render them specially fitted for fine tuning and it is very satisfactory to find that so many leading provincial firms give them employment. [100]


By 1880 55 trained tuners had left the Royal Normal College and 44 were 'well-employed' - one had become an organist and another a sugar refiner, so tuning was not necessarily their career having left.  The college taught many other trades, but Armitage seems to have regarded tuning as the jewel in its crown: any visitors to the college were shown the extensive tuning department:


The last place visited is the tuning department where young men are engaged in tuning pianos, putting on strings and making other repairs.   Others give demonstrations from models of pianoforte actions and many a lady [visitor] will leave this technical school with a better knowledge of the construction of the piano than she had before. [101]


The college also taught construction:


Some are even employed in making pianos.  A few of these are sold, but they are mostly used in the college.   The main object is by this means to make the man handy and able to repair any instrument which may hereafter be entrusted to their care. [102]


By 1882, the Music Trades Review was writing that:


The employment of the blind as piano tuners is happily becoming so popular throughout the country that we should be sorry if anything were done to counteract the benefits of such a system. [103]


The writer then goes on to quote the New York Trade Review, who said:


We recently found a blind tuner tuning a piano and watching his method, one saw that he had no conception of the principles of proper tuning.   His musical ear was true, but he did not understand the mechanical construction of the piano and there is no doubt he succeeded in ruining the instrument.  Some persons may be activated by a spirit of charity, therefore engaging a blind man for the purposes of tuning their pianos but they could better afford to pay the unfortunate man a few dollars to keep him from touching the piano and at the same time make money by the operation, as the damage usually done is equal to twenty times the cost of tuning. [104]


This rather negative outlook on the part of the American magazine was probably a result of an unregulated training of tuners: the Royal Normal College's system of certification prevented such occurrences from being commonplace in Britain although they were not unheard of.  As the Music Trades Review remarked:


... before the blind are employed in any such work their capabilities and training should be fully and carefully regulated.


To this end, the Blind Tuner's Federation was founded in London in 1902, although by 1930 records show it to be no longer extant. [105]


Life could still prove difficult for the blind tuner on occasion, even with the new awareness on the part of the public: in 1891 a blind tuner applied to the magistrates, complaining that although he had travelled to places like Reading, Wellington, Bognor and Chichester alone by train, Great Eastern Railway officials had refused to permit him unaccompanied on to the platform at Stadwell Station.  The magistrates were, however, unsympathetic:


A small boy, sufficiently sensible to prevent a blind man from getting into danger is not a costly luxury. [106]


      Dr Armitage conducted extensive research, travelling the world visiting places as diverse as the United States and Saxony, comparing various tuning courses, and collecting any useful information which he felt he could apply to his work in England.  He died in 1890, and Wagg said:


There are few, if any, men who have left behind them a greater record of service to the blind, especially in the cause of education. [107]


Armitage himself once wrote:


I cannot conceive any occupation so congenial to a blind man of education and leisure as the attempt to advance the education and improve the condition of his fellow sufferers ... [for which work] ... the very calamity which has unfitted me for most other occupations has made me peculiarly well-suited. [108]


In an 1884 census, things had improved to such an extent that 94% of men who were unsighted had a definite occupation, and 37% of blind women.  Of the 436 who had definite occupations, 110 were musicians - including piano tuners. [109]   The education of the blind in piano tuning is unique in another way, in that it provides documentary evidence of an otherwise almost invisible breed; tuners were doers, not writers, and not institutionalised until much later - i.e. not degree and certificate oriented.  The blind, however, were of necessity institutionalised and provide us with records.  



It will be noticed that no mention has thus far been made of women who tuned pianos - either professionally or just for themselves: and it is probable that the reader has thought nothing of the fact.  After all, one would not expect to hear of women piano tuners in the Victorian / Edwardian era any more than one would expect to hear of women knife-grinders or conductors - everyone knows women had to go into service if lower class or look pretty until they got married if upper class.


Actually Paula Gillett has researched the subject and found that the Royal Academy of Music taught piano tuning to girls as early as the 1820s. [110]   The exclamation which heads this section comes from an article in The Girl's Own Paper in 1887, cited by Gillett: [111]


Women tuners!  Why not?   If a blind man can tune a piano ... if men without the least education, musically speaking, earn their bread by tuning only, and there are thousands who do, it would be strange indeed if a girl with good sight and some knowledge of music should find the art of tuning impossible of acquirement.


