During the 1920s and ’30s, the concertina virtuosi known as
the Fayre Four Sisters—Inga, Tina, Sylvia,
and Lillian Webb1—were
among the most popular performers on the British music hall and vaudeville circuits. They represented
the end of the line for the “class” act that combined female good looks, fancy
choreography and sets, and a repertory of light classical music (some of which had been popular since the
early nineteenth century), along with more recent pop hits (see Fig. 1).
The sisters were the daughters of Joseph Webb, one-half of the popular musical-clown
act of Root Toot (also called Ruté) and JoJo (Root Toot was Joseph’s brother Robert)
that was active from the 1880s to the 1920s
(see Fig. 2).2
As did many other musical clowns, the brothers incorporated a number of instruments with
comic potential into their act. And with its floppy bellows and easily wrought squeaks and
squawks, the concertina had broad appeal to circus performers. The Web brothers even had a
“giant concertina” built
which consisted of a large shell that surrounded a real,
playable instrument. It was not long before they were imitated both in England and on the
Continent. Even novelty acts on the vaudeville and music hall circuits were soon smitten by
the instrument, and we thus have tales of concertinists accompanying magicians and even
Two photographs of the Fayre Four Sisters as they appeared in the
1920s(?); the concertinas had a dull, gold finish, courtesy of
Wheatstone & company
(photographs in author’s collection).
Fig. 2. The Webb Brothers, in a photograph signed on 5 October 1928
(photograph in author’s collection).
Like many other circus comedy acts, the brothers often broke the flow of hijinks
by performing pieces from the light-classical repertory: Sullivan’ The Lost
Chord (a special favorite), popular arias and overtures, and other pieces that
would have been well known to audiences of the day. Sylvia Webb recalled how the
brothers would transport the audience from moments of broad comedy to musical
And from those clowns having done this funny invisible music, poking
each other and sitting on the back of a chair and everything, suddenly the lights
went down, and then all you’d see were these two clown faces And they’d
play this lovely organ music, The Sicilian Hymn, and then dad went
into The Bells. And of course, after that, everybody learnt to play it. But I
learnt to play The Bells standing behind my father. He always went into a
different world when he played The Bells. And I had to stand behind him
and follow his … swinging movement so as to get the real thing … .
The Bells to which Sylvia refers is the Imitation of Church Bells, in
which the concertina player, swinging the instrument back and forth, would play the
familiar sequence of the Westminster chimes. In fact, Imitation of Church Bells,
as arranged by Henri Albano, an active music hall concertinist from the turn of
the century, enjoyed great success with concertina players of the
And when I recorded dozens of concertinists in London in 1975, they were still
playing the same Westminster chime progression and vigorously swinging their
instruments to and fro.5
Although the Webb sisters were not raised to be professional musicians,
their parents, in typical turn-of-the-century fashion, insisted that they study piano.
The two eldest sisters, Inga and Tina, were the most talented, and Tina
eventually became both the leader of the quartet and its chief arranger. It was a
relative of the family, George Jones, himself a noted concertina
who gave the sisters their first lessons on the concertina. Inga recalls
that her father and uncle had gone on tour, and that Jones decided to teach the
two eldest sisters and their mother how to play the concertina as a welcome-home
Mr. Jones started us a surprise when our dad and uncle had gone to South
America for six months. And he said “We’ll learn you the concertina,”
because we’d only studied piano up to that [time]. He taught mother to play
the bass [concertina] at that time because Lillian and Sylvia were too
young to play … . And dad was so delighted, he said “We’ll get you
a really good teacher.”
The “really good teacher” turned out to be “Madame” Marie Rowbotham, a
well-known concertinist and a member of the Chidley family, which was itself
related to Charles Wheatstone and played a prominent role in the manufacture
and promotion of concertinas.7
And although Rowbotham was not really a music hall performer—she played classical music
exclusively and appeared mainly on the recital stage—she had, by the turn of the century,
gained a following with music hall performers and was not at all our of her element teaching
the daughters of a musical clown.
The four girls began to perform together when Inga and Tina reached their teens. At
first they played only classical music—no doubt a reflection of Madame Rowbothan’s
lessons—but they soon expanded their repertory to include the popular music of the day.
