Preamble: The Sources
Until now there have been only three published sources that provided information
about Louis Lachenal (c. 1821-1861), the man who revolutionized concertina making
in England in the mid-nineteenth century.
(1) George Jones: The most reliable source is Lachenal's near contemporary,
George Smith Jones (1832-1919), himself a major concertina maker and author of the
invaluable memoir, "Recollections of the English
His credentials as a witness could hardly have been
… At eight years of age he was an excellent performer on the French
which was then becoming a very popular instrument. A friend of his father's,
one of the outdoor workmen at Messrs. Wheatstone's—took great interest
in him, and frequently sent him with messages to the firm. … Soon after,
Mr. Skeats [read: Scates],5
whose many improvements in the English concertina have made his name well known,
commenced manufacturing. Mr. Austin being engaged by him on the establishment,
introduced his young friend [Jones] to Mr. Skeats, whose service he entered
with a view to apprenticeship,6
but he was compelled to leave after a few months, in consequence of his father
thinking that the business would not be a success. Through the kindness of
Mr. Skeats, he had learnt the groundwork of reed-making and tuning … Mr. Austin
left Mr. Skeats and started on his own account,7
when young Jones was articled to him for a term, during which he became a perfect
master of all branches of the trade … .
We should bear in mind, though, that it was only towards the end of his life
that Jones wrote his fascinating and invaluable
and that he was writing about events that happened up to seventy years earlier.
That his memory may sometimes have been at fault—as was often his spelling
of names—can hardly be doubted.
The other two sources are much further removed from the events of the
1840s–50s that I wish to examine, but nevertheless had close associations
with the firm of Lachenal & Co. Moreover, I am glad to have had the privilege
of meeting both of them, both through the International Concertina Association
and at their workshops.
(2) Harry Crabb: Henry Joseph ("Harry") Crabb (d. 1981) was a third-generation
concertina maker. Both his grandfather John and his grand uncle Charles worked for
Louis Lachenal (see Part 2, forthcoming). Harry told
that his "grandfather's brother [Charles] worked for Lachenal all his life,"
and that Charles's two daughters—Elizabeth and
"were there 'til they died, in their seventies, and they were still doin'
action work and things like that." Further, according to Wayne, "on the closure
of Lachenals, their last manager, Mr. Sanders, work[ed] for
while Tommy Williams (see below)
recalled that the other partner, Ballinger,
"turned over all the Salvation Army orders to Harry Crabb, whose father was
dead then, rather than let Wheatstone's have
Unfortunately, the chronology and dates of Crabb's early years seem to have gone
badly adrift, as will presently become apparent.
(3) Tommy Williams: A great character of the concertina world, who
played the Maccann duet by ear,
started working for Lachenal & Co. as a reed maker and tuner after World War I.
Such tasks would always be done as "outwork" (see note 23)
because, as Tommy said, "they [Lachenal's] didn't have separate rooms [for the tuners],
and you'd interfere with another man's
Tommy would no doubt have heard many stories about the history of the firm from his
fellow workers: "… they was all pretty old, perhaps been with the firm
since it started, around 1829 [sic],"
Yet most of what Williams said makes perfect sense, and his evidence is
The Career of Louis Lachenal
I have chosen to discuss Lachenal's career by first setting out statements
about him that appear in our three sources and then comparing those statements
with information that I have recently discovered in the course of my research
about both Lachenal in particular and the history of the concertina in the
nineteenth century in general.16
—“Messrs. Lachenal, Hervy & Shaller came over from Switzerland and started
(Jones, "Recollections," ).17
On 29 December 1839, three young Swiss arrived in the Port of London aboard the Harlequin
from Boulogne. They were Charles Auguste Golay, Elie Golay, and Louis Lachenal. Their Certificate
of Arrival lists the occupation of all three as "watchmakers"
(see Fig. 1).18
Louis Lachenal would then have been eighteen years
and perhaps he too had been apprenticed as a watchmaker; certainly the Golay brothers
were to follow that calling. There are no Directory entries for any of them
until the late 1840s, but no doubt they first worked for others before starting
their own firms.20
London was at this time a center of excellence and innovation in engineering,.
The workshop of Joseph Clement (1779–1844) in particular was described as
"one of the best schools of its time for the training of thoroughly accomplished
mechanics"; one of Clements's "ingenious inventions was his Planing Machine …
For ten years after it was set in motion [in 1825] … it was often kept going
night and day,—the earnings by the planing machine alone during that time
forming the principle income of its inventor … some ten pounds for every
day's work of twelve hours."21
It is tempting to speculate that young Louis Lachenal perhaps honed his skills
in such a workshop, but we will probably never know just what he did between his
arrival in England and his starting to work for Wheatstone & Co. Certainly
iron planing was later to make money for him also. The only trace of him in the
meantime occurs in September 1841, when "Louis Lachenal of Fitchfield [sic]
Street, Soho, Mechanic, and Antoine Vieyres, Watchmaker, of Pall Mall," took out
a Patent for "machinery for cutting bottle
—In 1844 I commenced working for Mr. Austin, who made the pans complete
for Wheatstone, the inventor, all done by hand,
Mr. Dowsett made tops,24
bellows frames and cases outdoor; Mr. Card, bellows;25
Mr. Jackson, metalwork; Mr. Rock Chidley26
and Mr. Dove27
were finishers; Mr. Saunders28
and Mr. Scates, tuners. Every part was then made by hand; no press tools were then in use …
About 1847 Mr. Nicholds and his sons were engaged to make tools to produce the metal-work,
they being machinists
(Jones, "Recollections," ).
