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Playing the sleigh bells: the story of Joan Stonehewer

Christmas is drawing near and we are thinking about the sounds of the festive season. Nothing says Christmas music quite like sleigh bells. We have some wonderful sleigh bells in our Musical Instrument collection that once belonged to the musician Joan Stonehewer.

  • Playing the sleigh bells: the story of Joan Stonehewer, The sleigh bells belonging to Joan Stonehewer, now in the Horniman Musical Instrument collection. Object number M5-1987.
    The sleigh bells belonging to Joan Stonehewer, now in the Horniman Musical Instrument collection. Object number M5-1987.

Joan made her living as a ‘concert artiste’ by playing the saw and other novelty instruments including the sleigh bells. Her variety theatre performances were of a type that was very popular from the turn of the twentieth century up to WWII.

  • Playing the sleigh bells: the story of Joan Stonehewer, Joan Stonehewer is seen on this postcard at the height of her popularity with her sleigh bells, saw and cello bow and a zither. The inscription in black ink reads, 'with love from Joan'. The saw was specially made for her in c.1930 by Jedson, England. The sleigh bells, made at about the same time, are probably from France.
    Joan Stonehewer is seen on this postcard at the height of her popularity with her sleigh bells, saw and cello bow and a zither. The inscription in black ink reads, 'with love from Joan'. The saw was specially made for her in c.1930 by Jedson, England. The sleigh bells, made at about the same time, are probably from France.

Joan appeared at the Royal Variety Hall and the BBC, performed at dinners, receptions and cabarets and her repertoire included songs such as the "Waltz" by Victor Herbert.

  • Playing the sleigh bells: the story of Joan Stonehewer, With Europe teetering on the brink of war, this New Year's Eve 1938 dinner party programme evokes the ambience of a passing era. Held at the Chiltern Court Restaurant NW1, Joan Stonehewer provided the entertainment together with Mahomed Ali. Lending an air of daring exoticism to the evening, he was billed as a Magician, Hypnotist, Pickpocket and the World's Fastest Act. Both Artistes highlight the fact that they have performed before Royalty. The French names for the various dishes camouflage their essential Englishness.
    With Europe teetering on the brink of war, this New Year's Eve 1938 dinner party programme evokes the ambience of a passing era. Held at the Chiltern Court Restaurant NW1, Joan Stonehewer provided the entertainment together with Mahomed Ali. Lending an air of daring exoticism to the evening, he was billed as a Magician, Hypnotist, Pickpocket and the World's Fastest Act. Both Artistes highlight the fact that they have performed before Royalty. The French names for the various dishes camouflage their essential Englishness.

Joan was an extremely successful self-publicist. She had many professional business cards that she would give out to drum up her own publicity and was determined to succeed in her career.

  • Playing the sleigh bells: the story of Joan Stonehewer, Four of Joan Stonehewer's business cards. She lived at the given address in Wimbledon from 1939 until 1956 when she moved next door. Clearly enjoying the company of children, she had two of her own for whom she wrote stories. These were later published and read, at her suggestion, on BBC radio. On the back of one of the cards she advertises to perform at children's parties.
    Four of Joan Stonehewer's business cards. She lived at the given address in Wimbledon from 1939 until 1956 when she moved next door. Clearly enjoying the company of children, she had two of her own for whom she wrote stories. These were later published and read, at her suggestion, on BBC radio. On the back of one of the cards she advertises to perform at children's parties.

She made it very clear that she would not stop working when she got married – which was quite an extraordinary thing to do in the 1940s – when she had her wedding photos taken holding her musical saw.

  • Playing the sleigh bells: the story of Joan Stonehewer, On her wedding day, Joan Stonehewer and her husband, Henry Townsend, are surrounded by friends and relatives. She married during WWII which explains the number of men in uniform. The presence and prominence of the musical saw conveys her determination to continue in her chosen career: an aim she realised fully.
    On her wedding day, Joan Stonehewer and her husband, Henry Townsend, are surrounded by friends and relatives. She married during WWII which explains the number of men in uniform. The presence and prominence of the musical saw conveys her determination to continue in her chosen career: an aim she realised fully.

After her wedding and in the years to come, variety theatre started to become less popular. As television became more readily available and tastes changed, work was harder to come by.

In the Horniman archives, we have letters Joan received from the BBC showing that she had contacted them about future work – an offer which was politely declined.

  • Playing the sleigh bells: the story of Joan Stonehewer, A letter from the BBC responding to Joan's request about future work. The letter also mentions her children's stories she sent in, which were read out on BBC radio.
    A letter from the BBC responding to Joan's request about future work. The letter also mentions her children's stories she sent in, which were read out on BBC radio.

Joan retired from the stage in the early 1960s but she still appeared in a list of The Concert Artistes’ Association in 1968, the year before died.

Much of what we know about Joan was found in documents given to the Museum with the sleigh bells in 1987 by her son, Francis Townsend. It is wonderful to know the story behind the instrument and to learn more about this talented and engaging musician.

  • Playing the sleigh bells: the story of Joan Stonehewer, Listen to Joan Stonehewer play the musical saw in our Music Gallery
    Listen to Joan Stonehewer play the musical saw in our Music Gallery

Visit our Music Gallery to hear a recording of Joan playing her musical saw.