The name Tolkien has a long association with Birmingham. The writer J. R. R. Tolkien spent some of his childhood nearby and many local landmarks have been linked to locations in The Lord of the Rings. However, at Winterbourne we have an object that demonstrates a different kind of creativity in the Tolkien family; our piano, which now sits in reception, was made by Tolkien’s grandfather.
John Benjamin Tolkien was a piano maker and music retailer. He was born in London in 1807, and later moved to Birmingham. In 1851 he was based in Lichfield Road, Erdington. In 1877 he went bankrupt but seems to have recovered his fortunes. He lived to the remarkable age of 89 and was still working as a piano maker and tuner well into his seventies.
Our Tolkien piano has a rosewood case and is still in working order. The brand name of J. B. Tolkien is picked out in gold under the lid. It was probably made in the 1870s, and by 1908 it can come into the possession of a piano retailer called Henry Riley of Constitution Hill, Birmingham.
When we acquired it, we were very fortunate to find a sale agreement too, issued by Riley. He rented the piano to a schoolteacher, Joseph Henry Hobbs, who worked for the Rowley Regis Education Committee, so the piano was probably used in a school. Hobbs paid 12 shillings and six pence per month to Riley, and the arrangement was that he would own the piano once he had paid the full purchase price of £46.
Although this particular piano was never owned by the Nettlefolds, we can be fairly confident that they would have had a piano. It seems appropriate that one of Tolkien’s pianos now lives not far from the childhood haunts of his famous grandson.