The Anglo-German Concertina

A Social History (book) by Dan M Worrall

Concertina Press ISBN 0982599609 & ISBN0982599617

Volume 1 cover pictureI first came across Dan Worrall as the author of The Anglo Concertina Music of William Kimber (EFDSS, 2005), which I reviewed for this site.  Since then he has published a number of articles on the excellent Concertina Library site at: - these include studies on the history of concertina playing in Ireland and the United States.  Now, after these regional studies, he tackles the world (or at least the English-speaking world - more on this later) with what is almost certainly the broadest and most comprehensive study of anglo-concertina playing ever produced: two volumes, running to a total of 620 pages, with 440 illustrations and 28 musical transcriptions.

In my review of the Kimber book I pointed out some geographical inaccuracies in the text which were more obvious to a resident of South Oxfordshire, than to an author based in southeastern Texas.  In a subsequent email exchange with Dan Worrall I was surprised to learn that, not only had he written the book at quite some distance from Headington Quarry, but in fact the first time the author had ever set foot in England was when he came to hand over the finished proofs to the EFDSS.  The present publication, despite its near global perspective, is unashamedly a work of desk scholarship.  But it has been written at a time when the range of resources accessible from the researcher's desk has expanded, and continues to expand at an astonishing rate, thanks to the Internet and the digitisation of resources such as nineteenth century newspapers and journals.  Reference sources which, not so long ago would have required the author to spend long hours sitting at microfilm readers in research libraries around the world, are now readily available online.  Which is not to imply that a work of this kind does not still require many hours of hard graft - and of course synthesising one's research findings into a coherent and readable whole still requires a particular skill.

After a brief introduction, Worrall's first chapter deals with the invention, development, manufacturing and marketing of 'German system concertinas'.  And the author's first task is to clarify exactly what this term covers - namely the closely-related German, Anglo-German and Anglo-Chromatic concertina.  These all share the same basic keyboard layout, and diatonic push-pull system of note production (i.e.  in contrast to Duet and English system concertinas, each button produces a different note depending on whether the bellows are pushed or pulled).

It appears that the 1820s and 1830s saw an explosion of interest in free reed instruments in Europe.  Mouth-blown aeolines, probably invented by Christian Buschmann in 1821, were further developed by various manufacturers / inventors in Germany and Austria, as well as, of course, by Sir Charles Wheatstone in Britain.  Wheatstone was not the only person, nor the first, to attach bellows to the bank of free reeds; and it would appear that his English system and the German system concertina built by Saxon music shop-owner, Carl Friedrich Uhlig, were developed at roughly the same time, and completely independent of each other.  Uhlig's instruments were being produced commercially by the mid-1830s, and were marketed in London by at least 1846; several other family-members and former Uhlig employees also took up production of the instrument.  They, and the growing number of other German manufacturers, soon moved beyond the original one- and two-row models, building instruments with up to five rows of buttons.  These eventually developed into Bandoneons, Chemnitzer and Carlsfelder Concertinas, which became far more popular than their simpler relatives in continental Europe (and subsequently Latin America).  Worrall sensibly decides not to include these related instruments in the present study: the fact that most of the sources would have been in a language other than English may have been relevant here; but also, looking at the bibliography, it appears that histories of these instruments have already been written.

The new German instruments were initially called Accordion or Harmonika but in England were soon being marketed as Concertinas - popular alternatives to the better-made and therefore much more expensive English-system concertinas then being produced following Wheatstone's design.  While German manufacturers began to borrow the English instrument's hexagonal design, English makers such as George Jones began to combine the German fingering system with superior design and manufacturing techniques (metal rather than wooden action, individual steel or brass reeds, and leather rather than cardboard bellows).  Thus was born the Anglo-German Concertina.

Would-be concertina-players in Britain could choose from a range of instruments.  Those belonging to, or with aspirations to polite society, would play the fully chromatic English concertina, produced in relatively small numbers, and occupying the upper end of the market in terms of price.  Others would take up the cheap mass-produced (one- or two-row) German concertina, or the rather more expensive hand-crafted (two- or three-row) Anglo-German instrument, depending on what they could afford.  English-system concertina players, and writers in the musical press, were disdainful of the other cheaper - and as they saw it, inferior - types of concertina, which were played almost exclusively by those further down the social scale.

