Saturday, 13 April 2019

Yorkshire Piano Makers (3): West Yorkshire firms - Hilton & Hilton, Newsome Brothers, Upton Gill & Co

In my last two posts on piano manufacture in Yorkshire, I covered the firms of Pohlmann and Waddington, who I believe were the makers with the largest output. However, there were several other smaller makers based in West Yorkshire, so I wanted to put as much information as I have about them online.

Hilton & Hilton

A Hilton & Hilton oak piano, originally manufactured for school use, dating from c.1920 (by kind permission of customer)
The village of Ravensthorpe, just outside Dewsbury, seems to have been quite a centre of piano-building during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, being home to at least two firms: Hilton & Hilton and Newsome Brothers. The manufacturers Hilton & Hilton were based after around 1900 at the Victoria Piano Works, which was on a site at the north end of Victoria Street in Ravensthorpe (the north side of the building backed onto Clarkson Street). The terraced houses in Victoria Street itself still remain, but the works site now has some houses on it that look to date from around the 1970s - the old maps for the area seem to show that the old works disappeared some time between 1974 and 1983 (though piano production had ceased long before then).
Victoria Street in Ravensthorpe as it is today. The modern houses at the far end are on the site of the former Victoria Piano Works; the works and the houses in the rest of the street were built some time around 1900.
Hilton & Hilton (the firm may originally have been known as Hilton & Co) appears to have been established around 1872 by Tom Hilton and Tom Hilton (presumably they were related but not brothers!) The older Tom was born in 1843 and according to the 1881 census was living in Huddersfield Road, Mirfield with his wife Mary, his five children Charles, Harry, Clara, Asa and Ann, and his mother, also named Ann; he is listed as a piano maker. The younger Tom (born 1847) was based in Dewsbury and was married to Martha, with two children, Edith and Ralph. An 1881 trade directory gives the address of Hilton & Hilton as being Saville Street, Leeds (a now long-demolished thoroughfare which was adjacent but to the west of Little Queen Street, quite close to the site of what is now the Westgate roundabout), and this is still given as their address in a directory of 1894. Whether this was a factory, earlier factory, office or warehouse is not at all clear, though the evidence of the census does suggest that manufacturing was likely taking place in Ravensthorpe by this time. From the evidence I can gather, the Leeds building was located on the west side of Saville Street, roughly at the rear of the Argus Foundry.

It seems that the older Tom concentrated on manufacturing, whilst the younger Tom, who was a musician, was responsible for the sales side of the business. Later on, in the 1920s, Tuley's piano shop in Bridge End, Leeds, were listed as their agents (whether this was the location of the showroom at an earlier date I cannot be sure). From census returns, it appears that they may have had a workforce of around 20 people in the late nineteenth century, perhaps half of whom were piano builders and tuners, and the remainder were skilled woodworkers, carpenters, french polishers and the like; the output of instruments was perhaps in the region of 80 a year (by the 1920s the firm claimed to have made around 2,000 pianos).
The former showrooms at Tuley's music shop in Bridge End, Leeds, now the offices of a Chartered Accountancy firm.
There are several other characters who may have been associated with the firm (or possibly the other Ravensthorpe manufacturer, Newsome Brothers), one of whom is Tillman J Putz. According to "Makers of the Piano" by Martha Clinkscale, he is recorded as a piano builder in London in around 1855, having his workshops at 1 Judd Street, Brunswick Square, "of probable German or Austrian origin." By 1881, he was lodging with a family in Huddersfield Road, Ravensthorpe, West Yorkshire; it appears very likely that he may have offered his considerable expertise to either Hilton & Hilton or Newsome Brothers (see below). From census returns, it appears likely he may have been born in Cologne in around 1820, and by 1891 he was living in London again, hopefully perhaps having made enough money to enjoy a decent retirement.

Another person who seems to have had an association with instrument manufacture in the area around the same period was George Tanfield, born around 1851 in the village of Gate Helmsley, near York. His occupation is described as "piano maker" and in 1881 he is living in Bradbury Street, Ravensthorpe. From this it seems very likely that he may have been an apprentice at Waddington's in York (the subject of a previous post) and then, having learned his trade, then went off to work for either Hilton & Hilton or Newsome Brothers. In the early twentieth century he turns up in Bradford (of which more later).

Bradbury Street in Ravensthorpe, where George Tanfield was living in 1881. Most of the original houses have been replaced by modern ones, but a few remain on the right-hand side of the photo.
It seems that by around 1900, neither of the two Hiltons were any longer connected with the firm, both being described as retired. Around this time the company appears to have passed into the ownership (or at least the chairmanship) of Harry Cottam, of Bradford. Cottam was not a piano maker by trade - in fact he seems to have started his working career as a mill hand, then went on to become a successful manager at a Co-op shop in the city. He had a "break" when he inherited an estate of houses, a mill and some building land from his father-in-law and then went on to become one of the movers and shakers in the local building trade - apparently he was responsible for developing several streets on either side of White Abbey Road, some of which still stand today, and was also instrumental in the development of the suburb of Thornbury, until then a semi-rural area.

