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A Family History:
Harps and the Haarnacks
by Moira Bonnington
From News Accounts, 1926:
In a little shop in London, England, H. D. Haarnack, who will be 93 in
December, still carries on his business of making harps with his
brother, who is 75 years old. He has plied his trade for 80 years and
is, in fact, the oldest working member of his craft in the world.(1)
Henry David Haarnack, 1926
Click on image for more detail
"I have been working since I was 11 years old, so that I have been
making harps for 80 years," said Mr. Haarnack, "and I suppose I shall go
on until I die. There have been four generations at the trade in our
family, and in 1808 my grandfather was head machinist at Erard's. We
have been in this workshop for 60 years."
Romance still clings to some of the old streets of London, and just
behind Tottenham Court Road, in the dingy quarter of Charlotte Street
where Rosetti and his confrères spent many happy hours, [stands
Haarnack's] queer old-fashioned shop where harps of all descriptions are
sold and very often repaired and restrung. Mr. Haarnack...is still full
of enthusiasm for the work. A wonderful old man with benevolent blue
eyes and white hair, he recounted to me yesterday with a good deal of
pride how the greatest harpists of the day would visit his shop to have
their instruments repaired and talk with its owner.
"They have all gone
now," he said sadly, pointing to the photos of these bygone celebrities
that were hanging on the wall of the shop, "and I have survived them
all...Perhaps, who knows," concluded Mr. Haarnack with a touch of
whimsical humour, "all these noted professors of the harp who have gone
before me are now playing to King David." (3)
"The harp trade is not what it was. Years ago, when the gentry had
their big town houses, they used to have a harpist to play to the
company after dinner at night. But the great blow was when the post of
Royal Harpist was done away with by King Edward [VII, 1901-1910], and
the popularity of the instrument diminished. We still send harps to
many parts of the world. A few go to Ireland, said to be the land of
the harp, but I have made some for Canada and Australia recently.
American society patronises the harp to some extent, but there are not a
large number of English players. The great masters are all dead." (2)
(1) The Sunday Province, Vancouver, British Columbia, October 3rd,
(2) The Sunday News, March 7th 1926.
(3) South Wales News, Thursday March 11th 1926.
THE LOST LEDGERS
Henry David Haarnack was my great-great-grandfather. In 1926 he still
had the ledger used by his grandfather. Forty years later, and
forty years ago now, in the 1960s, my father was prompted to do a bit of
detective work after reading a newspaper article about the Morley family
and their connection with the Erards. He remembers receiving a
delightful letter informing him that some of the Haarnack ledgers still
I cannot think for the life of me why, after going to all this trouble,
my father never replied or followed this up, but he didn't! And now his
memory is failing him! He has lost the record of this correspondence
and he does not know the name gentleman who wrote to him, but he believes he was
related to a famous general. I think the chances of finding that those
ledgers have survived is very slim, but stranger things have happened,
so perhaps one day they will come to light again.
I have, however, been able to piece together some information on my
family's harpmakers, some from oral tradition, and some from newspaper
Christian Haarnack (1771-1830s or 40s)
Henry David's grandfather, Christian, was born in 1774 in Battle
Bridge. As Henry told the Sunday News, by 1808 Christian was a
head machinist at Erard's. These dates allow me to make some
1. In 1786 Erard opened its first London showroom, and Christian was
twelve years of age. Perhaps he went there then as an apprentice.
2. Some of my family believe that he was making harps in London before
Erard, and might have been recruited after Erard lost his Paris company
to the 1796 Revolution's destruction and began manufacturing pianos and
harps in London. Maybe, therefore, he joined Erard as a fully fledged
3. Wherever he worked, it would first have been on harps with the
single-action fourchette (forked-disc mechanism) or the crochet and bequille like
those by Nadermann and Cousineau [see also "The Louis XVI Harp" by
Beat Wolf]. He was 20 when Erard took out his first patent in 1794 for
improvements to the harp, and I like to think that in the following
years he might have worked alongside Sebastian Erard during the latter's
most productive and creative period.
I continue to look for information on Christian and his forebears. Is
Haarnack perhaps German or Danish or Dutch? Does his name appear on
harps or records of employment, on a bill, invoice or order? Who were
his parents, and what business was his father in? I will treasure each
small detail as it comes my way.
Harp Plate bearing Haarnack Inscription
Click on image for more detail
Henry Haarnack (1808-1890)
Henry was Christian's eldest son, and followed him into the harp making
business, setting up a Haarnack shop.