Worrall provides figures from various sources for concertina production, from the 1840s through to the 1930s.  These demonstrate that in Britain, anglo production (and one can reasonably infer, sales) vastly outstripped the manufacture of English and Duet instruments.  But production by English makers was dwarfed by the numbers produced in Germany.  In 1876, English makers produced around 5,000 concertinas, of which about 80% were anglos.  In the same year, German companies reportedly manufactured 400,000 bellows-driven free reed instruments (including accordions).  Of these, it is estimated that some 50,000 concertinas were imported into Britain.  If these figures are anywhere near correct, cheap German instruments made up over 90% of concertina sales in Britain at that time.  The inescapable conclusion is that the concertina most likely to be found in the hands of the working man was a simple German instrument (Worrall provides evidence that in 1868 you could get a concertina in Ireland for as little as 3 shillings - roughly equivalent to £65 at the start of the 21st century, so clearly a pretty affordable item).  Much of the rest of the book is taken up with demonstrating, from contemporary literary and press sources, just how much a part of working class life the German / Anglo-German concertina was to become - and how the class divisions in concertina ownership apparent in England were replicated around the world.

The longest chapter is on the anglo in England (Scotland and Wales are excluded, on somewhat spurious grounds).  The structure of this section sets the pattern for succeeding chapters.  A brief introduction to nineteenth century English society is followed by numerous examples of the use of concertinas in that society.  These examples are drawn from sources such as Dickens, Mayhew, The Times, and the wealth of local and national newspapers and journals now available online.  Sometimes the concertina 'sightings' (as Worrall terms them) provide information on how, why, where and by whom the instrument was played.  Often they bear witness to the hostility with which concertina-players were viewed by polite society and officialdom (although this hostility seems to have extended to working-class music-makers in general, particularly those who played on the street, whether for financial gain or for enjoyment).  But almost more telling, in that they speak volumes on the ubiquitous nature of anglo-concertinas in late nineteenth century Britain, are the newspaper reports where the presence of a concertina is almost incidental - for example court reports which do not involve the prosecution of a concertina-player for begging or disturbing the peace, but where a concertina is just mentioned in passing, almost as 'part of the furniture'.

As for the situations where Worrall describes how anglos were used, these include street busking (by far the majority of press sightings and, it would seem, potentially a lucrative source of income), the Salvation Army, blackface minstrel bands, music hall acts, concertina bands, and of course as an accompaniment to social dancing.  There are also sections on the use of anglos by mummers and for morris dancing, although many of the documented cases here are from, or at least influenced by, the twentieth century folk revival.

Having painted a picture of the anglo in its heyday, Worrall then looks at reasons for the instrument's post-World War I decline.  Tables in the book's introductory chapter chart a dramatic fall in production by English makers, and sightings of the instrument in the press.  This rapid reversal in the anglo's fortune he ascribes largely to changes in musical taste.  The anglo-concertina had been ideally suited not only to playing simple diatonic folk tunes, but also for waltzes, schottisches, polkas and other ballroom dances, and had prospered with the popularity of those dance forms in the nineteenth century.  But it was not well suited to the new, increasingly chromatic and syncopated rhythms of ragtime and jazz which gained popular favour in the twentieth century.  Indeed anglos at the lower end of the market simply did not have all the notes necessary to play the new tunes, and even on a 30-key instrument they did not sit easily.  Don't be fooled by the fact that modern players such as John Kirkpatrick and Brian Peters tackle ragtime pieces with apparent ease - they have superior instruments and, of course, are far more skilled than the average player.  Indeed Worrall makes exactly this point with reference to Fred Kilroy, one of the small number of old-time English players of whom we have (a few) recordings.  He played fully-chorded versions of tunes such as Blaze Away - but he had a fully chromatic 38-key Jeffries anglo, which opened up possibilities simply beyond the reach of the typical player equipped with an inexpensive, unresponsive 20-key instrument.  Worrall also points out that Scan Tester, with his Imperial 'jazz' band, did add more modern tunes to his repertoire - but 'he dropped many of the chromatic notes… and made up the difference with his verve and superb phrasing'.