The girl is then advised to obtain an old piano upon which to practise and spend twenty-one shillings on tools - surely if she had twenty-one shillings she would have no need of employment?


      The Music Trades Review published a short diatribe in 1891 headed "Tuning Taught in Six Months", railing against advertisements which claim to turn out professional tuners in miraculously short periods of time:


An eminent tuner at one of the leading London firms has a Vacancy for a Pupil; proficiency and a good situation can be obtained in six months.


A man who can teach tuning and guarantee proficiency in six months must be the depository of some secret not disclosed to ordinary folks ...  Other advertisements are directed especially to ladies, who with very few exceptions are notoriously incompetent, for physical reasons, to become pianoforte tuners.   So far as the trade is concerned, this warning is unnecessary because no manufacturer or dealer in his sense would dream of employing any of these neophytes of six months' training. [112]


One of the 'physical reasons' why women would not be able to tune, apart from the strength of wrist and arm needed, was simply that of height: the Cabinet pianos of the mid 1800s were very tall, with Collard's cabinet pianos measuring 73˝ inches, even allowing 6 inches or so for the ornate cornice which has to be removed before tuning.   This cornice is generally of rosewood and exceedingly heavy, which causes one to wonder how a Victorian woman in restrictive clothing would fare having to lift off such a thing, let alone tune pins at a height of about 6'.


However, some women must have gained employment as tuners despite being 'notoriously incompetent' as Gillett mentions that:


the journal of the People's Palace included a more ambiguous recommendation of piano tuning in its columns, which began by observing ... that most women trained in England as piano tuners currently practise their craft in other countries.   That women are evidently fitted for this profession is self-evident, and that they are beginning to feel their way, is apparent by the proposed formation of an association for lady tuners.   Whether the idea will float or not remains to be seen. [113]


From the research I have carried out, no trace of such an organisation can be found, so regrettably it would appear that even if such an undertaking was initiated, it was not long-lived.


Even T.R. Armitage, the champion of education for the blind who was an open-minded man when it came to educational innovation, never considered tuning as a suitable profession for blind girls: facilities for training tuners at the Royal Normal College remained resolutely reserved for the boys.


      Women as tuners were therefore rare, if not unheard of, and of the myriad advertisements in such publications as the Musical Times wherein tuners seek appointments,, n, one was from women.   The only advertisements placed by women were advertisements for positions as piano teachers, or on a few occasions, for 'demonstrators' in piano shops, where they played the latest sheet music on the latest instruments with a view to selling either.



It has to be admitted that piano tuners have not loomed large in literature - few writers appear to have memorably portrayed a piano tuner in their writing.   I was able to find only two references, one in song, and one in literature.  It would seem that the humble piano tuner was not someone who occasioned inspiration in the writer's breast.


The literary exception which I have found is that of P.L. Travers who was writing in 1944 about Edwardian England.   It will be remembered that Mrs Banks from the Mary Poppins books was an ardent supporter of the Women's Social and Political Union, more commonly known as Suffragists.   In the book Mary Poppins Opens The Door,


'the Drawing-room piano was out of tune and Mrs Banks had asked Mary Poppins to find a piano-tuner. [114]   "There's my cousin, ma'am, Mr Twigley.  Just three blocks from here" ' Mary Poppins had announced and when Mrs Banks said she had never heard of him, Mary Poppins, with her usual sniff, had reminded Mrs Banks that her relatives were composed of the Very Best People.


  Mary Poppins, Jane and Michael find Mr Twigley's house and are shown by his disagreeable housekeeper into:


a large attic littered with scraps of wood, tins of paints and bottles of glue.   Every available space in the room was filled with musical instruments.  A harp stood in one corner and in another was a pile of drums.   Trumpets and violins hung from the rafters; flutes and tin whistles were stacked on the shelves.  A dusty carpenters bench by the window was littered with carpenter's tools.   And on the edge of the bench was a small polished box with a tiny screw-driver tossed beside it.   In the middle of the floor stood five half-finished musical boxes ...


Mr Twigley eventually appears:


The violins played a stave of music.  Then out of the air - as it seemed to the children - came two short legs clad in baggy trousers.  They were followed by a body in a old frock-coat.  And last of all came a long white beard, a wrinkled face with glasses on its nose.


This, then, is cousin Fred Twigley who is the absent-minded maker of magical musical boxes and the fortunate recipient of seven wishes a day which he uses in an unusual way ...