The houses that Harry Cottam built - Bilton Place in Bradford, one of the streets he originally developed.
From this it seems unlikely that Harry Cottam ever learned to build or tune a piano himself, but he seems to have added this to his large empire of business interests - although why specifically he took the decision to branch out into musical instrument manufacture is not known. An internet obituary of Private William Haldenby, who sadly died in action on the Western Front in 1917, says he had worked for eleven years at "Cottam's Victoria Piano Works", so it seems Cottam had taken over some years before the war. Hilton & Hilton pianos were still being built into the 1920s, and although there is no record of when the firm closed this was quite likely to have happened in the early 1930s along with so many others, with the advent of recorded music and the radio. As mentioned earlier, the buildings survived, presumably in other uses, for another fifty years or so.

The Hilton & Hilton pianos I have come across from the 1920s are very well-built overstrung models with a decent tone. They seem in particular to have produced a large number of pianos intended for school use, typically with oak cases.

 Hilton and Hilton "Gold Medal" Pianos

Quite a number of Hilton & Hilton instruments seem to have the phrase "Gold Medal Pianos" next to the makers name, and some of these actually have pictures of the gold medals; there are two, one marked "Gold medal - Leeds 1900" and another saying "Highest award - Dublin 1902". The Leeds gold medal has a design which looks very like the city's coat of arms which suggests that this event may have been arranged or facilitated by the municipal authorities, but it is not the Leeds Triennial Music Festival as that took place in 1898 and again in 1901. Unfortunately I cannot determine which events or exhibitions either of these two medals refer to. It seems very likely that these may have been trade exhibitions of a more general nature, rather than anything specifically piano-related.
A Hilton and Hilton "Gold Medal" piano from around 1900, with magnificent walnut case and original candle sconces (by kind permission of customer)
I was recently asked to tune this Hilton and Hilton "Gold Medal" piano from around 1900 or perhaps a little earlier (there is no mention of where the gold medal has come from). It has a good tone in the bass compared with many straight-strung upright pianos of its era.

Newsome Brothers

I should mention another Ravensthorpe firm called Newsome Brothers. Unfortunately, information about them seems to be relatively scant, but early twentieth century pianos made by them feature two gold medal awards, one for "excellence of manufacture" in 1898, and one "for merit" in 1899, though as with Hilton and Hilton there is no explanation of which particular trade fair or association these are related to. By 1920, the address of the firm is listed as "North Road, Ravensthorpe", very much in the same vicinity as the Victoria Piano Works, and the proprietor again is listed at this point as Harry Cottam. In view of this, one would stringly suspect that by this point they were being produced at the same site as Hilton & Hilton.
Huddersfield Road in Ravensthorpe: William Newsome was based somewhere in this area. Tillman Putz was also living in this street in 1881, lodging with Maria Sleight, a confectioner.
The first mention of the firm I can find is in a West Riding trade directory from 1881, which lists a William Newsome, Pianoforte Manufacturer simply giving the address as Ravensthorpe; the 1891 census lists a William Newsome, piano manufacturer, living in Mirfield and his date of birth as 1828. A trade directory of 1894 (which also shows Hilton and Hilton still based in Saville Street, Leeds), again lists William Newsome in Ravensthorpe and also two other piano related businesses: the "Ravensthorpe Piano Depot" of whom we are informed that Walter Holt is the manager, and the piano maker Joseph B Wood (but likewise no address for either apart from Ravensthorpe). Whether the firm had existed for some time by then, or whether William Newsome had worked elsewhere or simply took up piano-making later in life is not clear, but the business crops up again in the directory of 1894. By around 1900, William Newsome (who would by then have reached an advanced age in any case) no longer seems to be working for the firm.

It appears, however, that William was not one of the "brothers" as a copy of the London Gazette from November 10th, 1899 found online states: "NOTICE is hereby given, that the Partnership heretofore subsisting between us the undersigned, Frederick Newsome, Ernest Newsome, and Arthur Newsome, carrying on business as Piano Manufacturers, at Ravensthorpe, in the county of York, under the style or firm of Newsome Brothers, has been dissolved  by mutual consent as and from the first day of November, 1899, so far as regards the said  Frederick Newsome. All debts due to and owing by the said late firm will be received and paid by the said Ernest Newsome and Arthur Newsome, who will in future carry on the business under the same style or firm of Newsome Brothers. Dated sixth day of November, 1899." From this it appears that William was most likely the father of the brothers and that until 1894 the firm was simply known under his name alone. Census records also suggest that Arthur and Ernest were both born in the mid-1870s, so would have been too young to take over the firm at least until the mid-1890s (I cannot establish Frederick's date of birth but he may have been a little older).

