An Iron Church Cello
This late 18th-century iron cello was played in the west gallery of St Lawrence’s Church in Caterham, Surrey. It was painted to look as if it were made of wood.
Albert Elliff Hills
Made by a Shoemaker
The Caterham cello was made by a local shoemaker and was in near playing condition when we examined it. After serving in the church, it was in the possession of quarryman Albert Elliff Hills, whose descendant, a Miss Hills, gave the instrument back to the church. About 30 years ago it was restrung and played on BBC Radio 3.
Like the metal cello from Milton Lilbourne, it is made of sheet metal, but is not as rough in design. It has a fairly average back length (75.09 cm), but its back is made of three metal strips and is only slightly arched. The belly is of similar design, made of three metal strips, and again only slightly arched.
The ribs are also made of metal and have seams at the bottom block and on the treble-side lower bout. The maker cut f-holes into the belly, including f-hole notches in the form of pointed flares.
The cello’s neck and neck foot are made of separate pieces; the neck foot is metal, and the two pieces making up the neck itself are wood. Like the Milton Lilbourne cello, this cello’s neck pieces are held together by screws, five in this case, on the back of the neck, and one large screw through the fingerboard and into the neck foot.
The wooden section of the neck attached to the metal neck foot is very worm-eaten, the section above it less so.
Perhaps, at one point, the neck was only in two pieces, the metal neck foot and the wooden neck.
When the wooden portion became severely damaged by woodworm, most of it, except at the point of attachment to the metal neck foot, was removed and replaced, thus resulting in a neck made of three separate pieces. There are two nails in the bass side of the neck, and the fingerboard itself has several markers.
In addition to the large structural screw mentioned above, there are two marks near first position, as well as two distinct indented lines where frets were probably tied in place. Perhaps these were used as guides for the player, much as stickers are used today.
The painted wooden fingerboard is fairly short (48.1 cm), extending only three-quarters of the way to the cello’s upper corners.
The wooden scroll is hand-carved out of wood and is made of the same piece of wood as the upper-most part of the neck. As this scroll appears in the c.1900 photograph, the current neck repair must be earlier than this date.
The other fittings for the cello are also not professionally made. The homemade pegs are made of light-colored wood (boxwood?), except the D-string peg, which is darker and probably older.
The old-style tailpiece with metal tailgut is made of wood painted black and shaped to mimic a commercially available design, with three points at the string-attachment end.
The small button is made of metal, like the body of the cello, and is placed along the bottom block seam in the ribs.
The thick plywood bridge is newer, probably dating from the cello’s BBC broadcast. Inside, the cello has a large, central soundpost with a string attached to it. This soundpost is cylindrical, but of a larger diameter than a standard cello soundpost.