My grandmother, Alice Hilda Wright, was born in 1887. By 1976 she had become too forgetful and frail to manage on her own, and was living with us. She died towards the end of that year, aged 89, when I was 13.
I was in the early stages of learning the violin. It’s fair to say I didn’t play very well. I had begun teaching myself from A Tune a Day Book 1 when I was 11, then joined the school orchestra without having had any lessons. A year later, I’d started having some; and now, my teacher was struggling to undo all the destructive things I’d taught myself. I’m sorry to say he wasn’t having much success.
So it’s not surprising—especially at that age—that I absolutely hated anyone listening while I practised.
This created a problem: whenever my grandmother saw I was going to get my violin out, she said “Oh! Are we going to have some music?” and perked up. Typically she then reminded us that she had once played the violin, and that she’d had to give up when she got married “because Pop didn’t like it”. Pop was what she called my Welsh grandfather, who died before I was born. She hadn’t played the violin since she was 20. She loved being reminded of playing, and was obviously looking forward to me practising.
I would then go and do some violin practice, painfully aware that every note was being heard from downstairs.
Being in the early stages of dementia, she had poor short-term memory but a good memory for events from her early life. So she would tell you all about one of these memories, forget she’d told you, and tell you it again another day, and another, and another . . .
Many of these stories were fascinating as long as you didn’t mind hearing them so frequently. In fact my father, who enjoyed restoring tape recorders to good working condition then using them, made recordings of her telling some them. These should still be in the house somewhere, on reel-to-reel tape.
She remembered when Ardwick Green in Manchester was a green, with horses on it. She remembered her childhood at Swinyard Hall Farm in High Legh, and how it was necessary to curtsy to the squire when he came by. She remembered walking, then cycling, five miles to school. She remembered the time she shot underneath a shire horse on her bicycle: the horse was standing sideways across the road, at the bottom of a hill, and she couldn’t stop. So she put her head down, went underneath the horse, and fell off the bike. She said the owner of the horse was really worried she might have hurt herself, but that she hadn’t and was laughing her head off about what had just happened because it was so funny. She told all of these stories many times.
But if you asked about her violin playing, another story often came up. She said—very consistently—that she had once played on Joachim’s violin. That’s right: Joachim, the great 19th century soloist.
I believe the story was set in Alderley Edge, where the family had moved. It was a village in those days, not the suburban town it is now. Her family had what she called “a hut at the bottom of the garden”, which they rented out to people for their summer holidays. One very regular visitor was Mr Hesketh, from Manchester.
Now, Mr Hesketh repaired violins. On one occasion, he had Joachim’s violin in for repair—and when he visited, he brought it with him. He let Alice try playing it, and she remembered this for the next seventy years.
Might it have happened?
For years, I remembered this story but forgot my grandmother had given the violin repairer a name. So I assumed I’d never be able to investigate whether it happened. But after my father died in 2008, the subject came up and my mother said “Oh no, he was called Hesketh! She always called him Mr Hesketh from Manchester.”
So now I could at least check whether it might be plausible.
I typed something like “Hesketh violin Manchester” into a search engine, and immediately found lots of auction reports for recently sold violins. Along with each violin’s final price, they gave the name of its maker and the date on its label. They were all made between about 1895 and 1940. The maker was Thomas Earle Hesketh. The price was mostly several thousand pounds, meaning they were decent quality violins.
Now we need to do some guesswork about dates.
My grandmother was 20 when she married, at which time she stopped playing. So if the incident happened, it was no later than 1907. Coincidentally, 1907 was also the year Joachim died.
At what age would you trust a young player with a valuable instrument? Say 12 as a minimum? That gives 1899 as a tentative early limit. So let’s set the incident between about 1899 and 1907.
Finally, was Thomas Hesketh around at the right time? Yes he was: from the auction reports, he was making violins before 1899 and well after 1907.
Joachim and the violin
OK, so now we need to ask
- is it at all likely that Joachim would have been in Manchester, with a violin needing repair, between 1899 and 1907?
- and if he was, would he have taken it to Mr Hesketh?
In 1899, several years had already passed since Joachim’s retirement from full-time playing. However, players at that level very rarely retire completely. They keep on playing as long as they can: just doing less of it than they used to. According to Joachim’s Wikipedia entry he made some gramophone recordings in 1903, so he was still playing then; if I’ve understood correctly, his last visit to Britain was in 1904, when Alice was about 17.
Asking around, I discovered from a player with Hallé connections that after Joachim’s retirement, he still came to Manchester each year to play a concerto with the Hallé Orchestra. I’m not sure how long this continued for—finding out would need someone to check the Hallé’s records or old concert programmes and I’ve not got as far as trying to do that—but it could well have brought Joachim to Manchester in the period we’re talking about.
But if he wanted some work doing on his violin, would he have gone to Mr Hesketh?
The next time I needed my bow rehairing, I went to a violin repairer in Hyde called Harry Ash. He had previously done a superb job of repairing my violin for me, turning it into a vastly better instrument which also made twice as much sound. The repair had involved taking the front off. He hadn’t been able to resist checking all the joints inside and re-gluing them all, at no extra cost. When he handed it to me, he said they wouldn’t need doing again in either of our lifetimes. Then, with an evil grin, he added “Well, not unless you drop it . . . ”
Anyway. Back to the bow rehairing. When I collected it I told Harry the outline of the story. He knew the history of local violin makers, and had also encountered some of Hesketh’s violins. From what he knew of Hesketh’s reputation, he considered Hesketh was precisely the kind of person someone like Joachim would go to for a violin repair if they happened to be in Manchester.
Yes, but did it happen?
There’s not enough evidence here to say for certain whether the incident happened. Almost everything is circumstantial: all we really know is that my grandmother said that Mr Hesketh had brought Joachim’s violin with him and let her play it. The story needs corroborating from another source, which I don’t have.
But there are a few plausible scenarios for Joachim:
- Joachim was in Manchester to play with the Hallé, and wanted some work doing on the violin he used in the concert—maybe urgently before concert day.
- Or maybe he brought a “spare” violin with him that needed repairing, knowing there was a good violin maker in Manchester to do the work while he was busy with the concert.
- Joachim bought a violin while he was in the country, and took it to Hesketh to get it properly set up.
- Maybe the violin was actually one Joachim had sold after retiring, and no visit by him was involved.
- Maybe my grandmother somehow got the idea that the violin was Joachim’s when it wasn’t.
And for Mr Hesketh:
- The repair was urgent and he brought the violin with him to get it done; when he’d finished, he showed it Alice and let her play on it.
- He felt Alice was a good player who ought to have the opportunity to experience a really good violin, and brought it for that reason.
- He was excited about having such a famous player’s violin to repair, and was friendly enough with Alice to want to show it her.
- It was actually Alice he was excited about, and this made him do insane things like taking a famous player’s valuable instrument on holiday with him.
The last is of course the most tempting to speculate about. Suppose it happened when she was 18 or 19, not long before she married at 20. We can immediately see a potential reason why my grandfather hated her playing the violin and insisted she stop. And a reason why Mr Hesketh visited so regularly . . .
But this is all speculation. What’s actually needed is more evidence, for example
- Living relatives of Thomas Earle Hesketh who have family memories relating to the incident. Did he go to Alderley Edge, or High Legh, for his holidays? Did he once repair Joachim’s violin? Was there an Alice who married a Welshman?
- Records relating to Joachim. Did he have a violin repaired in Manchester around this time? Is a violin maker or repairer called Hesketh mentioned in any of his correspondence?
If anyone reading this can shed any further light on the story, I would be very pleased to hear from you—you can leave a comment below, or use the contact form to send me an email.