The story of the Erard newspaper washers was given a national (and international) readership on 11th April 2021 when Steve Bird, senior journalist from the Telegraph, wrote the following piece in the same newspaper that the washers had been cut from 160 years ago:
Unfortunately my story was squeezed of visual content due to the sad passing and tributes to the Queen’s husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. So, no photos of me!
The full text is as follows: Ever since the Telegraph first rolled off the printing presses in the summer of 1855, its well thumbed pages have been recycled in numerous ways. From wrapping up fish and chips, cleaning windows or even lining cat litter trays, this broadsheet newspaper has, on occasions, proven invaluable once its loyal readers have read the news.
But, a recent restoration of an 1800’s piano has revealed a remarkable use for old newspapers, as well as offering a fascinating insight into the trials and tribulations of people from a bygone era.
In 2019, Dave Green, a professional photographer specialising in cultural heritage, received an email from Ronald G Franklin, a wealthy Texan lawyer and keen pianist, who had bought a valuable Erard grand piano from Italy which was being restored in the UK.
Tucked under each key were found piano balance washers. Rather than being made from specially manufactured paper meant to cushion each keystroke, they had been cut carefully from an unidentified newspaper.
Analysis of the tiny rings of newsprint offered tantalising glimpses into life in London. There were fragments of stories of “ruffianly looking burglars”, mention of “gold earrings” and “prison”, a “dog … prosecution” and even an advert for a steam engine.
One washer coincidentally referred to Carl Czerny, the Austrian composer who died in 1857 and was a student of Beethoven, who had once owned an Erard piano.
The pianos were made by Sebastien Erard, a French manufacturer who had transferred his business to London in 1789 to escape the French revolution.
Mr Franklin commissioned Mr Green to solve the mystery behind the newspaper clippings, as well as create an artwork celebrating the stories behind each washer.
Mr Green, 58, from Bideford, North Devon, began scouring online newspaper libraries to try to find the original source of the washers.
The first breakthrough was the “ruffians” case- Thomas Ryan and John Cummings – who were found in Tower Street “with house breaking implements”. The court hearing was reported in the Morning Advertiser on February 7, 1861.
Other names, quotes or advertisements on the washers also tallied with various newspapers archives.
But, the discs never exactly aligned with the print versions. More importantly, the stories on the reverse of the pages used for the washers did not match what was on the other side of the archived pages.
“I hadn’t found one exact match to the newsprint on a single washer,” he said.
“I was curious to know why. Was it because the stories came from newspapers not in the British Library? I became obsessed with finding the single newspaper that must have been lying around the workshop when the piano was made.”
Four months later, Mr Green found out that digital copies of the Telegraph on the British Newspaper Archive only began from 1869 – eight years after the key “ruffian” court case he had traced to 1861.
He made a trip to the capital to view earlier prints of the newspaper.
“I hit the jackpot at the British Library,” he said. “I studied microfilm of the paper from February the 7th, 8th and 9th, 1861. Suddenly it dawned on me – all the washers came from two pages of The Daily Telegraph February 7th edition.
“It was overwhelming. I couldn’t believe they were all there from just those pages.”
Mr Green is now convinced that his discovery means the final finishing touches for the piano can be dated specifically to the publication of the paper.
He believes the technician ran out of the specialist paper and decided to use a copy of the Telegraph to make the balance washers.
Now, his research, those pages of the Telegraph with the highlighted discs that made those washers as well as the personal stories behind each one feature pride of place in Mr Franklin’s music room.