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The Bow – Part Three: W. E. Hill & Sons, London – How to Start a Legend

A Forward-Thinking Luthier

Around one hundred and fifty years ago, a talented, highly respected, forward-thinking violin-maker and restorer decided to expand his business more thoroughly than anyone before or since. As a result, William Ebsworth Hill (1817 – 1895) established the only prominent purpose-built workshop/factory for violins, violin accessories, and bow-making that England would ever have.

Where the “Real” Money Was

Working and living in Wardour Street, Soho, London in the 1880s, W. E Hill realized that the real money to be made in the violin world was not necessarily from salaried orchestral musicians. They were just as (relatively) poorly paid then as they are now. Instead, he could profit from the many amateur players both in England and abroad.

Amateur players were beginning to appreciate fine old instruments and were often reasonably talented. But, few would ever make the ultimate demands of their violins, violas, or cellos. Most were just happy to have “nice things” and had the income to indulge their pastime. So, all W. E. Hill had to do was satisfy those customers.

New Instruments and Accessories

When “old” instruments were unavailable or too expensive, players would be offered the finest quality new instruments and accessories. These were made in-house and as good, if not better, than anything England had produced previously. The irony was that it took established French violin makers and a teenage French bow maker to achieve it.

London was “The” Place

London was then the only English city in which to open a prestigious violin shop. Multiple orchestras and performance venues were there, and the world – now seemingly at peace, with the turn of the century imminent – was becoming more affluent.

W. E. Hill & Sons* (always known to players simply as “Hills”) found premises in 38 New Bond Street in 1887 for the retail side of the business and minor repairs. The Hill family moved into a large house some twenty miles away to the west in Hanwell, Middlesex.

They also connected with the American firm Rembert Wurlitzer & Co. in Manhattan, who shared an interest in collating the whereabouts of violins made in the “golden age” of Cremona. In 1897 Hills moved the shop to 140 New Bond Street, where they would remain for nearly 90 years.

WE Hill & Sons

This is the W E Hill & Son shop front on their 140 New Bond Street premises that they occupied from 1897 to the mid-1970s. Apart from the Hill name being blanked out, the Art Nouveau Flemish-style decoration remains on the “Grade 2 listed” building (such grading is a UK listing of buildings with significant architectural interest) that hides five floors behind its façade – there were workshops in some of the rooms, for varnishing and fitting up instruments. All bow rehairs went back to Hanwell, though. As far as I know, they never offered the ‘while you wait’ rehair service – surely nothing tempts a job to go wrong more than that.

A Large Workshop in Hanwell

In the 1890s, on land near their family home, the Hills built a large workshop to seriously begin making violins, bows, and eventually, all their accessories. The address became York Avenue, Hanwell, and the enterprise was immediately nicknamed “The Fiddle Factory” by locals. Hills put their name on everything – cases, rosin, peg paste, cleaner, violin fittings, and prepared/packed strings. The last was typically done by dextrous young women.

Hanwell Workshop of W. E. Hill & Son

The Hill workshops in Hanwell, West London. The two buildings were connected following an almost immediate expansion after the first was built. They are now prestigious apartments.

New Violins and Bows

The intended main production was new violins and bows, competing with those available from Europe. For violin work, French artisans from Mirecourt were encouraged to move to London, earning more than they would have in their native land (both in monetary terms and prestige).

Until recently, it was thought, following the abrupt severance of the partnership with Tubbs (c.1860-c.1870), that bow work just “happened” at Hills before 1880 with the employment of Samuel Allen (1838-1914).

My research has found that a young French bow maker, Emile Bazin (1868-1956), was persuaded to come to England to assist Allen. Bazin, aged 17 when he left France, stayed only four years with Hills before returning home and marrying. Bazin actually left bow-making completely behind, becoming an academic.

French Methods of Bow-Making

With his 30-years younger mentor gone, Samuel Allen was left on his own, schooled in the French methods. A talented man and a fast learner, his bows are now highly respected. He successfully imitated the French bows of the Tourte period. At the time, these bows were less than a century old and Emile Bazin would have been familiar with their construction.

Allen was the solitary Hill bow maker for about 12 years until he abruptly left in 1891 to work independently. He left many gadgets behind and was unable to train a successor. It took 70 years before another Hill bow maker would intentionally leave the firm before his retirement date, and that was Arthur Bultitude, in 1961. The replacement trainee bow maker arrived at the “fiddle factory” in 1893. (I will tell his story in part 4 of this series.)

For now, suffice it to say that Hills became England’s premier bow makers. It seemed every player either wanted a Hill bow or already had one. From the 1920s until the 1980s, Hills employed 29 bow makers, and their combined output must be measured in thousands. Though, perhaps there are not as many as some would estimate – because they’ve been faked, too!

Hill Violin Bow

A classic, full silver mounted violin bow branded W E Hill & Sons, purchased new in 1956 from their shop. The maker is Arthur Allen Brown, who was the last apprentice of William Retford. Brown was a quiet, intelligent chap and a very good bow maker, but he tried to reinvent the Hill bow – bringing it into the 1950’s – by leaving more wood in the stick (exactly what they needed). This did not go down well with the firm, and they took him off bow making to work in another department. Although I have no evidence, it may be that another Hill bow maker of similar age was jealous of the superiority of Brown’s work and undermined him to the management. Brown should have left and started working on his own. The wear on the pearl and the handle, the faded stick and frog color are testament to the fact that it was one professional owner’s favorite bow for over 60 years.

A Move to Buckinghamshire

W. E. Hill & Sons left New Bond Street in the mid-1970s for new pastures, over 40 miles to the west, in a country house called “Havenfields” near High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. New workshops were converted from the stable block, so the Hanwell “fiddle factory” closed, too.

Some makers gave their notice as they didn’t want to make the move. The business barely survived another two decades. Unsure how to continue trading in the recession of the mid-1980s, the two surviving Hill brothers went their separate ways, selling off the photographic archive at auction in 1992 and closing the Havenfields workshop. (Wurlitzers predeceased Hills, closing in 1974.)

And so, the original firm of W. E. Hill & Sons, proudly thought of by the violin world for a century, passed into history. But, of course, it wasn’t their fault – the world had changed around them.

I’ll tell you about the two Hill bow makers who significantly outshone the others in the next installment.

Other English Bow Makers Contemporaneous with Hills

James Tubbs died in 1921, and his workshop went with him, as his son and assistant, Alfred, had died in 1912. That left Hills as the only bow makers in the country, in any quantity. Tubbs taught some makers privately, but none made enough bows to influence the English bow.

Some bows were made at the London shop of George Withers & Sons by various visiting French bow makers, but that establishment closed in 1932. However, the English (and last) bow maker who had apprenticed there, Percival Bryant, opened shop himself on the south coast (near Brighton) from 1935 until the early 1990s. After WWII, Lawrence Cocker of Derby started producing his patented built-cane bows until the 1970s.

Bryant and Cocker were the only “serious” bow makers outside of Hills until Hills’ own workers started leaving in the early 1960s to set up independently. After that, many professional players would source bows from abroad, seeking the playing qualities they preferred.

*Please note – any reference to “W. E. Hill & Sons” or “Hills” refers only to the original company that was in existence from the late nineteenth century until 1992.