Our Victorian street piano has been renovated recently and is a regular feature of Kirkgate, entertaining visitors at York Castle Museum, writes Gwendolen Whitaker, curator of history.
It now plays ten tunes, the clearest being There they are and Funiculi funicula.
Street pianos, or barrel organs, were in most towns in England by the 1880s with their heyday around 1900. They began to decline steadily during the Edwardian period and rapidly during the First World War. By the 1930s they were a rare sight.
They were generally made by Italian immigrants in London. The first ones were also played by Italian immigrants but by 1900 over half were played by Englishmen.
Records show that a lot of money could be made on a good day, organ-grinders who knew their patch knew which tunes were popular, and when their customers had just been paid so Saturdays was always the best day of the week.
However, in some streets, residents would pay organ-grinders to move away from their houses further down the street so they didn’t have to listen to the music!
This street piano was built around 1895-1900 by Capra, Rissone & Company of 30, Warner Street, Clerkenwell, London.
It was bought by Canon Algernon O. Wintle of Lawshall Rectory, Bury St Edmunds in 1947.
Canon Wintle was a clergyman but his life-long hobby was mechanical musical instruments. He re-furbished many street pianos, primarily to give work to ex-servicemen after the First World War, and learnt how to set the tunes, he traded as The East Anglian Automatic Piano Company. Between 1948 and 1950 Canon Wintle rebuilt this street piano and set the tunes and he donated it to the museum in 1950.
Street pianos were made of wood so they were light enough to push. They have a wooden frame with tuned strings hit by felt-faced hammers. These hammers are caused to move by a large wooden pinned barrel turned by a handle on the side of the box.
There is another handle for changing the tune, and when turned it raises the keys clear of the pins, moves the barrel along to another set of pins, drops the keys again, and indicates the number of the new tune.
Watch this interesting old Pathe News film from 1960 to see Antonion Tomasso, preparing a barrel, marking it, and later seen playing it. Mr Tomasso was this country’s best barrel piano arranger and came from a family extensively connected with the street piano business.