The Musical Museum

Saturday, April 20th 2013

Pret
Pret
Starting with breakfast…

As we often do, we started with breakfast at Pret in St John Street and then caught a 38 bus to Victoria.

Victoria
Victoria
Busy as usual

Here we went down into the Underground and took the District Line. We had to change at Sloane Square. Although they are part of the “Underground”, the District Line, Circle Line and Metropolitan Line run comparatively close to the surface and at places come out into the open, allowing you to enjoy the sunshine even on the Underground!

Sloane Square station Westbourne River
Sloane Square station
A river runs through it

Sloane Square station has another interesting feature which can be seen painted green in the second picture above. At first sight you might think it is a pedestrian walkway or a bridge. In fact, the second is nearer the truth. Bridges are usually built to carry people over a river but this one was built to carry a river over people!

When it was planned to build Sloane Square station in the 1860s, a problem had to be faced: there was a river running through the proposed site. It was the Westbourne River, which starts at the Whitestone Pond on Hampstead Heath, crosses Hyde Park as the Serpentine and empties into the Thames at Chelsea. It could not be diverted and so the solution adopted was to build a conduit that would carry it safely over the platforms and track. The Westbourne once ran above ground like a proper river but as the city grew and its rivers turned into open sewers, they were covered up. The Westbourne is just one of London’s subterranean or “lost” rivers. See here for more information about them.

Leafy Lichfield Road
Leafy Lichfield Road
Leading to Kew Gardens

We left the train at Kew and made our way slowly towards the famous Royal Botanic Gardens. Lichfield Road leads in the right direction and looked pretty in the sunshine with its double row of trees just coming into leaf. While the Gardens are worth exploring in their own right, we were hoping to visit Kew Palace, one of the Historic Royal Palaces, but a disappointment awaited. We had already bought a joint ticket giving us access to all the Historic Royal Palaces but we found that we would also have to pay the entrance fee for the Botanic Gardens. At £16 or £14.50 each1, we considered this exorbitant and changed our plans.

Standpipe Tower
Standpipe Tower
Kew Bridge Steam Museum

So we caught a bus and hied off  across Kew Bridge to Brentford, so called because it stands at the confluence of the Thames and the River Brent and was in Anglo-Saxon times a place where the river could be crossed by a ford. Nowadays, a bridge makes for a more comfortable passage across the water.

One of the first things we saw here was the magnificent tower in the picture. This is not a chimney, as you might think, but a standpipe tower. What is now the Kew Bridge Steam Museum used to be the Kew Bridge Pumping Station, and the standpipe tower, filled with water, was used to maintain pressure in the water supply pipes. We did not visit the museum today but it is certainly on our list for another time.

The Musical Museum
The Musical Museum
A fabulous collection of automatic musical instruments

We were heading for a building a little farther along the road. This one is modern and rather bland in form but its treasure is to be found inside. This is the Brentford Musical Museum which prides itself on possessing “one of the world’s foremost collections of automatic musical instruments”.

Piano Orchestrion Piano Orchestrion
Piano Orchestrion
Hupfield Animatic Symphonie Jazz AC9 (1890s)

Nowadays, people wishing to have music at home or in public places such as pubs and cafes can invest in the latest machines for playing records. Before the advent of recording technology (and even after the invention of gramophones whose sound reproduction left something to be desired) the choice was either a live orchestra or a machine that actually played the musical instruments. The above, the Piano Orchestrion, was the 19th century equivalent of the juke box: it would have been installed in a cafe, say, and would play from a perforated paper roll. Change the roll and you change the piece played. To reproduce the music, it actually played the necessary musical instruments.

Pianola
Pianola
A machine that plays the piano (c.1900)

A popular music maker for the domestic interior was the Pianola Piano Player. The owner would first buy a piano (which could also be played by a pianist) and then a machine made by Pianola. This has wooden “fingers” that actually play the piano by depressing the keys. It is controlled by admitting air through the holes in a standard perforated paper roll. It was powered by foot pedals and there were controls to adjust tempo and expressiveness. Paper rolls were produced in large numbers and there is still a market for them among enthusiasts today. (“Pianola”, incidentally, is a brand name, though, as with “Hoover” and perhaps “Dyson”, it is often used like a proper noun to name any automatic device that plays a piano.)

Chickering Ampico
Chickering Ampico
A reproducing piano

The original piano playing machines used a paper roll that had been punched by some independent process but later machines were “reproducing”. That is, a pianist could play a piece on the piano and the movements of the keys and pedals would be recorded and then transferred to punched paper. An example is the Chickering Ampico Model B pictured above. This dates from about 1940 and I watched, spellbound, as it played a duet that had been recorded by a pair of skilful pianists. The keys moved as though pressed by ghostly fingers.

