Devon Museum of Mechanical Music

The Devon Museum of Mechanical Music


In September 2020, James Millman from Holsworthy asked on Facebook whether anyone remembered the Devon Museum of Mechanical Music that was housed at Mill Leat, here in Thornbury.  This was interesting and quite hard to believe, so needed researching and this article is the result.

A request via Facebook, an article in the local newspaper and asking in the village resulted in many people remembering the museum but it was all a bit vague in their memories.  Then the discovery of an online reference to the museum on a 1981 LP which gave the names of the owners of the museum: Leach, was the first breakthrough.  This in turn allowed the identification of a couple of books in the library, one a memoir by Ronald and Sheila Leach written in 1998 after they had left, and the second an illustrated guidebook to the museum itself.

Ronald Leach, born in London in February 1925, was an architect who developed an interest in mechanical music machines as a boy when travelling fairs visited a park near his home in Ilford in London.  Here he fell in love with Mr Thurston’s ‘Scenic Dragons’ and would often get in trouble with his parents when instead of coming home from school he took a detour to the fairground to look at the huge steam powered machines and find out from the showmen how they worked.

Aged about 13 he was on a bus travelling to school down the Mile End Rd in London and saw a buskers’ organ in a pawn brokers shop.  He saved up his dinner money and eventually bought it for 2/6.  It was in quite a poor state of repair and very dirty and his parents would not let him keep it. Although his parents took the organ, they did reimburse him for his pocket money!  Later he came to believe it was a Giovanni Bacigalupo barrel organ worth a great deal of money. (See note 1). Thereafter, the dates of when things happened have all been a bit elusive but from various things that I have looked at, and reading the memoirs, the following story is how the museum came to be at Mill Leat.

In the Late 1960’s Ronald was becoming disillusioned with architecture and visited Devon on holiday and had a day out to Cornwall’s museum of mechanical music near Liskeard run by Paul Corin and his son Pip and had the idea of establishing his own museum in Devon.  Over the years he had already bought many instruments including a Welte Cottage Orchestrion, a huge thing weighing 17 cwt and 10’ high, 5’ wide and 3’ deep, Player Pianos, Polyphons, a Calliope and Barrel Organs, an automatic jazz band, a mechanical violin and various small pieces that he had restored and kept in his garage.

Edison phonograph                                                                        Polyphon                                            Welte Orchestrion









But then came the real challenge when he acquired an enormous 1919 84-key organ, made by Theo Mortier of Antwerp.  It was 26 feet long, 12 feet high and 5 feet deep, which he then set about restoring.  He nicknamed it ‘The Trumpeter’ and its restoration is a whole story in itself.  It took him several years and required him to source many spare parts and acquire skills to do the work.  It also occupied a huge amount of space.

                                                                         The Trumpeter with Ronald’s son Jeremy

He had to source a trailer for it and bought a Commer TS3 ex-British Road Service tractor unit.  The overall length of the lorry and organ truck was 52 feet 6 inches(16m) with a top speed of 25mph.

By 1972 he was taking it out to lots of shows in Kent along with his sons, Andrew and Jeremy, and its popularity enabled them to raise over £12,000 for charity.

In the early to mid-1970s he then started to actively look for a site in Devon and nearly gave up hope until he arrived at Mill Leat.  He described arriving to view it as follows:

‘..we took off down the private driveway to view the last chance.  On our right was a small wood which contained the old mill stream, on our left a hedge bordered a large meadow sloping down to the river.  At the bend in the drive we saw the house.  An old Devon long house, once the abode of the miller.  In fact, the old mill stood about 500 feet away in the hollow.  This was a unique water mill, being double ended.  The wheel at one end worked the corn mill and the wheel at the other end worked the sawmill.  There were signs of heaps of sawdust and old mill stones, but the place had not been used for many years. The present owner had spent some considerable time and a lot of money restoring the building and it was in immaculate condition.  The property had everything we required, including, separate from the house, a barn which the owner had planning permission to convert to holiday cottages.’

