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The Saga of the "WIFE OF BATH" Piano

[The following copy of the humorous and very much tongue-in-cheek account of the piano by Lt. Jan Van Ghent, MN, AB, MICMM (a.k.a. Dr. Niels W. Jannasch, OC) was gaciously forwarded by David B. Flemming who noted "I'm sure Niels is not concerned about copyright, however if you do post it you should alert readers that it is a spoof. We had a memorable night at the Wife of Bath, these 17 years ago!"]


It all begins with a sailing vessel built in 1872 at Belmont Cove, Digby County, Nova Scotia - the three masted barque Sir Percival Hawthorne. The majority of her shareholders were Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, businessmen but, as noted in the "Yarmouth Herald" the day following her launching, her Master, Captain Ebenezer M. Smith, owned twelve shares in the vessel (out of a total of 64 shares). An extraordinary exception to customs of that period.

The proud vessel measured 203.0' x 39.6' x 23.2' - 1,325 tons and she was built from the best available material, i.e. hard spruce from the Pubnico woods, yellow birch cut in Yarmouth Countv and hackmatack, the latter little known outside the Province of Nova Scotia, but judged by local shipbuilders of the period to be superior even to teak, the finest teak grown on the northern slopes of the Kayah mountains about 200 miles (statute) northeast of Rangoon, Burma.

Her fastenings were mixed, wrought iron and copper and her saloon and the Master's accommodation were panelled with curly eyed maple, cherrywood and the choicest pines. An innovation for a Yarmouth registered vessel was the latest flush toilet produced by Simpson Lawrence Ltd. of Glasgow which graced the Master's private bathroom. The vessel was fitted with the most modern labour saving devices of the day, such as a patent windlass and Messrs. Rowbottom's double-acting pumps.

Her maiden voyage took her from Saint John, New Brunswick to Antwerp with a cargo of deals, a voyage which was accomplished in the near record time of 22 days. While discharging at Antwerp, Mrs. Ebenezer M. Smith, the wife of the Sir Percival Hawthorne's master who, by gracious permission of the owners of the vessel was allowed to accompany her husband, expressed a wish for an up-right piano which would fit the narrow confines of the saloon and which would enable her to survive the many lonely hours at sea as the wife of a Master in Sail.

Captain Smith relented, albeit against his better wishes, mindful as he was of his low pay, even though he was the owner of 12 shares in the vessel. At a second-hand store on the corner of Skipper Straat and the lane leading to the Willem Dock he purchased a used up-right piano for the sum of £7.10.6 sterling. Tiedjen & Claasen, his agents, had it installed in his saloon free of charge to keep the Master's good will. In the end Captain Smith did not regret his purchase although he never admitted as much to Mrs. Smith who was very happy indeed to be able to follow her musical inclinations while giving much enjoyment to the after guard of the Sir Percival Hawthorne and, at times, her deckhands as well.

After leaving Antwerp in ballast, bound out to the East Coast of the U.S., the Sir Percival Hawthorne was employed for a number of years to carry grain, case oil, cotton and lumber from such ports as Philadelphia, New York and Pensacola to Le Havre, France; Waterford, Ireland; Dordrecht, Netherlands; Hamburg, Germany and Landskrona, Sweden.

Later the vessel was engaged in carrying cargoes of coal to Chile and far Eastern ports, returning with rice or guano to destinations in Europe. In the course of these voyages, the Sir Percival Hawthorne weathered Cape Horn four times. Although not even nine years old, the vessel had to be equipped with a windmill pump to allow the crew to attend to the sails, to steer and to keep look-out. In spite of the excellent materials which went into her construction, there was no doubt that right from the beginning she was a typical Nova Scotian soft-wood ship.

