Who knew that Britain’s leading oboe manufacturer was based in Worthing!? I can tell you who didn’t: Here & Now’s own trans-temporal wanderer.
As soon as the whisper reached me, though, I fired up the Time Machine, and the first thing I discovered was that although TW Howarth & Co’s association with Worthing only goes back as far as 1979, their story can be traced much further into history.
Howarth was founded in London in 1948 by Thomas Howarth, George Ingram and Frederick Mooney. All three were from families whose instrument-making pedigree dated back to the nineteenth century. World War II decimated Britain’s musical instrument industry, but afterwards the trio, who’d been working for music giants Boosey & Hawkes, created their own oboe. It was of sufficient quality to be bought by the principal oboist of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The company was up and running.
“Because it was just after the war, their early instruments were made with sterling silver keys,” explains Howarth’s current director, Jeremy Walsworth. “They couldn’t get non-ferrous metals, such as brass or nickel, as it had all been used in armaments, shell casings and so on.”
Although the company keeps his name to this day, Thomas Howarth resigned in 1952. By the 1970s, its directors were approaching retirement age, employed a staff of three and turned out just 25-30 instruments a year. Things needed to change, and in 1973 they did. Howarth was bought by a consortium of oboe lovers. Success followed, and they soon outgrew their base of operations. Retaining their London emporium (to this day), they moved their workshop to an industrial estate in Partridge Green in 1976, but never really settled. In 1979 they moved to Worthing.
Howarth of London on Buckingham Road is an extraordinary place. When the 80s began, it was a small premises, but it’s expanded over the years and is now a series of work spaces a-bustle with machinery and human endeavour. Education manager Laura King leads the Time Machine around.
“35 people are employed here,” she explains. “We make 1000 oboes a year, as well as [other members of the oboe family] the cor anglais and the oboe d’amore. The wood process starts with African Blackwood, sometimes Cocobolo; each one gives a slightly different sound as they have a slightly different weights. The wood is worked on, then left for a year, then the same again, for five years, so by the time the instruments are made the wood is really well seasoned.”
The Howarth workshops lead, room by room, through the process of making an oboe, culminating in the finishing room where internationally renowned wizards of oboe-making such as Mike Dadson and head finisher Andrew Ferguson ply their trade. Both have been here well over 30 years.
“Most of processes we do in this room have not changed particularly in a very long time,” says Dadson. “We still use the same materials: cork, leather, shellac. A machine can’t do what we do here, because you need high dexterity and a bit of experience.”
At the end of the journey, the oboes are tested. Oliver Phillips, who has played with the Philharmonia Orchestra and teaches at the Royal Academy of Music, tests each one for tuning, stability and intonation, going through anywhere between 30 and 50 oboes on a visit. He gives us a blast of Strauss’s Oboe Concerto.
Jeremy Walsworth, who’s been with Howarth since 1981, took over as director in 2002. He has overseen the company’s transformation to self-sufficiency. Howarth was having to buy lots of parts in and was finding life increasingly difficult because the British engineering industry wasn’t in a good way.
“In 2008 we invested in new machinery and bought our first really expensive Japanese machine,” he explains. “Since then we’ve bought more, the best machines for small turned parts. Watch internals and the screws on spectacles are made on exactly these sort of machines. They’re very fast and very accurate. A human hair is seven hundredths of a millimetre, and these can work within 100th of a millimetre.”
Nowadays Howarth ships two thirds of its wares to the USA. All their competition has vanished over the decades.
“The reason we’ve survived,” says Walsworth, “is that we’ve been at the top end of the market. If we’d just been making student model instruments we wouldn’t have.”
Consequently they have a global reputation. Top players from every continent turn to Worthing to have their instruments made and repaired.
“Our philosophy is that each instrument is made by one person,” Walsworth continues. “In doing so, the maker takes ownership. We can tell you who made any Howarth instrument ever. Our people want to make the instruments that go places, the one for the principle of the Metropolitan Opera and so on, they want their names associated with that.
“At the world’s biggest instrument manufacturers, they have rows of benches with predominantly women on a minimum wage,” he adds. “They might work one key, the same small part of an instrument, day in, day out. I’ve been to those workshops and they are efficient but soul destroying. Who would want to do that? It’s very different here. It gets under your skin. If you like detail and working with your hands, it might be the best job in the world.”
In the unglamorous shadow of a brutalist concrete car park, Howarth’s workshop really is a trip through time. Despite the cutting edge machinery, it’s about craft rather than mass production, about harnessing hard-earned skills learnt over many years, rather than focusing tediously, relentlessly on a fast buck. Most of all, while it’s a successful business, Howarth has aesthetic rigour. In the end, their work is about the pursuit of perfection.
By Thomas H Green
HAVE MEMORIES OF MUSIC LIFE IN WORTHING?
We’re interested in hearing your stories and scenes from any era. Do you remember dances in the 40s or rockin’ out in the 90s? Please email Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org.