Taking a whirl on The Mighty Wurlitzer at the Musical Museum

I wasn’t sure what to expect from my visit to London’s Musical Museum, home to one of the world’s largest collections of mechanical musical instruments, but the phrase ‘giddy excitement’ seems appropriate. Like being let loose in a sweet shop as a child. This beautiful collection of self-playing instruments – collected from all over the world – is a real pleasure. Made all the better when listeing to these exquisite contraptions play live music. There are also recordings to listen to.

The Mighty Wurlitzer, Musical Museum, London, England

The Mighty Wurlitzer, Musical Museum, London, England

Rolls of music paper, Musical Museum, London, England

Rolls of music paper, Musical Museum, London, England

Film posters, Musical Museum, London, England

Film posters, Musical Museum, London, England

The museum is small but has a fabulous array of exotic self-playing instruments. There are pianola, pianos, violins, Hammond organs, Reed organs, theremins, gramophones, jukeboxes and much more. The names of the instruments are evocative of another age. Pianos on display include the Steck Duo Art, Steinwat Welte-Mignon and Chickering Ampico Model B; not to mention the Welte ‘Vorsetzer’, a remarkable ‘instrument’ which looks like a piece of furniture but plays an ordinary piano when rolled into place over the keyboard.

Welte Vorsetzer, Musical Museum, London, England

Welte Vorsetzer, Musical Museum, London, England

Metal perforated music disc, Musical Museum, London, England

Metal perforated music disc, Musical Museum, London, England

Within the three display rooms there is everything from tiny clockwork boxes to the museum’s pride and joy, a fully functioning Mighty Wurlitzer sat in a concert hall. I was lucky enough to hear it played live. If that wasn’t exciting enough, the Mighty Wurlitzer is an over-the-top art deco delight, complete with illuminated side panels which change colour from deep red to ice blue. This wonderful ‘instrument’ is connected by two thousand electrical wires to a room housing organ pipes and wind chests.

There are ordinary organs, most regularly encountered in churches; and then there are Mighty Wurlitzers, the pipe organ designed to imitate an entire orchestra. Fitted out with multiple keyboards, peddles and stop keys, it has percussion and special effects. On a Mighty Wurlitzer a person can play a piece of orchestral music – imitating trumpets, symbols, clarinets and violins – or mimic a train leaving a station, a galloping horse or the crashing of ocean waves.

The Mighty Wurlitzer, Musical Museum, London, England

The Mighty Wurlitzer, Musical Museum, London, England

The Mighty Wurlitzer, Musical Museum, London, England

The Mighty Wurlitzer, Musical Museum, London, England

The Mighty Wurlitzer descends, Musical Museum, London, England

The Mighty Wurlitzer descends, Musical Museum, London, England

Hearing a Mighty Wurlitzer in action is to be transported back to an age of concert halls and silent films. The Mighty Wurlitzer peaked in popularity in the 1920s and 30s, and was designed to accompany silent films, providing both an orchestral and sound effect soundtrack. The Musical Museum occasionally shows silent films with the Mighty Wurlitzer accompanying the on-screen action, which must be a wonderful experience – especially as it sits on a lift which raises it onto the stage and takes it down again.

Most of the larger instruments are operated by rolls of musical paper. The music is stored as perforations in the paper, these are read by the mechanism inside the machine which plays the correct notes. The first music roll was used commercially in 1883 in the USA. A pianist would play on a special piano that would mark a roll of paper as they played – a recording – this was then mass produced on machines in factories. The museum has two of these machines to show how the rolls were produced.

Music roll maker, Musical Museum, London, England

Music roll maker, Musical Museum, London, England

Violins played mechanically, Musical Museum, London, England

Violins played mechanically, Musical Museum, London, England

Rolls of music paper, Musical Museum, London, England

Rolls of music paper, Musical Museum, London, England

Many of the instruments were used in private homes – this was the way the wealthy middle class listened to music – others were in commercial settings. Dance halls, cafes and restaurants had them, as a result they have coin slots where people would pay for a tune. Our guide fumbled around getting an old 1p coin out of a mug, then sliding it into the coin slot he brought to life a machine that played two violins and a piano. We could see the entire workings as it played a popular 1900s tune: paper rolls going round and small wheels lowered onto the violin strings. Absolutely wonderful.

Instruments, Musical Museum, London, England

Instruments, Musical Museum, London, England

Paper roll and piano, Musical Museum, London, England

Paper roll and piano, Musical Museum, London, England

Instruments, Musical Museum, London, England

Instruments, Musical Museum, London, England

It is a privilege to see, and hear, so many working examples of such wonderful mechanical instruments. Unfortunately, the Musical Museum receives little funding and is only open three days each week. It is staffed by volunteers, many of whom are expert craftspeople who undertake repairs and maintenance on the instruments. It’s a small museum – which takes an hour or so to visit – and the £10 entry might seem a bit steep, but listening to the Mighty Wurlitzer in full voice makes £10 seem cheap.

