It started with a purchase made on a mere whim. Michael Hannon’s mother Hilda bought a musical instrument listed as a ‘spinet’ at an auction in Ballycastle, Northern Ireland, where his parents lived in retirement.
Although the instrument was in poor condition, it was structurally sound, and Hilda later passed it on to Michael to see if he could restore it.
The instrument, dated 1804, turned out to be a Broadwood, the sort of ‘square piano’ played by Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, various Jane Austen heroines and Captain Scott, who took one to the Antarctic with him.
Nearly 40 years on since his mother bought the item, Michael has written a book detailing the dramatic story linked to the family which originally owned the piano.
Michael, who lives in Ranmoor with his wife Rosemary, was formerly Sheffield University’s librarian, and in retirement has developed a special interest in early keyboard instruments, as well as in family history. He also sings bass with the Abbeydale Singers, and has been closely involved with the commissioning of a new organ for Sheffield Cathedral.
Hilda gave the square piano, a variety that fell out of favour with the advent of the grand piano, to Michael in 1979. He had it professionally restored, and used the serial number - 8199 - as the starting point for the eight-year research project which led to the book.
Broadwoods, the world’s oldest piano company founded in 1728, were able to tell him when the piano was made, but that was all.
However, company records revealed the piano was bought by a Mrs Dorothy Findlay, who paid £33 for it - around £2,600 today - and had it shipped to her home in Glasgow.
The family of Mrs Findlay - the source of the book’s name, Mrs Findlay’s Broadwood Square Piano - had links with Michael’s mother’s family, the Dennys, shipbuilders from Dumbarton who finished building the Cutty Sark.
In the 19th century, Thomas Dunlop Findlay and Peter Denny, Michael’s great grandfather, were partners in the Irrawaddy Flotilla, a ferry company operating in Burma and immortalised as ‘the old Flotilla’ by Rudyard Kipling in his poem The Road to Mandalay.
Michael’s book also outlines an affair between Mrs Findlay’s ‘flighty’ daughter, Dorothea, who ran away in 1820 with her music teacher John Donaldson.
Donaldson was a composer, and a recording of his only known piano sonata, played by Inja Davidović, a Croatian concert pianist currently writing a PhD at Sheffield University.
Michael, a father-of-three with six grandchildren, said: “When I made my first tentative enquiries, I had no idea that they would lead to such a fascinating detective story and final publication of the book. It has been a most rewarding journey, starting from the wonderful Broadwood archives, then with my wife Rosemary’s tremendous support, researching family histories in Ireland, Scotland and even here in Sheffield.
“The extraordinary connections between Mrs Findlay’s descendants and my mother’s Denny shipbuilding forebears in Dumbarton have been startling, almost uncanny. The book has had a very warm reception. Sales are going very well, particularly in the run-up to Christmas. I’m already lined up to speak to various local groups and look forward to doing more roadshows and after-dinner presentations.”
And as for the future of the piano - one day it may well find a home within Edinburgh University’s collection of historic musical instruments, originally set up by Donaldson, who was a professor there. “Before than I trust it will be played and well looked-after by at least one more generation of my own family,” Michael writes.
n Copies, priced £20 including the CD, are available to buy at Rhyme & Reason, Hunters Bar, or direct from the author by calling 0114 230 2667. Visit www.mrsfindlaysbroadwoodsquarepiano.co.uk for more information.