Southwell, William (1736/7?–1825), piano maker, is believed to have been born in Ireland but little is known about his early life or family except that he had a brother, Nicholas (c. 1760–1832). The parish registers for his burial in London state that he was eighty-eight at his death, but a newspaper report in 1780 describing him as a young man leaves open the possibility that he was born later than 1736. According to a family memoir, he became an apprentice cabinet maker, later moving into harpsichord making. In Dublin in 1780 he married Anne Doland, who was apparently his second wife.
Having made a name for himself by designing a combined harpsichord and piano, known as the celestina, he set up as a harpsichord and pianoforte maker at 26 Fleet Street, Dublin, in January 1781. He also published music and imported, repaired and tuned instruments. Impressing with his ear for music and excellent craftsmanship, he was referred to in 1784 as ‘the celebrated Southwell of this city’ (de Valera, 127). He had a flair for decoration and made instruments that were far more elaborate than those of his contemporaries. The progress of his business was instanced by his moves to new (presumably larger) premises at 70 Marlborough Street in 1786 and then to 86 Marlborough Street in 1792.
Although he was not primarily a pianoforte-maker until the early 1790s, he was crafting and selling square pianos, demilune table pianos (termed ‘deception pier tables’) and grand pianos throughout the 1780s. At least six of his demilune pianos are still extant; they combine mechanical virtuosity with exquisite cabinetwork. Part of Southwell’s genius lay in his vast knowledge of piano-making techniques from the Continent; thus, he was able to refine English and Irish designs, and incorporate improvements from Germany and Vienna. This lends weight to the tradition that he had worked in Dublin for Ferdinand Weber (1715–84), the German-born organ builder and harpsichord and pianoforte maker.
In 1794 he patented a square piano with assorted novel features, including cloth covered wooden dampers attached by wire to the key lever tail below, which eliminated the rattling and resistance associated with conventional lever-over dampers; an extension of the keyboard compass, achieved without causing a deterioration in the sound by running the extra half-octave under the soundboard; and fretted openings in the nameboard and right rear corner for a better projection of sound. These technical advances were widely adopted in Britain and a modified version of his so-called ‘dolly’ dampers have remained a feature of British and North American grand pianos.
Southwell, however, failed to get his due profits, which would have made him enormously wealthy, because he backed the wrong horse by selling the English manufacturing rights to Longman & Broderip of Cheapside, London. His English manufacturers ran their business so incompetently, if not to say fraudulently, that they collapsed into bankruptcy in 1795, preventing them from adequately supplying the market, which was a condition of the patent. Other manufacturers, most notably John Broadwood of Soho, London, seized the chance to produce approximations of Southwell’s model. The attempts by Longman & Broderip’s successor partnership Longman, Clementi & Co. to uphold the 1794 patent were hindered by the legal entanglements and disputes arising from the original partnership’s messy demise.
By 1802 his patented design was being so widely pirated in England that Southwell determined on pursuing Broadwood through the courts for copying his design for additional keys. (It seems likely that his English manufacturers, who were by then trading as Clementi & Co., threatened to stop paying him royalties unless he took action.) But first, in a manoeuvre designed to shield the family business from the potentially crippling legal costs, he terminated the existing partnership involving him and his son, John, and established a new partnership between John, another son Francis, and his brother Nicholas, which paid him a premium for each instrument sold. Effectively, he remained in charge. After Southwell’s legal action began in 1803, Broadwood’s lawyers undermined the 1794 patent by disproving some of its needlessly exaggerated claims. Southwell quickly dropped the case, thus allowing Broadwood to continue using his design for additional keys and to begin using fretwork panels and from 1806 an improved form of his dolly dampers.
From 1794 Southwell spent extended periods away attending to his interests in England, leaving his son John to manage the Dublin workshop. While on one such sojourn around 1797, he impregnated a sixteen-year-old servant named Frances, the daughter of a London hairdresser. They cohabited and would have seven children together but would not have been free to marry, if they ever did, for some years, as his second wife Anne was still alive in 1800 when she took a case against him in the Irish court of chancery. Unconventional, high-spirited and bawdy, he was extremely anti-clerical, likening clergymen to robbers. Although there is a record of his daughter Harriot being baptised under the auspices of the established church in 1784, he does not seem to have been arranging for his children’s baptism latterly. His youngest son Charles Southwell (1814–60) became a notorious free-thinker and provocateur.
During the July 1803 uprising in Dublin, rebels burned Southwell’s house down, believing him, probably correctly, to be a loyalist. The Southwells fled to Liverpool where they re-established their piano manufacturing business at Duke Street. At some point between 1805 and 1808, William moved to London where the family partnership established another workshop at Rathbone Place, London. By 1811 William was living at Gresse Street, London. His brother Nicolas managed the Southwell family operations in London and Liverpool while his son John remained in Dublin where he had a shop that sold musical instruments. William’s fecundity precluded his retirement: he is reputed to have married three times and to have had thirty-two or thirty-three children (the last born in 1814); fifteen of them can be positively identified.
In 1798 he had patented a design that turned the square piano upwards, thus creating a compact upright instrument that projected tone more effectively. The model failed to sell, however, perhaps because it was not robust enough. In 1807 he registered his next patent for an upright ‘cabinet piano’. This proved more durable and would completely supplant the square piano, but not until well after Southwell’s death. He sold the manufacturing rights to his cabinet piano patent to Wilkinson and Co., and personally supervised this partnership’s workshop in Haymarket, London. This relationship ended in 1811 when one of the Wilkinson and Co. partners, Robert Wornum, patented an improved upright piano that Southwell believed infringed on his patents. As foreman of the Haymarket workshop, Wornum would have been able to closely observe Southwell’s methods.
From 1811 he contracted the manufacture of his designs to another piano manufacturer, John Watlen, and worked from his premises at Leicester Place. He took out a patent in 1811 for the ‘oblique pianoforte’, a commercially successful variation on the design of his 1798 upright square piano. In 1821 he patented an improved back check for the cabinet pianoforte, which prevented the hammers from rebounding against the strings. During his final years, he supplemented his income by making and selling one-off pianos on his own account from his home. He did not die a wealthy man.
Being in London allowed him to indulge more fully his love of going to the theatre and to concerts; he wrote reviews of plays. Three of his children were involved in showbusiness: Francis W. Southwell (c.1774–?) composed popular airs and orchestral pieces; Henry F. Southwell (c.1798–1841) was an actor in Dublin, London and Philadelphia; and Maria Southwell (c.1805–?) sang in theatres and opera houses in London and Philadelphia.
William Southwell died in 1825 in his residence at Gresse Street, London, and was buried in St Pancras Old Church on 2 February. His brother Nicholas made pianos and organs in Liverpool until his death in 1832, as the Southwell piano dynasty petered out in obscurity. In contrast, John Broadwood & Sons became Britain’s dominant piano manufacturer, partly by making Southwell-style square pianos. Two of Southwell’s sons worked for the Broadwoods. One of the two, Williams Southwell Jr (1804–80), became first a foreman and later a contractor for the firm. In 1837 he designed and took out a patent for an improvement in the hammer mechanism for grand pianos, which he assigned to John Broadwood & Sons in return for £300.
In 1813 an entry in a Liverpool painting exhibition described a portrait of William Southwell by James Lonsdale; it may have been the portrait reported as being in the possession of his descendants in 1904, but which has since been lost. There are thirty known surviving examples of William Southwell-made pianos, some in playable condition, held in private and public collections, including in the National Museum of Ireland.