William Bainbridge

1768/9 - early 1831

A close-up photograph of Bainbridge’s maker’s mark on a double flageolet.

William Bainbridge was a instrument maker and inventor who became perhaps the most significant English individual connected to flageolets. He was responsible for developing the double, triple, “improved” or “patent” English, flute and double flute flageolets.

Little is known about Bainbridge's life. Parish records indicate he died aged 62 in 1831 so he would have been born in 1768 or 1769.

He trained as a wood-tuner and was active from the turn of the 19th century in London as a oboe, flute and flageolet player. His main interest, however was improving the English flageolet. His first patent was in 1803 for an Improved English Flageolet and he spend much of the rest of his life working on improvements and developments for the instrument.

Bainbridge’s work on the Improved Flageolet was accompanied by quite a considerable amount of advertising in newspapers, journals and magazines. His enthusiasm for the instrument is clear and was reordered at the time:

“[Bainbridge’s innovations] are real improvements upon the common flageolet; we therefore give Mr. Bainbridge the credit due to his ingenuity; and only lament, that a blind fondness for his invention has led him to over-rate its effect, and to attribute to it powers that we are in the habit of allowing only to magic and supernatural agency.” Monthly Magazine and British Register, Volume 18, Issue 2, November 1st 1804.

Bainbridge invented the double flageolet in about 1805 in collaboration with the Welsh musician, John Parry, following performances at Covent Garden where Parry played two and even three English flageolets at once, fixed into a frame. After a number of proto-types, the design was finalised by 1806. However, Bainbridge continued to added additional features to his instrument and 15 years later invented the complex triple flageolet, where a third pipe was added to the back of double instrument. He jealously protected his inventions and unsuccessfully sued a number of people who he perceived to have infringed his patents and copyrights (see, for example, Bainbridge v Wigley; Bainbridge v Briggs and Bainbrige v Unknown).

As an instrument maker, his status as the inventor of the patent flageolet was clearly very important. Following his wife’s death in 1841, probate proceedings were instigated in the Consistory Court of Canterbury. Here, her Will was read into the record, with the court’s clerk being forced to correct his reference to her “business of flageolet marker” to that of “business of patent flageolet maker:

A copy of the court’s record of Harriett Bainbridge’s Will, showing a correction to the description of her business.

Henry Hastrick was apprenticed to him in 1814 and he married Harriett Winfield in 1823 in St Marylebone (with parish records noting that both had been widowed previously). In turn, both were eventually to succeed him in his business.

He spent the rest of his life working on making small adjustments to his instruments and made a living by playing, teaching and selling them and instruction books about them. On his death, he appears to have been modestly wealthy, though it is not possible to say whether this was directly a result of his work. The business was first run by his wife, before being taken over by Henry Hastrick in 1835, who carried on until his own death in 1854.

He had four children: William, Elizabeth, George and Charles, the first three of whom were of school-age in 1830.

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