Most New Zealand string players have heard of ”Hill” bows – bows made in the workshops of W. E. Hill and Sons, the famous London dealers and appraisers who dominated the international violin scene for a large part of the twentieth century.
Nowadays we think of “Hill” and “Hill bow” almost as one. But the firm did far more than produce bows – in fact, the bow-makers played a very “second fiddle” (pardon the pun) to their violin making colleagues. New apprentices were set to work in the case-making workshop (yes, they made lovely cases, too), and the really promising ones were selected to make instruments. The okay ones made bows and the dunces stayed making cases, if they stayed at all.
Not that the bow makers could slouch around. After a somewhat shaky start, the workshop developed its skills under two Williams – Napier and Retford, the latter a diminutive but fiery man, who imposed his exactingly high standards on a roll call of bow makers that ultimately included Arthur Bultitude, Garner Wilson and John Clutterbuck.
And yes, the makers had their own “secret” markings to show who had made what stick. But these are not the often-seen marks under the frog – these, generally a letter of the alphabet, or a letter and a number, were batch numbers.
For the Hills were true Victorian manufacturers, controlling their workers by having them specialise in only part of the whole job. The first process was to custom-fit each embryonic stick to a roughed-out frog. Then the stick and frog would be finished separately, to be re-united at the end of the job by means of the batch numbers. The secret sign, that tells us who each maker was, is hidden under the hair at the tip. William C. Retford marked his bows with a dot below the head mortice. Other signs were used: Charles Leggat, tragically killed in WWI, used two nicks.
Most later makers used numbers, reaching “20” before the demise of Hills in 1992. The two top-grade “W.E.Hill and Sons” violin bows in our showroom were made by Alfred Leeson (“3”) and Arthur Brown (“X”).