The Cooper

Published in Hampshire Magazine Vol. 20 No. 3 January, l980


“I was born in New Milton, Milton as it was then, in June 1875.” So begins the reminiscences of Charles William Retford.  This tribute centres around these early memoirs, quotations from them being included later.  A Hampshire man, who became the foremost exponent in the art of bow making, his name will probably be known to no more than a handful of Hampshire folk, yet the position he held in the esoteric, highly-specialised world of bow construction cannot be over estimated.

A gold and ivory mounted cello bow by William Retford.

Born at Ashley, New Milton on June 20, l875, he died in Hanwell, London, in 1970.  His first sixteen years were spent in Ashley and Burley and his reminiscences referred to are drawn from the copious notes made during his latter years, a copy of which he kindly gave me during one of our many chats on both bows and Hampshire.

My first acquaintance with William Retford was through our mutual business, that of bow restoration, and this was quickly turned into a firm and lasting friendship when it became known that we were both “Hampshire Hogs” and both very much attached - dare I say “in love” - with our home county, bearing in mind that at this time he was over 80 years old and had left Hampshire in l892.  His feeling for the New Forest was as strong as it ever was. He made regular visits “back home” until well into his 80s.

Although of short, spare stature he made a striking figure during his frequent visits to the London salesrooms in the 60s: with stiff high winged collar, dark suit and bowler you could not miss him!  His hands were distinct proof of his calling, the thumb of the left hand being almost at right angles to the palm, due to the continued use of the thumb and forefinger as a “vice” for holding and working on small parts of the bow.  This feature is common to many of the older craftsmen, before the coming of the modern tools.  I am sure this gives the work of the earlier school the individuality so often sadly lacking today.

The importance of the bow is probably not generally realised except simply as a stick with hair attached, with which to produce the required notes on the violin etc.  While this is basically so, there lies behind this assumption a craft and art quite as important as violin making itself. The bow, besides bringing the strings into motion, must be capable of fulfilling all demands of the composer, too numerous to mention here.  However, two well known examples come to mind: the opening of the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Mendelssohn requires the bow to bounce “Spiccato” on the string very lightly and fast, and in complete contrast, the slow movement of the Schubert String Quintet is an excellent example of sustained “Legato” playing. Between these two extremes are a multitude of bowings available for the composer to draw on.  It is the bow maker’s task to assist the player in every way possible to attain these ends, for only with a very fine bow can the player be expected to play his part in bringing about a first class performance.

The materials used give a good indication of the skills needed.  It is a formidable list and requires the craftsman to cross many skilled frontiers.  Pernambuco wood from northern Brazil for the shaft, a selection of the following materials according to the quality of the work in hand: ebony, ivory, mother-of-pearl, tortoise shell, silver and gold, with some base metals thrown in for good measure.

In order to get the bow into the correct perspective it is necessary to trace its progress from the 16th century to the present day.  The greatest of all makers was Francois Tourte, 1747-1835.  Prior to his time bow making was a haphazard, random affair, only gradually emerging from the viol bow more or less parallel with music itself from the Baroque Period onwards.  Francois Tourte did for the bow what Stradivari did for the violin, laying down standards, which are adhered to till this very day.  Today, a fine bow by Tourte can cost anything from £10,000 upwards.

With the advent of the French School, the English School, which until this time (c.1750) was only ticking over, begins to come to light. Starting with the finest productions of the Dodd family, the tradition was carried on by Thomas Tubbs through to James Tubbs.

James Tubbs in his early days made bows for W.E. Hill, later to become W. E. Hill and Sons, and he remained working, self-employed, until his death in 1921.  The business would have been carried on by his son Alfred, but for his untimely death in 1912.

So we come to William Charles Retford, who, as previously mentioned joined the firm of W.E. Hill and Sons in 1892.  By this time “Hills”, as they are affectionately known in the string instrument profession, were established with a worldwide reputation.

During this time and for many years after almost all the fine instruments and bows known passed through their hands, so that William Retford had access over a very long period to all that was fine and noble, there being no better way of getting to know a maker than by handling his work.  These very high standards inspired William Retford to achieve the same level of work and the results have set the seal on his integrity.

Although the great French craftsmen made bows of great beauty and merit, there still remained further improvements - perhaps development is a better word - to fulfil the requirements of the 20th century and to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding market, which still grows today. As a young man William Retford, working with and for W.E. Hill and Sons, met and overcame these challenges in the course of time.

As this is not a technical article I will not enter into details except to say that weight - the average weight of a violin bow is 60 grams - balance and sturdiness required for the 20th century use, were among the problems solved.

Having been concerned with these problems for some 65 years, as well as being engaged in fine restoration work, he retired from W.E. Hill and Sons and very soon set himself up at home in Hanwell, where he continued to produce many more bows bearing his own name.  His book Bows and Bowmakers was published in 1964 and is now a collector’s item and much sought after.

With his vast experience in handling and observing the classic bows over such a long period he became a recognised authority; his advice was in demand throughout the world.  His many pupils - the oldest is now 70 years and still making - is perhaps the best testimony to his concern that the craft should continue to flourish and grow in England.