The sisters enjoyed their greatest success from the mid-’20s through the early ’30s,
when they played throughout England and Europe, and even made a trip to the United States, where
they appeared at New York’s Palace Theater and, during the late 1920s, played the
Keith Orpheum vaudeville circuit. Their programs covered a wide repertory,
ranging from transcriptions of Chopin piano preludes to arrangements of Gershwin’s
Rhapsody in Blue and Jelly Roll Morton’s enormously popular Tiger
Thanks to their close connections with the firm of Wheatstone, the Fayre Four
Sisters had easy access to the entire “consort” of English concertinas:
thus Tina and Sylvia played trebles, Inga the baritone, and Lillian the bass,
with all the instruments coming from among Wheatstone’s top-of-the-line
Æolas, octagonal-shaped instruments with black leather bellows and bloac,
ebonized wooden ends. But when an early promoter decided that the black concertinas
were “too funereal-looking” for a female quartet, the girls went to
Wheatstone, which provide3d them with custom-made, gold-laminated instruments
(including gold leather bellows). And if, according to the sisters,
Wheatstone was initially reluctant to “gussy up” its instruments, the firm
recognized their need for a touch of flamboyant showmanship. Indeed, in their
heyday, the Fayre Four’s flashy-looking concertinas were matched both by
their numerous and lavish costumes and by the elaborate sets that they used as
backdrops for their act.
As musical director of the group, Tina turned out arrangements that were
both difficult and inventive. Even old warhorses such as The Lost Chord were
arranged to take advantage of the quartet’s rich tone color and wide range,
while the choirboy costumes and the painted backdrop of a large church organ
completed the illusion and helped make this their big number. At times the
novelty became downright acrobatic, as when the four girls waltzed—concertinas
in hand—while playing The Blue Danube; here each sister held one end
of one instrument in one hand and one end of another in the other hand, playing
as they danced (see Fig. 3). They recalled the feat as follows:
My sister started by singing it, and we played it first, then she sang a
phrase, and danced a phrase, and then the four of us just joined up together,
and did a waltz. … we certainly danced with the instruments.
You’ve got two instruments that side, and the other girl has got the
opposite ends of the two instruments. Now it took us quite a while to be
near enough to go over without hurting the instruments. You se, we didn’t
want to ruin our instruments … .
I was terrified that they were going to tear apart.
Fig. 3. The Fayre Four Sisters waltzing to The Blue Danube as they
(photograph in author’s collection).
For The Volga Boat Men, they performed the same trick, this time imitating the
rowing of a boat. As Sylvia put it:
We always like working cute ideas because … they add a little excitement
to [the act]. When we did The Volga Boat Song [sic], [we] slung the concertinas
over our heads, it took hours to rehearse it. You were playing on
one instrument with the left hand and on another with the right hand. And
we made it look like the rowing of the boats … always got a round of
One of their most popular numbers was A Trip Around the British Isles,
which featured different hats for the different national melodies of Ireland,
Scotland, and Wales. Sylvia said: “We only had hats on [plus musically
unrelated costumes from shoulders down!], but it just gave the suggestion. Much
better to suggest things than to do the whole thing … .” They had
hunting hats for The Hunter’s Reel, while Lillian wore an Irish tam and
a little green cape for the Irish selection; the medley ended with all four sisters playing
imitations of the Scottish bagpipes.
Frank Butler, the grandson of George Jones, was a close friend of the
Webb family. He described the sisters’ act to me:
A quite typical turn [vaudeville act] would have to do 15–20 minutes, three or
four times a day. [The Fayre Four] would have a drawing-room setting.
They would all four play the piano at some time in the act, all four on one piano.
The eldest one [Tina] was a very good pianist; she’d play something
like Chopin’s Minute Waltz as a solo, this being, even then, the popular
thing. Or there was a Chopin polonaise she was very keen on playing. They
would play four concertinas. They would do Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of
the Bumble Bee [from the opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan], Grieg’s “Morning
[Mood]” [from the Peer Gynt Suite, No. 1]; that was another great one of
theirs. … They also played other instruments. One time they played
one-string fiddles; another time they played saxophones. … They would give
virtually a drawing room performance of four very nice young ladies. They
were nicknamed “the most lady-like young ladies on the English stage.”
