This is the skool piano

If you were at school in London in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s you may remember the upright pianos in very pale wood which seemed about as common in the schools of the metropolis as grey squirrels in its parks. They were made by W. Danemann & Co. Ltd. of Northampton Street, London N1, and were so instantly recognisable that to a musically active pupil they became a stock joke. I once had occasion to visit with my parents a secondary school other than my own. The piano in the hall had its back to the audience, but I pointed to it at once and said, “look, a Danemann”.

I recently came across the Middlesex County Council Supplies Department file on the contract with Danemann to supply pianos to the county’s schools in the 1960s*, and it sets up a small mystery as to how these pianos came to have the appearance they did. The County Supplies Officer reported to the Supplies Committee on 7 January 1963 on the tenders received for 1962-3 – in theory the contract was to have run from 1 December 1962 to 30 November 1963, but in fact was not let until 11 February 1963. These tenders ranged from Danemann’s £128 per instrument to Chappell’s £198-10/-. After inspecting their pianos the county council accepted Danemann’s tender, not for the basic school model at £128 but for a superior one – still the second lowest quotation – at £133-10/- which had a better soundboard which it was felt would improve the tone and help keep the instruments in tune. So Danemann made the lowest tenders, which must have been one reason why Middlesex chose them. But was the pianos’ characteristic appearance simply that of the model that Danemann offered?

Middlesex provided would-be tenderers in October 1962 with a list of specifications, drawn up in consultation with the Chief Education Officer, that school pianos must have. Among these were that the casework was to be of white oak, its outside polished in an approved shade in satin acid catalyst finish. The soundboard was to be of Rumanian pine. The back of the instrument was to be covered with “Somweave” backing fabric. The instrument was to be fitted with Homa castors. “The fall [sc. the lid] to be broken and hinged to permit folding beneath desk.” Any manufacturer would have had to comply with these conditions. But Danemann, returning their tender, enclosed a printed sheet of “Points of Interest” on their school pianos. Among these were that the soundboards were of Roumanian (sic) pine, “the finest material it is possible to obtain for Soundboards and we are, we believe, the only manufacturers using it”; that the instruments had a very attractive back, in the same finish as the front, so that “if the piano is used on a stage a pleasing appearance is presented to the audience”; and that they had Homa castors, to the specifications of the London, Surrey and West Riding County Council Education Committees.

The overlap between the two lists of features is obvious. But how did Danemann’s standard pre-printed list come to be so close to what Middlesex wanted? How did Middlesex arrive at a specification for all manufacturers which was so close to what Danemann offered, especially in the matter of Rumanian pine soundboards if Danemann’s use of them really was unique? Was what I always regarded as the Danemann look really a Danemann look, or a Middlesex look manufactured by Danemann? What is perhaps most likely is that local education authorities consulted each other in matters such as this and that Middlesex had had the benefit of advice from such as London, Surrey and the West Riding, especially perhaps London – the two counties’ administrative offices were a walkable distance apart. There would then have developed in time a local education authority piano stereotype which Danemann would become experienced at producing, and in tendering for at a low price.

Still, the characteristics I remember most clearly are the white oak casework, the unnaturally white plastic of the keys (Middlesex, which had built my school, specified “Ivoette”) and especially the “broken and hinged” lids. These last, when raised, pivoted upwards in the usual way on a hinge along their inner edge, but then folded downwards in the middle on a second hinge to form an elongated curled-up heap under the music desk – a peculiar sight to anyone used to the more orthodox type of lid. Now these features are in the Middlesex specification but not in Danemann’s Points of Interest. Did Danemann pianos supplied to other authorities have them? It is not difficult to find photographs of Danemann pianos of a darker hue than the white oak and without the curling-up lid, but these are not necessarily school models.

Danemann’s contract with Middlesex was renewed after retendering for the year from 9 December 1963 to 30 November 1964. (Middlesex were late again: the date 9 December is a handwritten alteration to a rubber-stamped date, presumably 1 December, on the county council’s form of tender. And even then the acceptance was not signed off by the Clerk of the County Council until 13 December.) On 4 November 1964 The County Supplies Officer told the Chairman of the Supplies Committee that Danemann were willing to supply pianos until the end of the 1964-5 financial year. Though the price had increased slightly, he felt that in view of the small number of instruments likely to be required in that time it was probably not worth retendering. The Chairman was asked to approve the continuation of the existing agreement for that brief time, and did so.

The end of the 1964-5 financial year more or less coincided with the abolition of the Middlesex County Council from 1 April 1965. But the Danemann pianos long outlived London local government reorganisation. (Some of them, it seems, are still in use.) Between them London, Surrey and Middlesex covered most of what became Greater London. The West Riding apart, can anyone report further memories or present-day sightings of Danemanns in schools? Where? And in all local authority areas were they as I have described them? If not, how did they differ?

*London Metropolitan Archives, MCC/CL/L/SUP/2/10


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