Late Nineteenth Century and the decline in British Piano Manufacture
During the late nineteenth century there were few technical innovations in piano design, which were to prove lasting. The iron frame had arrived and also the grand roller action. Some makers were more forward-looking than others, and the USA and Europe led the way. The piano’s design has changed little in the past one hundred years or so. However, materials used for action parts and case finishes have of course been superseded with modern equivalents.
The main reason for the decline was that British manufacturers could not produce quality instruments to answer the challenge of Steinway, Bechstein and other makes of piano imported from Germany. German exports increased to the UK: in 1875 they were £600,000 worth but by 1891 this figure had increased to £1,000,000.
In 1897 Kirkman had been wound up, Collard & Collard were suffering from financial pressures, and by 1900 it had even been suggested that Broadwood’s should close down. John Broadwood & Sons was still being run on lavish old-fashioned lines, and there was a reluctance to adopt new manufacturing techniques and production methods. The USA was producing half the world’s piano production from around the date 1900.
By 1900 German and American pianos were dominating the market, and British competitiveness was diminishing. However, the threat of war prior to 1914 also caused an immediate disruption; German instruments began to disappear from the British market, but British makers tried to replace these products. In general terms, prices became higher and quality diminished. Materials became scarce and the supply of actions became difficult. (Broadwood’s tried to order 150 Higel actions from Canada). In 1905 the Chancellor imposed an import duty of 33.5% on certain goods including musical instruments. It also became difficult to obtain labour because the music industry was a restricted industry. There was also an amount of anti-German feeling; The Times newspaper was criticised for publishing an advertisement for the German-made Bluthner piano!