The Holloway Road brothers who made squeezeboxes
PUBLISHED: 12:00 06 May 2017
Guest writer Mike Durham takes the Gazette on a journey through the history of his musical family – who made concertinas in Holloway Road.
The date is 1866, and in a shop next to St Mary Magdalene Church in Holloway Road, Thomas and Frederick Nickolds are making and selling some of the finest hand-held musical instruments available in Victorian England.
We are talking about concertinas, the squeezeboxes.
Thomas, 44, and his younger brother Frederick, 40, are Nickolds Bros concertina manufacturers, at 143 Holloway Road. They are Victorian artisan instrument-makers of the finest quality, and musical pioneers.
The elaborate, finely-wrought wood-and-brass concertinas they create are icons of Victorian craftsmanship. Over more than 30 years, the Nickolds family turn out hundreds of these beautiful instruments at several addresses in north London. Today they are sought-after collectors items, and museum pieces.
Thomas was my great, great grandfather and his brother Fred was my great, great uncle. But just who were the Nickolds brothers of Holloway Road?
The story of London’s concertina men is a classic tale of 19th century enterprise that spills over into a legacy of late Victorian music-making, a music shop in Enfield, remarkable end-of-the-pier shows of the Edwardian era, and even the first hours of television broadcasting.
It all starts in 1787, two years before the French Revolution, when John Nickolds was born in Tipton in the Black Country. Young John, it seems, was a product of his age, the Industrial Revolution. As a young man he moved to London, married, trained as a machinist and toolmaker, and soon started working for the leading concertina manufacturer of the day, Wheatstone.
John’s son Thomas was born in 1822, Frederick in 1826. The children were brought up in Barnsbury and both followed their father into the concertina business.
The Nickolds family first opened a workshop together in Woodbridge Street in Clerkenwell in the 1840s. After their father’s death in 1862, the brothers moved the company to 143 Holloway Road, and later to Notting Hill, Stoke Newington and Hackney.
Unfortunately, the original premises at 143 Holloway Road seems to have disappeared – it looks as if the street there has been redeveloped with a twentieth century maisonette block next to St Mary Magdalene church.
The Nickolds were concertina pioneers. With their father, the two brothers were credited with inventing the Anglo Concertina, a British adaptation of the originallY German instrument. Concertinas (quite distinct from accordions) were among the most popular musical instruments of the Victorian era, little squeeze-boxes that were easily transportable and usually came packed in a small hexagonal wooden carry-case.
They could be brought out for use in the home, on a picnic, at the beach, by street musicians, in a public gathering, or on Salvation Army street parades. They were the guitar of the Victorian era.
The concertina and music business passed down the family. Two of the next generation of cousins – also called Thomas and Fred – carried on making and selling concertinas well into the 1890s.
Concertinas went out of fashion, but the musical Nickolds family of north London lived on for a couple more generations. By the Edwardian era of the early 1900s the instrument of choice was the banjo, and Frederick’s grandson Albert Nickolds became a musical singing star in his own right.
Today, however – a few generations on and coincidentally not far away – none of my family is remotely musical. But the legend of our concertina-playing forebears lives on.