The thing about steam rallies is there can be quite a bit of time to sit around, not doing much. Listening to the beat of the exhaust from the stationary engines is actually quite a nice way to spend a weekend. It does give the mind some time to wander though and that’s exactly what happened last weekend.
I’ve been thinking about how great it would be to be a busker for quite some time. I see them regularly in Chesterfield and they always seem to take more money at the end of the day than my market stall does! The problem with me becoming a busker though is that I can’t sing or play a single note. So what could I possibly do? Then I had an idea. I remembered someone I know who has a small hand-turned street organ. One if those would be just the job. Having a quick look online though I soon found a stumbling block. The price! These little organs, even newly built ones constructed by enthusiasts, can easily cost the top side of £1,000. But while browsing E-Bay last weekend I couldn’t believe my luck. There in the search results was a genuine Victorian street barrel piano, with buds starting at just £100. So a bid was placed and to cut a long story short, I won it for the princely sum of £155.
Although in fairly good condition, the piano is not perfect. It will need some restoration work before it can play a recignisable tune. But all the basics are there. So now the work begins.
My problem now is the apparent lack of information out there about restoring these old instruments. I had never rouched one until yesterday, when I collected mine. Now I need to learn how to restore one.
It turns out the last factory in the UK making and mending barrel pianos was still around in the 1960s accirding to a piece of newsreel film I found. Thus rare colour footage shows an elderly gent putting the nails into a new barrel. And who is he? Well non other than the very same Mr Tomasso whose company made my piano all those years ago. Unfortunately I guess he’ll have gone to that great organ factory in the sky now. So who is left to help? If you know of anyone who knows anything about barrel pianos, please, please, please get in touch.
Although there are a few British barrel pianos left (less than 100) apparently, the days of seeing them earning a living on street corners have long gone. That is something I would very much like to put right and bring back this wonderfully evocative sound and a long extinct trade.