Organ Grind June 2015

On display were a variety of interesting instruments including a non-organ interloper in the shape of a fine barrel piano (cover picture). This magnificent machine, which has been fully restored, has the legend “Keith Prowse & Co Ltd, London” carved into its front panel, but confusingly , the trade label of “A Tomasso & Son, London, Street Piano Makers” on its sound-board. A discussion revealed some interesting aspects of its past as well as an interesting insight into a now almost forgotten world……

Believed to be an early 19th century invention of Englishman Joseph Hicks, it was however left to immigrant  Italians to develop and manufacture street pianos or “Piano Organs” as they were often called, primarily in the Clerkenwell district of London, from the 1870s onwards. By the start of the 20th century, it was estimated there were up to 500 on the streets of the capital alone!……..

Barrel pianos of substantially the same basic design could also be found in indoor situations such as public houses and tearooms. They were powered automatically by means of a spring-motor, activated by a coin-in-slot mechanism, as a ready source of income for the landlord. Keith Prowse & Co was one of many agents who had a large enterprise hiring out hundreds of barrel pianos to public houses…..

Our instrument had started life as a penny-in-slot piano…….. At an unknown date, probably after penny-in-slot pianos had lost their popularity,  its spring motor was removed and the machanism modified for hand-turning, so that it could be given a second lease of life mounted on a handcart and hired out for street playing. At some stage it came into the ownership of A Tomasso & Son, who would have refurbished the mechanism as well as repinning the barrel with new tunes. It was last pinned in the mid-1960s with a mixture of then current songs, including some Rogers and Hammerstein favourites.

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.