Jones worked only briefly as a concertina maker at this time (aged twelve),
as his father, "thinking the trade would not be any good, refused to apprentice
[him] to Scates."29
There would, therefore, seem to be a gap of some six years before he once again worked
in the concertina trade with Austin, circa 1850.
I believe that Jones is here confusing some tool making undertaken by Nickolds
circa 1844–1845 with the tool making for "mass production" undertaken by
Louis Lachenal circa 1847–1848. Certainly, instruments made in 1845
start to show evidence of new tooling,30
both in connection with the shoes (reed frames) and the actions (lever mechanisms). They
exhibit two features that were to reappear later in instruments built by the Nickolds family.
The first of these appears in the brass nut or reed clamp (the rectangular clamping plate)
that holds the reed in place on the shoe. Formerly, this nut had two holes drilled through it
for the note screws (see above) to pass through, but Wheatstone concertinas of this period
have the nut grooved by a nibbling tool at either end to receive the screws.
The second innovation, the first real "engineered" improvement in concertina-making,
is the lever construction often referred to as "hook action" or, more commonly—because
it was used in virtually all Lachenal instruments—as "Lachenal action." Ironically, I
believe that this was the one design improvement, used in the later "mass-produced" models,
that had nothing to do with Louis Lachenal, as it appeared too early for his involvement.
I find it not without significance that the Nickolds family would use a similar
(but open-sided) lever mechanism in concertinas of their own manufacture, perhaps
reclaiming it for themselves while getting around Wheatstone's
Shown in Figure 16 of the Patent, it is described as being advantageous in that "the lever
can be instantly detached from its bearing to be examined" and—perhaps more
significantly(?)—"the workmanship required is less."
This Patent is otherwise largely an attempt to prolong the life of Wheatstone's original
Symphonium Patent of 1829,32
which had covered the principle—but not the specific details—of his
yet-to-be-invented English concertina. It was a classic ploy. Such "Improvement" Patents
provided a "way in which a monopoly in an important invention [could] be kept alive
after the patent ha[d] come to an end … by patenting large numbers of minor
improvements to the original invention …"33
It was evidently not successful, as most of Wheatstone's employees seem to have set up
as concertina makers in their own right during the next fourteen years (the life of the
patent), starting with Joseph Scates in 1844, the very year in which the patent was
—[There] was difficulty in obtaining
Lachenal … started screw making … and was introduced to Wheatstone's.
… Mr. Lachenal, being a clever tool maker, soon displaced Nickolds and sons,
who started to make concertinas in Clerkenwell
(Jones, "Recollections," ).
We are fortunate that there survive from this period two dark-red leather notebooks
that list the weekly payments to Wheatstone staff and
The first is titled "Mens' [sic] Wages," and covers the period 25 January
1845–1 August 1846. The name "Nickold" appears on the very first page,
drawing the sum of 17/6 (shillings/pence) and various such (low) amounts
every following week; the largest sum he is paid for one week's work is
£1.16.0 (pounds, shillings, pence) on both 2 and 9 May 1846.
"Mr. Lachenal" appears only occasionally, and is paid larger sums: for example,
£5.11.0 on 8 February 1845, £4.0.0 on 14 June 1845, and the enormous
sum of £33.0.0 on 12 July 1845. However, from 9 August 1845 (£2.6.0),
payments to Lachenal become weekly and increasingly larger than those to Nickolds,
rising to £7.18.0 by the end of the book, a year later.
More is revealed on 16 May 1846, when the entry reads "Mr. Lachenal for Men's
Wages £7.5.0," while "Nickold" receives only £1.4.0. Thus Nickolds was
still an ordinary employee, while Louis Lachenal was by then employing staff on
behalf of Wheatstone & Co.