On another similar machine, we listened to Rhapsody in Blue as played by the composer, George Gershwin, himself. He had recorded both the piano part and the orchestral part, transcribed for piano, both being combined on the single roll and thus played together.

Chamber Barrel Organ
Chamber Barrel Organ
About 1840, maker unknown

As well as instruments that could in theory be played by people as well as machines, there were devices such as barrel organs and musical boxes which could simply be run to play a piece of music or, later, a repertoire of pieces. We think of barrel organs as machines played in the street but models existed for the home as well. The tubular shaped object on top of the organ in the picture is a spare barrel. The barrels could be changed to play different tunes. In the 19th and early 20th century, music machines were powered by pedals or crank handles (and smaller musical boxes by clockwork) because it was well into the 20th century before electricity became generally available and electric motors were used systematically.

The Britannia
The Britannia
A disc-playing musical box

While smaller musical boxes (often made by quality clockmakers and therefore expensive) might play only one tune, models soon appeared that used removable discs or barrels and could therefore play a repertoire of pieces, like The Britannia above, playing Goodbye, Dolly Gray.

Violano Virtuoso
Violano Virtuoso
Coin-operated violin and piano player (c. 1905)

Early gramophones and suchlike devices could not play very loudly and the sound reproduction left something to be desired. For this reason, machines that played actual musical instruments remained popular up to the 1930s and beyond. The machine shown above combines a piano and a single violin. Similar versions with two or more violins also existed. This one, the Violano Virtuoso, was made by the Mills Novelty Company of Chicago around 1905, and is an ingenious example of its type. It is coin-operated and would have been placed in fairgrounds,, arcades and other public places. One machine might have a repertoire of three or four tunes. These could not be selected by the customer but would be played in a repeating sequence. All four strings of the violin could be played simultaneously, giving up to four notes at a time.

The Wurlitzer
The Wurlitzer
An orchestra played by one pair of hands

In the museum’s theatre is a true show-stopper: the Wurlitzer organ. Inspiration for its design comes from the days of silent films when incidental music was required to be played to match the action on the screen. An orchestra was expensive and matching all the players to the film was difficult. The Wurlitzer was intended to produce the effect of an orchestra but to be played by just one person. As well as playing in the familiar pipe organ mode, it includes all sorts of other sounds from tolling bells to waves splashing onto the beach.

What we see here is just the console. The “works” are hidden away behind a huge screen at the back of the stage. The organ stands on a movable platform and sinks out of sight when required to do so. Curiously, it was only in the UK that the lights were added. This is not a feature of Wurlitzers in the US.

The Wurlitzer
The Wurlitzer
Showing the screen and the shutters

In the above picture, we can see the black wall or screen that hides the Wurlitzer’s sound-producing machinery and, at the top, a set of shutters that open or close to increase or decrease the volume of sound. The museum also possesses a rare Wurlitzer Automatic Roll Playing Cabinet that takes paper rolls (produced by people playing the organ) and causes the organ to play the music. The coding used enables the roll to control the notes, the pedals and shutters, and all the special effects.

This organ was made in 1929 for a residence, believe it or not, but was moved to the Regal Cinema in 1932. Ironically, the Wurlitzer came into being just as talking films were making their appearance and incidental music produced in the cinema was being phased out. As a result, relatively few were produced but those that exist are magnificent machines.

Packed with exhibits
Packed with exhibits
Tours help disentangle the apparent chaos

The museum is packed with exhibits and I cannot do more than scratch the surface. It is quite a bewildering place to the uninitiated visitor but the staff are helpful and obviously enjoy explaining the exhibits and recounting the history of the museum. There are guided tours which are useful and interesting.

St George's Church
St George’s Church
Frank Holland started the collection here

Down the road from the museum is St George’s Church, now disused, where Frank Holland first housed his personal collection of musical machines that would form the nucleus of the Musical Museum. The red-roofed building beside it is the old church school, still displaying a notice whose lettering includes an archaic long ‘s’. The notice reads

THE CHURCH SCHOOL
Instituted in the year 1786
—————
For Religious Instruction and Industry
Supported by annual Subscriptions
and Benefactions
and the produce of the Childrens work

City Radio Stores Detail of decor
City Radio Stores
A survival from an earlier time

We took a bus into Ealing and had a look around. We have visited Ealing before (see Ealing curiosities) and I won’t repeat myself here, except to mention a few favourites. These include this radio and electrical retailer’s shop with its 1920s styling. Originally, all the shops in this parade would have been similar and there would also have been a glass and iron canopy extending over the pavement. Most of this early styling has been swept away by the vandalism of time and town planners but the radio shop survives as a reminder of better things.