In 1881 while outward bound from Penarth to Tocopilla, Chile, with a cargo of Welsh anthracite, Captain Smith attempted the passage through the Straits of Le Maire to shorten his way into the Pacific. Underestimating the violent race of the tides, he had the misfortune to have his vessel ground on a reef near Thetis Bay, between Cape San Vincente and Cape San Diego on the N.E. coast of Tierra del Fuego. (See the "South American Pilot," Part II, J.D. Potter, Agent for Admiralty Charts, London, 1860). Although the vessel was a total loss, her entire crew was rescued, thanks to the valiant efforts of Don Pedro Luis de Galvez, a local sheep rancher, and his men. Grateful for the rescue, Captain Smith presented the, by now rather battered piano, to Don Pedro.

One of Don Pedro's gouchos, Alois Hundshammer, an itinerant Austrian who, as was discovered much later, was an illegimate off-spring of the House of Hapsburg, superbly restored the piano which was soon to be taken over by Don Pedro's four lovely daughters under the tutelage of the aforementioned Alois Hundshammer who, as it became apparent then, had been given piano lessons in his youth by Franz Liszt. Senorita Clara Rosa de Galvez, the eldest of Don Pedro's daughters, became a student at the Conservatory of Music at Rosario and later at Buenos Aires, thanks to her early training on the Sir Percival Hawthorne's piano and the inspiring teaching by Alois Hundshammer. During the early years of this century, she gained immortal fame as a concert pianist when she toured the capitals of Europe. Newspaper reviews of the period show that her mastery of the piano was compared to that of Franz Liszt.

However, by that time the old piano in Tierra del Fuego had been forgotten. Don Pedro's sheep ranch had fallen upon bad times due to market fluctuations in the price of wool and mutton. None of Senorita Clara Rosa's sisters showed any long term interest in music. Althouqh one of them, Donna Hortensia Bianca y Mendenez was purported to have composed one of the most stirring revolutionary songs ever to be produced in the Argentine Republic. Late reports from the Republic prove that surviving followers of the late General Peron and even the present governing Junta still have to fight the emotions evoked by that particular tune.

Shortly before World War I, in August of 1911, the three masted schooner Susan R., 99 net Reg. tons out of North Sydney, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, launched in 1910 and engaged in her first fur-sealing expedition to Antarctic waters, came to anchor near Don Pedro's sheep ranch to replenish her water tanks. Captain Matthew O'Brien, her Master, spotted the venerable old piano at once and, after trying a few Cape Breton tunes on it, he easily pursuaded Don Pedro, by now a very old and rather destitute gentleman who, let it be said, had been callously forgotten by his famous daughter, to part with the instrument for $15.00 in U.S. bills.

On his return to North Sydney from a most successful sealing voyage, Captain O'Brien was chagrined to find out that his wife, Mrs. Vera Clementine O'Brien, did not approve of his purchase in the Southern Hemisphere. The piano was therefore shipped off to Newfoundland, forthwith, by a friend of Captain O'Brien, the Master of the schooner Caroline, Captain Reuben Hancock, whose vessel was bound for Fogo Island with a cargo of Cape Breton coal. Stowed under a tarpaulin on the main hatch of the Caroline, the piano barely survived a severe winter storm in the Cabot Strait. Hardships encountered recently and during the long passage home from the sealing grounds had affected the exterior of the piano to such a degree, that Captain Hancock could not find a buyer for his treasure so, in the end he presented it to a second cousin, once removed, a Mr. Abraham Taylor, the school master at Seldom Come By, one of Newfoundland's better known out-ports.

The local blacksmith and champion fiddle player of the district spent many hours with the old instrument and managed to tune it perfectly; the refinishing of the woodwork, however, was beyond his capabilities. The children of Seldom Come By benefitted greatly by his labours. For the next 51 years nearly three generations of them were taught music with the help of the old piano.

During the era of the Provisional Government in Newfoundland which more or less coincided with the world-wide depression of the 1930's, Andrew MacPherson, M.A. (Oxon), D. Phil. (Oxon), the internationally known folklorist, passed through Seldom Come By on one of his expeditions through the Dominions and Colonies of the Empire. He was most surprised to find such a finely tuned piano in an out-port of Newfoundland and was absolutely delighted to discover how much this instrument had done towards the musical education of out-port children. (See Dr. Andrew MacPherson: "The Piano of Seldom Come By" in FOLK CULTURE, Vol. 32, pp 106-118 - London, 1936).

