Designated collection: The Boosey and Hawkes collection at the Horniman Museum

Bradley Strauchen interviewed by Richard Moss | 01 October 2009
a photograph showing a mass of brass tube components of a tuba

© Richard Moss / Culture24

As part of Culture24's exploration of the Horniman's Designated Music collection Dr Bradley Strauchen, Deputy Keeper of Music, explains the significance and importance of the Museum's Boosey and Hawkes hoard of brass and woodwind instruments and how its paper archive brings the collection alive.

“The Boosey and Hawkes collection was part of the Boosey and Hawkes factory in Edgware in North London. Sadly, instrument making no longer takes place at Boosey and Hawkes. Business started to contract in the 1980s and they had to part with their huge factory in 2001.

The collection we have on display here mostly deals with wind instrument production and one of its fantastic features is the extensive records of instrument manufacturing. You can see entries for every wind instrument they produced.

I don’t think it an exaggeration to say that Boosey and Hawkes was synonymous with musical life in Britain, because you look through the workshop order books and not only do you see the instruments going off to war but you also see the instrument being made for coronations and other state occasions. It’s all reflected in the archives, which are an amazing resource.

A ledger we have on display is very poignant. It’s open to a page about the production of regimental bugles on the eve of the Great War. Prior to the war, each instrument had its own entry but they were producing bugles in such numbers that they gave up on this detail and you just see the word ‘bugles’, from serial number A to Z, with just a dash between the two.

a photograph of a display case crammed with musical instruments

© Richard Moss / Culture24

The company began in the 1790s when Thomas Boosey set the business up as a bookseller and lending library but instruments were probably first sold by Boosey and Sons around 1850.

At this point they teamed up with a Prussian military bandsman called Carl Boosé from Darmstadt who had come to London to play in the theatre orchestras. Boosé’s military band instruments started to be sold by Boosey and Sons, including a flugelhorn we have on display.

The engraving on the bell says it was made by C Boosé and sold by Boosey and Sons. I think this relationship with Boosé was perhaps their first foray into musical instrument selling.

In 1856 they joined forces with Sydney Pratten, a flute player and instrument maker to produce and sell Pratten’s model of flute and in 1868 they acquired the firm of Henry Distin. The Distins were a famous musical family who travelled to Paris in 1844 where they met Adolf Sax who introduced them to saxhorns. We have one of these here.

The Distins toured the length and breadth of Britain with their saxhorns, which became very popular with the growing band movement and by the 1850s and 60s you have bands referring to themselves as saxhorn bands. The saxhorns were the backbone of the brass band in Britain and are the forbears of the euphonium, the baritone and the tenor horn.

By this time Boosey and Hawkes were publishing band music and making the instruments, so they could determine the instrumentation and build the instruments they scored for in the sheet music - it really was a juggernaut.

a photograph of an open music case with a clarinet inside it

© Richard Moss / Culture24

Another red-letter date in the Boosey chronology is 1876, when they started a concert series at St. James’ Theatre in the West End called The Boosey Ballad Concerts. Audiences could hear leading singers of the day like Simms Reeves and Clara Butt. If you liked what you heard you could pop into the shop and buy the sheet music, which in many cases Boosey had commissioned. You could also purchase pianos at Boosey and Co. to play the sheet music on while your wife performed the vocal parts.

One of the pieces missing from this equation is the production of the brass instruments because brass band instruments are generally in E flat or B flat, which takes the shine off of playing them at home along with a piano. So Boosey and Co. built the ballad horn in C to play vocal lines on sheet music just as they appeared. Nobody had to transpose, which made it easy to play and offered an outlet for brass instrument playing in the home.

We have another ballad horn in the collection that was used by a missionary because he found it a good instrument to play hymn tunes on. It’s a fascinating instrument because it pulls together so many different facets of the business and shows how very market savvy they were in the nineteenth century.

Other great objects in the collection include a ‘mass of spaghetti’ which is actually a valve trombone with four valves that has a compensating valve system, which without getting too technical, allows brass instruments, particularly low brass instruments, to play better and in tune. The design for this system was developed by Boosey works manager David Blaikley in the 1870s and is still used on low brass instruments today.

All of these parts, over 90 of them, go together to make a tuba. This is a fun one because it makes you realise what’s actually in a musical instrument and what’s entailed in producing it. Flat sheets of brass would be turned into amazing three-dimensional objects. Straight lengths of tubing would become the valves and slides. It’s almost like alchemy.

a black and white photograph of men in a workshop

Workers at the Boosey and Hawkes factory make clarinets. Courtesy the Horniman Museum

The workers on the shop floor could have used complicated tools and measuring devices to build something like that – in fact most people still worked with wooden yardsticks. I’ve included one in the case – they were working with years of hands-on knowledge, so all they needed was an occasional reference to a yardstick to make sure it was all going together

The films we show in the display case contrast modern brass and woodwind production with historic production and its interesting to see how much has changed but also how little. When you watch the modern footage, the hand tools and techniques are very similar to those used in historical instrument making.

Sadly in December 2005, the instrument manufacturing part of the business went into receivership and was purchased by Buffet Crampon. Ironically Buffet was actually owned by Boosey and Hawkes in the 1980s and 1990s – so it comes and goes around. When that factory went into receivership at the end of 2005 that was the end of large-scale musical instrument production in Britain.

When the Boosey & Hawkes collection first came to the Horniman we were very much interested in the musical instruments as historical and technical objects and how they related to the other instruments we had. Because of the seismic things that were happening with the business I realised immediately that this was about something important that was no longer happening. So it’s been a very poignant period to research.

The collection has acted as a magnet for the Boosey and Hawkes community. I am contacted about once a month by someone who worked there. They will come and look at the archives, look in the workshop order books and find the batch numbers of the instruments they made – and they will remember them. It’s a very rich social history.

I think the access ethos of the Horniman really fits with what Boosey and Hawkes hoped for the collection.”

designation logo with photo of a woman looking at displays

Culture24 has been given exclusive access behind-the-scenes at the Horniman as part of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council's Designated collection scheme. For more stories from inside the Museum, visit our introduction to the series.

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