William Southwell Biography: Home Page

Mobbs picture of Camerachord

Photograph © Kenneth and Mary Mobbs Collection, reproduced by kind permission of Kenneth Mobbs.
Upright Square Pianoforte (“Camerachord”), No. 59 by William Southwell, Dublin. Until 2020 this instrument was in the South Island of New Zealand, part of the former Golden Bay Keyboard Collection. It's whereabouts in 2022 are currently unknown,

Welcome to this website, the domain of Dr Margaret Debenham, an Independent Scholar in the UK.

ORCID iD iconorcid.org/0000-0002-1383-7040

(For further information on her professional background as a researcher in the field of Educational Technology click on the following link to her personal website).

Based on novel findings from contemporary records, the site presents a biographical account of the Anglo–Irish musical instrument maker, William Southwell, active in Dublin in the final decades of the 18th century and in London from 1794. The fascinating story of his inventions and business dealings is set in the context of newly discovered aspects of his extraordinary personal life

Acknowledged as a creative genius by cognoscenti, Southwell has not however achieved the widespread recognition he undoubtedly deserves. A man ahead of his time, he adopted a modern entrepreneurial approach in a bid to capitalise on his pianoforte inventions. In 1794 he negotiated a deal with the firm of Longman and Broderip, granting them sole rights to manufacture square pianofortes made to his novel patent design in London – a strategy which was to cost him dear, in no small part due to the actions of the manipulative and duplicitous James Longman. Undeterred however, he went on to enter into arrangements with other London manufacturers, including Clementi and Co., George Wilkinson and, in the final years of his life, John Watlen.

The main article (pdf) has been designed to facilitate an exploration of the additional links contained within it at appropriate points in the narrative while the reader is on-line, making use of the browser back button to return to the main text. To access this article directly, follow the link in the reference below:

Margaret Debenham (2013). William Southwell (1736/7–1825): Anglo–Irish Musical Instrument Inventor and Maker – an extraordinary life. © Margaret Debenham. William Southwell (1736-1825) Biography, 2013 All rights reserved. Permission is granted to download one copy for the purposes of personal private research only.

Update 22 September 2022

Please note that the author recently discovered that the interactive links in the main article had ceased to work as they ought, apparently due to evolving software. The original file has therefore been updated so that they now work as intended. The link in the reference above is to the revised file.

(Michael Cole's appraisal of the technical aspects of William Southwell's work and his assessment of the importance of Southwell's inventions, available via the above link on his Square Pianos website, are of particular interest and recommended here as a valuable resource.)

More information on Southwell's difficulties in protecting his 1794 patent rights is to be found in the following publication: George S. Bozarth and Margaret Debenham. 2009. 'Piano Wars: The Legal Machinations of London Pianoforte Makers, 1795 - 1806 in The Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle Vol. 42, Issue 1. London: Royal Musical Association, 45-108. This paper was awarded the American Musical Instrument Society's Frances Densmore prize in 2011.

Visitors to the site with a more personal interest in the family history of the Southwells may like to explore the information on individuals available via the ‘Genealogy’ menu. In the Victorian era three of William Southwell's grandsons, William Henry, Frederick and Edwin Southwell achieved acclaim as portrait photographers in London. The author's article 'Southwell Brothers Photographers' Royal: History of the Business (1857-1883)' and images of surviving examples of their work (including Queen Victoria and her family) may be found on our linked site Southwell Brothers: Photographers Royal.

Information on additions that have been made to the site since its inception is available here.

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Laurence Libin, emeritus curator of musical instruments at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and editor-in-chief of the Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments for Oxford University Press: 'Thank you for posting the new material, valuable as always. Your work is truly inspiring, a model of clarity and comprehensiveness.' (via e-mail, 20 January 2016)

Norman MacSween, retired diplomat and music historian: 'Meticulous and wide-ranging scholarship, so lucidly organised and presented.'

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A short timeline for Stephen Moore (1772 -1803) was added to the site in February 2021 (see also sidebar menu)

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Thank you for your interest. I hope you will enjoy your visit and I will welcome feedback.

With effect from August 2019: Please use the following contact e-mail address in case of queries:

wscontact 'at' debenham.org.uk

This site is the result of a self-funded ‘not for profit’ retirement project and if you have found it useful, a donation to one of our favourite charities (Addenbrooke's Charitable Trust and Papworth Hospital Charity) will be greatly appreciated. Each month we will highlight one of them here as our ‘Charity of the Month’. This month it is:-

Site last updated 22 Sept 2022

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