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The Patent Pianoforte Manufactory in Holloway Road


My relationship with the pianoforte got off to a rather shaky start. I was six years old when my parents bought their first piano – but as the promised delivery date came and went with no sign of the instrument, they cancelled the order and invested in a television instead. With no piano on which to practise, lessons were now out of the question, and any hopes my parents may have entertained about my becoming a child prodigy scuppered. Five years were to pass before I set off for my first piano lesson. By this time I was at boarding school and there were pianos a-plenty on which to practise.

My first teacher had his sights set on higher things than teaching the recorder and the piano to little boys – rightly so, it turned out, as he went on to professorships at the Royal School of Church Music and the Royal Academy of Music. Nevertheless, he succeeded in teaching me to read music and translate it on to the keyboard. I was to have two more teachers during my time at Highgate School – one with whom I believe I made some progress and even learnt to enjoy the piano. After leaving school I found myself another teacher and, although it would be a gross exaggeration to say that with her help I went from strength to strength, my weekly progress must have been sufficient for her to think it worthwhile to continue the lessons. I now began to enjoy the feel of the keys and the sounds they produced; and I began to listen to recordings of some of the well-known pianists of the day, and to frequent piano recitals.

These ramblings help to explain why, when researching my family history, I was thrilled to discover that my great grandfather, my great-great grandfather and my 3rd great grandfather had all been piano makers.

Robert Lovell, my great-great grandfather, was the son of John Lovell, a pianoforte maker who lived and worked in Shoreditch in the East End of London during the early decades of the nineteenth century. This was a period which saw important advances in the evolution of the piano, due largely to features introduced by another London piano maker, John Broadwood. By increasing the number of strings and introducing iron to strengthen its structure, Broadwood had made the piano a much more powerful and resonant instrument; as a result he would become the best, and best-known, piano maker in England. So my 3rd great grandfather was working at a time when the harpsichord was going out of fashion and the piano growing in popularity.

By the time his son, Robert, was established in his own Patent Pianoforte Manufactory at number 438 Holloway Road, Islington, the upright piano had ‘come of age’ and the demand for the instrument was steadily increasing. He lived to see the number of pianos manufactured in England grow almost threefold between 1850 and 1895 – not because more and more people were applying themselves to Beethoven sonatas or Chopin preludes, but because the piano had become something of a status symbol; and also because it could be taken up by people of limited musical ability to offer amusement in the home.

My great grandfather, Richard Warr Buckler, described his occupation at the time of the 1861 Census, when he was 21 years old, as Assistant to Pianoforte Maker. Four years later Richard married Robert Lovell’s daughter, Dinah, describing his occupation in the marriage register as Piano Tuner. When the next Census was taken in 1871 Richard was living with Dinah and her parents in Holloway Road.

By 1879 Richard was in partnership with Robert, trading as Lovell & Buckler, and in the 1881 Census his occupation is recorded as Piano Maker. The partnership was dissolved at the end of 1883, possibly the result of Richard’s poor health as he would die the following year.

It was while Robert and Richard were in partnership that they fell victim to the tricks of a fraudster by the name of James Dove. Dove had appeared at 438 Holloway Road and, presenting himself as an architect and surveyor, told them that he wished to hire a piano. Having provided several references and paid the first instalment of one pound and five shillings, Dove arranged for the piano to be delivered to an address in Essex Road. Four days later, Dove went to a local pawnbroker, produced a forged receipt as ‘evidence’ that the piano had been fully paid for, and secured a loan of £16. When he received no further payment for the hire of the piano, Robert Lovell visited the house in Essex Road only to discover that there was no trace of either Dove or the piano. However, a strange coincidence ensured that the matter did not end there – the pawnbroker, who now had the piano in his possession, sent for Robert to tune the instrument! Robert recognized the piano at once, confirmed that the ‘receipt’ was a forgery and immediately passed the matter over to the police. James Dove, alias James Arthur Doulton and James Dover, a 34-year-old man of no fixed residence, was eventually arrested and sent for trial at the Old Bailey. At his trial he made a full confession and pleaded guilty to unlawfully obtaining money by false pretences. The Old Bailey record of the case states: ‘No Punishment – Sentence Respited’. There are no further references to Dove in the records, so it seems he never received any punishment. Why was this? We know that he had made a full confession; perhaps he had also undertaken to repay all the money he had obtained unlawfully. This may have been a considerable amount as he had deceived other piano makers in a similar way!

