Inventor & Musical Instrument Maker


No person had a greater influence on the development of the square piano than Anglo-Irish inventor and instrument maker William Southwell.

His earliest confirmed residence in Dublin was in the late 1770s when he was gaining a reputation as a maker of harpsichords and pianofortes. Assertions that he was apprenticed to Ferdinand Weber in Dublin, then or previously, cannot be sustained from any known document, and an examination of Weber's work shows how improbable it would be. There is in fact a great deal of misleading information available concerning Southwell that has been recently exposed as false by the research of Margaret Debenham whose late husband Michael was a descendant.

She points out that when William Southwell died, in London in 1825, his age was given as 88 years, implying that he was born c.1736-7. He was therefore a contemporary of John Broadwood — much too mature to be an apprentice in 1770s. Discovering his place of birth has thus far defeated all researches. Perhaps the explanation may be that he was not actually born in Ireland, though he and his family always claimed Irish nationality.

Photo copyright: Cobbe Collection, Hatchlands Park. Reproduced by permission.

His enduring fame was established by his invention of a strikingly elegant pianoforte in the form of a demi-lune side table, veneered and inlaid in highly fashionable style, that was guaranteed to appeal to a wealthy elite. When closed these pianos look exactly like the classical pier tables supplied by Robert Adam for aristocratic houses. When opened, the lid lifts as a whole, revealing shell or fan-pattern veneer work on the underside and a keyboard of five octaves, characteristically lacking FF#. Unlike conventional square pianos these instruments have their bass strings at the back [farthest from the player]. Neatly made wooden louvres obscuring the soundboard can be opened discretely by a knee lever at the right.

Though their buyers may not have appreciated it, and perhaps never examined the interior, the action or hammer mechanism is completely unlike anything used in London-made pianos of the period. The hammers are retro oriented and attached to the keys in a design that appears to be derived from Rhenish piano makers – this deduction seemingly confirmed by the provision of a sled that slides under the keyboard to raise it up towards the strings. A unique innovation, apparently without precedent in either German or English pianos of the period, is the damper design, which takes the form of cast brass levers shaped like sparrows, one for each note. They sit above the strings near the player and facing away. As you play, they seem to bob up and down randomly as if pecking for corn from an invisible seed tray. To further enhance their charm these castings are incised with circles for the birds' eyes and indications of feathers.

With such a very small soundboard these pianos cannot ever have had a very robust tone, and this is further diminished by a set of louvres covering the soundboard. The lid must be propped as shown (for otherwise the keyboard is inaccessible), which enhanced the tone to some degree. You must operate the knee lever to obtain the maximum sound. Observe also that the swell louvres can be opened only when the lid is raised. So it is certain that, unlike so many English pianos, these pianos were always and necessarily played with the lid fully opened.

These elegant pianos are now so much admired by collectors that on the rare occasions when one is offered for sale it inevitably commands a much higher price than its musical merit would suggest.

A more affordable type of piano from Southwell was this five-octave instrument in rectanglar form, to all appearances a standard square piano; but here again there are characteristic signs of his innovations inside. Their mechanism is basically the ubiquitous bump action, similar to that used by J. C. Zumpe, but instead of the usual retro wooden lever dampers (assisted by whalebone springs) Southwell retains his unique 'sparrow' dampers. However, with their conventional string disposition (with bass strings nearest the player) these square pianos have the sparrows located at the back, attached to a diagonal rail above the strings. From some indeterminate date, around 1790, square pianos made by Southwell abandon these brass dampers and substitute yet another novelty — 'Irish' or dolly dampers — probably Southwell's best and most enduring invention.

These dampers consist of a small, shaped limewood head, notched underneath to take pieces of woven cloth, connected directly to a button or toggle attached on the distal end of each key by a stiff metal wire passing between the strings. This wire has a fine screw thread at its lower extremity so that the dampers can be screwed in or out to adjust them for height. The importance of this, as used by Southwell, is that levelling the keys is controlled by this adjustment: the weight of the key itself presses the damper cloth against the strings to silence them. The guide for these damper wires consists of a limewood batten covered with deerskin, which is pierced for the wire to pass through. It is very efficient and quiet, eliminating all the rattles and disagreeable resistance encountered with conventional lever over dampers. The disadvantage, which only tuners or technicians understand, is that you cannot extract a key without first unscrewing the damper, and likewise inserting it and readjusting it after the key is returned. Taking out the whole keyboard to deal with some minor problem takes hours.