"Oh, Mary Poppins!" said Mrs Banks brightly, as she opened the door.   "I'm sorry, but I don't need your cousin after all.  I tried the piano again just now.  And it's quite in tune.  In fact, better than ever.


"I'm glad of that, ma'am," said Mary Poppins, stealing a glance at herself in the mirror.   "My cousin will make no charge."


"Well, I should think not!" cried Mrs Banks indignantly.  "Why, he hasn't even been here."


"Exactly, ma'am," said Mary Poppins.  She sniffed as she turned towards the stairs.


Jane and Michael exchanged a secret look.


"That must have been the seventh wish!" Michael whispered.  And Jane gave an answering nod.



One wonders why P L Travers chose the job of piano tuner for Mr Twigley.  Perhaps the musical connection fitted well with the music boxes which were a central part of the story - or perhaps 'piano tuner' conjured up a mental image of eccentricity?   Whichever, the vague dithering of an elderly shabby gentleman contrasts sharply with the earlier depiction in song by Fred Coyne of a dapper rogue into sharp dressing and sharp practices in 'The Tuner's Oppor-tuner-ty', a music hall song published on 15 November 1879.   Coyne's comic ballads were a favourite with music hall audiences.  'The lyric overflows with double entrendres ... the trade and its associated tools are synonymous with sexual meanings.' [115]


The Tuner's Oppor-tuner-ty

Miss Crotchety Quaver was sweet seventeen And a player of excellent skill, She would play all the day, all the evening as well Making all the neighbourhood ill. And to keep her Piano in tune she would have A good tuner constantly there, And he'd pull up the instrument 3 times a week Just to keep it in proper repair.



And first he'd tune it gently, then he'd tune it strong. Then he'd touch a short note, then he'd run along. Then he'd go with a vengeance, enough to break the key. At last he tuned whene'er he got an oppor-tuner-ty.


He came there so often, I thought I'd complain That in March, April, May and in June That tuner had been there once ev'ry day To keep her piano in tune. I said "He's too often here hanging about And he's costing you no end of pelf, If your instrument wants such a lot of repairs I'll attend to the business myself.




But vainly I spoke to Miss Crotchety Q She said, "Fred, I'll do just as I please" And the very next time I called I saw The tuner still fingering the keys. I said, "Get out," they said "Get out yourself" And they meant it -for out of the place I went with a foot (his or hers) in my back, And the door was slammed in my face.




I got over my folly, I courted again A bewitching but sensible maid But I went in for tuning, and in less than a month I was quite adept at the trade. Now we've married, and all my doubts and my fears Are for evermore laid on the shelf For if ever her instrument gets out of tune I am able to tune it myself.

A happy ending then for a man who was able to become adept at tuning in less than a month!  The cover of the song was illustrated by Alfred Concanen who was one of the best artists of lithographic music covers of that time.  He depicts a horrified 'Fred' bursting in on an intimate scene: a dapper gent with longish hair, moustache and goatee has one hand on the tuning hammer and the other on the shoulder of Miss Crotchety Quaver who is also seated at the upright piano.  He is wearing a frock coat, chequered trousers and patent shoes with spats: Fred, on the other hand, is conservatively dressed, has dropped his top hat in horror, and we see the barometer behind him pointing to 'stormy'.  The tuner's rakish tam-o'-shanter is hanging cosily on the hat-rack in the hall, and pictures of 'Cupid and Psyche' and 'Apollo Exalted' beam down from over the piano.


It is interesting to compare the P L Travers image with that of Fred Coyne and one wonders whether by 1944 piano tuning was perceived as an old man's trade.



Whatever the problems incurred by the average piano tuner in the Victorian / Edwardian age, it could be argued that with post being delivered the next day (sometimes the same day) and the railway services being fast, efficient and reliable, travel and communication for the piano tuner were probably more predictable than they are today.   The same could not be said, however, for Joseph Bird Burgess, a tuner and Professor of Music, born in 1830 in Kent.   Having completed his apprenticeship (which was most likely to have been undertaken at Collard and Collard's), he got married to Margaret on 1 August 1852.  Five weeks later they set sail on the SS Wandsworth and arrived at Port Phillip in Australia on New Year's Day 1853 after a sea voyage of just under four months.  His diary for 1872 is still in existence, and details a gruelling tuning round which often necessitated a sixteen-week absence from his home, family (Joe, 18, and Jack, 16, and Willie, 14) and of course his wife, referred to as 'dear, dear M', in his journal.  He also wrote and sold music and bought and sold pianos to augment what seems to have been a very low-paid job.  Later, his sons accompanied him one at a time in his travels around the northern parts of Victoria and some of New South Wales.


