AMBC Spring Outing to Kew

We enjoyed a very interesting and informative tour (of the London Museum of Water and Steam), the highlight of which was seeing a demonstration of the massive Bull Engine. It differs from a traditional Cornish beam engine with its 70inch steam cylinder inverted above the pump, thus dispensing with the need for a main beam. It is the largest known surviving and working Edward Bull Engine in the world. Unfortunately we (except for one member who snuck back!) were unable to see the even bigger Cornish beam engine working, as this was due to take place in the afternoon and we had a date just along the road at the Mechanical Musical Museum. We also didn’t have time to visit the new “Waterworks” gallery, telling the story of London’s water supply from Roman times right up to the present day. I’m afraid most of did, however, find time to ride on the little railway, installed mainly to amuse the children!

Arriving at the Musical Museum we were greeted by Owen Cooper, Chairman of the Trustees. Some of our members were old friends of his as they had been visiting the museum since its days in the old church. Many of the exhibits had not taken kindly to the change in atmosphere of the move to new premises ten years ago. There is an ongoing programme to restore them to full working order, but there is still far too much to see and hear in one afternoon’s visit.

Owen demonstrated a magnificent Imhof and Muckle Orchestrion, and several others, including a 65-note push-up piano player coupled to a modern electronic piano and his favourite,  a Violano-Virtuoso made by Mills Novelty Co of Chicago, in the first gallery. There was also a barrel organ named “Lettuce” (find out why in the full article).

In the next gallery we saw a piano that had once belonged to Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter Beatrice, who was said to have played to a professional standard. Owen played “The Minstrel” on a 25-note paper roll American organette, but I was particularly intrigued by the Theramin. This strange looking machine, invented by Léon theramin in 1928, is an early electronic musical instrument controlled by the player moving each hand  near, but not touching, two metal antennae.

Our tour finished in the concert hall, where sadly the Mighty Wurlitzer was temporarily out of action for maintenance. Instead we were treated to a spirited rendering, on the Chickering Grand Piano, of what I now always think of as “The Bum of the Flightlebee” since first hearing the joke (variously attributed to Arthur Askey, Spike Milligan or Gilbert Harding). 

From Issue 2 (Autumn 2015) of Mechanical Music World. To read this article in full become a member and receive a copy. Full details on “Membership” page.