Southwell's magnum opus, his masterpiece of invention, was his five-and-a-half octave square piano which, like so much of his work, is very difficult to date precisely. The oldest surviving specimen appears to be an instrument (shown above) formerly owned by Mrs Uhlmann, of Croft Castle, but now owned by the National Trust. It is plainly inscribed SOUTHWELL FECIT 1784, but there are reasonable doubts about this. Whether or not this is accepted as the true date of manufacture, there seems little room for doubt that it was made before any other surviving example owing to a design feature inside. [Unlike the example in the Cobbe Colection, for example, there is no fretwork triangle behind the wrestplank, and shown in the patent drawing of 1794.] Externally, this Croft Castle piano shows a similar level of decorative style to the demi-lune pianos. Its extravagant use of inlay reminds one of the fine cabinet work from Dublin seen in the furniture designed by William Moore c.1775-90.

Southwell, 1797

Symmetry was of paramount importance in eighteenth-century design. Yet square pianos, an important item in any fashionable home, were awkward because their keys are offset to the left, making the instrument visually unbalanced. Southwell countered this very cleverly by dividing the front of his pianos into five graduated rectangular panels (the outer pair often having an inlaid shell motif or something similar), so that when closed the symmetrical appearance disguises the offset keyboard location. It is beautifully done, and one of several tell-tale markers for Dublin work.

When opened, the keyboard is revealed, and with it another very influential innovation in the form of open fretwork rectangles at either end of the nameboard, backed with coloured silk (shown above). The idea, plainly, is that even if the lid is not raised these apertures allow the tone to be better heard.

As with the demi-lune pianos there is an inconspicuous knee lever (this time at the left) but in these pianos it is designed to apply a buff stop near the end of the strings, producing a harp-like tone. Unlike London designs Southwell's buff stop works by pressing down on the strings from above, which is more satisfactory than the usual lifting type as it obviates the tendency to put the strings out of tune. With this knee lever the player could alternate the tone colour in sections, or use it to make romantic echo effects.

To incorporate the 'additional notes', Southwell placed eight keys [f3 to c4] on a separate frame inserted under the soundboard. [See the diagram below.] Their hammers, with tall heads, access the strings through a slot or aperture across the far edge of the soundboard. This excellent innovation is probably the most oft cited invention from Southwell, allowing the soundboard to have a much better layout, with the bridge kept well away from the left edge, and hence not harming the tone. Anyone who examines the bridge and soundboard should be able to see that Southwell's pursuit of a sweet and ample tone is shown in his use of a very open curvature of the bridge, and its unusually small cross-section. It is a very lightweight, flexible bridge placed on a very light, thin soundboard. Like a Cremona violin these instruments were designed to respond very freely to a small energy input. The inventor saw no need for large hammers, or a heavy touch. However, as the demand for a more powerful tone drove the direction of pianoforte development in the following decades Southwell's notion in this matter was abandoned.

Southwell's further innovation was the replacement of the more or less redundant soundboard triangle behind the wrestpins with a fretwork aperture, again lined with coloured silk. Clearly, the idea is that this enhances the tone. The fretwork design on Southwell's instruments features the shape of a harp [Irish national symbol] surmounted by a crown [British dominion], suggesting the maker's political sympathies. This harp symbol is present also in the Croft Castle piano, but as an engraved design on the spruce soundboard area behind the wrestplank. It also has Irish shamrocks in the border. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that it was made before Southwell invented his fretwork triangles. All surviving five-and-a-half octave square pianos except the Croft Castle instrument were decorated on the nameboard with a circular medallion surrounded by the words PATENT PIANO FORTE in a ring, with a serial number marked within (lowest known number 1617, highest 2213). This emblem is supported by a lion [left] and unicorn [right] again reflecting the maker's British loyalty. On many the inscription can be clearly discerned: Willm. SOUTHWELL & Son, as a superscript, and, on a small ribbon below, 'Dublin fecit'. It appears that all surviving Southwell square pianos made before 1800 were produced in Dublin.

In 1794 [or perhaps 1793] William Southwell travelled to London where he applied for, and was granted, a royal patent for his five-and-a-half octave square pianos. Though Margaret Debenham has found evidence that he returned to Dublin, it is sure that Southwell must have intended a lengthy stay in England, not least because the legal process of obtaining a patent took many months, and he would have needed to show a finished example. My thought therefore is that he must have brought at least one piano with him from Ireland. It was a big commitment.

However, it seemed to have paid off. James Longman and his business partner Francis Broderip were greatly impressed by the musical quality of these instruments, and negotiated an exclusive contract to sell them under their own name, promising to pay Southwell half a guinea for every one sold. Interestingly, in a publicity print issued by L&B, Southwell's distinctive patent drawing is reproduced from the original copper plate, but with the true inventor's name replaced by Longman & Broderip, and the Irish harp in the fretwork triangle replaced by a British lion and crown. Given the volume of sales that Longman & Broderip could achieve, fees from this contract should have given the inventor an ample income. Everything looked to be set fair for the patentee until, in 1795, Longman & Broderip's shabby treatment of their associates resulted in them being declared bankrupt (with huge debts) and both men went to a debtor's prison.