Joseph seems to have loathed the heat, and also suffered from what he refers to as 'an umbilical rupture' in his entry for 4 January 1872.  One wonders why a well-trained (for Collard and Collard were a leading piano firm of the time) and evidently well-read and intelligent man felt moved to leave England and subject himself and his new bride to such travails.  1852 was, after all, the beginning of a phenomenal boom in piano production and purchasing in England, and Kent was a wealthy area where piano ownership would have been reasonably common.  So it seems a strange decision to leave the country.   However, it would appear, since his great-great-great grandson still lives in New South Wales, that the family never came home.   Unfortunately, only the journal for 1872 still exists, so we can only guess at the fate of Joseph Bird Burgess. [116]       


One ex-Broadwood tuner, George William Southern, emigrated to Brisbane in 1883 but was unsuccessful as a piano tuner: he became a cattle driver, but contracted tuberculosis, and when he left hospital went to Wagga Wagga where he resumed his life as a piano tuner and got married.  One day he disappeared and was found wandering, having lost his memory completely.   'Although he cannot recollect a sign or name, he can play from memory a piano piece which has just been played for him', reported the London and Provincial Trades Review. [117]   Despite their interest, regrettably they never followed up on the story, so we will never know the fate of Mr Southern.


William Elgar (1821-1905)


Perhaps the most well-known piano tuner of all was the father of Sir Edward Elgar.   Born in 1821, William Elgar:


entered the music publishing house of Coventry and Hollier in London, but in the year 1841 came to Worcester and commenced his profession as a pianoforte tuner, teacher and organist - and was a talented performer on the violin.   He was much more of a musician than a business man, and devoted his whole thoughts to matters musical. [118]


Thus wrote Lucy Elgar Pipe of her father.  A friend of Elgar, Hubert Leicester, continues the story:


No music shops in those days.  Went to Latimers for musical requisites ... Uncle [John also] had these things [at the family printing shop at No. 6, High St.] as he was very keen on music.   Stratfords - a stationer who'd a shop in The Cross - their musical side developed and applied to Broadwood's for a tuner & they sent W.H.E. [119]


Elgar pčre arrived in Worcester in 1841, and briefly employed his younger brother, Henry, but they did not get on and Henry left to work elsewhere.  His initial decision in asking Henry to come into partnership was prompted by the desire to advertise as 'Messrs. W.H. & H. Elgar' which for some reason he seemed to believe would prevent those requiring tuners from 'making arrangements with foreigners': [120] as foreign chefs and musicians and so on have a certain air of glamour to them today, the foreign musician was regarded with awe by some people who perhaps had never encountered a foreigner in their lives.   Percy Young records William's thoughts on the matter:


... I consider that the English stand rather in the background as far as regards musical affairs ... comparatively speaking, how very few English composers are there when we look at the superior number of foreign ... I hope the time is not very far distant when England in all her glory will stand pre-eminent, at least in Musical Affairs. [121]



William had been employed to tune the instruments at Witley Court by the Comptroller of the Household for the Queen Dowager, Adelaide, widow of William IV.  She was renting the house from Lord Dudley for three months, and after she left William continued to tune there for Lord Dudley himself, losing no time in advertising this connection on his business stationery.


Hubert Leicester said:


W.H.E. rather notorious as a tuner & producing wonderful effects on piano - he had finest touch on a keyed instrument.  At Witley Court, Lord Dudley sent for him to tune piano; in an adjoining room heard him trying it after finishing tuning..  Lord D came in - W.H. stopped - after inducement played something.   Lord Dudley wanted him to do more than be an ordinary tuner - offered to pay for a course to make him finest player in England.  Refused - too nervous. [122]


William was not nervous, however, when it came to using his new connection with the gentry to tune their friends' pianos, and soon found himself involved in the musical life of Worcester as a participant rather than on the periphery: he became organist at St George's


Catholic church in Worcester - although he was a Protestant, his wife, Ann, had become a Catholic simply through accompanying William to services.   William himself seems to have been an atheist, as Moore cites his letter to his parents back home in Dover, decrying '... the absurd superstition and play-house mummery of the Papist; the cold and formal ceremonies of the Church of England; or the bigotry and rank hypocrisy of the Wesleyan'. [123]   Despite this antipathy the family (they were now expecting their first child, Harry) moved into No. 2 College Yard near the Cathedral, where Lucy and Pollie were later born.   But the family moved to Broadheath, three miles from Worcester in 1856, where Edward was born a year later.