In 1975 to celebrate the centenary of his birth, Ealing Strings of London published their well-known book The Retford Centenary, a grateful publication that recognises his genius.

A cross-section from William Retford’s memoirs of his early youth while still living in Hampshire follows and makes fascinating reading.

I was born (June 1875) in a cottage in what is now Ashley Road; situated south of the lane at the base of the hill by the brook.  This spot was known as “Litchford”.  As a tiny tot it had the elements of a fairyland to me. Fern Hill woods were west of the lane, east were a narrow meadow and Ashley Arnewood woods. In the spring these were a carpet of bluebells through which I waded; they were shoulder high to me.  We never entered Fern Hill Woods; they were a game reserve and there were notices saying “Beware of Spring Guns.”

On the north edge of the lane from the top of the hill to Ashley Cross Road wild daffodils grew by thousands, none to the south but primroses and violets.

There was a footpath by the brook to Fern Hill through Long Mead, a path to the right led to the north of Ashley Common, our way to Tiptoe, where Mr. Lightfoot mended our boots.  There was a right branch where Tarrents’ Nursery is a hollow or nook with wild daffodils.  This path to the right led to some cottages occupied by Simon Snudden, Ike Corbin, Herb Witcher, Ben Browning, Turners and Shaves.  In the Common Road were Guppy, John Snudden, Youngs and Adams.  Mrs. Corbin kept a little shop at the Cross Road, where we bought our sweets, a parrot on the counter.  This was furze or common ground and a bog with water lilies.  The railway was built over this and opened 1887-8.  That year Ashley Arnewood was sold and we moved to Old House, Burley.  My association with Ashley ceased, with exception to my visits to my Aunt Cheyney who lived in a cottage by the ford where the Chewton Bridge now is.

I was the youngest of eight, five girls and three boys.  The girls were Kate and Lizzie, who died of diphtheria in childhood before I was born.  The other girls were Annie, Fanny and Jane; Fanny died in her 20s, the others in their 40s.  My mother lost all her girls.  My brothers were George and Dick, who died in their 80s.

The cottage we lived in was a double one belonging to Ashley Arnewood; we lived in the one half and Henry Cheyney and my Aunt in the other.

William Retford at his bench in the Hill Workshops, about 1902

At that time life centred on Ashley Arnewood, a gentleman farmer’s estate owned by the Hon. Auberon Herbert and Lady Florence Herbert.  He was of the Carnarvon family and Lady Florence the Cowper.  My father was the gardener and Henry Cheyney the carter; my mother did the dairy work, part-time.

The place had changed hands several times.  My mother had a family Bible presented to Jane Evemy by her Mistress Mrs. Cooper, in 1860.  Later owners were Dawson, Hedley and Herbert.  My Grandfather Retford was bailiff or manager; he died about the time I was born, and I never knew him.

The Herberts were, perhaps, somewhat eccentric and of much personal charm.  There were four children, Claire and Nan, Rolf and Bron.  Rolf died in childhood, Claire age 19.  Lady Florence died about l885.  Bron succeeded to the Cowper Barony of Lucas; he was shot in the first war and Nan became Baroness Lucas.  She died about 1960 leaving two daughters, Anne and Rachel. Anne married Mr. Palmer, son of Lord Selborne, Lady Lucas lived at Woodyates Manor, Wiltshire; she called and had tea with me when in London.

Traffic consisted of the occasional carriage and a pair, sometimes a traction engine and a man with a red flag so many paces in front, and the brewer’s dray from Poole bound for the local pubs, with Shakespearean fat men on board.

The butcher, having finished his round at the big house, furiously driving home, hatless and often drunk, sometimes losing his scales, and once forcing Lady Florence’s Arab stallion and groom, its rider, into the ditch near Whitefield.

Charabancs from Bournemouth with four horses, the conductor at the back with a long coaching horn he blew at each corner. “Daddy” Tee from Fern Hill in a smart turnout.  Farmer-Hayward in a pony trap, who was lame and used a crutch.

The Tinker, who would mend a pot or make a lid for a few pence; “stone”, with a fish barrow, bloaters, shrimps, winkles, and salt cod from Newfoundland at a penny a pound.  It was soaked in the brook, anchored by string, to remove the salt.  Rag-and-bone men collected rabbit skins and horsehair combings from the stables.  John Kerley from Chewton Mill called weekly with pig meal.  Colborne the baker, with bread from English flour that kept moist for a week.  Some adulterated dough with potatoes, and this soured in warm weather.  Colborne’s was pure.

Potters from Verwood called periodically with coarse pottery and flowerpots; Jim Cheyney and George Adams riding to work on bone shakers.  George’s was a three-wheeler, with front wheel drive, and he allowed us to ride on the back extension; I fell off.

These would be the last of the bone shakers, Sammy Carter rode an up-to-date penny-farthing; he had a wheelwright’s shop at Ashley Cross where the Chapel now is.

