(Edward) Archibald Ramsden (1835-1916)
Musical entrepreneur

Archibald RamsdenThe highpoint of Archibald Ramsden’s rich life came when he was summoned to Balmoral in 1867 to play before Queen Victoria on his patented melody harmonium – what a moment for this innkeeper’s son from Sheepscar. He loved to tell the tale of his long train journey north, and his arrest at Edinburgh as a suspected Irish terrorist until his luggage revealed not guns but an innocent harmonium! He enjoyed a career as a performer, an impresario, an inventor and an entrepreneur, building a musical empire which stretched from Leeds to London and across the north. His multiple talents, humour, charm, and twinkling blue eyes took him far.

He was born in 1835, the third of the four sons of John and Mary Ramsden. By the time he was six, his father, originally a cloth finisher, was running the Red Bear tavern in Skinner Lane – Archibald later drew a veil over this story. He and his younger brother, both with fine voices, were choristers at Leeds Parish Church, where at 15 he won a £40 prize which paid for his apprenticeship to a music seller. He moved on to teach the piano and the organ, and with his fine baritone voice was in great demand as a concert vocalist. When he was 22 he married Adelaide, the daughter of another Leeds innkeeper, and announced his departure to Italy to study singing professionally. By the following year he was in London, starring at Crystal Palace and St James’s Hall in popular concerts, where he introduced and sang the old ballads – ‘Sally in our Alley’, ‘Hearts of Oak’ etc – accompanying himself on the piano. He performed around the country, but always spent time back in Leeds, offering coaching in singing.

But the concert world was tough and competitive, and in 1864 he moved back to Leeds with his family and launched into business (with £7.9s.4d capital!). He set up a ‘Music Establishment’ in Park Row selling pianos, harmoniums, and sheet music, and lived below the shop. With increasing prosperity more working people could aspire to a piano or harmonium in the parlour and he offered an innovative, affordable 3 year payment system. His business took off, and in 1872 he commissioned the distinguished Leeds architect George Corson to design new purpose-built premises for him in Park Row (gone now), with a vast, magnificent saloon, ‘the finest in the kingdom,’ to display his impressive array of over 400 instruments and superb selection of sheet music.

His skills were not just in business and publicity: he was interested in technical development and invention. With Leeds engineer William Dawes, he patented improvements to harmoniums and organs and went into manufacture. Through his London contacts he arranged to demonstrate his improved harmonium to Princess Louise and the Queen. They were so impressed they kept it, and he could advertise himself ‘By Royal Appointment’! He expanded, opening branches in London’s prestigious New Bond Street and in several northern towns, agent for top German and English piano and organ makers as well as manufacturing cheap ‘cottage’ pianos for the mass market.

He played a full part in Leeds’s a rich musical life – member of the Leeds Musical Soirees, conductor of the Private Vocal Society, hosting musical evenings, glees and part-songs at Park Row, and entertaining a wide circle of friends with his musical anecdotes. He still took the stage sometimes as a vocalist, invited to sing for example at the concert for Prince Arthur when he came to open Roundhay Park. And in 1870 he began a new venture as impresario, organising an annual series of popular subscription concerts in the Town Hall, featuring Italian opera stars and his friend Charles Halle and his orchestra. These ran for nine years, a highlight of the Leeds season.

As his wealth grew he moved with his family to Grosvenor Mount, Headingley, then out to Inholmes near Tadcaster, where his wife died in 1879. Archibald moved then to London, and two years later married again, Olivia Hill, the niece of Sir Rowland Hill of penny post fame. He had gone up in the world (describing himself on one New York passenger list as a ‘nobleman’!). He did not forget his Leeds friends, giving a substantial £1000 donation to the Leeds Hospital Fund. When he died at his London home in 1916, he was remembered with warmth and affection, not least for his sense of fun.

His Leeds firm was taken over by his son (another Archibald), adapted over the years to the new eras of gramophone and radio and survived into the 1950s. His name is not quite lost: still to be found on surviving instruments from his celebrated music saloon.

Eveleigh Bradford
July 2015