Thursday, June 20, 2013

A piano's story

Horseferry Road, Westminster, London. 1878. A group of craftsmen put the final touches on an upright piano. Through the small factory windows, the December English sky is stingy with its daylight, and the workers rely on swinging kerosene lamps and handheld candles to illuminate their work. Custom-made wooden pieces, each stamped with the initials of the man who shaped and chiseled it, are carefully laid into place. The piano's outer cabinet gleams as a finisher rubs a cloth over the swirling grains of its rosewood veneer.

The factory is owned by the venerable Broadwood & Sons, established in 1728 as a maker of harpsichords. By the late 1800s, the company is producing 2,500 pianos per year. It is the twelfth largest employer in the city of London.

The finished piano is sold for 50 pounds to Chappel and Company, a leading music shop in the London district of Mayfair. There it retails for 75 guineas, and begins its journey into my family's history.

Thomas Tebbutt - a worker for McMillan Publishing, and my great-great-grandfather - acquires the piano. According to my late grandmother, who had the foresight and will to record old family stories, he bought it second-hand and moved it to his home in Greenwich, just outside of London.

Thomas sees promise in his oldest daughter, Edith, who frequently plays by the light of the piano's twin candlesticks. Thomas has four more children, and then a fifth that is stillborn. His wife dies during the difficult childbirth. Edith is raised by her father, and becomes a teacher of piano and voice at Croydon High School. She sings often in public concerts.

Years pass. Edith gives the piano to her younger brother, Thomas Marshall Tebbutt. Thomas, not a robust child, lives at home until the age of twenty-six. He travels often with his father to Cornwall. They stay at the St. Mawes hotel, a seaside inn run by the well-to-do Rickeard family.

Love blooms for Thomas and the Rickeard's youngest daughter, Kate. Thomas buys a small farm in Oakhampton, with a crop-growing and bee-keeping operation. He moves the old piano into an aging farmhouse on the property. Feeling somewhat established, he asks for Kate's hand in marriage.

Kate agrees, but after six months she calls it off. Her mother is hardset against the marriage, forbidding Kate to enter into a marriage that would be beneath her. Despondent, Thomas sells the farm and returns to London.

Before long, Kate rebels against her family's wishes. She slips from her home in Cornwall and marries Thomas in London. The happy couple buys another farm at Burgess Hill.

But hard times lie ahead. Kate has a boy, Bobby, delivered under the stumbling hands of a drunk doctor. The boy is injured at birth. He's sickly, and slow to learn. Kate blames the doctor and never forgives him. At age three, Bobby dies of whooping cough.

Another year arrives, and with it another pregnancy. It's a healthy girl, and they name her Mary Edith.

But the farm is failing now and Thomas can't raise the money to make it productive. The situation becomes dire. Kate refuses to stay in England and be "the poor relation" among her wealthy family.

It's a time of colonization, and Kate and Thomas discuss the possibilities of Canada and Australia. In the end, knowing little of either land, they toss a coin. In that spin of a shilling, fate drives their destiny and that of all their generations to come. As my grandmother put it: "Canada won."

The desperate couple and their baby daughter leave England in April 1911. They board the ship with the piano and their few other belongings.

It's an arduous passage across the Atlantic. Thomas's health is so poor that Kate fears he won't survive the journey. The long sea voyage ends in Halifax, where they board a colonist railway car headed to Vancouver. From there they take an electric railway to the lumber town of Abbotsford, and follow the Yale Road out to a small clearing of land on Poplar Hill.

Thomas builds a simple home, and buys a horse and a few cows. He starts a milk run, carting two large covered cans behind his horse and filling up the villagers' jugs with a tin scoop. Later he works for a local lumber mill. Slowly, the family prospers.

More children come. Most survive. A boy, Tommy, doesn't make it. Thomas and Kate bury him on the property at Poplar Hill.

With five children, the family needs a larger home. So Thomas builds it, and this one has coal heating, a pump in the scullery for well-water, and a fine new outhouse. The family's table is three 2x12 planks set on legs made from alder tree trunks. It serves many duties, including ironing board and sewing table. On Mondays, Kate hoists a wash tub onto it and scrubs the laundry by hand. At meal-times it can seat a dozen people around it. Over the years the table grows smooth and white with use.

The oldest girl, Mary, moves to nearby Mt. Lehman to teach in 1932. Four years later she marries Stanley Harvey, a widower with two children. But Stanley takes ill and dies only two years into their marriage, leaving Mary with a farm, some cows, and a baby girl. With tremendous grit, and the help of her community, Mary survives the difficult months ahead.

In 1941 she becomes engaged to Allyn Harvey - Stanley's brother. The Anglican church frowns on the union, so they find another church to marry them.

Mary's father Thomas dies in 1942, and Kate decides it's time to sell the old piano. Although not a piano player herself, Mary buys it. And so it stays in the family, through Mary's second widowhood, and her years in Abbotsford. The 1940s go by. Then the 1950s, and '60s.

For a time, my grandmother Mary lends the piano to her daughter Peggy in Lytton, a hundred miles north up the Fraser River. It's the first piano I play as a child. But its wooden pegboard is tired and it will no longer hold its tune. We replace the pegs, and have it tuned a couple of tones lower than standard, without success. I like its slightly off-tune sound, which suits the ragtime pieces that I enjoy playing. But after a year, my father buys a new piano and the old one goes back to Grandma.

Twenty-five more years pass. The time comes for Grandma to leave her house, and that means emptying out its rooms. The piano comes to me. I'm now living in the northwest U.S., and I find that, ridiculously, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Department restricts the import of old pianos into the USA because of the ivory keys. I remove the keys and leave them in Canada, until I bring them across in a daring night-time run for the border. No elephants were harmed.

One day Grandma visits me in Bellingham. Upon seeing the piano, her eyes light up. “With all of this rain," she exclaims, "it must think it’s back in England!”

Later, I install a digital 88-key keyboard into the piano. I remove the strings and some of the pegs, along with the hammers and key bed. I marvel at the workmanship, and run my hands along the chiseled parts. I imagine that some of them have not been touched since the piano left the factory in Westminster, England.

The project goes well, and the keyboard sounds good. With a little electronic help, the piano is once again making music, after many years of silence.

Today I consider all the lives that this piano has touched over the years. In the simple homes where it stood, babies were lost, and mothers died in childbirth. Young men and women fell to disease, or were ground down by the strains of long hours and hard outdoor work.

And yet, even with the uncertainties of hardship and death that it witnessed, there is a continuity in that old piano that brings reassurance. As I write this by the fire in our living room, it sits a few feet away from me. Across the world, Broadwood & Sons continues to manufacture pianos in London. In the Mayfair district, Chappel and Company continues to purvey fine musical instruments.

And the old piano plays on, now for the sixth generation of our family. My daughter slides onto its bench, and tinkles out one of her made-up melodies. I pause to listen, and watch her slender fingers dance across the keys.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this. I love family histories.

    1. Thank you, Kimberly! I'm so grateful to my grandmother for writing down her stories; it would have been easy for them to be forgotten and lost forever.

  2. Loved this, Harvey! Especially like the idea of your daring night-time run across the border....

  3. Very interesting, Harvey...I had known parts of the story...great to find out more! I can just see your grandma saying, "It must think it's in England!" :)
    Beth (Shumaker) Smith

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  7. Wild, this story helped get Find A Grave updated some too! Interested in this and all family stories, hope you don't mind adding it to Kate's Find A Grave file .. Love it!