Tales from the riverbank, memories of the English Civil War

These memories, I might add, are not my own, although the long winter days can make you feel several hundred years old. The English Civil War erupted in the late summer of 1642, following two years of protracted negotiations and disagreements between King Charles I and Parliament. London didn’t see much fighting during the conflict, and remained firmly in the hands of Parliamentary forces throughout the war.

London didn’t see much fighting that is, except for two critically important battles fought in West London at the very beginning of the war. Had these battles proved decisive for the King, London would have been captured and, without the huge support of London’s population, Parliament might not have triumphed over Charles I. The simple truth was, without London’s wealth and manufacturing, the Royalists couldn’t hope to win the war…not that anyone realised it at the time.

The River Thames near Richmond Locks, London, England

The River Thames near Richmond Locks, London, England

Boat on the River Thames, London, England

Boat on the River Thames, London, England

It is difficult to imagine today as you walk down the tranquil River Thames from Kew to Richmond, but there was vicious fighting here in November 1642. Parliamentary gunboats sailed along the river and bombarded Royalist forces massing at the stronghold of Syon House, which was damaged by artillery fire. A short distance from where I was walking on the Thames, the main battle was fought at Brentford (literally a crossing over the River Brent), an important entry point into London.

Syon House from the River Thames, London, England

Syon House from the River Thames, London, England

Syon House from the River Thames, London, England

Syon House from the River Thames, London, England

The River Thames near Brentford, London, England

The River Thames near Brentford, London, England

I was heading to Richmond Locks, where I planned to cross the Thames and loop back to Kew on the north bank of the river. A route which would take me through the grounds of Syon House and past the site of the Battle of Brentford. First though, I hoped to be able to get a sight of the Kew Observatory. Also known as the King’s Observatory, it was completed in 1769 at the request of King George III so he could witness the transit of Venus across the sun. At the time, this area was still considered countryside, and light pollution wasn’t the problem it is today.

Sadly this monument to the human fascination with the heavens isn’t open to the public. Worse, its in the middle of a private golf course, at the entrance to which are lots of forbidding signs about how plebs (sorry, non-members) aren’t permitted to enter. This means you have to trespass and risk being hit by flying golf balls, or turn back. Wishing the Parliamentary army was still around to sort out the golf club, I headed back to the river and continued along my way. I did find this photo though, from the London Bytes blog…

Kew Observatory, London, England

Kew Observatory, London, England

The River Thames near Richmond Lock, London, England

The River Thames near Richmond Lock, London, England

Crossing the river I was soon on the north bank heading east and passing through the grounds of Syon House. Closed for the winter, I had to make do with the view from outside the fence, and, as time was getting on, I pressed on to Isleworth. On the first half of my walk the lovely riverside location of the 14th Century All Saints Church in Isleworth had been illuminated by the sun. I now walked down Church Street, past some lovely Georgian houses and The London Apprentice pub, to the church itself.

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

The row of houses opposite The London Apprentice were once home to Arthur Penty (1875–1937), an architect and writer on guild socialism and distributism. Much more exciting though, it was also the home of the actor, William Hartnell, best known as the first Doctor Who from 1963–1966. He lived opposite The London Apprentice from the 1920s.

Arthur Penty's house in Isleworth, London, England

Arthur Penty’s house in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints Church in Isleworth, London, England

All Saints is a bit of a disappointment. The church was gutted by fire in May 1943 and only the tower remains from the original. You may be thinking “May 1943? Did the Luftwaffe bomb the church?”, but the fire was the result of arson by two local schoolboys. Their crime spree saw another nearby church burnt down before they were caught. The replacement building is the product of 1960s Utopian architectural thinking, and is incredibly ugly. The sun was going down, so I pressed on through Syon Park, finally arriving at the site of the Battle of Brentford (1642).

Brentford was fortified with two regiments of Parliamentary soldiers, and was attacked by Royalist cavalry and Dragoons. As you walk down a busy road, passing through some fairly deprived areas, towards the site of the battle, its hard to conjure an image of charging cavalry, musket shot and thundering canon. Thundering trucks, yes, but this nondescript place offers up few hints of its history.

Site of the Battle of Brentford, London, England

Site of the Battle of Brentford, London, England

Site of the Battle of Brentford, London, England

Site of the Battle of Brentford, London, England

Although the Battle of Brentford was won by the Royalists, led by Prince Rupert, it wasn’t decisive, and the following day the two main armies clashed at Turnham Green. Again the battle was inconclusive, but Charles I decided to retreat to Oxford and spent the winter there. This was a disastrous decision for his hopes of winning the war. He would never come close to capturing London again, and his failure at Brentford and Turnham Green over the weekend of 12 and 13 November, 1642, would result in the loss of his kingdom and his head.

