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Friday 25 November 2011

“Here Perhaps, I Ought to Interject a Word or two of Praise about Messrs. Brinsmead's Instruments; But I Will Not. They are of World-Wide Fame and Speak for Themselves…” Or: A Victorian Piano Maker:

In November last year, I blogged about the London Gas works in 1895. The article, which you can read here if you wish) featured text from the 1895 piece of investigative journalism named ‘Industrial Explorings, by R. Andom.’ In this particular publication, the anonymous author jauntily capers around 1890’s London visiting various areas of industry, and describing the innermost workings of various businesses in the Metropolis.

As I said, in November I wrote about the London gas works, and at the bottom of the article I invited readers to choose an area of industry they may have an interest in from a list of business types included in the book if they wished, and I would post the article for them to read.

Almost a year later I received my first request by way of a comment beneath the article from miabia15, who said:

“I would like to know when the piano industry erupted in the Victorian England time period”

By way of an answer below the article, I responded as best I could:

“Upper, and in some cases middle class families almost always had a piano, as it was seen as a very ladylike activity to learn to play one, and mothers would teach their daughters, or a piano teacher would be employed.
As well as reading, painting and stitching and sewing, playing the piano was somewhat of a staple activity for ladies.
I'm not 100% sure when their sales boomed, but I'd hazard a guess at the 1840's and 1850's. Certainly by the end of the century almost every upper class house would have had a piano.
If you give me a couple of weeks I shall write up the post about piano manufacture, if you want to read it.”

But I knew this brief comment was not nearly definitive enough, and whilst I cannot pinpoint the exact time that the piano industry ‘erupted’ I was able to type up the article, so that readers, and miabia15, could have a virtual stroll around a busy Victorian piano makers.
Well, unfortunately, a few weeks late, the article is typed up and here. In addition, I have found a little further information to give the article a little background.

The Piano company in question is Brinsmead’s, and the founder, John Brinsmead established himself as a piano maker in London in 1836 after moving from his home in Devon. Twenty-five years later, in 1861, his sons John and Edgar joined the family business, and in 1870 Brinsmead’s became ‘Brinsmead & Sons’. The Brinsmead family business took out many piano patents, most of which were aimed at improving the frame of the piano, the soundboards, the bridges and bracings

In 1883 John Brinsmead became ‘Pianoforte Makers to HRH the Prince of Wales’ and this was henceforth written on the pianos that Brinsmead produced. 

When they were at the peak of their productivity, the company were producing an amazing two thousand pianos a year, which is quite excellent going when the careful manufacturing process is considered.

In 1900 they became a Limited Company, and the First World War affected business dramatically. Workers at the factory went on strike, and production stopped completely until a compromise between owners and workers was reached, but by then, it was too late. In January 1920 Brinsmead & Sons went out of business.

Interestingly, our reporter sees a piano being repaired for popular funnyman, writer and actor George Grossmith whilst he is being shown around Brinsmead’s. 

As a sidenote, the comic novel Grossmith wrote with his brother Weedon; ‘Diary of a Nobody’ is definitely a worthy read.

Anyway, onto the article:

"It is, generally speaking, best to start an enterprise with something big. I started with pianos, and took an overcoat, a pipe, a newspaper, and a threepenny ticket, and sallied forth on my travels. And, I venture to think, never was expedition more easily, expeditiously, and economically fitted out and despatched.

I went to Piano-Land, and I went there direct. If I had been Henry M. S--y I should have gone to a jam factory at Blackheath and struck across country and discovered Piano-Land for myself; but as the Midland Railway had already located the place, I resolved to leave them the kudos. Privately I don't think it is very much to their credit, though, of course, when they first found it, it may have been pretty and picturesque enough. I found it depressing and more than a trifle dirty, and worn down at the heel, so to speak.

It was dull and cold, and foggy, too, when I left Kentish Town Station in search of Grafton Road and promptly and immediately lost myself. In answer to my pathetic inquiries several kindly-disposed persons did stop and give me minute and precise information whereby I might travel to my destination; but they impart topographical information in a style of their own up Kentish Town way, and I hadn't the key. Instead of telling you, for instance, to take the first turning to the right, and the fourth to the left, and then keep straight on, they say:
Grafton Road? Brinsmead's place? Why, that's where they makes pianos!