Worrall's explanation for the anglo's decline seems plausible enough, but it raises further questions.  Why did the melodeon not suffer to the same extent from changes in musical tastes?  Why, if concertinas lost favour because they could not cope with ragtime and jazz melodies, did that most unsophisticated of instruments, the one-row melodeon, retain such a prominent place in popular music-making in East Anglia and elsewhere?  Was it, I wonder, at least in part a matter of supply and demand?  Anti-German feeling during and after the First World War led to the Anglo-German concertina being referred to simply as the Anglo-concertina.  Did the same anti-German sentiment catastrophically reduce the demand for German-made concertinas, with the result that production was cut back, meaning that the only affordable option available to the working man who wanted a cheap squeezebox, was a melodeon?  But then these were also mainly German-built.  I've not done the research and don't have the answers - but I would have liked Worrall to address these issues.

The chapter on England proceeds with a series of sketches of the musical activities and playing styles of twentieth century players: William Kimber, Scan Tester, Fred Kilroy, Les Rice and others, such as Caleb Walker, of whom no recordings are commercially available.  Worrall is good at analysing these musicians' playing and classifying their styles - single-note (Rice), octaves (Tester), simple chords (Kimber), and 'cross-row fluid playing' (Kilroy).  He is also right to point out that the anglo-players who emerged in the folk revival, from the 1960s onwards, had so few examples of older players to base their playing on, that they effectively developed a new way of playing, influenced largely by the oom-pah of the melodeon left hand, and possibly without traditional antecedents.  Such evidence as we have of anglo-playing between the wars suggests that there were players who like Kilroy were prepared to use the instrument to tackle a wide variety of musical styles, but these players were few and far between and had no influence outside their immediate locality.  Consequently 'the Anglo concertina in England died and was reborn - largely as a nineteenth century 'folk' instrument'.

The next long chapter looks at the history of the concertina in Ireland.  Again, we see that the anglo was by far the most commonly played variety of concertina, that it was adopted primarily by the working classes, and widely played throughout the country.  Worrall does a good job of identifying different dance forms - from step dances, country and ballroom dances through to the ceili dancing originally promoted by the Irish nationalist movement - and showing how these affected the popularity of the anglo, and the development of playing styles.  In a nutshell, the anglo was well suited both to the older folk dance tunes and the new ballroom dances such as polka and mazurka.  But the growth of ceili bands from the 1920s onwards - and in particular the ramifications of the 1935 Dance Hall Act - led to a decline in the number of anglo-players in Ireland.  Up until that point, the music at crossroads and house dances had been provided typically by just one or two musicians.  Concertina players tended to play in the instrument's home keys of C or G, and (in common with players around the world, it would seem) in octaves - if only to increase the volume of the music.  But as dances moved into larger halls, ceili bands evolved and these played in the more natural fiddle keys of G, D and A.  Playing in these keys was often difficult, if not downright impossible, for concertina players with cheap 2-row instruments in C/G.  It was not until the 1950s that players such as Paddy Murphy started to develop the modern Irish style of playing across the row in any given key.  This modern style depends on the player having a responsive 30-key (or more) anglo.  And, as with so much modern Irish music, although the repertoire consists largely of dance tunes, the style is completely divorced from the functional demands of dancers, and the players' natural milieu is the pub session or festival stage, rather than the dance house (this, incidentally, contrasts strongly with the situation in England where pretty well all of the best known exponents of the instrument are, or have been, actively involved in playing for morris or country dancing).

Here, and in fact throughout the book, Worrall makes no value judgments on these differing styles.  He admires the skill of modern Irish players such as Noel Hill, but accords equal respect to practitioners of earlier styles.  His one underlying assumption seems to be that playing the concertina is a good thing and the more people play the instrument the better (let's face it, only an enthusiast is going to write a book like this!); he also seems keen for modern exponents to be made aware of, and to value older performance styles and contexts, which is something I'd certainly go along with.

Worrall makes a good job of describing how the technical limitations of the instrument can affect playing style, and even the notes which are played.  As an example, he goes into some detail to demonstrate how Mrs Elizabeth Crotty introduced variations into tunes such as The Wind that shakes the Barley in a creative way - her changes made it easier to play but in no way diminished the tune or made it less interesting (this is one of the 28 transcriptions included at the end of Volume 2).

Volume 1 concludes with a chapter on the concertina at sea.  As a reaction against the popular image of the concertina as a nautical instrument, some on the folk scene may have adopted the contrary position, assuming that 'the enduring image of sailors with concertinas is simply a myth, born of Hollywood and Walt Disney'.  Worrall provides plenty of evidence, primarily from British and American sources, to show that this is not so, and that the popularity of the concertina on shore between 1850 and the First World War was reflected at sea, whether on warships, whalers, merchant or passenger ships.