A very significant entry appears on 20 May 1846: "Carpenter on a/c [account]
for shop fittings in Georges [sic] Yd. £1.10.0." It would be another
two years before a Directory entry would appear for "Lachenal Louis machinist
George yard, Princes st., Soho,"37
but this 1846 payment shows that Wheatstone & Co. must have helped Lachenal
already set up or improve his workship
The entries for him in the Post Office London Directory for the period 1850–1853
would change to read "machinist, iron planer, small screw & piano rivet manufacturer,"
and he would still describe himself as "engineer" on most official
But the firm's advertised claim from
on to be "20 years maker of the English patent concertina" would seem to be quite
justified, as Lachenal was evidently already deeply involved with Wheatstone & Co.
and concertina making by 1846. The second of these surviving notebooks, titled
"Wages Etc 1848," covers the period January 1848–30 June 1849. Weekly payments
to "Mr. Lachenal" start at £8.14.8 on the first page and end at £24.0.0
on the last. The entry for 2 June 1849 once again makes it clear that this is money
"to pay workmen"; it is by far the largest single expenditure each week. There are
no more payments to Nickolds in this book, and we know that the Nickolds family
started to manufacture concertinas themselves at 5, Woodbridge Street, Clerkenwell,
It would seem reasonable to speculate that Lachenal's increasing involvement
with the firm of Wheatstone & Co., together with other engineering work he would
still have been carrying out (as witnessed by his Directory entries), gave him
the financial security and confidence to marry. He must have journeyed home to
Switzerland in 1847, for on 10 November of that year, he returned to England through
the Port of Folkestone "with his wife."42
Her maiden name was Jeanne
Marie Elisabeth Irion, and she came from Ferney Voltaire, just across the French
border from Geneva.
I have found no trace of their marriage in England, and it no doubt took place
either in Ferney Voltaire or Geneva before their trip to London. She was to be
known in England as Elizabeth Lachenal. The first of their eight children, Marie,
was born at home on 13 August 1848. The address on the Birth Certificate is
26, King Street,44
so we know that Lachenal was then living in the row of houses behind which lay
George Yard and his workshop.
1848 was also to witness the birth of a new model of concertina, with
"important improvements" at "a very considerable reduction in price," as
announced in the following Wheatstone
price list of that year:
By Her Majesty's Royal Letters Patent.
A NEW MUSICAL INSTRUMENT,
MANUFACTURED BY THE PATENTEES,
Messrs. WHEATSTONE & Co.
20, CONDUIT STREET, REGENT STREET, LONDON.
THE CONCERTINA possesses qualities which have never hitherto been
combined in a single Musical Instrument. It is equally adapted to the most
expressive performance, and the most rapid execution; whether confined to
the succession of single notes, as most other wind instruments are, or in
harmony of two, three, or four parts. From the remarkable simplicity of its
fingering, and the great facility with which its tones are produced and sustained,
it is very easily learnt; and as it cannot be sounded out of tune, the most
perfect crescendos and diminuendos may be obtained, without the practice
requisite on other instruments. To these advantages may be added the peculiar
beauty of its tones, and its extreme portability.
The performances of Signor Giulio Regondi, Mr. George Case, Mr.
Richard Blagrove, and others, at the principal Concerts during the past and
present years, have frequently enabled the Musical Public to judge of the
effects and capabilities of this Instrument. An inspection of the music published
will shew that, either for solos or accompaniments, it is not less efficient
than the instruments in present use; whilst in its peculiar effects, and particularly
in those of its harmonies, it is unrivalled. The Concertina is capable of
performing music written for the Flute or Violin, besides music expressly
composed or arranged for the instrument.
All the instruments in the following list have, besides a complete chromatic
scale, additional notes for the purpose of making the chords in different keys
more perfect and harmonious than they can be on the Organ or Pianoforte,
and for rendering the fingering of the scales in different keys equally
In the single-action Concertinas, the tones are produced only when the
bellows is moved in one direction; and it is necessary to attend to the same
rules, with respect to the management of the [air] valve, as those regarding the
management of the breath in singing, or in performing on wind instruments.
In the double-action instruments, the tones are produced whichever way
the bellows is moved, and its management is then much easier, and resembles
that of the bow of the Violin and Violoncello. The double-action Concertina
is more easy to learn; but, with more practice, equally good effects may be
obtained with the single-action instrument.
N.B. No instruments, except those manufactured by Messrs. WHEATSTONE
and Co. are constructed with the improvements for which a second Patent was
obtained by them in February, 1844, and which all other parties are
prohibited from employing. This notice is rendered necessary by the fact, that,
since the expiration of the original Patent, instruments have been imported
from abroad, as well as made in England, with very inferior workmanship,
which can give but a very imperfect idea of the capabilities of the improved
Concertina. Notwithstanding these important improvements, a very considerable
reduction in price of the various descriptions of the Concertina has been
recently effected, as the subjoined list will show.
|COMPASS OF INSTRUMENTS.
|Scale from b to d'''
||Two Octaves and Two Notes,
|Scale from b to a'''
||Two Octaves and Seven Notes,
|Scale from g to c''''
||Three Octaves and Three Notes,
|Scale, Three Octaves, from c to c'''
|Scale, Three Octaves, from C to c''
The Tenor Concertina is a little larger than the Treble Instrument. The
fingering is the same, but the sounds produced are an octave lower.
The Bass Concertina is nearly double the size of the Treble Instrument; it has a single
action, the fingering is the same, but the sounds produced are two octaves below
those of the treble instrument.
The above Instruments are also made in sets, accurately tuned together, according
to the standard pitch, for the performance of Trios, Quartets, &c.
A Case is provided with each Instrument.