You murmur your interest in the information, and signify that you have no vital objection thereto provided the work is carried on on sanitary principles.

"Want to go there?"

You casually observe that you would like to stroll in that direction if it is quite convenient. Can you be directed?

Yus! Go straight along till you comes to Jones's the butcher's, then turn round by a row of red-bricked 'ouses, and you'll see the 'Cow and Mustard Pot' on the other side of the road, and just past that there's a turning, and there you are."

And you go on merrily, and find Jones's the butcher's, and the ‘Cow and Mustard Pot,’ and the red-bricked 'ouses, and fancy your travels are nearly ended. Getting a trifle uncertain, perhaps, you ask again.

"Grafton Road, sir? There ain't no Grafton Road about here! There's a Clifton Road."

My enterprise was saved from utter extinction at the outset by a dirty little boy who was playing with his "sucker" a leather and rather a messy plaything, which has a moral influence on the young, I am told, besides illustrating several well-known natural laws plainly for their intelligent comprehension.

I asked him what percentage of the wealth of the Indies would induce him to personally pilot me to Grafton Road. The boy was prompt at a deal; he said he thought "tuppence" would do it, and I closed on the bargain, and told him to lead on. Ten minutes later, I stood before the imposing blocks in which Messrs. Brinsmead and Sons carry on their manufacture. A gate within a gate admitted me, and I was in Piano-land, and a very wonderful and interesting land I found it. A land overflowing with glue and timber and tinkling harmony, colonised by its own people, shut in from the outside world by a high wall, and jealously guarded by massive gates, through which only the specially privileged pass. 

I presented my credentials to Mr. Thomas Brinsmead, who came out to me, and he, courteously brief and pleasantly business like, handed me over to the charge of Mr. Hall, his foreman, under whose very able guidance I made my journey. It is the fashion to be personally conducted nowadays. Some really great explorers adopt it, so I felt no shame, albeit it was rather prosaic.

Mr. Hall would not make a bad journalist, so quick is he to grasp the explorer's wishes. 
"Don't let us be technical," I said. "Let us walk round and spy out the land, so that I may perchance write a big book on the subject; and if we meet any spades about anywhere let us call them shovels, just simply plain shovels." And we were pleasantly chatty and descriptive thereafter; at least, Mr. Hall was. I had my reputation as an explorer to maintain, and I dared not unbend too far and become jocose, lest peradventure he discovered that I was a humorist, and not a real, bona-fide traveller at all.

There is only one feature that an outside view of the Grafton works permits you to retain, and that is the monumental piles of timber that are reared up everywhere, even on the roof-tops. Stacked with mathematical precision, each plank kept apart from its neighbour by short cross-ties, to allow the air to circulate freely in between; black with age and weather, and I should judge the weather to be pretty thick occasionally around Kentish Town, these planks, gathered in from all parts of the world, wait their turn to be converted into "Uprights" and "Grands." 

A very lengthy wait it is, too. Four years, on an average, between the time of stacking and actual use, the last nine or twelve months under cover in a universal temperature of eighty degrees winter and summer are allowed to elapse to thoroughly and completely dry all trace of moisture out of the wood. Moisture causes trouble in pianos, and every care is taken to exclude it. Therein the instrument differs from some performers
I have known, who have displayed a remarkable aptitude for moisture without thereby affecting their tone or touch, and have not limited the quantity either, though I have heard them grumble at the quality.

Thoroughness is strikingly in evidence all through the various departments, and presumably Messrs. Brinsmead hold that it is better to overdo a matter than to take chances. And undoubtedly they are right. I have known men who have gleefully speculated in instruments made in the Faderland, and have come to wish they hadn't. They have found but there, you know the story, I daresay. Anyway, it is not pleasant to have a thirty guinea piece of property that you designed for use as a piano develop such a guileless, open-hearted, frank disposition, that it feels impelled to open its casing and display its interior economy to the passers-by, just to show that there is no deception, and that it really does contain strings and fittings. Nor does the ambitious variety altogether please. I mean the sort that rebels at the comparatively simple and unobtrusive role of piano, and splinters itself up into wash-tubs and kitchen stools, with perhaps a little surplus material left over for a window-sash and a chicken-coop.