Volume 2 cover pictureVolume 2 looks at the anglo-concertina in Africa, Australia, New Zealand, North America.  The picture in the US and British colonies is in many ways similar to that in the Britain and Ireland - cheap German instruments made up the bulk of imports, and these were favoured by the poorer classes (and criticised by the better off).  The instrument was used by Salvationists, street musicians, minstrel performers, and of course for social dancing.  Naturally there were many local variations, so Worrall is able to provide - frequently fascinating - accounts of concertinas being used on Mormon wagon trains, by miners, in the outback, in whaling stations etc.  etc.  But there really does seem to be a lot of continuity across the globe - dances in rural Ireland, Queensland and Natal shared numerous common features, and it seems very likely that the style of concertina-playing to be heard in any of these locations shared similar characteristics, e.g. playing in octaves to generate as much volume as possible.

And in almost all of these places, the anglo suffered a decline after World War I.  This was less marked, perhaps, in rural Australia, meaning that post-World War II folk music collectors such as John Meredith encountered and recorded rather more concertina-players than their English counterparts seem to have done.  But only amongst the Boers of South Africa did the anglo retain its position as a genuinely popular instrument.  Even here, the instrument was in serious decline by the 1970s, but its popularity was revived as part of a revival of traditional Boer music, and today it is flourishing once more, with many young people taking up the concertina.  If you've heard the 3 CD set Anglo International you will almost certainly have been struck, as I was, by the remarkable playing of one such youngster, Regardt de Bruin, the complexity and chromatic nature of whose music exceeds the capabilities of many duet players.  Worrall talks about modern South African players 'fully embracing the chromatic elements of late-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century music', although I have to say that, technically accomplished though this music is, it actually sounds very old-fashioned to my ears - definitely pre-rock'n'roll.  This impression is reinforced, incidentally, by photographs in this book of modern concertina-led South African youth dance bands wearing some decidedly uncool stage uniforms - they put me in mind of the stagegear often favoured by Irish showbands, or polka bands in the US.  But different cultures have different values.  Perhaps what these genres have in common is that they are the product of largely rural communities, where music may have a role in reinforcing cultural identity.  This has certainly been the case with the Boers throughout the twentieth century - and maybe even more so following the end of the detestable apartheid regime.

Of course, it is not only the whites in South Africa who have played concertinas.  Most Musical Traditions readers will, I assume have heard examples of Zulu Squashbox music, but this is just one example which Worrall describes of anglo use by black Africans.  The instrument has been used all over the continent - by Khoi, Xhosa and 'Cape Coloureds' in South Africa, in West African highlife, and in the music of Madagascar.  Indeed indigenous peoples around the world took up this European import, sometimes playing their own interpretation of European dance forms, sometimes (as with the Zulus) adapting the concertina for use in their own musical styles.  One example which I found particularly unexpected was the use of anglo by the Inuit - you can see one of the rather striking photographs in the book, of an Inuit woman playing concertina, while a small boy dances on the snow, at

Overall, I have to commend Dan Worrall for writing this book and making it available.  You will need to be a particularly well-informed reader, I think, not to find some new information here; and if it's an essential read for anglo-concertina enthusiasts, I'd also recommend it to anyone with an interest in vernacular music-making.  Worrall is a reasonably engaging writer, and while it's a well-researched book, he avoids an over-academic style (I'd say it's closer to English Dance & Song, rather than Folk Music Journal).

But needless to say I have some reservations and criticisms.  The book is, I believe, entirely self-produced and self-financed.  This brings some advantages, not least that it might never otherwise have appeared - commercial publishers would probably have rejected the book, or priced it beyond the reach of all but the most committed reader.  But of course there are disadvantages too.  I have to say that I think the book could have benefited from the work of an editor.  In particular, this might have reduced the amount of repetition.  Now it's perfectly reasonable that the same press 'sighting' should be cited in more than one context, and therefore in more than one chapter.  But in these cases a cross-reference should suffice, whereas in practice we often get the same report repeated in some detail.  This may well have arisen because some chapters originally appeared elsewhere as separate articles, but as I progressed through the book I began to find it rather irritating. 