Shop interior Gas light
Shop interior and gas light
Photo by Tigger

We went inside and had a word or two with the owner who showed us some photos of the shop. Tigger took these photos of the interior. The arrangement of stock is delightfully, er, informal, but what we found deliciously ironic in an electrical retailer’s, was the gas lights! How did they come about? Apparently, the shopkeeper installed these during the Heath era when Britain was suffering the three-day week and the electricity supply was often cut off. The lamps are still in place though no longer function. Let’s hope there is never a need to reinstate them.

La Siesta
La Siesta
Nice paella, slow service

For lunch we had a vegetarian paella at this tapas bar, called… well, I’m not sure what it is called. It says “La Siesta” on the outside but the name on the bill was “Top Tapas”. They were so slow in coming to take our order that we began to think the staff really had gone to take a siesta…

Ealing Town Hall
Ealing Town Hall
Late Victorian Neo-Gothic (1888)

Another of our favourites is the rather splendid late Victorian (1888) Neo-Gothic Town Hall. It makes a very fine sight especially in the sunshine.

Lewis's Chemists Recessed doorway
D. L. Lewis Chemists
A handsome recessed doorway

Another is this late Victorian and early 20th century (1900) chemist’s, still showing the original shop front and the name of D.L. Lewis. It has a recessed entrance with attractive wooden panelling. The door at the back with the curly handle leads to apartments above the shop, while the shop door is on the right, not obvious in this photo. We thought of asking whether we might photograph the interior but as we arrived, they were on the point of shutting the shop for the day. Another time, perhaps. Both the Town Hall and this shop are listed, Grade II, as you might expect.

The Cittie of Yorke
The Cittie of Yorke
Twentieth-century Neo-Tudor

On the way home, we stopped off in High Holborn and visited this rather fancy pub. Designed in what English Heritage calls neo-Tudor style, it dates in reality from the 1920s. The name is a self-consciously archaic construction because the business that occupied the site previously was called Henekey’s Public House. An inscription on the façade reads “Established as the site of a public house in 1430” but, as the listing text remarks drily, “The present building retains few traces of pre-twentieth century work.”

Entrance
Entrance
Pretty panelled ceiling

You enter by a rather long passageway that leads to the main bar and to a cellar bar. It has a pretty ceiling, panelled with floral patterning.

Main bar
Main bar
Styled as a medieval hall

The main bar is huge, but was nevertheless crowded and we had to ask to share a table. It is styled to resemble a medieval hall with a fine vaulted ceiling. A row of large barrels over the bar adds to the air of ancientness. Above the barrels is what looks like a walkway with iron railings but I think this is a cleverly disguised conduit for wiring. It is obviously a popular venue despite being in a part of town (near Chancery Lane) that tends to close down over the weekend.

Evening in Chancery Lane
Evening in Chancery Lane

________

1The higher price includes a voluntary donation. What? A donation on top of the £14.50 admission charge? You have to be kidding.

Copyright © 2013 SilverTiger, https://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.

About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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8 Responses to The Musical Museum

  1. WOL says:

    “a set of shutters that open or close to increase or decrease the volume of sound” In pipe organs, this is called the “swell box” and there is a pedal or stop which controls the aperture of the shutters. When the organ in the church my parents attend was dedicated, they had some high powered PhD come play it, and Jehan Alain’s “Visions of the Church Universal” was a show stopper.
    You can browse up very interesting videos of such musical contraptions in full cry. They are a fascinating glimpse into the past. “Captured live performances” have only been available for around 150 years. We tend to forget that it is, relatively speaking, a very recent phenomenon, she said, reaching for her MP3 player. . . .

    The “Cittie of Yorke” has an interesting facade. I love the bow windows with leaded panes. I would imagine the flats, if there are any above the pub, would be quite pricey.

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  2. Michelle says:

    Thanks for sharing a great post (as usual!). Kew Gardens participates in the 2-for-1 activity leaflet that you can find at most train stations, if that is of any help in getting you into Kew Palace.

    Like

    • SilverTiger says:

      Our problem is that we have a ticket that gives us access to all Royal Palaces but that in the case of Kew Palace, we have to pay the entrance fee for the gardens before we can access the Palace. That means we have to pay to visit the Palace despite having already bought our tickets for it.

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      • Michelle says:

        Ahhhhh, so it is the principle of the fee for Kew Gardens and a 2 for 1 admission deal won’t help the situation!

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        • SilverTiger says:

          If we had wanted to visit the garden, it would have been different. We might have been more willing to pay up. We didn’t want to visit the garden, just the Palace for which we had a ticket. I think we should have been admitted.

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          • Michelle says:

            They must have made that change this year. They’ve had a big promotion that admission to the garden also gets you admission to the Palace. It works well for some people I suppose, and not so well for others. What is really neat about the Palace is that they have left bits in unrenovated condition so you can see how it was constructed. It’s worth a letter to HRP to see if you can get some sort of voucher. Or perhaps parachute in if not!

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