However, came the 1950's and 60's and Premier Smallwood's unrelenting centralisation programme which included the elimination of one-room schools in favour of regional educational establishments, the Sir Percival Hawthorne piano came close to being heaved over Ryan's Cliff, the local garbage dump.

In the nick of time the piano was purchased by Mr. Markus Bower, a St. John's, Newfoundland antique dealer for, so it was rumored, $5.00 which was added to the funds of the local chapter of the I.O.D.E. Mr. Bower, in turn, sold the instrument to Fundy Antiques Ltd. of Digby, Nova Scotia for the sum of $50.00, exclusive shipping, in the fall of 1965. The Digby dealer found it very difficult to dispose of the piano. It took him until 1979 to finally pursuade a picker for Searsport Nautica Inc., who passed through Digby on one of his buying trips through Eastern Canada, to relieve him of the piano for an undisclosed price. Fundy Antiques Ltd. having declared bankruptcy in 1980 did not leave any records behind.

For the last time, so we hope, the piano changed hands in 1981 when the owner of the "Wife of Bath," located on the waterfront at Bath, Maine, purchased it for, so our informant tells us, $225.00 U.S. The owner of this establishment, widely known for its friendly milieu and exquisite cuisine, must have realized, albeit unconsciously, what treasure was housed under the scarred and unassuming exterior of the old instrument and what a rich history was hidden behind it. The piano, the Sir Percival Hawthorne piano, was installed in their "Alewife Saloon," its colourful past yet unknown. Something was missing ... Guests, friends, clients, customers and even staff of the "Alewife Saloon" did not quite know what to do with the old veteran ...

Until the spring of 1983 when a group of distinguished Eastern Canadian Marine Historians entered the "Wife of Bath" premises to find solace after days of hard intellectual discussions at a Symposium held at the Maine Maritime Museum. One of the members of this knowledgable group, Prof. Dr. Knut Martinsson of St. John's, Newfoundland, at once discovered the inherent qualities of the instrument and proceeded to demonstrate them to a discerning and enthusiastic audience composed, naturally, of members of the Canadian delegation, known for their superior intellects and appreciation of finer things in life and the most appreciative owner and staff of the "Wife of Bath" who proved to be equal to their visitors from the north. In any case, Prof. Dr. Martinsson's performance reminded his listeners vividly of the virtuosity shown in the 19th century by Franz Liszt, the teacher of young Alois Hundshammer who discovered the qualities of the instrument years earlier in far off Tierra del Fuego.

This splendid evening encountered at the "Wife of Bath" prompted the Canadian Marine Historians to do serious research on the background of the piano in the "Alewife Saloon." By dint of hard and speedy work, the kind not usually experienced with researchers, and by eschewing scrupulously all temptations to contrive a mere nostalgic tale, the true story of the piano at the "Wife of Bath" can finally be revealed. The origin of the, by now, famous and far travelled piano, its builder and its first owner(s) and how it reached the second-hand store in a rather unsavory district close to the docks of Antwerp, will, alas, be forever shrouded in mystery.

We do realize that the above outlined results of our research have not been checked nor approved by such eminent Historians as Dr. Bertram Graham of Great Britain and, closer to home, by the Maritime Historian and Ethnologist Capt. R. Coalfleet Harper, Jr., but still, who would doubt the research done and the conclusions reached by such well known historians, all of them steeped in Atlantic Canada's Maritime History and full of local knowledge as David Runner, N.A., R.C.; David Fluellan, B.A., F.H.P.E.; Matthew Monserrat, B.A., S.V. Hist. and the undersigned,

Jan Van Ghent, Lt. M.N., A.B., M.I.C.M.M.
May, 1983

This page was first posted 6 October 2000.


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