To return to the piano manufactory – I was keen to find out if the pianos Robert and Richard supplied bore the name ‘Lovell’ or ‘Lovell & Buckler’, and if there were any still in existence today. I began by searching some of the literature about pianos and piano makers but without any success. I then visited some relevant websites – again without success. Our piano tuner suggested that the reason I was unable to trace any ‘Lovell’ or ‘Lovell & Buckler’ piano was probably due to my two ancestors having been among the many ‘piano makers’ who would buy pianos from a manufacturer and then, before putting them up for sale, ‘badge’ them with a name designed to make an impression on prospective buyers – often a German-sounding name!

However, I have recently come across some sound evidence that Robert Lovell did put his name on pianos he had made. An advertisement in the Islington Gazette of April 1869 announced that a ‘6¾ pianoforte, in rosewood case, by Lovell’ would be sold at a forthcoming auction. Ten years later, an advertisement for a second-hand ‘Walnut Cottage Piano (Lovell)’ appeared in the same newspaper. More recently, I have been in contact with Bill Kibby-Johnson, who has compiled, and provides a home for, ‘the world’s largest collection of piano history’. He tells me that there are a few Lovell pianos around, but not many; and that Robert had only produced them for about twenty years. He also sent me a copy of an email he had received a few years ago from someone in the United States who wrote: ‘I have a Robert Lovell, Holloway Road, London upright piano #438. The serial # is 2528. I am trying to have some restoration work done, and am very interested in finding any historical information that may be available. I have been told it is approximately 150 years old.’

I can now rest, happy in the knowledge that Robert Lovell did give his name to some of the pianos he made, and that at least one has survived into the twenty-first century.

But I still needed to find out more. I wanted to ascertain precisely how much of his pianos Robert ‘made’. In 1859, this invitation appeared in an issue of the Islington Gazette: ‘Come and see your pianoforte made, at Lovell’s.’ What exactly, I wonder, would guests have seen? Robert and Richard rightly described themselves as piano makers, but we should not infer from this that they created a complete instrument from scratch – after all a piano contains around twelve thousand individual parts! The most likely scenario is one in which they would first have used specialists to make the frame, the action and the keys. They would then have assembled these parts in the wooden case, which they may or may not have made themselves, fitted the strings and finally regulated and tuned the instrument before putting it up for sale.

It is possible that, at the same time, they were buying in complete instruments which they then regulated and tuned ready for sale. And I have found advertisements which show that they also sold second-hand instruments and offered a piano-tuning service. For example, here is an advertisement which appeared regularly in the Islington Gazette between 1859 and 1866: 'Important to those who want a First-class Pianoforte at a Moderate Price. Address R. Lovell’s Patent Pianoforte Manufactory, 11, Holloway-terrace, Holloway-road, near the Seven Sisters-road. Warranted of the best material, extra metallic plate, and best workmanship. To stand extreme climates. Instruments Tuned, Repaired, Regulated, &c, on moderate terms.'

After the dissolution of the Lovell-Buckler partnership and Richard Buckler’s death, Robert Lovell continued with his Patent Pianoforte Manufactory in Holloway Road almost certainly until the early 1890s, and possibly right up to the time of his death in 1895 at the age of 80. His first wife had died eighteen years earlier, and in 1880 Robert had married Louisa Mawby, the daughter of another Islington Piano Maker. Louisa was only 46 years old when Robert died; she continued to live at 438 Holloway Road with their two children for several years before moving to Reading where she died at the age of 91.

After Richard Buckler’s death in 1884, his widow Dinah moved to Albert Road in Hornsey. My grandfather, John Ernest Warr Buckler, who had been born just two years before his father’s death, continued to live with his mother until his marriage in 1909. Dinah died in 1917 at the age of 73.

A few years ago, I travelled to Holloway Road to see if I could identify the building which at one time housed the Patent Pianoforte Manufactory. I found number 438 without any difficulty. It turned out to be a four-storey, terraced building just a short walk from Holloway Road underground station. At that time it was occupied by the retailer Blue Inc, dealing in fashionable menswear. Since then, Blue Inc has moved out, and the premises taken over by a company selling household goods – a company which, according to one review, offers service that is horrible, furniture that is horrible, and delivery that is also horrible! The review goes on to advise readers: ‘avoid this store, save your money’. Sadly, there is no visible sign that 438 Holloway Road was once home to a family of piano makers who promised, and delivered, instruments of the best material and the best workmanship.

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