The English Concertina

By Sally Barrett

(An outgrowth from Wheatstone’s symphonium developed earlier)
Photographs copyright of, and used with the kind permission of Bob Minting

By replacing human breath with a set of bellows, the first English concertina was made in 1829, having only 24 buttons (keys).  1835 saw the first 48 key instrument, making a sound only on the squeeze (the push) and drawing in air on the ‘pull’, this being known as ‘single action’.

Over the years Wheatstone made many modifications and improvements, including the introduction of ‘double action’ i.e. playing on both the push and the pull, and gradually they became an increasingly popular instrument.  ‘48 key’ models have a huge range of three and a half octaves and in the treble – the most common pitch – this is exactly the same as a violin or fiddle.  It is fully chromatic, that is to say, music written in any key can be played on it.  All this from a little box measuring only a little over six inches in diameter!   After the first instruments in the treble range, others were built in the baritone and bass range, each slightly bigger but with the same layout of keys and playing one octave and two octaves lower respectively. Wheatstone also created a ‘miniature’, with only twelve buttons, and playing in the piccolo range, an octave higher than the treble. Along with all these, plus the Mayfair model, and tenor-trebles having an extra row of buttons at the bottom, many instruments were also made to customers’ individual requirements, as well as other models with a greater or lesser number of buttons. He also made ‘piccolos’ with a full complement of buttons and which play in that higher octave. However, all models have the same basic layout so a regular player of, say, a treble, can pick up an instrument of another range and be able to play with some confidence.  This is something not found in other families of instruments e.g. strings or woodwind.

As the popularity of the instrument grew, the Wheatstone Company closed their other areas of work to concentrate solely on the business of concertina manufacture. Each component was carefully handcrafted and assembled in the factory which employed many men who each worked on their own speciality, including the tuners.

Over time, several of their employees moved on to open their own companies, Louis Lachenal probably being the best-known, eventually producing many thousands more instruments than Wheatstone. Both these major companies went on to make other systems of concertina, the Anglo-Chromatic and Duet systems, which were both being developed elsewhere, the Anglo in Germany.  Crabb, Jeffries, Scates and Jones are some of the other ‘makers’ although it is thought that some bought in components made by the big companies.

Wheatstone concluded that a circular instrument would produce the best sound, so alongside his regular hexagonal instruments began to make the Aeola, his best quality instrument, having eight sides.  Lachenal created his own 12-sided version, the Edeophone.  Instruments were produced by both companies in a range of quality and therefore price.  Reeds are either of brass or steel, brass being less expensive and giving a sweeter, less bright sound, often chosen to accompany singing.  The ends of the instrument may be of nickel-silver, chrome plated, or wood finish such as rosewood, mahogany, walnut, burr oak or ebony, while the most expensive could be of amboyna or even tortoiseshell. A better quality sound is produced by instruments which have ends that are shaped with a raised area in the middle. The number of folds in the bellows varies, generally between four and eight, more giving a greater degree of flexibility with the need to change direction when playing.  The buttons are most often of nickel-silver or bone but are also made from glass or even gold-plated!  Gold-plated buttons are usually found on instruments with tortoiseshell ends.  They are notably loud! Each of these alternatives contribute to the final cost. The very best components and craftsmanship were reserved for the Aeolas and Edeophones.

A Wheatstone rosewood 48 key treble, with nickel-silver buttons and steel reeds, made in 1877, and restored by Steve Dickinson in 1997.  Note the ‘wear’ in the varnish by the thumb strap has been deliberately left so as not to overdo the restoration, while all the important work has been carefully completed.
Photo copyright Paul Barrett.

A Wheatstone trade/export price list (as opposed to retail) from April 1955 shows that the cheapest model available, a 48 key hexagonal treble instrument, with erinoid keys, five-fold bellows, steel reeds and finished in mahogany, could be purchased for £12, while one similar to the above was £18.  The most expensive, a 56 key, chrome-plated, octagonal baritone Aeola with raised ends, nickel-silver capped keys and seven-fold bellows would set the retailer back £48. 6s 8d. 

The instrument below was made in 1933 but is similar to the Aeola described above.

Photo copyright Paul Barrett

It is suggested that Wheatstone made around 15,000 concertinas of all systems while Lachenal produced about 250,000, many at the cheaper end of the scale. Many of the cheaper instruments have not survived but along with better quality ones they are still being found in attics and other places. Many went to sea or off to war with their owners and Dr. Livingstone took his to Central Africa while Shackleton’s went with him on his Antarctic expedition! They have been found pretty much everywhere in the world where British people have travelled in the past.  A basically good vintage instrument is well worth skilled restoration and will generally have a sound and action far superior to most modern instruments.

The age of a Wheatstone instrument can be pretty accurately found by looking at the sales ledgers, which are available on-line, while finding the year of manufacture of Lachenals is rather more difficult. There is a formula that can be used using the serial numbers but that is trickier and a tad unreliable.

After a spell of ownership by Boosey and Hawkes from 1959, Steve Dickinson, who had been mentored in the craft by the very last apprentice at Wheatstone (by then an old man) bought the Wheatstone company name in the 1970s, along with the remaining stock and equipment, and continues the tradition of skilled craftsmanship in both making and restoring concertinas.  In recent years several other makers and restorers, both in the UK and abroad, have come on the scene, some producing really good instruments and using due care in repairs. Others make instruments of a lesser quality but are ok to start with for anyone thinking of taking up the instrument to get an idea of how it works. 

As a small, easily portable and versatile instrument, the concertina (other systems as well as English) has been and continues to be used in pretty much every genre of music. In its heyday it was popular in music halls, concerts, for old-time music and in classical performances. Several artistes became famous for performances and recordings of classical music with works by Haydn, Mozart and Handel being known, and many pieces of classical music were specially written for the English concertina.