Here, perhaps, I ought to interject a word or two of praise about Messrs. Brinsmead's instruments; but I will not. They are of world-wide fame and speak for themselves, if you know how to play and can make them, and they haven't any ideas above their station like those I have alluded to.

From the wood-stacks which are the beginning of all things, as far as pianos are concerned I was conducted through a series of rooms where the treatment of the iron frames was in progress. Round about the walls, and in odd corners, these frames, rough and unfinished as they had come from the foundry, were piled, while the various operations which reduced them to a finished and ornamental condition were in full swing. 

Here might be seen a number of men rubbing down, with infinite toil and patience, the rough ironwork by a sort of a "holy-stoning" process, while away off in a far corner a "hand" was viewing, with a look of conscious pride, a magnificent great plate destined for a "Grand,” that shone like burnished gold. I walked across to it and inspected it closer.

"Enamelled and baked," Mr. Hall remarked, briefly. And I understood that I might safely handle it without the colour coming off in the process.
In another building, vertical drills were at work on these same plates, boring out the holes for the pins. The plates slid along under the deft guidance of a mechanic rattle, whirr, scrunch, and the hole was bitten out as clean and easily as the cheese-taster's knife pierces a new importation of Cheddar.

In a big room adjoining, I came upon a real land of marvels. There was a clatter and hum of powerful machinery, a pleasant smell of fresh wood – and it is astonishing how fresh and scented some of these woods do strike the nostrils – and sawdust lying about by the sack-full, and floating round in clouds. I could have passed for a very respectable miller before I had been in the room ten minutes, that is, if any one could conceive a sort of fancy-dress miller with a tall hat and a note-book.

Talk about the little busy bee! Any specimen hive would have gone out of business in sheer envy and impotence could they have peeped in and seen that scene. Sawing in which operation, by the bye, both the fussy little "circulars" and their bigger and, if possible, more fussy prototypes, and the dignified and somewhat sinister-looking "band" saws are concerned with planing, moulding, and shaping were going on everywhere, and no pen can adequately give one's impressions on seeing a huge, roughened plank slid on to one of the massive steel beds of the planing-machines, and come through, smooth and glossy, and pared down to a standard thickness. 
The point that most struck me, after I had travelled a little farther, was the slap-dash, easy-going, almost contemptuous way in which the various parts are turned out, in contrast with the precision and nicety displayed when it comes to fitting those parts together. To make the sections of a piano is easy if you know how; I felt that I could do it myself if I knew how; but I should despair of ever bringing the parts together to a harmonious, literally speaking whole. The Chinese puzzle is not a circumstance to it.

A very open sort of lift, which connects the various floors, took us to the top of the building, and the peaceful quiet, after the whirr and rattle below, was striking. On these upper floors, cases for "Grands," sounding-boards, and backs, with their exceptional construction of "Wrest Plank," by which no two strings pull on the same grain of the wood, are variously constructed, and important and interesting operations they all are.

The sounding-board, for instance, is made in sections, each section being matched to its fellow, and the whole glued together diagonally. The nicety with which it has to be proportioned in thickness, combined with the care necessary in adjusting the “bridge" over which the strings pass, renders it perhaps the most important of details that are all important. 

Hard and beautifully white before they have received the preserving coats of varnish, these sounding-boards are marvels of constructive skill and ingenuity. We were standing against one that had just been fitted into a "Grand," while the process of construction was being explained to me, and Mr. Hall struck it – the board I mean, not the process – with his hand.
It sounded as deep and resonant as a big drum. I paid my tribute of admiration and walked forward, for I was afraid my stock of admiration tribute would give out under such frequent calls and leave me stranded. Vainly! The next call came a moment after, and a heavy draft it was.