One example, which appears in both the chapter on England (p.60), and that on Ireland (p.218-9), concerns the plight of Tom Maguire, a blind concertina-player who had fallen on hard times and been arrested for street begging.  Worrall quotes from a 1907 report in the Irish Independent that 'He was well known years ago, and he has written many songs which have secured a great deal of popularity, including these sentimental ballads, Spare the old mud Cabin, Kathleen Asthore, Wait Till the Clouds Roll By, and others with a humorous note'.  Now all the sources I have seen show Wait Till the Clouds Roll By as: words by J T Wood, music by H J Fulmer.  And an Internet search suggests that Maguire wrote Don't Burn the Cabin Down but not Spare the Old Mud Cabin.  It's not a vital point in the overall context of this book, but it does show that you can't always take these sources at face value.

Similarly Keith Chandler has pointed out that the photograph of Headington Quarry Morris on p.109 is wrongly dated (and also, somewhat oddly, given the subject of the book, shows the side accompanied by fiddler Mark Cox).  Again, this is a small error in the grand scheme of things, but you start to wonder whether it's the tip of the iceberg - such is the scope of the book, some errors are bound to creep in, and it's unlikely that a single person could be an authority on all the areas covered.  Will those with greater knowledge of say New Zealand or South African musical traditions be picking up inaccuracies elsewhere in the work?  To be fair to the author, if you spot mistakes then point them out to him, and he'll set the record straight in the Errata section of his website.  And he's already brought out a revised second edition, incorporating the - mainly typographical - revisions brought to light by readers of the first (presumably fairly limited) print run.

(Since writing this review it has been brought to my attention that Dan Worrall was in fact able to call on the services of a team of twenty editors - two copy-editors and eighteen content editors/reviewers, with expert knowledge of all the main geographic areas covered in the book.  So, contrary to what I may have suggested in the review, the content of the book is not simply one person's attempt to assimilate a mass of information from around the globe, but has in fact been subject to checking by a pretty knowledgeable bunch of musicians and researchers.

Moreover, in the case of Tom Maguire, it seems that it may be me, and not Worrall, who has been misled by the sources.  Specifically, while sheet music for the song Wait Till the Clouds Roll By, claims 'words by J T Wood, music by H J Fulmer' (see for example there is evidence that Wood and Fulmer were simply pseudonyms for the music publisher Charles E Pratt, and Pratt may well have been fraudulently asserting authorship of a work actually composed by Maguire.  I'm not sure that this is absolutely proven as yet, but I am happy to acknowledge that Dan Worrall had in fact done his homework, and was not simply unquestioningly reproducing what he had read.)

On the subject of the illustrations, these are varied, usually apposite, and sometimes superb.  There are some photographs which definitely would have benefited from being printed on high quality paper, but that's being greedy, and the book is in fact printed on reasonably good quality paper.  I would say, however, that a few of the illustrations are just too small or of too poor quality to be seen properly, and maybe a few should have been sacrificed so that others might be afforded more space.

Other criticisms; the index is not always helpful - I could find no entry for Zulu or Inuit, for instance, even though there are sections devoted to both.  And I found the consistent use of asterisks in phrases such as 'n****r minstrels' both annoying and unnecessary in a historical study of this sort.  We know what the word is, and Worrall makes an entirely reasonable disclaimer (for instance when dealing with South Africa) pointing out that in quoting from historic sources he will include terminology which today would be considered offensive.

At the start of this review, I mentioned that the book dealt with the English-speaking world.  This statement might require some qualification, given that it covers, for instance, black African peoples and the Boers of South Africa.  But pretty well all the areas covered in the book were in areas which had at some time fallen under British influence and - crucially for this study - were covered by an English-language press.  There are areas which meet these criteria, but which Worrall does not address - were concertinas never played by Europeans and the indigenous peoples of India and the West Indies?  And I just know that sooner or later someone is going to come along and produce a study on the anglo-concertina in a non-English speaking area - France perhaps?  Russia, or Argentina?  But in the meantime this is as comprehensive a study as you're going to get and - despite the reservations expressed above - I'm very pleased to have read it.

Details of the book, including a copy of the full table of contents, can be found at the author's site,   The two volumes of the book can be ordered for $19 US apiece, from

Andy Turner - 13.05.10

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