The Penny-farthing was a fascinating machine to ride, not so high as we imagine to it be.  Parsons favoured tricycles, more dignified.

On Sundays groups of tourists on Penny-farthings sometimes came to grief at the base of the hill by the pond and my Aunt rendered first aid, and I recall George Buckle lying on the sofa with a broken Arm waiting for Dr. Hereford from Christchurch.

A penny-farthing could be dangerous on hills, for if it struck an obstacle it pitched the rider over the handlebars. I coasted down with my legs over the handlebars, but not on dangerous hills.  There were notices on some hills saying “Dangerous for Cyclists”.

The most impressive item of traffic was Farmer Hayward’s waggon loaded with sacks of corn on the way to market, drawn by two horses with polished brass bells rising above the harness.

Bolder Fripp and his wife from Chewton on their way to their field at Ashley Common, where they spent the day on cultivation; Postman Brand, plumber, painter and glazier from Everton, in a pony trap, worked at his trade between rounds.

Sometimes a German band of four players appeared: My father disliked them, and said it always rained when they came.

Religious life was cared for by several churches and chapels, including the Shakers at Tiptoe under Mrs. Girling.  Churches were at Milton, Hordle, and a new church north of Vaggs Lane.  Chapels were Ashley, Wootton, Cranmoor, Barton and one in the Beckley Road called the “Victoria”, I believe another at Tiptoe.  Some of the local people attended the Shakers.

The vicar of Milton was the Rev. T. B. B. Robinson, known as “Tommy Bob”; he must have been a great walker; I have seen him striding through Bashley on his parish rounds.  His wife was the Hon. Mrs. Robinson, an aristocrat, who owned some fine horses and rode to hounds with Dan Hobbs he groom, in attendance.  The Milton Garden and Flower Show was held in the Vicarage grounds.

Hordle church has a peal of three bells supposed to say “Hang Old Beck” to the tune of “Three Blind mice”. Who was Old Beck?

There was a curate connected with Milton named “Trefusis”, who lived in the house by Fern Hill gate, the north end of Fern Hill Lane.

We were chapel people.  I was too young to know anything of the several varying doctrines of the different churches, except that Sunday was not a very happy day for children; we were wicked goats among the flock. On rising we dressed in out “Sunday Clothes”, boots were polished on Saturday with blacking, “an invention of the Devil”.  We oiled our hair a nasty business, I never knew why, unless it was to smother livestock.  Boys were not usually troubled by this - not enough shelter.

Hair oil was sold in egg shaped bottles with an outer covering of plait; it was some kind of vegetable oil.  The bottle hung from the ceiling of the village store together with bladders of lard.

Ashley United School was built 1879. Auberon Herbert took a part in having this built.  It was not associated with any religious body. Previously, older children attended Milton.

There was an infants’ school by Ashley Cross, a church school.  There was an infants’ school in the vestry of the Old Chapel, with Miss Batts the teacher.  I have no recollection of attending there. She punished children by tapping them on the head with her thimble: “Thimblepie”.

The line from Brockenhurst to Christchurch was open in 1887. Previous to that Bournemouth traffic went via Ringwood and Hurn to Bournemouth East, no connection to the West Station, which was served by the Somerset and Dorset Railway.

The building of the line caused an influx of men from all parts of the country.  The contractors were Firbanks of Newport, Mon.  Navvies were hard working, harmless men, and earning about four shillings a day.  Some lived in hutments of wood at Fern Hill, some roamed the lanes, often hungry, picking blackberries from the hedges. Others, craftsmen, obtained lodgings with local people, and much of their spare time was spent in the pubs that were open all day.  Younger men formed groups; one played marbles in the road at Ashley Cross teaching the children to swear.

Village stores and little wayside shops sold bread and meat to the navvies.  Police suppressed all notions of sportsmanship; the law required bread to be weighed when sold over the counter.  Police, disguised as navvies trapped the small shopkeepers and they were fined for selling without weighing.

Many navvies slept rough in their search for a job. Auberon Herbert allowed them to spend the night in the hay of the farm buildings.  There was little smoking; twist tobacco was chewed. Some of the railway people settled in the district when the line was finished.

Billy Anthill took a brake load of younger men to Lymington on Saturday evenings.

All good things come to an end. In 1892 Arthur Hill, the violinmaker, spent the weekend at the Old House and offered me a job.  By the end of March I was in a third floor back in New Bond Street cleaning fiddles and fitting pegs. Unhappy and hard up.  After the first week I was taught nothing more for a year. “Thereby hangs a tale,” written but quite unprintable. Cleaning fiddles was kids play to me.

When I went riding in the New Forest my saddle, bits and stirrups were burnished fit for a Lord Mayor’s Show.

So ends this extract from William Retford’s reminiscences.

In conclusion, visitors to Oxford can see in the Faculty of Music Oxford University all of William Retford’s tools including his lathe together with bows and other items of his own making.  For those interested in the development of the early bows and fine instruments a visit to the Hill Room at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford is a must.



William Charles Retford on his 95th birthday in 1970.