I didn’t realise that the story of a native-born piano would jump at me out of the clean-up we were doing to prepare for our Storytelling Centre in Dubbo. Octavius Beale’s masterpiece was sitting dusty and neglected in a back room and here I was, asking myself, “Do I really need that thing in here?” How ignorant! It was my colleague, OJ Rushton, who opened my eyes to this story of a unique Aussie icon.
I discovered that apart from being a traveller skilled at languages, President of the NSW Chamber of Commerce and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Beale, an Irish-born Quaker just happened to design the first piano purpose-built for Australia!
The Quakers were a small Christian sect known for building industries focussed on caring for their workers. So, it was no surprise to learn that in 1893 Octavius established Australia’s first piano factory in Sydney and grew it into the largest, not only in the southern hemisphere but also the British Empire in the early 1900s.
What was so impressive was the way that this immigrant from the other side of the world made himself an authority on Australian timber and crafted our native wood into instruments suited to the changeable Australian climate. In 1902, with George Vader, he patented the all-iron tuning system, eliminating the wooden wrest-plank prone to warping.
The energetic Beale was determined to manufacture every element of his pianos which required exceptional skill and training. Of the 500 workers, over 300 were skilled artisans. The range of trades he incorporated into the plant was astonishing: brass and iron foundries – power houses; timber yards, stores, mills, joinery works, cabinet departments, veneer works; paint and pattern shops, machine and electro-plating departments; keyboard action-making and fitting, tuning, intonating; drying kilns, dust-proof polishing rooms.
The French music critic Oscar Comettant, visiting Australia in 1898 commented that “… there is probably no piano factory in the world so completely self-contained as the Beale factory.” In a coup that must have astonished established European manufacturers at the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition, Beale’s Australian pianos were awarded the Grand Prize, plus three gold medals for tonal qualities, woodwork, metalwork, inventions and factory organisation.
After that, the upstart colonials were justifiably able to boast “…you are obtaining the most
durable instrument in the world, with musical qualities second to none.” Most early 20th
century homes had a piano and after dinner parties it was common to have impromptu
concerts. As the Aussie population grew, 95,000 of these home-grown pianos were sold
between 1893 to 1975!
And I was ready to ditch mine for a dollar! Shame!
Join The Outback Historian, Paul Roe, on an unforgettable journey into Australia's Past as he follows the footprints of the Master Storyteller and uncovers unknown treasures of the nation.