The eminent Italian composer Guilio Rigondi wrote two concertos and other, smaller pieces, and he and Mr. Richard Blaygrove were just two of the many players famous at that time.  Alf Edwards is described as a ‘famous broadcasting and orchestral concertina player’ and a ‘leading radio and recording star’ of the English concertina.  He wrote the 50 page illustrated tutor book for Wheatstone, ‘A Modern Method for The English Concertina’.

Group Playing

It was also popular as an instrument ‘for the drawing-room,’ unlikely to disturb the neighbours.  Small concertina groups became popular, as did larger concertina bands – think ‘brass bands’ – especially in the Lancashire and Yorkshire regions.  Most, but by no means not all players in these situations would have the English system.  One of the many concertina bands in the U.K., The Mexborough English Concertina Prize Band, began near Rotherham in 1897, firstly as an Anglo band but quickly changed to English because it gave much more flexibility. After winning their first competition in 1903, they won the National Championships in 1906 and played before the King, after which the years leading up to the First World War saw them at their peak. The band owned all the instruments played and, coincidentally, this was also the time when Wheatstone produced their best instruments so that must have been quite something. Although not exactly cheap, they were less costly than pianos or brass instruments but it was common for bands to loan to their players rather than each individual having to buy their own. 

Despite losing several of their members in the war, the Mexborough band continued to be really popular, fulfilling many, many bookings within the North of England.  But a combination of the Second World War, social mobility and changes in society’s interests eventually led to them disbanding in 1978.  The band had been so popular and had formed such a strong fellowship that they had created their own social club, which remained in existence as a working man’s club for many years after they had disbanded and sold all their instruments. The more recently-formed Yorkshire Concertina Club maintained strong links with the premises for some years, holding their annual open band day there and still recommending it for a lunchtime pint but the event has now moved elsewhere in the locality.

The tradition of concertina band playing has seen an increase in popularity. Several groups and bands having started up in the latter years of the 20th century and into the 21st. Some members very competently play Anglo or duet systems but the vast majority play English. The English also became and has remained popular among folk musicians, whether in the informal sing around-type folk clubs, as a bright, lively instrument in ceilidh bands or holding their own accompanying Morris dancing of all traditions.

Dave Townsend, Alistair Anderson, Damien Barber and Mary Humphreys are just a few among the many superb current well-known individual performers. All have their own style and all are worth checking out.

The Structure, Layout and Playing

The English concertina is held by inserting the thumbs into the leather thumb straps and locating little fingers into the metal finger rests, leaving three fingers on each hand to do the business.  It can be quite tiring and feel heavy, particularly for beginners and especially so for the little fingers. The recommended way to help with this is to sit and rest one end of the instrument on one knee. Many players feel comfortable playing while standing, often assisted by using a neck strap or less commonly, a harness arrangement.

Between the thumb straps and finger rests, the buttons are arranged in four columns, more usually referred to as rows. Unlike the Anglo, each button produces the same note on both the push and the pull. This is facilitated by the button serving a pair of reeds tuned to the same pitch, one working on each direction of the bellows.  In common with Anglos and Duets, each pair sits in their own air-tight chamber, meaning there can be no overtones from other reeds, giving that distinctive pure single reed sound of the concertina. 

The picture below shows the arrangement of the reeds, each in its separate chamber, together with the leather valve belonging to the partner reed, (the white bits). 

The second picture shows the ‘action’, the arrangement of levers and springs that makes the buttons work to lift the pads off each air hole in order to vibrate the reeds.

Both pictures are of the left hand end of a 48 key treble made by Crabb.
Photographs copyright Paul Barrett

Sequentially, if playing the musical scale in the key of C, the notes alternate between the ends, zigzagging between the central rows, the notes on the lines of music being on the left hand end, and those in the spaces on the right. The outer two columns or rows have all the sharps and flats, each conveniently placed adjacent to its main note, making them easy to locate.  A result of this arrangement is not only that each D has its sharp adjacent, but the next note up, the E on the opposite end also has its flat, which is equal to the D#. Either note may be played depending on which falls more easily under the fingers at that point in the music being played.  The same principal applies to G# and Ab.  The arrangement of notes makes the English really versatile and fully chromatic. It enables smooth runs of consecutive notes without having to change bellows direction, enabling, for example, a long uninterrupted flow as might be needed when playing a slow air.  This can be especially effective when playing solo. It also makes for very fast runs as each hand is needed only for alternate notes and each finger for only one in five.

Generally, the forefinger is used for the two columns near the thumb straps, middle finger for the next and ring finger for the other, but skilled players will frequently deviate from this ‘rule’, enabling even more flexibility and also to be able to play chords. With practice and with average-sized fingertips a total of six notes could be played simultaneously if desired.

While not needing to constantly change direction of the bellows, as with melodeons, accordions and other concertinas, judicious use will enhance playing e.g. rhythmically for dance, or for expression and dynamics when required for sensitivity, in solo or band-playing, or for song accompaniment.  Increased pressure on the bellows will create an increase in volume, while a note will stop sounding immediately its button is released, enabling really short, clean notes. When worked together, a huge range of styles of playing can be achieved, ideal for any kind of music.

The English Concertina, a truly, English and versatile instrument, a well-deserved and important part of folk traditions from all parts of the world including our own nation, and indeed for our own music-making here in East Anglia.

Sally Barrett, July 2021

Sally Barrett lives in Norfolk. She is a Concertina tutor, the leader of SqueezEast Concertinas, she has been a member of the band Shinanikins for almost 40 years and is band leader for Fiddlesticks, a North West Clog side from Norfolk.