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History of John Broadwood and Sons

John Broadwood

John Broadwood & Sons was established in 1728, making it one of the oldest surviving piano manufacturers in the world. The company has a long history which has been central to the development of the modern day piano as we know it.

John Broadwood was born in 1732 and spent his childhood in Oldhamstocks, East Lothian, where he inherited his father's profession as a carpenter/joiner.

As a young man Broadwood walked the distance of almost 400 miles from Oldhamstocks to London where he began working for Burkat Shudi, a Swiss harpsichord maker. Shudi established his London workshop in 1728 after learning his craft as an apprentice with Hermann Tabel, who in turn had trained with the Ruckers family, who were regarded as the greatest harpsichord makers of the 17th century. This was the foundation of the business now known as John Broadwood & Sons. In 1765 child prodigy Mozart, visiting London, aged 9, played a Shudi harpsichord. This was an important part of Mozart’s tour of Europe, where he was feted as a genius in the making.

In 1769 Broadwood married Shudi’s daughter, Barbara, who had four children together. In 1771 Shudi handed over the running of his business to his son Burkat (Jr) and John Broadwood. In 1773, Shudi died, bequeathing the workshop to his son and his son-in-law John Broadwood, who became its effective head. Broadwood married Mary Kitson in 1781 and had a further six children. Many of his descendants were involved in pianoforte manufacturing in England and some were involved in the British Army in India during the reign of Queen Victoria. Others emigrated to Australia, where Broadwood descendants still live. The Broadwood family tree can be traced back to circa 1580.

Pianos were developed across Europe during the 18th century. The first maker to create an instrument with hammers hitting the strings was the Italian, Cristofori who had achieved this in 1709. By 1778, when John Broadwood had been in charge of Shudi & Broadwood for five years, he was not only a leading maker of harpsichords, but experimenting with the new, ‘piano’ as well. By 1784, Broadwood was making more pianos than harpsichords. In this year he sold 38 harpsichords, and 133 pianos, having increased production ten times in twelve years. In 1793 Broadwood completely ceased production in harpsichords alltogether.

The Firm became ‘John Broadwood & Sons’ in 1808, with the introduction of John Broadwood’s second son, Thomas. Broadwood’s first son James had already joined the firm in 1795. Henry Fowler Broadwood, eldest surviving son of James Broadwood, would lead the firm through the 19th century. John Broadwood died in 1812.

In 1817 Thomas Broadwood visited Beethoven in Vienna, and in 1818 sent him a 6 octave grand, triple-stringed, as a gift from the company.

By 1842 Broadwood were producing 2,500 pianos a year from their factory in Westminster, and had grown to be one of London's largest employers of labour; in an industry that was still craft-based with all parts made in-house. Broadwood continued to be at the forefront in piano development and in 1888 they patented improvements in the metal frame, leading to the ‘barless’ concert grand, with over stringing. Broadwood has consistently invested in scientific research towards the development and improvement of the piano. For example, in 1788 Broadwood commissioned scientific research from the Royal Society and British Museum on the improvement of the piano. This resulted in the introduction of the ‘divided bridge’ on the grand, which improved the bass tone.

The 20th century and the rise of other forms of home entertainment affected the whole of the piano trade; Broadwood even diversified into gramophones for a short period of time. However pianos remained central to manufacturing up to the end of the last century, albeit with decreasing demand from the market.

Broadwood have built instruments for every British monarch since King George II, and still hold the Royal Warrant for piano manufacture; Broadwoods have held the Royal Warrant longer than any other warrant holder. As well as producing pianos by Royal Appointment, Broadwoods were also supplying pianos to some of the world's most recognised musicians such as Beethoven and Chopin.

Piano production was moved to a small factory at Moss in Norway, in 2003.

In 2008 the company changed hands for the first time; the new chairman Dr Alastair Laurence, has family ties with Broadwoods going back to the year 1787. At this point, new restoration and conservation workshops were constructed in Kent, England. Broadwood now hand make pianos to order, and provide a comprehensive restoration service for older instruments.

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