Curator's Choice: Margaret Birley of the Horniman Museum chooses a Wheatstone concertina

Margaret Birley interviewed by Richard Moss | 02 October 2009
a photograph of a woman standing in front of a case

(Above) Horniman Museum Keeper of Music Margaret Birley with the Wheatstone Collection of concertinas.

Curator's Choice: In her own words... Margaret Birley of the Horniman Museum talks about a Wheatstone Accordion, one of a number of finely crafted accordions in the Museum's Designated music collection.

"I've chosen this object because it's rather unexpected. Most people today associate the concertina with traditional music and the bright sound of an Anglo-German system instrument, free of baffles to dampen it.

Here the reeds play different notes depending on whether the bellows are pressed or drawn, as in the mouth organ or harmonica. We have many fine examples of this type of concertina, most of them dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

These are from the collection of the Concertina Museum in Belper, Derbyshire, which was purchased with generous sponsorship from the Heritage Lottery Fund in 1996.

More numerous in the collection, though, are examples of the instrument Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875) patented in 1844, the English-system concertina, which were aimed at the top end of the market.

They were finished in the same materials as the fine furniture of mid-Victorian drawing rooms, the intended setting for music played on this new invention.

Familiar to many people as a squeezebox with its hexagonal shaped bellows, this concertina is rather special.

It was produced in 1858 and has rosewood ends inlaid with brass decoration, and glass buttons. It also has very decorative papers on its leather bellows.

Like the majority of English-system concertinas, it's a "double action" instrument, meaning that the free reeds controlled by an individual button play the same note, regardless of whether the bellows are pressed or drawn.

I think the concertina is a classic piece of Victorian invention – what's so clever about it is that it’s a small instrument with a wide compass of notes. It has 48, giving four octaves.

Instruments of a similar range developed in continental Europe at the same time were quite unwieldy – the accordion is a much heavier and larger instrument.

The English-system concertina is also a very expressive instrument, with a considerable dynamic range.

a photograph of an accordian

The concertina has rosewood ends, brass inlay, glass buttons, and gilt-embossed green leather bellows. (Museum no: M319a-1996. Photo: Heini Schneeberli)

To play loud music the bellows must be pushed in and drawn out with more force than when playing softly. Scales can be played fast, as the notes are distributed alternately between the fingers of each hand.

The natural notes are the white notes in the centre of the column and on the outside are the accidentals, which are coloured black.

The buttons are so closely spaced that two can easily be pressed at once by one finger. Skilled players can also achieve impressive contrasts between staccato and legato lines, and fine shading in dynamics.

If you were to hear some of the concertina music by Giulio Regondi, such as Les Oiseaux (The Birds), composed for the Wheatstone's English system concertina in 1851, you would gain an idea of the instrument's potential.

Regondi, a guitarist who had learned to play a guitar-shaped free reed instrument called a mélophone, invented in Paris in 1827, soon became a concertina virtuoso.

He composed fine music for the instrument and arranged favourite opera arias, promoting his work and Wheatstone's concertina in the course of his concert tours.

Charles Wheatstone was born into a family of musical instrument makers. In 1829 he patented the symphonium, a free reed mouthorgan, operated similarly to the concertina by buttons linked to levers that control pallets admitting air to the reeds.

He went on to develop the bellows-blown free reed instrument and his English system concertina became a very popular instrument.

Wheatstone had lectured on resonance to the Royal Society in 1828. He had examined instruments from Asia that used resonators, such as the Japanese gender, a metallophone with bamboo tubes beneath the keys, recently brought to London by Sir Stamford Raffles.

He applied his knowledge of resonating bodies to his concertina, where each little metal free reed that produces a note has its own resonance cavity that's acoustically coupled to the note of the reed. This helps to enhance the sound of the note, and gives the instrument consistency throughout its range.

The Concertina Museum in Belper also contained the 19th century ledgers of the Wheatstone concertina factory and a large archive of recordings, concertina tutors, manuscript and printed music and postcards of concertina players.

The ledgers were digitised and a website was made for them through the invaluable work of Dr Robert Gaskins.

By comparing the serial numbers on the Wheatstone concertinas with those recorded in the ledgers, we have been able to trace the first owners of the instruments in the collection, and the prices for which they were sold.

a photograph of a ledger with writing in it

The ledger entry shows that the price for No 10660, paid by Messrs Milsom on June 4 1858, was £9 2s. Horniman Museum

The Wheatstone concertina factory ledgers contain information about this particular instrument, which was first sold in 1858 to Messrs Milsom, probably C Milsom and Sons, a company of musical instrument and sheet music sellers in Bath.

Wealthy amateurs were keen to try this fashionable new invention and the pages of the ledgers contain numerous references to members of the British aristocracy, who bought or hired concertinas.

This versatile instrument travelled all over the world. Sometimes it was protected by termite-proof tin outer cases – an example of which can be seen in the collection here.

Today Wheatstone is best known for his scientific inventions. He was involved in the development of the electric telegraph, and his name is associated with the Wheatstone bridge that was used for measuring electrical resistance.

Some of his scientific inventions have been generously lent to the Horniman by the Science Museum, the National Museum of Science and Industry, for an exhibition exploring his work that is on display here in the Music Gallery.

One of them is the typewriter Wheatstone developed to communicate telegraph messages. You can see that some of the principles of its mechanism and layout are similar to the concertina, with its arrangement of buttons laid out for minimal movement of the fingers and maximum ergonomic efficiency."

To explore new developments in research in historic concertinas visit

Watch Margaret Birley talk about the Wheatstone concertina collection and the manuscripts in the Horniman Library below

designation logo with photo of a woman looking at displays

For more stories from inside the Horniman Museum, visit our introduction to the Horniman Designated collection series.

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