One might have thought this move ill-advised for a piano tuner in those days, since most of his clients were in Worcester itself, but Hubert Leicester described William as 'good-looking, with a great charm of manner - a gentleman in fact - never happier than when astride a horse'. [124]   And Edward himself said: 'my father used to ride a thoroughbred mare when he went to tune a piano'.   Somewhat damningly, he continued: 'he never did a stroke of work in his life'. [125]   This comment is an interesting one: does it mean that William was lazy, or did it seem to the young Elgar that by travelling about doing what he liked when he liked, that his father was not really 'working'?  Certainly it is recorded that William wrote to his family in Dover complaining that too much tuning made his head 'very queer indeed, though it soon goes off again'. [126]   William also wrote in correspondence with his younger brother, Henry, - who was also a tuner and perhaps more likely to understand - that 'I don't at present feel inspired [to compose for St George's], my mind wanders too much in my business'. [127]


Edward Elgar's attitude is no means unique - it is even now not uncommon for me to be asked by a client what I do for a living, as though tuning is perceived as a hobby rather than as a profession, and it could be that Edward was of the same opinion.  He was also, of course, embarrassed by his lower-class origins and many have wanted to suggest that his father had no need to do a stroke of work ...


William used his pianistic skills to become a popular local accompanist and played 2nd violin with a band, adding to his income as a tuner.  He played in the Worcester Glee Club, where he had met John Leicester, the uncle of Hubert.  In 1859, John Leicester suggested his shop as a place from which to sell pianos to test the market, which proved successful.  William established his own shop, Elgar Bros., Pianoforte & Music Warehouse, at No. 10, High Street, and his tuning round continued:


Piano tuning was the outdoor department of the music shop; and Elgar senior condescended to nothing less for his conveyance than a thoroughbred mare, until Edward was old enough to accompany him, when a pony and trap had to be substituted.  When a piano had to be tuned at Croome Court or Maresfield the boy Edward was taken for what was practically a delightful day's outing. [128]


William advised clients of the re-employment of his brother, Henry, thus:


W.H. Elgar respectfully informs his Patrons that in consequence of his Business he has obtained the assistance of his Brother


Mr Henry Elgar


(from Messrs Kirkman's, London and Messrs Hime and Addison's, Manchester), and as numerous mistakes have lately occurred he begs to state that the TUNING will be attended to SOLELY by THEMSELVES. [129]


Henry would seem to have been a fine tuner in his own right, having tuned for Sir Charles Hallé whilst in Manchester.  He was never seen in public without a top hat, frock coat and button-hole, and seems to have been such a character in his own right that it seems hardly surprising that the Elgar brothers' initial ill-fated venture in their youth came to naught, with two such strong - and some might say eccentric - personalities in close proximity.  William and Henry both gave music lessons in the shop, and Henry also played at the Glee Club, filling in absent parts on the harmonium, and "playing the many solos which would fall to him with great beauty and expression." [130]


In 1884 William was sacked from his organist's position at St George's after 37 years following some sort of scheming amongst the younger generation at the church - Elgar wrote: 'He thinks a great deal of this and I fear 'twill break him up'. [131]   Edward's subsequent appointment for the post in 1885 rankled with William, even though Edward was replacing the man who had 'usurped' William's position.


William tuned on until the mid-1890s, when he fell ill, and his son, Frank, took over the family business which became 'Elgar & Co.'   William never recovered from his illness and eventually died in 1905.


 One fine example of the piano tuner's dichotomy of social position is that of William Finlayson who worked for Broadwood's.   He was the tuner responsible for tuning the pianos for Queen Victoria and consequently held himself in great esteem.   He lived in a fine house in Aberdeen Place, Maida Vale (which he rented), always wore a suit and top hat and always insisted on being admitted at the front door.  Family legend has it that he used to slide down the banister in the Palace to amuse the little princes and princesses whom he came to know quite well owing to his frequent calls at the Palace. [132]


Some tuners became tuners by accident; one such is the case of Horace Russell Ponder, [133] the son of a wealthy Cockney/Jewish family of tobacco and spice importers who had premises on the Strand in London in the 1850s.   The Ponders were newly wealthy and wanted their son to be educated as they had never been.  Horace was sent to the same boarding school in Norfolk as Horatio Nelson had attended, and thence to a French finishing school.  In his late teens, Horace suffered a shock upon finding that his fiancée was pregnant by another man, and he ran away to America, where he arrived penniless.  A German émigré piano maker took him in and taught him the trade, and when he returned to England two years later, he married his erstwhile fiancée and set up as a piano tuner.   (No one knows what happened to the illegitimate child.)  His wife died, and he remarried and had a son, (who in turn married, went to Canada and abandoned his wife there).