They were four rather lovely blond girls; their mother was Swedish, and their
Swedish influence came out in their blondness and their general cast of features.
Very, very, charming girls.9
Although the sisters played classical music exclusively when they first
began to perform, they came to realize that they had to broaden their act to interest
the audience. Sylvia recalled: “First of all, we were terribly classical; we
were snooty, yes. We were going to educate the people, and the people educated
us!” They began to add what they called “rhythm numbers” to their
act, jazz and pop songs of the day. And when, in the 1930s, the accordion became
popular and audiences began requesting that they play that better-known instrument,
the girls quickly came up with an idea: they would open the show
playing four accordions, and then replace them—one by one—with concertinas.
This, according to Tina, was to show what a superior and “beautiful tone”
the concertina had.
In the early ’30s, the Fayre Four Sisters led a road show through England
that featured a mix of musical artists, comedians, and dancing girls. The
show’s finale was an elaborately staged number, and featured the four sisters
playing Have You Heard the Concertina Band? As Inga and Sylvia described it:
The whole thing opened up in black and white, with the scenery
painted like music, and all the girls were in black and white costumes with
music, notes, and theme. And Wheatstones made these instruments that
only played four chords. And the girls learnt, you see …
They numbered the chords 1, 2, 3, 4 and they had it [the numbers]
on a glove. … instead of written-out music, they had: 1, 3, 2, 4, 4, 4, 1, 3.
And those studs [the buttons on the instrument] were numbered like that,
and mind you they all played. …
Each stud played a chord. they only had four studs, and each played
a chord … . And we played the melody in the front … .
The great expense of amanufacturing the sixteen custom-made instruments
caused the sisters to keep this act on the road for two years.
The Fayre Four made only a few recordings.10
In 1933, a Scottish fan formed the “Great Scott” label and released two 78
The sisters’ own Russian Fantasy, a medley of well-known Russian melodies, featured
their performance of The Volga Boat Men, with Tina playing rapid upper-octave
runs on the piccolo concertina.12
The medley also included the familiar theme of Tschaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, and ended
with—of all things—the ever-popular Imitation of Church Bells. Another impressive
piece recorded around this time was Tina’s arrangment of Raggin’ the Scale, a
novelty rag hit of the era.13
Tina captured the light syncopation of the piece, and her lightning fast playing of the scale
passages is a highlight of the recording.
The sisters recorded one more 78 in the early 1950s, this time as a promotion
for the Wheatstone company. They finally put to record their impressive
version of Flight of the Bumble Bee, in which Tina displays her dazzling
virtuosity. Indeed, Sylvia admitted that the other sisters had trouble keeping up
with her: “[She] didn’t play it smeary, just slither over the notes; [she] really
played the notes. Oh, but it was hells-bells for everybody to keep up with it … .”
This led into Leroy Anderson’s 1954 hit Forgotten Dreams, which Tina treats
to a lush arrangment that is reminiscent of accordion styles of the day. Moreover,
it shows that the sisters were quite up-to-date in terms of their repertory.
Although the music halls pretty much dried up after World War II, the sisters
continued to work sporadically on radio and television. And when a group
of concertinists founded the International Concertina Association in London
in the early 1950s, the Webb sisters were invited to perform at its first festival,
and served as judges for the competitions. And it was as participants at other
such local events that the Fayre Four Sisters brought their career to a quiet close.
As noted above, it was in January 1975 that I traveled to London with the
express purpose of recording a number of the legendary, but aging concertinists.
Thanks to a kind introduction by Frank Butler, I was able to meet
the Fayre Four Sisters, who were living together in a small row house in South
London. I spent a day with them, interviewing them about the heyday of their
music hall careers. Still spunky, the sisters—then in their late seventies and
early eighties (see note 1)—played their arrangement of The Lost Chord from
memory, just as they had at the beginning of so many of their performances.
And although Lillian admitted that she had trouble keeping up on the bass part, it
was remarkable to hear this music spring to life much as it had decades earlier.