William Southwell Biography: Home Page

Mobbs picture of Camerachord

Photograph © Kenneth and Mary Mobbs Collection, reproduced by kind permission of Kenneth Mobbs.
Upright Square Pianoforte (“Camerachord”), No. 59 by William Southwell, Dublin. The instrument is now in
the South Island of New Zealand, part of the Golden Bay Keyboard Collection of Kemp and Helen English.

Welcome to this website, the domain of Dr Margaret Debenham, an Independent Scholar in the UK. (For further information on her professional background as a researcher in the field of Educational Technology click on the following link to her personal website).

Based on novel findings from contemporary records, the site presents a biographical account of the Anglo–Irish musical instrument maker, William Southwell, active in Dublin in the final decades of the 18th century and in London from 1794. The fascinating story of his inventions and business dealings is set in the context of newly discovered aspects of his extraordinary personal life.

Acknowledged as a creative genius by cognoscenti, Southwell has not however achieved the widespread recognition he undoubtedly deserves. A man ahead of his time, he adopted a modern entrepreneurial approach in a bid to capitalise on his pianoforte inventions. In 1794 he negotiated a deal with the firm of Longman and Broderip, granting them sole rights to manufacture square pianofortes made to his novel patent design in London – a strategy which was to cost him dear, in no small part due to the actions of the manipulative and duplicitous James Longman. Undeterred however, he went on to enter into arrangements with other London manufacturers, including Clementi and Co., George Wilkinson and, in the final years of his life, John Watlen.

The main article (pdf) has been designed to facilitate an exploration of the additional links contained within it at appropriate points in the narrative while the reader is on-line, making use of the browser back button to return to the main text. To access this article follow the link below:

Margaret Debenham (2013). William Southwell (1736/7–1825): Anglo–Irish Musical Instrument Inventor and Maker – an extraordinary life. © Margaret Debenham. William Southwell (1736-1825) Biography 25 July 2013.pdf All rights reserved. Permission is granted to download one copy for the purposes of personal private research only.

(Michael Cole's appraisal of the technical aspects of William Southwell's work and his assessment of the importance of Southwell's inventions, available via the above link on his Square Pianos website, are of particular interest and recommended here as a valuable resource.)

More information on Southwell's difficulties in protecting his 1794 patent rights is to be found in the following publication: George S. Bozarth and Margaret Debenham. 2009. 'Piano Wars: The Legal Machinations of London Pianoforte Makers, 1795 - 1806 in The Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle Vol. 42, Issue 1. London: Royal Musical Association, 45-108.

Visitors to the site with a more personal interest in the family history of the Southwells may like to explore the information on individuals available via the ‘Genealogy’ menu. In the Victorian era three of William Southwell's grandsons, William Henry, Frederick and Edwin Southwell achieved acclaim as portrait photographers in London. The author's article 'Southwell Brothers Photographers' Royal: History of the Business (1857-1883)' and images of surviving examples of their work (including Queen Victoria and her family) may be found on our linked site Southwell Brothers: Photographers Royal.

Information on additions that have been made to the site since its inception is available here.

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Update 17 August 2017

A new sub-headings has today been added to the 'Musical Associates' menu, a Timeline on the life and work of John Isaac Hawkins (1772 - 1854). Hawkins, it may be remembered, was the inventor of an upright Forte piano, first made in America ca. 1800, preceding Southwell's upright cabinet pianoforte (patented 1807) by several years. Newly identified evidence from contemporary newspaper advertisements in 1805 now reveal that after Hawkins' return to London in 1803 he opened a manufactory there for this type of instrument; however, this venture was short lived and he became bankrupt in 1807, before going on to work as an engineer in other fields of interest.

Other new material reported includes information on Hawkins' Claviole, the first prototype of this instrument being constructed and completed in 1802 while he was still resident in America. There is now evidence that he constructed two further Clavioles in England, the first being completed in 1806, and that he retained a life long interest and affection for this instrument. Writing in 1845, he spoke of his plans to take it on tour to exhibit at concerts and also to give lessons on its construction to musical instrument makers, in the hope of recouping some of the financial investment he had made in its development. In reality, this was no more than a pipe dream. Although he did return to live in America in 1848, he found little work there and sadly died in poverty in 1854, with only his young third wife for company,

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As of 17 August 2017, e-prints of Margaret Debenham and Michael Cole's 2013 paper ‘Pioneer Piano Makers in London, 1737–1774: newly discovered documentary sources’, featuring the work of Plenius, Neubauer and Viator, and Margaret Debenham's 2014 paper 'Joseph Merlin in London, 1760–1803: the Man behind the Mask. New Documentary Sources' are still available for downloading free of charge from the Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle, by kind courtesy of the publishers, Taylor and Francis.

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Reader comments:

Laurence Libin, emeritus curator of musical instruments at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and editor-in-chief of the Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments for Oxford University Press: 'Thank you for posting the new material, valuable as always. Your work is truly inspiring, a model of clarity and comprehensiveness.' (via e-mail, 20 January 2016)

Norman MacSween, retired diplomat and music historian: 'Meticulous and wide-ranging scholarship, so lucidly organised and presented.'

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Thank you for your interest. We hope you will enjoy your visit and we will welcome feedback. The site is the result of a self-funded ‘not for profit’ retirement project and if you have found it useful, a donation to one of our favourite charities would be greatly appreciated. As grateful recipients of their care, we support Addenbrooke's Charitable Trust and Papworth Hospital Charity, and each month we will highlight one of them here as our ‘Charity of the Month’. This month it is:-

This is one of our suite of websites, selected for archiving by the British Library. Site last updated 17 August 2017

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