The earliest record we have of a harp bearing the Haarnack name dates
from 1833. Soon afterwards, their harps began to appear which also had
the inscription "as in the Erard patent". It is likely they were built
in the mews between 25, Newman Street (near Henry's house at #50,
opposite the Middlesex Hospital) and a Berners Street address.
By the time of the census in 1881 old Henry Haarnack was semi-retired.
His sons Henry David and George Christian were working as harp makers
whilst he was the proprietor of the coffee shop next door. No doubt he
went in there to offer advice and help when they were busy!
The year of his death, 1890, was coincidentally the year that Erard's
was taken over by Morley's, and I can speculate that there was a hearty
rivalry between them and Haarnack's. In fact, there were many harp
makers in London in the 19th century
and Henry must
have been among the more successful, as his shop carried on for almost
another forty years. (see
http://www.bonn25.freeserve.co.uk/harpsandthehaarnacks for more info.)
Henry and George Haarnack in their shop, 1926.
Click on image for more detail
Henry David Haarnack (1835-1927)
George Christian Haarnack (1853-1933)
As you saw in the newspaper accounts which open this article, Henry
David was my great-great grandfather; George Christian was his brother,
though they were about 18 years apart in age. They both worked at the
Henry David had two sons, Henry, aka Harry, (1862-1924) and George
Willoughby (1867-1930). Neither was a harp maker, though both were
musicians, but George sometimes helped out at the shop.
In her autobiography, "Life on a Harpstring", Marie Goossens (1894-1991)
describes going into the Charlotte Street shop and meeting [what she
thought were] three generations of Haarnacks.
"There was still another firm in Charlotte Street, W. 1 which was called
Haarnack. I think they must have repaired harps because there was
nothing to see but pieces of wood and bits and pieces, more of a
joiner's shop than anything else. I had a query and I put it to the
young man who attended me, but found he had to ask father. Out came
father - quite a Victorian picture - a slim grey-bearded man, very trim
in a black frock coat, ready to receive the customers. Well, the
impossible happened, he could not help me so he said, "I'll go and ask
Father". This was like a dream. Out came the first generation...the
worker...he looked like Falstaff or Father Christmas appearing in the
background. A big man with snow-white hair and beard, his shirt sleeves
rolled up and a carpenter's apron around him. He was the one who could
By assembling dates, I think I can suggest that the Haarnacks may have
been making a little joke about fathers. Take a look:
Christian (1774-1830s or 40s)
Henry David (1835-1927) and George Christian (1853-1933)
Henry (Harry) (1862-1924) and George Willoughby (1867-1930)
Marie Goossens (1894-1991)
Let's put Marie in the shop in 1914, when she was 20. At that time,
George Willoughby, the musician who sometimes helped out, was 47. His
uncle, George Christian, was 61, and his father, Henry David, 18 years
older, was 79. Depending on how young George W. looked, pehaps he and
uncle appeared to be father and son. Certainly H. D. and his younger
brother could have appeared so. Surely the true grandfather, Henry, couldn't
have been there when Marie was: he died four years before her birth!
And George Willoughby had no sons, nor did Harry, to whom H.D. would
have been grandfather.
It appears to me that there are three family mysteries:
1. Why did Henry David say to the newspaper that there had been four
generations at the trade in our family? I see only three, as the last
Henry and George were not craftsmen, but performing musicians.
2. Could it be that the first Christian's father also was a harpmaker,
making the fourth generation?
3. Were there in truth a son, father, and grandfather in the shop the
day Marie Goossens visited, and who were they?
Grandad's business had never been a very large enterprise like Morley's
or Erards, but over three generations they had built up a good
reputation and they had many loyal and famous clients. Amongst these
were John Thomas and Balsar Chatterton, court harpists, and the Goossen
sisters, Marie and Sidonie [101 years old in 2001] . By the 1920s
everything had become run down and the brothers were beginning to run
out of steam. They no longer made harps, and did more repairs than
anything. No one was prepared to learn the master craftsman's art so,
when Henry David and George Christian decided to retire and close the
shop, it marked the end of an era. Henry David died a year later.
George Christian outlived both his nephews and was the last to bear the
For more details, please visit the author's website at
Also of interest: Until 1935, the
Randolph Wurlitzer Company made first an automatic harp, then several models of pedal harp.
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