Tales from the riverbank, a walk around Kew

I love walking the River Thames, especially in west London where the city starts to fade away and things become a bit greener. At Putney the concrete paving of the Thames Path National Trail turns into a muddy track, and the grinding urban landscape gives way to become almost rustic. There are more trees than buildings, dog walkers in Wellington boots outnumber people tapping away on their mobile devices. In a crowded city the river offers a sense of space, the vast sky becomes visible.

The River Thames and Strand-on-the-Green from Kew Bridge, London, England

The River Thames and Strand-on-the-Green from Kew Bridge, London, England

Rowers on the River Thames from Chiswick Bridge, London, England

Rowers on the River Thames from Chiswick Bridge, London, England

You never quite leave the city behind, wandering off the river path will bring you abruptly back into an urban environment, but between Kew and Richmond there is a wealth of green space linked by the river. Kew is known as the home of the Royal Botanical Gardens, the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site dedicated to all things plant, but Kew itself is a lovely place.

Walking up river on a cold, sunny winter’s day is wonderful; sunny days have been in short supply and because it was mid-week the Thames Path was largely empty. The cyclists and joggers who take to the path in their hundreds at weekends, were safely tucked away in office buildings, leaving it in the care of a few dog walkers and my good self. Passing under Chiswick Bridge along the tree-lined path the occasional rowing boat passes, and the only reminder that you’re in a city of eight million is the buzzing airplanes overhead.

Thames Path sign, London, England

Thames Path sign, London, England

Thames Path near Kew, London, England

Thames Path near Kew, London, England

River Thames near Kew, London, England

River Thames near Kew, London, England

Ducking under a railway bridge, trains thundering overhead, you soon spot Oliver’s Island. This small wooded island in the middle of the Thames is rumoured to have been a secret base from which Oliver Cromwell led operations during the English Civil War. There’s no truth to the story, but the name has stuck. Once past the island you find yourself at Kew Bridge, with the option of going into Kew or crossing the river to Strand-on-the-Green along the north bank.

River Thames and railway bridge, Kew, London, England

River Thames and railway bridge, Kew, London, England

Oliver's Island, Kew, London, England

Oliver’s Island, Kew, London, England

River Thames, Kew, London, England

River Thames, Kew, London, England

Nestling in a bend of the river, Kew retains a distinctly village-like feel – albeit a very well heeled village. In part the village feel exists because Kew retains that most traditional of village landmarks, a ‘green’. Kew Green’s grassy public space is a large area surrounded by elegant Georgian houses. It is home to a cricket pitch and in the centre of the space is the splendid looking Church of St. Anne.

St. Anne’s was built in 1714 on land given to the Church by Queen Anne. Its a grand-looking building sitting amidst Kew Green, if you could climb the tower you’d be able to see the Royal Botanical Gardens just beyond the Green. Unsurprisingly, there are a number of people buried here who are associated with the Botanical Gardens, including Sir William Hooker, Director of the Gardens, and his son, botanist and explorer, Sir Joseph Hooker.

St. Anne's Church, Kew, London, England

St. Anne’s Church, Kew, London, England

St. Anne's Church, Kew, London, England

St. Anne’s Church, Kew, London, England

Headstone, St. Anne's Church, Kew, London, England

Headstone, St. Anne’s Church, Kew, London, England

Kew is almost as strongly associated with artists as it is botanists; its no surprise that the cemetery’s most famous resident is the wonderful landscape artist, Thomas Gainsborough, who lived nearby. It is also the burial place of German neoclassical artist and fellow member of the Royal Academy, Johann Zoffany. Zoffany lived at Strand-on-the-Green and enjoyed the patronage of King George III and Queen Charlotte, giving him access to the highest society.

Johann Zoffany's tomb, St. Anne's Church, Kew, London, England

Johann Zoffany’s tomb, St. Anne’s Church, Kew, London, England

River Thames, Kew, London, England

River Thames, Kew, London, England

Zoffany was, alarmingly, unique amongst contemporary artists. William Dalrymple, the historian and writer, has described him as “the first and last Royal Academician to have become a cannibal.” I’m sure that’s not how he’d prefer to be remembered, but sadly its true. Zoffany was returning to Europe from India when he was shipwrecked off the Andaman Islands. The desperate, and desperately hungry, survivors held a lottery in which the loser was turned into dinner.

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

The river is tidal at Kew – and for a few more miles up river. The tide was high the day I was there, it doesn’t affect walkers too much but is a recurring issue for people living on the banks. The houses which dramatically line the river at Strand-on-the-Green are regularly inundated with water. Walking past them on a footpath still wet from when the river most recently came over the bank, their vulnerability to flooding is clear. Many doorways are set high in the wall for just such an occasion.

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

Strand-on-the-Green, River Thames, Kew, London, England

While messing around by the river I discovered the Musical Museum, home to a collection of mechanical musical instruments, including a giant Wurlitzer. The museum was closed, but there’s no way I can resist the appeal of a giant Wurlitzer…