A Gilbert, the instrument that amazes the world, was the must have for the younger generation circa 1928. After all, what on earth do you buy a close family member for their wedding present? A Gilbert of course.
(Click here for accompanying music from the era: Painting the clouds with sunshine – Internet Archive – Creative Commons License.)
Ethel Hicken and Levi Pearson got married in Bradford, a rather grand affair for the times. A story exists about a gift of a Gilbert Tone Reflector Gramophone manufactured in Sheffield, which was given to them on their wedding day, probably by Ethel’s father John, or sister Violet.
The mahogany cabinet was not only a fine piece of furniture but also marketed as ‘the new scientific instrument’ that was for the first time, now commercially available for the home. Technology had become affordable for those families in a comfortable financial position.
I can only imagine Aunty Ethel and Uncle Levi as they sat in the front room of their modest terrace house, listening to the latest music and who knows, perhaps having the occasional dance together.
The gramophone came into Dad’s possession when Ethel relocated to sheltered accommodation in Shipley when she was in her 80’s. It then passed to me in the mid 1980’s. I kept the gramophone for many years as a piece of furniture, using it as a display table as it wasn’t working but with the intention of one-day restoring it to its former glory.
Despite not working, the gramophone had been well looked after and polished regularly. During the 1950’s the gramophone had been adapted and wired up to an external speaker. A Bakelite arm had been installed which connected by a wire to a missing speaker. During the conversion, the original Gilbert tone reflector arm had been lost or misplaced forever. The original velvet record cleaner and needle cups were intact. The plush velvet turntable was a bit worse for wear but what do you expect for something aged 85 years old? The conversion into a more modern affair was probably carried out by my cousin Keith, Ethel and Levi’s only son. He probably played early Elvis Presley records on it.
Intending to have it restored one day and to track down an original Gilbert arm, I eventually found a brilliant restorer called Ken. His business and passion is gramophones and their restoration. Based in Holmfirth, Ken sorted me out with a replacement tone arm and replaced the double spring that drives the turntable as this was fractured. A general service and fine-tuning was carried out and the Gilbert Model 60, “mahogany pedestal centrepiece” was back in glorious full working order.
The gramophone now lives in our study where it still serves as a useful display surface and curiosity. We occasionally play original 78 rpm records on it, Tip-toe through the tulips and When I’m cleaning windows being two firm favourites. After winding the handle until the tension on the spring is just so, having replaced the needle (remembering one needle per two sides of record played), the crackling begins and treble heavy sound of the gramophone blasts out, channelling its sound through the Gilbert tone arm, amplifying through the gloriously polished arm and down deep into the sound box equipped with the “new tone reflector technology”.
As the lid closes, the tone improves greatly and adjusting the volume is straight forward, you open and close the front double doors accordingly. It is a great piece of history to keep. Not only does it remind me of Aunty Ethel and Uncle Levi, it also provokes my imagination and curiosity about their lives as a young couple and what shaped them to become the aged Aunt and Uncle I knew as a small boy. We still play it from time to time and really enjoy the sound as it blasts out through the open window and around the garden, goodness knows what our neighbours think?
It is amazing to think that in 8 decades we have progressed from a home-based wind-up record player to down-loadable MP3 tracks that can be listened to anywhere you choose and on a multitude of miniature devices. Such big advances in technology and major changes in society and expectation.
I really hope that someone will want to maintain the gramophone in years to come and occasionally play a record on it, maybe dance a little, sit and wonder about its history or add further notes to this story; the story of Ethel and Levi’s gramophone which is now located in Spain.
http://www.fonograf.com/ A big thank you to Ken for restoring the piece and providing me with a photocopy of the original Gilbert brochure from 1927.
In the photograph (left to right): Joyce (not sure of name), Gordon Hicken, Mr Brown, Levi Pearson, Ethel Pearson (nee Hicken), John Herbert Hicken, John Firth, Violet Firth.