Upton, Gill & Co

By 1901 we find George Tanfield (who was mentioned earlier) now living in Bradford, along with Fanny Tanfield (b.1854), presumably his wife, and Alice Tanfield (b.1874), who may have been his daughter; his home address was in Boynton Terrace, West Bowling (which still exists) and he was associated with a firm of piano manufacturers called Armitage & Tanfield, with factory premises in Newall Street off Manchester Road (the street still exists but all the original buildings are now demolished). I do not know how many pianos they made as I cannot find any record online of an Armitage and Tanfield piano, and it is possible a large part of their business may have been as a piano dealership or carrying out repairs.
Boynton Terrace in West Bowling, Bradford: George Tanfield was living here in 1901.
According to the 1911 census, George Tanfield was still living in Bradford, but in the 1912 trade directory, the firm in Newall Street is now referred to as Armitage & Hiram. It is possible that Tanfield had moved to another firm, Upton Gill & Co, who seem to have started out relatively late, as they do not appear in trade directories until 1912. There is no record of them in the 1901 directory, though there is a "Charles Edward Upton-Jones" of Claremont Terrace, Morley Street (just a couple of streets away from their factory), who was listed as a music and musical instrument seller, though it does not appear he had any connection with the firm. An A H Gill, piano manufacturer, who presumably must have been one of the partners in the company, was living in the leafy suburbs of Mayfield Grove, Baildon near Bradford in 1912, but there is no record of him anywhere in the vicinity in 1901.

From census records, it appears that this may well be Arthur Howard Gill, born 1867, who is described in 1911 as "managing pianoforte factory". His place of birth was Southwark, from which one might be tempted to suspect that he may have learned his trade at one of the London firms; however, he is listed in 1901 as still living in the capital, but working as a grocer; in 1891, an Arthur Gill, who may be the same person was a merchant clerk. It may be, therefore, that he was mainly an entrepreneur, manager and administrator, rather than having a detailed knowledge of piano construction himself.

The same records turn up a George Upton, born 1880, who is described as a "piano maker" in the 1911 census - his birthplace was also in Southwark, the same as Arthur Gill. In 1901, there is no record of him in Bradford, but there is a George H Upton in London whose profession is frustratingly not recorded. We can speculate that perhaps Arthur Gill was the business guru behind the enterprise, whilst George Upton had the technical know-how; however, what event precipitated their decision to up sticks from London and come to Bradford to set up a piano factory is not entirely clear.

Their factory was located at the Wilton Works, Wilton Street, Bradford, just off Morley Street; a snippet of information from a local history website states that in February 1908 the "Wilton Street Piano Works" were destroyed by fire (so presumably the firm must already have been in existence by then). The 1908 map of the city shows a couple of empty sites at the western end of Wilton Street near the junction with Morley Street but the firm is listed at the same address in 1912, so they must have rebuilt around then. Some of the older buildings in Wilton Street survive today, and from this I believe it is quite possible (though not absolutely certain) that the building at the west end of the south side of the street, which occupies the corner plot, was the Upton Gill factory from around 1908 (when it was rebuilt) until production finished.
This may possibly have been the Upton Gill piano factory (constructed around 1908) on the corner of Wilton Street and Morley Street. The doorway just to the left of the blue sign has an elaborate fanlight with two carved cherub-like figures. The building has now been converted into student accommodation, known as Kexgill House.
In 1912, the firm also had a telephone number, Bradford 2652, which would then have been something of a novelty.

The firm produced modern instruments (including some player pianos) and probably ceased operations in the early 1930s. In 1944 the company went into voluntary liquidation with a special meeting held at 5 Seawell Avenue, Morecambe - the retirement home of the then Chairman, Harry Cottam. Cottam himself seems to have enjoyed a comfortable retirement, and on his death in September 1946 left an estate valued at the not inconsiderable sum of £63,655 12s 11d. Whoever said no-one ever made any money out of pianos!


  1. Hello, maybe you could tell me how much a Hilton & Hilton Gold medal plan, similar to the one pictured on your website, is worth today? Excuse the English, but I'm Italian.

  2. Many thanks for your comment. Sorry but I can't give valuations, partly because it's necessary to check the condition of the piano (to make sure there aren't any serious problems) and also the market may be completely different in other parts of the world, so I may just be giving bad advice. However, there are quite a lot of older pianos that are still good and serviceable instruments that can give great pleasure, even if the financial value is not enormous.

  3. I'm doing some Family History research and have just come across a man living in Victoria square, Leeds, with two occupations, one of which is (mis-spelt!) Piano manufacturer. His name is John Thomas Robinson. I wonder if Victoria Square, Leeds is anywhere near Saville Street. Jill E

    1. Thanks, the location of Saville Street was parallel and just to the west of Little Queen Street, which still exists, and the site is now occupied by the Wellington Street multi-storey car park and the Castle Street car park - therefore it isn't very far from Victoria Square which is in front of the Town Hall. It's possible that if John Robinson had another occupation, he might have been making pianos on a very small scale, as in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was possible to buy spare parts (action, frame &c) almost in a 'kit' form to build an instrument, although some excellent cabinet-making skills would still have been required.