Across the Channel French republicans, having beheaded their king, posed a terrifying threat to English stability. Invasion was constantly expected. And in Dublin Irish nationalists were becoming bolder. Southwell chose to settle in London after an Irish mob torched his premises apparently because they suspected him of not being sympathetic to their cause (which indeed he was not).

With Longman and Broderip the apparent patent holders in prison, John Broadwood and his son James began to make use of Southwell's novel system for 'additional keys', without any acknowledgement, eventually provoking Southwell to bring a lawsuit against them. The case came to court in 1803, but a clever lawyer defending Broadwood seized upon some needlessly extravagant claims made in the patent ['these (improvements) produce gradations of tone from forte to piano with greater effect than (all previous designs)' and by showing that this claim was exaggerated suceeded in undermining the legitimacy of all Southwell's claims. No record of a judgement can be found for this case, so it may be that Southwell took advice and decided that he simply could not afford to continue this legal action. By this date, with Broadwood seeming to drive a coach and horses through the patent territory, many other makers were making unauthorized use of it, so it became impossible to keep on top of the situation. Although Broadwood & Son had maintained in court that Southwell's patent was invalid, their own pianos 'with additional keys' clearly show that their construction system for five-and-a-half octave pianos was unsatisfactory until they began copying Southwell's design. They would obviously be delighted if the legal case were discontinued, and as they progressively incorporated many more features of Southwell's patent [fretwork panels appeared in 1802; a modified form of the dolly damper about 1806] it may be that their actions were sanctioned by some out-of-court settlement. James Shudi Broadwood writing in 1838 acknowledges that Southwell invented the system for additional keys, and that it was a manifest improvement on Broadwood's own ideas.

In 1798, when he was being paid regular sums by Longman, Clementi & Co. and also by Broderip & Wilkinson, Southwell was inspired to file another patent, for a seemingly brilliant innovation — turning the square piano upwards through 90° to create a compact upright instrument.

The principal idea in this concept is that by having the soundboard now vertical, its projection of the tone would be much more effective. There were problems to be overcome with regard to the action, but William Southwell seems to have them solved. What he did not succeed with was sales.These upright square pianos were never sold in great numbers, and none survive in playable condition. His work on the action, however, paid off when he came to file another patent, in 1807, for a ground-breaking cabinet upright piano [the upright form that modern pianists are familiar with]. This became immensely popular after Southwell's death, and eventually supplanted the square piano in most homes, but it is unlikely that Southwell himself made any profit from the patent.

During his time in London in 1793/4 the Dublin workshop was run by two of his sons and his brother Nicholas, but after the riots in Dublin in or about 1803 Nicholas set up a new workshop in Liverpool where he made square pianos that strongly resemble the better class of London-made products. William settled in London. How prosperous he became it is hard to tell. If he had received half a guinea for every piano that used his ideas (as he had a right to expect) he would have been as rich as Croesus. For almost fifty years almost every square piano — whether from Stodart, Tomkison, Broadwood, Dettmer and many other makers — had fretwork panels at either side of the nameboard. His wire-operated dolly dampers replaced every other design, though later fixed to a separate lever rather than to the key, and every square piano with an extended keyboard made use of the system that William Southwell had patented. His ideas were hugely influential. Open the lid of any square piano made between 1800 and 1830 and there, at the back right hand corner, you can expect to see a fretwork triangle, as introduced by Southwell. Could any man have had a more pervasive influence over square piano design?

Yet today functioning pianos by William Southwell are rare. Pretty cabinetwork wins much admiration resulting in the long-term preservation of many unplayable specimens, but clearly their dainty mechanisms could not withstand much vigorous pianism. They were not durable. Their painted nameboard inscriptions are nearly always decayed, sometimes to the point where they are illegible. And the doubtful structure of Southwell's upright square pianos means that there are no known examples currently playable. It is a mixed legacy.

However, in terms of Irish craftwork his instruments and his creative genius deserve to be celebrated, and happily the National Museum in Dublin has examples of them. The brief flourishing of piano manufacture in Ireland between 1785 and 1805, by makers such as Robert Woffington, Southwell, his sons, and Patrick Butler, owes everything to the originality and genius of William Southwell.

More biographical information on William Southwell and his family is available from Margaret Debenham.

Five-and-a-half octave square pianos: Croft Castle, Leominster (National Trust); Cobbe Collection, Hatchlands Park, Surrey (National Trust).

Five octave demi-lune pianos: National Museum, Dublin, Ireland; Cobbe Collection, Hatchlands Park (National Trust).

Upright square pianos: National Museum, Dublin, Ireland; Finchcocks Museum, Goudhurst, Kent.

For more information on William Southwell's difficulties in protecting his patent see 'Piano Wars' a paper authored jointly by Margaret Debenham & George Bozarth, published in the Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle, No. 42 [2009], pp. 45 -108.

Return to Home Page.

Copyright © Michael Cole 2002-2015      All rights reserved            Website designed by Michael Debenham