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ARCHIVES - The Sad Truth.

A book is expected to be published about the Broadwood archives in 2006, and they will have an exhibit (along with our own PianoGen room there) at an Archives Day at Finchcocks Living Museum of Music, Goudhurst, Kent on Sunday, September 3rd.

Imagine if I wrote to someone on the other side of the world, and said "I have a car, it's a Ford, painted green, number 12345" - could I reasonably expect someone to tell me anything useful from such lean, sketchy information? The number could be one of several in the car, the colour is not much help, and since Fords are mass-produced, the car was probably one of thousands rolling off the production line, so what can be said about this individual? We can arrange for a researcher to check through the original archives of Erard and Pleyel, for a fee, but most piano firms have no surviving archives, and Broadwoods are one of the very few who do. In 2006, they charge 50 to research a piano. Alastair Laurence told me "The fee pays for a thorough search throughout the Broadwood volumes at Surrey Archives, which usually takes at least one hour for each number searched. The archives give the precise day, month and year when the piano was finished at the factory, the name and address of the first purchaser, the selling price, and often, interesting technical information. The Broadwood archives also give the method of transportation of any sold piano (road, rail or sea) and even the name of the ship if an export order is involved. Finally, the archive will often have further references to any particular instrument if that same instrument is hired, moved, brought in for repair etc., or taken in part exchange."

PianoGen deals with over twenty thousand piano names, and of all these, hardly any of the makers have the original archive material to tell us who and when the first purchaser was. Even with that, there is not usually any way of tracing the history of the piano after its original sale, through to the present day, unless it was owned by royalty, or kept in a famous house. After all, when one buys a piano, there is no license or logbook to record who its previous owners were, or where it lived: There could be an exciting historical piece next door and we wouldn't have any way of knowing. Indeed, I once came across one a few doors away!

I had an enquiry about a Berry upright with electric sconces - "there are apparently only four in existence" - how would anyone know? I used to work for Berrys, and have tuned lots with electric sconces in London and Essex, there is even one down my street now - 140 miles from London! Some salesmen have a lot to answer for with their exaggerated and unsubstantiated claims. A subject which comes up with some regularity in our PianoGen booklets is the appalling rate at which our history (pianos or otherwise) is being lost. On the one hand, we see groups of people studying ancient civilizations, and often making great strides in the furtherance of our knowledge about the past, yet on the other hand, looking back three hundred years, there is this continuing feeling that "nobody will want to know" about this or that piece of paperwork or information.

Junk shops are full of old family photographs, and I am often reminded of people I know who simply cannot be bothered to keep old photos, and give very little consideration to the idea that some other member of the family might like them. I was so delighted to receive a lovely old picture of my late mother, and it is fortunate that the cousin who sent it thought about me, instead of throwing it away.

H.R. Mott, Maker to His Highness

When it comes to piano history, few stories can top the research I was doing about the victorian royal piano maker, I.H.R.Mott: Eventually, I spoke to someone who had just missed SIX SACKS of information about him, which were sent to the dump!

So often, when we ask people for help, the reply begins "I'm sorry I cannot help you very much" then continues with a page or two of fascinating facts which may never have been published in any textbook. Once, I was tuning a piano in a private house while the decorators were working on the french windows: "One of my ancestors used to make pianos" said the painter quite out of the blue (or was it pink?). He turned out to be a descendant of Bernard Brock, and gave me the address of his aunt, Evelyn Fisher, who was Brock's niece. Mrs Fisher answered my enquiry with some fascinating points about the man himself, and although Brock was not regarded as one of the "great" piano makers, his story may nevertheless be of great interest to anyone who has a piano made by his firm.

In 1972, I wrote to Collard and Collard Ltd. at an address which I knew to be that of Chappell and Co.: They were unable to help me with any information, having lost their archives in the 1964 fire, so they passed on my enquiry to Frank Holland at the Musical Museum, Brentford. He followed his normal procedure, and passed it on to me to answer! (Good old Frank, bless 'im!) In the course of their long history, Chappells took over several other piano firms, but all their historical records were lost in the fire.

Hamburg 1945 (German News Agency)

War often plays an important part in history, but it is also a major cause of destruction of historical records, and looking at this 1945 picture of Hamburg after the allied bombing, it's not difficult to imagine what happens to paperwork in wartime:

Bluthners, Leipzig say "We have unfortunately to inform you that we cannot help you with your enquiries. Our records were destroyed during the last war". Milliers of Weston Supermare say "all records were lost in the Blitz". Rita Dix, of R.C. Bishop and Son, says "all the business and papers were lost in the war". Squire's factory was destroyed in the war too, and Kembles (who had previously made some Squire models) took over the manufacture of all their pianos.

The Sunday School Union has now become "Christian Education", they say "Unfortunately most of the history up to 1940 was destroyed in the war when an air raid affected the premises at the time. The library was completely gutted and the headquarters almost completely destroyed. ---- What remains from that time and all our other archives are stored at Birmingham University and can be viewed there." Fine in theory, but Birmingham University say "We have a lot of the Sunday School Union archives ------ Unfortunately, this material is not listed so we have no idea whether what you want is there. At present we are not in position to be able to say when a listing of these archives will be available. I am sorry that we cannot be of more use to you on this occasion."

Wurlitzers inform me that they have no archive material whatsoever, apart from their serial number dates. Bearmans of Leytonstone "would willingly have helped, had there been anything of interest" left on file.

I was, to say the least, perturbed when a lady phoned to say that Steinways were unable to help her with a historical enquiry because they had destroyed all their London records! I can only hope that this proves to have been some kind of misunderstanding, and all that irreplaceable information hasn't ended up as SHREDDER- FODDER!

When I heard on the radio that Wilson Peck were "closing their doors for ever" in March 2001, I phoned them to ask about historical information. They said they had no archives, and no paperwork about their pianos.

Chickerings say "all of the collateral materials, photographs, etc., going back to the early days was lost sight of when the company relocated to the present address".

Some firms don't even have the manners to reply to enquiries which don't lead to cash sales. I tried to make it easier by providing stamped, self-addressed reply cards. Whiteleys of London closed without answering my request for help, and Barkers of Kensington didn't return my two cards.

Schimmels say "We regret to have to inform you that we could not give you any information about such an old Pleyel grand. The Schimmel Piano Company produced under a licensed contract upright and grands under the 3 french brands Gaveaus, Erards, and Pleyels as of 1971 through 1994. We have no archives available before that time."

Army & Navy piano, 1897.

Lindners' pianos were only invented in the 1950s, and yet when they (International Piano Industries Ltd.) were placed in the hands of the Receiver in 1975, no paperwork was kept, so even these modern pianos are more or less without archives or spare parts!

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