Vincenzo Luigi Tomasso (1862-1944)
Musician and barrel-organ maker


Vincenzo Luigi Tomasso (1862-1944)
© Leeds Library and Information Services

For forty years Luigi Tomasso ran a unique business in Hunslet making barrel-organs, mostly for hire by street performers. When his workshop closed in 1942 it was one of only four left in the country and its long decline marked the end of an era – the disappearance of the ‘tingalary man’ from the streets of Leeds, churning out his popular tunes, sometimes accompanied by a monkey or a small appealing child to win people’s hearts and pennies. Luigi made a successful life for himself in Leeds, building a business and a family, and burying a childhood which had been marked by poverty, extreme hardship and endurance – twice he had walked a thousand miles across Europe to reach this promised land of opportunity and security.

He was born in Cassino, Italy, between Rome and Naples. When he was only eight, he was rounded up with his little sister and other poor orphan children by a master, a ‘padrone’, to walk to England to work with Italian street musicians, who used the children, however tiny, to sing or play an instrument, and beg for money. The padrone drove the children hard – Luigi remembered him throwing one sick child down a well so he would not hold them up. But the padrone was refused entry to England and the children were deported back to Cassino: this long-established traffic in ‘child slaves’ had become a public scandal which the British and Italian governments tried to suppress.

Luigi was determined to seek a better life. When he was twelve, he set off walking from Cassino back across the Alps, through France to Calais, paying his way by playing the accordion. He managed to save enough for the fare to Folkestone, and made his way to London where he found work in the famous Chiappa organ works in Clerkenwell, in what was called ‘Little Italy’. Here he learnt the complexities of building a barrel-organ: how to set the many thousands of pins in the cylinder to create a range of tunes. It required enormous skill, patience and musical knowledge – the quality of the music produced depended on the accurate placing of the pins, an art in itself. When new tunes were introduced all the pins had to be reset from scratch.

Meanwhile he was welcomed into the Italian émigré community in London, and in 1885, when he was 23, he married Dominica Capaldi, whose family were all musicians from Italy. Now he was ready to start his own business. The couple seem to have travelled around for some time before deciding to settle in Leeds, where he set up his organ works around the turn of the century in a workshop off the York Road, near where they lived. As the business expanded, moving in the ‘30s to Bowman Lane, he diversified into band organs and mechanical pianos, but the core of the business remained making and repairing barrel organs, lavishly decorated, for daily hire to the street performers – in their heyday 50 were rented out at 2 shillings a day and taken round the streets, sometimes pulled by a donkey.

Many of the performers, the organ-grinders, were well-known characters, who sang and danced as well as turning their organs. Some were comic turns: one was said to win bets by fitting a pint mug into his mouth – after removing his false teeth! They could be viewed as maddening nuisances (as Charles Dickens thought) but many, particularly the poor, appreciated the cheerful, familiar music (popular songs, opera arias, hymns) they brought to the grey streets of the Leeds slums.

Luigi and Dominica had nine surviving children, and many worked in the organ works or took up other businesses, including music. There was a family orchestra, and Luigi himself still played the accordion. But by the late 1930s, with the advance of radio, the era of the barrel-organ and street music was coming to an end. The works closed in 1942; the remaining organs were auctioned or chopped up for firewood. Luigi Tomasso himself died two years later, aged 81. He had made a good life from his hard beginnings.

Today street music is not entirely dead – in and around Leeds the sound of an accordion still brightens the air and can bring a smile to the face, a lift to the step. What stories of arduous journeys may lie behind this music?


Eveleigh Bradford
April 2017