Glue, which is a prominent feature in these works and a very harmless, inoffensive, and unobjectionable feature it is, too; quite contrary to any similar feature that I had hitherto encountered, and without that "smelly" peculiarity so noticeable in glues, plays a very important part in fitting pianos together. And for a successful gluing job there must be pressure and warmth. The warmth here, as elsewhere, is obtained from steam-heated cupboards. The pressure is given by a simple but ingenious method that quite took my fancy.

"Whatever are those things for?" I queried.

My guide laughed. "I thought that would interest you," he remarked. "It usually does. They are 'go-bars.'" 

I overlooked this lapse into technicality for the sake of further information, and was rewarded for my forbearance.
These "go-bars" are lance-wood staves such as they used to fashion into bows for bold Robin Hood and other irresponsible persons who objected to taxes and convention. The parts to be glued together are fitted in position, and one end of the "go-bar" is placed upon them, the other finding a rest against a false roof a few feet above. A pressure amounting to tons, resulting from the attempt of the staves to straighten themselves again, can thus be brought to bear on the glued surface.

In making the cases for "Grands" – an operation I before alluded to – glue and pressure play a considerable part. The cases, whether of "concert" or "boudoir," are composed in layers glued together, these having been previously steamed and bent round into shape by huge clamps; and as every one is familiar with the completed article, a due pondering over this fact, with a little mental exercise, will enable its significance to be borne in upon one.

Hard as iron and rigid as steel they come out of the clamp-frame ready for the fitter's deft handiwork, and by no cutting, piecing, or contriving can a similar result be arrived at.
On every floor there are store-rooms containing the fittings that will be required, for a piano is not made as one generally understands the term; it is built up by many processes, and in many departments. The parts, as I before explained, are made wholesale, and are delivered in sets to the "fitting" shops.

Tinkling sounds were by this time to be heard from various quarters; not unmusical nor grating, as one might expect, but suggestive of harps being touched by unskilled hands. This pleased me, for it seemed in keeping with the place. Disjointed and jerky it perhaps was, and lacking in the grace and finish of a Beethoven sonata; but it was a suggestion of melody anyway.

Art and music run closely together, and they did so then, for with the ear-pleasing quality comes the gratification of the sight; and a Brinsmead piano can charm both senses. Panels delicately inlaid I could have sworn that they were hand-painted, and beautifully done at that, and veneers, polished and natural, constituted the elements that gratified my artistic sensibilities.

I was shown, somewhere or other about the building, these veneers, all cut and pieced together ready for use.

Sliced from warty burrs on trees growing in Persian forests, into thin strips that are as fine and as pliable as paper, albeit they are tough and workable, the patterns are matched with admirable dexterity. The sheets are then pasted together temporarily into panels. A glue bath gives them the consistency and pliability of a fine leather, and pressure suffices to face a panel or a moulding so neatly and accurately in pattern and join that detection is quite impossible.
"It is not cheapness; it is necessity." remarked Mr. Hall, as we viewed the process, and I, understanding him, forebore comment.

The method of veneering a moulding is particularly ingenious. A lengthy metal matrix receives the moulding with the facing downwards, the inevitable pressure is applied, and presto! You are gazing at a length of beautifully patterned walnut.

Somewhere up under the roof the frames are strung, and they are tuned and tuned and tuned, and still they go on tuning. They seem to have a liking for the job up at Grafton Road.

"Hello!" they say, "here's a piano. Let us tune it." And they do so as long as the instrument remains in sight. I believe the carriers have to take extra hands with them when they go to fetch a piano away, to head off any over-zealous tuner, while the remainder are getting it into the van.
You can't get away from notabilities. We were walking past a beautiful specimen of a concert-gran, that was lying on the stocks in a very incomplete state. It was being built, I was informed, to the order of Mr. George Grossmith. Several fine old instruments, though battered by storms and soaked by the salt waves, were pointed out to me, too, in my peregrinations. They had travelled to all parts of the world, and had come up there for rest and refresh repairs, I mean, from the saloons of the P&O Co.'s boats.

They looked as though they wanted it.

"That is a good bit of felt." Mr. Hall observed, as we passed into a small off-room, lined on one side with cupboards. He handed me a solid-looking square of material, white as snow – driven snow is the correct phrase, I believe – which might have been anything from a patent dog-biscuit to a bath-mat.

