Broadwood Pianos: Then and Now

John Broadwood & Sons are the oldest English piano manufacturers still operating today. They have a long history that has been central to the development of the modern day piano as we know it, starting from its beginnings in the harpsichord trade.

In 1728 Swiss harpsichord maker Burkat Shudi started his own workshop in London. Shudi had learned his craft as an apprentice with Hermann Tabel, who in turn had trained with the Ruckers family, the greatest harpsichord makers of the 17thcentury. This was the foundation of the business now known as John Broadwood & Sons. In 1769 John Broadwood, a fine craftsman, married Barbara, Shudi’s younger daughter. In 1771 Shudi handed over the running of his business to his son Burkat and John Broadwood, and in 1773, Shudi died, bequeathing the workshop to his son and his son-in-law John Broadwood, who became its effective head.

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 ceased production in harpsichords.

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.  By 1842, 2,500 pianos a year were being made in the great factory in Horseferry Road, Westminster. Broadwoods were one of the twelve largest employers of labour in London, 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.

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. However pianos remained central to manufacturing up to the end of the last century, albeit with decreasing demand from the market.

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 at in Kent, England. Broadwood now hand make pianos to order, and provide a comprehensive restoration service for older instruments.

Investment in Research

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.

Famous Connections

Broadwood have a long lineage of connections to famous musicians and other historical figures. Broadwood supplied harpsichords to the painters Reynolds and Gainsborough, and Josef Haydn ordered one. In 1765 a nine-year-old prodigy by the name of Mozart, visiting London, 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 1817 Thomas Broadwood visited Beethoven in Vienna, and in 1818 sent him a 6 octave grand, triple-stringed. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert also famously played Broadwood square pianos and made music with Mendelssohn.

Fryderyk Chopin became a great friend of Henry Broadwood in 1848, when the dying pianist visited the UK. Broadwood arranged concerts to bring in some vital income, provided pianos for all his lodgings and concerts, and train tickets. In his letters Chopin wrote:

“Broadwood has been my best and truest friend. He is as you know a very rich and well educated man …. He has splendid connections”.

Broadwood at The Piano Shop Bath

Broadwood & Sons