Wheatstone & Co

Biography

It is suggested in a number of sources that the Wheatstone musical instrument making and music publishing company was established in London in 1750 in the old Exeter (Ex)Change building on the north side of the Strand, but this has not been substantiated. Two Wheatstone brothers who are known to have worked in these trades in London were both born after 1760, and moved to the capital from Gloucester. By 1791, the musical instrument maker, music seller, engraver and publisher, Charles Wheatstone (1768-1823), was working in St Martin’s Lane. His brother, William Wheatstone (1775-1854) was established as a teacher and maker of flutes in 1813 in Pall Mall. He invented the ‘Wheatstone Embouchure', a fipple mouthpiece for flutes. The two sons of William Wheatstone took over the business of their uncle Charles at 436 the Strand, after his death in 1823, and had moved to 20 Conduit Street by 1829. The most celebrated of the brothers, (Sir) Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875), was an inventor of free reed instruments, changing the focus of the company’s output to instruments of this type. Charles Wheatstone became famous as a physicist and inventor of scientific instruments; he was important in the development of the electric telegraph. The first of his patent model free reed instruments to be commercially manufactured was the symphonium, a mouth-organ with ivory buttons that operated a mechanism admitting air to the reeds when pressed, patented in 1829. In 1844 he patented the English concertina, which was a best-selling instrument for the company in the 1850s. His brother, William Dolman Wheatstone (1804-1852) was probably involved until his death in the day to day running of the firm, while Charles concentrated on his scientific work.

The Wheatstone factory was a training ground for able apprentices aiming to establish their own businesses. One of these was Louis Lachenal, who arrived in the UK from Switzerland in 1839, perhaps having been apprenticed as a watch maker. His knowledge and skills led to the mechanisation of much of the laborious manual work of concertina making, enabling an increase in the volume of instrument production. Among others leaving the Wheatstone factory to establish rival firms were Joseph Scates, George Jones and Rock Chidley, a ‘finisher’ who assembled the parts of the instrument that had been completed by outworkers.

In the 1870s the firm was taken over by the Chidley family who retained the former makers’ name ‘Wheatstone & Co’, and the firm moved to 15, West Street, off the Charing Cross Road in 1897. After Lachenal & Co closed in 1935, the Wheatstone company bought up their stocks and machinery. In 1943, part of the Wheatstone business was purchased by Besson and Co, which in its turn became a Boosey and Hawkes subsidiary. After Wheatstone & Co’s premises in Duncan Terrace, Islington were sold in 1961, the company moved into the Boosey & Hawkes factory in Edgware, Middlesex. In 1975 Steve Dickinson purchased what remained of the Wheatstone company. He now builds and repairs concertinas as C Wheatstone & Co™.

The Horniman Museum houses a number of Charles Wheatstone’s concertina prototypes and experimental models, as well as the standard ranges of concertinas produced by the family firm. Among them are Anglo-German system instruments, duet models and single-action examples made for concertina bands that were regularly played in competitions from the 1860s until the Second World War. The Museum’s collection holds instruments by makers from throughout most of the firm’s history, ranging from a harp-lute by the elder Charles Wheatstone to a Hayden duet-system concertina made by Steve Dickinson in 2002.

Brief biography

musical instrument manufacturer and music publisher (1866 - 1975)

Connected to...

Collection Information

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