I felt it and agreed with him. Felt plays a considerable part in the interior economy of pianos. It is used in protecting, and "checking," and it covers the hammers, so that when they strike the wires they may make themselves but there, I will spare you such an obvious piece of gratuitous flippancy.

The woodwork of the hammers is first cut through, and then a length, containing I don't-know-how-many because I didn't ask, is wrapped round with the felt casing, which is glued on the inside. Now, if you look at one of these hammers you will observe that it is thickest at the top and fines away as it gets round towards the foot. This is done by hand, wholesale, by a kind of sand-papering process, which rubs away the superfluous material to the required standard, and then each covering is clinched on to the wood with a metal pin, the length is divided up into sections, and the hammer is ready, or rather a whole batch is ready, to be added to the general store. 

And so it came to pass that I found myself on the ground-floor again, having travelled the length and breadth and the height of the firm's premises. I had passed by hundreds of pianos, in fact, I had come to look upon them as commonplace sort of articles, rather in the nature of litter, and I had witnessed the inmost details of their construction; and they are many and marvellous are these same details, for there are more parts in your piano – supposing that you have a piano – than you, with all your philosophy, dreamt of, John or Evelina, if it be a lady whom I address, unless you have an enlarged mind, and would set the number at six thousand odd in the first instance.

It is impossible to do justice to all these matters, and there are many points that I have forgotten, or been compelled, reluctantly enough, to forego. For instance, there is that of pinning for the strings, the tap, tap, tap, of ceaseless hammers driving in hundreds of steel pegs to guide the strings, with noise enough to wake all except the real, bona-fide defunct.
Then there are the operations of regulating and adjusting the action, pedalling, and polishing, to say nothing of the ingenious and economical devices by which such satisfactory results are obtained. One of these I must mention, it is so instructive an instance of economy of waste product. The exhaust steam from the engines, which is ordinarily blown off into the air to add to the miseries of countless thousands, is here carried through a system of pipes running on every floor, to boil the glue, warm plates and materials, and to make itself generally useful.

For what I have set down I will hold myself responsible; but that no aspiring amateur who had designed to make himself a piano in his spare time from my paper, wood would be a better material, may deem himself defrauded, I will give a brief resume of the process which I hope will meet the case. Here is the recipe.

First let the amateur get his material, and cut it, and plane it, and make it look pretty. Then he must make the back, and the sounding-board, and the casing, and stick them all together; tenpenny nails will answer and are cheapest; but glue and screws look better. After that put in the mechanism, add whatsoever seems necessary, polish and decorate, and present to the nearest deserving institution for the deaf and blind.
After a brush down, which I sorely needed, I parted from Mr. Hall, in a snug little office just within the gates, with a due acknowledgment of his kindness, that had rendered my first exploration so easy, interesting, and pleasant; and quitting Piano-Land with a sigh of regret, I made my way, unguided this time, to the railway-station, and got home in time for tea."

Interestingly, the premises visited for this article were in Kentish Town, but Brinsmead had over fifteen places of business around London at one point or another, with some being shops and showrooms, and others being workshops such as the one spoken of above.

What a treat it would have been to be able to have a stroll around a Victorian place of industry such as the one above, and the offer still stands, if anyone wishes to read about further industrial explorings, I’m happy to write about any of the below industries here:

· Tram
· Candle
· Paper
· Soap
· Mineral-Water
· Matches
· Rubber
· Wire 
· Sweets


  1. Thanks for the insightful look into the making of these instruments. Like the hearth, pianos are cozy spots that so harmoniously gather the family together. At the moment, I have the bits and pieces of a sad dismantled piano, whose soundboard is already lost to the city dump. I would love to do something creative with its ivory keys, though no inspiration has yet come to me. In your future writings an article on the saponification process would be enjoyable, and of course, one cannot ever indulge too much on the elucidation of sweets.

  2. Thanks Rosa, with Christmas not too far away, I did think about posting the manufacturing process of Victorian sweets!

    I think pianos are wonderful instruments that look as good as they sound, I don't know anyone who owns one now, though.

  3. Good post it's amazing the knowledge you have in your Niche

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