Esmé Hailey was the product of this union, and she came back (alone) from Canada to live with Horace and his new wife, who seem to have been fairly wealthy - Esmé remembers chandeliers, fine furniture, and 'huge chinesey vases' which were coveted by a French lady in the village near Lowestoft where they then lived, and to whom Horace sold various pieces over the years - whether from necessity is unclear.


Horace had been involved in piano manufacture at some point in his new career, and Esmé thinks he also turned his hand to furniture manufacture on occasion.  Before he left London for Lowestoft he had been a sidesman at St Martin-in-the-Fields, and his family had had their own pew there.  Horace, however, had tired of wealth and privilege and also of the Church: 'I'm done brown', he remarked to his wife, of religion.   He had developed a social conscience which had turned into a left-wing socialist conscience: evidently a deep thinker, his questioning mind caused him to leave the Church, despite often telling his Chapel-going wife that he envied her her faith.


He was an idealistic man, and an independent thinker.   He had been upset by the sound of squealing pigs in an abattoir and refused to eat meat again; he started the Lowestoft branch of the Labour party, and helped his wife in her endeavours for the Suffragist movement, taking her and her companions refreshments when they once locked themselves in a shop as a suffragist protest.   Around 1910, enormous anti-German feeling arose - fuelled later by such publications as The Pianomaker, which promoted the English piano trade with outrageous claims and blatant jingoism.  Such vitriolic anti-German sentiment upset Horace, who held his German-American saviour in the highest esteem, and he later forbade Esmé to hate the Germans, citing his own experiences.


Horace always wore a top hat and drove a pony and trap to his tunings, working until his death in his late eighties in 1930.   Despite his evident articulate and educated manner, he was often treated like a servant, told to use the tradesmen's entrance and was offered no refreshment, even after long journeys to tune for musical soirées at large country houses.  This served to reinforce his socialist views.   He must have been a renowned tuner, because he went to London to tune pianos all the way from Suffolk on occasion, often in theatres.   A nervous man, he would often pace up and down behind the curtains as the pianist played.


He had a piano in his home in Lowestoft, and Esmé occasionally saw him stand at the piano and stare, lost in thought.   However, she rarely saw him touch the piano, and when he did, he played only chords, never tunes.   When I suggested that perhaps he couldn't play, Esmé was astounded: she had never considered that to be a possibility, and had presumed (incorrectly) that a tuner had to be able to play.


A photograph of Horace taken at the beginning of the twentieth century shows a man with an unkempt beard wearing what looks like an early version of a safari jacket in tweed, and a pair of plus fours - most atypical of clothes of that period for a man in his fifties.   He was obviously an unconventional man who was very unmaterialistic and altruistic.  An atheist vegetarian who supported the cause of women's suffrage and lived simply despite a privileged background, Horace was the complete antithesis of his brother, an immensely rich man who was 'something big in the City' (Esmé's words), but she says 'they loved each other, but never agreed on anything'.


Altogether, Horace could be said to be an atypical Victorian from an atypical background who pursued an atypical career to finance an atypical lifestyle - which paradoxically appears to be typical of many of the few tuners whose lives are still available for scrutiny by people today.



When I first broached the subject of piano tuners with Professor Cyril Ehrlich, his reply was that 'mostly they were not the sort of articulate, or self-important, people who have documentation ... [they] were unlike all sorts of people whose legacy of words influences historians (or at least antiquarians), regardless of their importance.  So the historian must somehow contrive to catch the unspoken, on the run, so to speak'. [134]


Sighted tuners from the Victorian age have left us with a little codification in the shape of the odd treatise or pamphlet on tuning, but other than that the reliance is upon firms' records.   The majority of piano firms were concentrated in the London area, particularly after World War I, and most of their records were lost in the Blitz of World War II.  Chappell's were one of the exceptions to this, but then had a major fire in the 1960s and lost their piano factory records and a large proportion of their sheet music archive at the same time.


Events have therefore conspired to keep the world of the piano tuner a faintly mysterious one, but I hope this work has done a little towards redressing the lack of information on the subject of piano tuners, and that I have in a small way 'caught the unspoken, on the run'.

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