Around 1974 they bought the property and then went on to convert the holiday cottage.  In his memoirs he talks of the problems people had in finding the place and the huge number of coaches that would come from miles away, including the continent, and this is certainly something that people in the village mentioned.  In the brochure Ronald Leach explains that

‘the Trumpeter is one of the few Mortier organs in which a rank of real brass trumpets is built.  Because of this rank of pipes, it has a very long range acoustically and on a still summer evening it can be heard a mile away.’

Here are some general views of the inside of the museum:

Sometime after this the BBC did a feature on the museum, as did Westward TV.  Some time prior to 1977 they made the decision that keeping up the whole estate was too much, so they sold all but the Museum and moved to a much smaller house about 4 miles away. In 1978 during the bad snow, he describes walking the 4 miles to check on the museum and finding that snow had blown into the buildings.  In 1979 the Reader’s Digest, featured the museum in the book ‘The Past Around Us’ and in November 1980 the Illustrated London News mentions them in an article along with 2 other collections of mechanical musical instruments in the West Country.

Around 1986 they decided to retire and then had to tackle the huge task of rehoming the exhibits.  ‘The Trumpeter’ returned to Belgium and other items went all over the world.  Long after the museum had closed its doors, the brown tourist signs remained, and the museum appeared in guidebooks such as that by Reader’s Digest so that disappointed visitors had to be turned away.

In terms of memories, James Millman’s elder brother Gary recalls:

‘I remember riding my Raleigh Chopper from Holsworthy to Thornbury, about 5 or 6 miles I think? I went once with my father and then decided it was a good destination for a bike ride most weeks of the summer holiday.  I could pop in to see my Gran and Grandad and carry on to the Museum.

I think Mr Leach was impressed I would cycle out to see his collection so often and I ended up helping him with the demonstrations to the other visitors.  Sometimes I would peddle the player piano, other times I would wind up the wax drum gramophone, and  when it was quiet, he showed me the inner mechanics of the fairground organ and explained how it all worked.  To be virtually inside the back of the organ when it was in full swing was a deafening but exciting experience.   Levers and wheels clacking and the music at volume number 11!  I remember him even taking the covers off the player piano and showing me how that worked too.  A really nice guy who obviously loved showing and explaining everything to interested visitors.  As a very young “engineer to be” it was fascinating. I even got to lift the little fingers that went in to the holes in the thick folded paper/card that each operated a pipe, trumpet or the arm of the conductor figure on the front of the organ followed by a loud note or the clack of the conductor waiving his baton. He had a couple of player pianos, several gramophones and at least one barrel organ that I can remember, and of course ‘The Trumpeter’.  My father did buy a copy of the LP recording of his collection but I’ve no idea what happened to that. Fond memories from a lifetime ago, when the sun shone all summer.

A copy of the LP that Gary refers so has now been sourced, so once again the sound of the mighty Trumpeter or, more properly, the Mortier Fairground Organ, can be heard, as well as that of the smaller mechanical music machines that Ronald and his family loved so much: see “Mechanical Music in Thornbury”

Meg Galley-Taylor, January 2021

Note 1:

In 1891, the organ builders Giuseppe Cocchi and Giovanni Battista Bacigalupo, together with restaurateur Antonio Graffigna, opened their business at 78 (later 79) Schönhauser Allee. They crafted mechanical music instruments like pianos, orchestrions and barrel organs. Here the Bacigalupos ran their workshop for three generations under different company names. In 1910 Giovanni Bacigalupo jr. (1889 – 1978), the youngest son of the founder, opened a second organ-making workshop at 74 Schönhauser Allee. The craftsmanship skills of the Bacigalupos became evident in the fine musical quality of their instruments, which were in high demand and were sold as far as Übersee (South Bavaria). Many of the legendary Berlin organ grinders played instruments made by the Bacigalupos. Sadly, after the introduction of the radio the demand for mechanical music instruments and relative reparations sank. As the newest hits replaced the waltz, the main workshop closed down. With the death of the last owner in 1967, a decades-long company story came to an end. The family tradition in this place died out when the workshop at 74 Schönhauser Allee closed down. Today the instruments built by the Bacigalupos are still held in high regard and are much sought-after collectable pieces.

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