Stories of shipbuilding and scandal behind an old piano

Michael Hannon uncovered stories of shipbuilding and scandal behind an old piano. Stephen McClarence talked to him.

Michael Hannon. PIC: Bruce Rollinson

Gordon Hannon wasn’t keen on the piano his wife Hilda bought at an auction for £50. He looked at it, registered its unusual shape, and declared that – even in his mid-80s – he wasn’t ready for a coffin.

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The couple’s son, Michael, tells the story in his lavishly illustrated new book about the instrument, made in 1804 by the world’s oldest piano company – John Broadwood and Sons, founded in London in 1728 and now based partly in Whitby.

The book explores little-suspected links between the piano and the families of some of its previous owners. It describes a scandalous affair between a young woman known as ‘The Flighty Dorothea’ and her music teacher, dismissed by her family as “a cur and a scoundrel”. And, it comes with a free CD of an award-winning pianist playing the instrument.

Hilda Hannon bought it at a 1977 auction in Ireland. “Its strings were just like a jumble of barbed wire,” says Michael, retired University Librarian at Sheffield University. “It was a complete mess.”

But it had a distinguished pedigree. Broadwoods has supplied instruments to every British monarch since George II. Their pianos were played by Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt and Captain Scott, always up for a challenge, took one with him to the Antarctic.

Hilda’s instrument was a “square” piano – a style that fell out of favour as more powerful grand pianos came in. “Square” is a bit misleading; these pianos are decidedly rectangular and, with their lids down, look like elegant side tables. Some have been converted into dressing tables, writing desks and sideboards. But not, as far as is known, coffins.

Hilda gave it to Michael in 1979 and he decided to have it restored by Roy Knowles, a restorer based at Bolton Percy near Tadcaster. More than 30 years on, Roy, now 90, recalls the commission. ”It was a very nice piano,” he says. “It hadn’t been messed around with.”

Delighted by the restoration, Michael – who has himself made replicas of early keyboard instruments – decided to investigate the piano’s history. “The crucial thing is this...” he says, beckoning me to peer inside the lid. Up in the top right hand corner is the serial number: 8119.

Thanks to that, Broadwoods could tell him when it was made, but it seemed unlikely that anything more would ever be known about it.

Since then, however, detailed company records have come to light and Michael has discovered that his piano was originally bought by a Mrs Dorothy Findlay while she was staying with a Mrs Bannatine at her London home. It was sent ‘on approval’ on July 10, 1804 for Mrs Findlay to try out. She liked it, paid £33 for it (around £2,600 at today’s prices) and it was subsequently shipped to her home in Glasgow.

It was enough to get Michael started on his research for the book, which he has called, with a nice line in factuality, Mrs Findlay’s Broadwood Square Piano. Armed with the date (and the identities of the porters: Mr Clark and Mr Chandler), he has pored over ledgers in the Broadwood archives, Findlay family records, shipping registers, maps, even weather reports. On the day it was sent ‘on approval’, he notes, there was a cloudy sky at 8am, with a temperature of 66F, falling to 60F at noon.

He has discovered various links between Mrs Findlay’s family (tobacco merchants) and his mother’s family, the Dennys, the Dumbarton shipbuilders who completed the construction of the Cutty Sark. In the 19th century, Thomas Dunlop Findlay and Peter Denny, Michael’s great grandfather, were partners in the Irrawaddy Flotilla, a ferry company operating in Burma and immortalised as “the old Flotilla” by Rudyard Kipling in his poem The Road to Mandalay.

For all Michael’s sleuthing, however, nothing has emerged about the history of the piano itself between 1804 and 1949, when it turned up in Belfast.

He has, though, traced the story of Mrs Findlay’s daughter Dorothea (the ‘flighty’ one) who, according to family history, ran away in 1820 with John Donaldson, her music teacher, as romance blossomed (ultimately into marriage) over the keyboard.

Donaldson, who later became Professor of Music at Edinburgh University, was also a composer: his only known piano sonata (indeed his only known work) is featured on the CD that comes with the book.

Inja Davidovic, a Croatian concert pianist currently completing a PhD at Sheffield University, decided that this large-scale piece, with its hints of Schubert, sadly wouldn’t work on the Broadwood.

“It’s extremely demanding to play, not just because of the technicalities but because it’s somehow erratic,” she says. “You get the sense he wanted to show off, to prove his pianism.”

She recorded it instead on a Steinway Grand in the university’s Firth Hall. It turned into an all-night session, from 7pm to 7am. “I’d be focusing really well on the music, but then an ambulance would go past outside; and there was the noise of Sheffield’s student night life,” she says. “It was sometimes rather nerve-racking.”

For the Broadwood she chose less clamorous pieces by JS Bach and the Irish composer John Field. They bring out the piano’s distinctive tone – percussive and mellow at the same time – together with the odd squeak and rattle.

“It’s a wonderful instrument, but it’s capricious; every key has a life of its own,” says Inja. “It’s like when you try out an old car that you’re not used to.” She adds that when she played it in concert, “I stood in front of the audience and said: ‘When this piano was made, Beethoven was still alive.’ I had goose bumps.”

Restorer Roy Knowles has heard the resulting CD and is full of enthusiasm for it. “It’s the best recording I’ve heard of a square piano.” he says. “Some can sound a bit tinny, but this one doesn’t.”

Michael Hannon spent eight years on his research and it may not all be over yet. “One of the mysteries of the missing years is how the piano got to Ireland,” says Michael. “As I was stepping out of the shower this morning, I thought: ‘There must be a tobacco connection between Glasgow and Ireland...’”

Mrs Findlay’s Broadwood Square Piano by Michael Hannon (Northend, Sheffield): £20. Order on 0114 230 2667 (www.mrsfindlaysbroad