A flute by Bernard Lee, part 1

  • This article was written for my old site between December 2008 and February 2009 and republished here in March 2021.

I play recorder, modern flute, and sometimes 8-key and traverso so when anyone in my area (Townsville, North Qld, Australia) has an odd or old flute they tend to talk to me about it. In December 2008, a man of about retirement age was ‘looking for a good home’ for a flute and a piccolo which he inherited years ago from his grandfather who was born in Victoria in 1865. I offered to provide the good home and duly picked them up from him.

Both were in absolutely original condition, i.e., dilapidated, unplayable but complete. They had been ‘at the bottom of a trunk’ for years without the benefit of cases. Here’s the flute, just as I received it:

Lee flute before restoration
The Lee flute in its original state

Even at first glance the flute looked particularly interesting: the keys and mounts were real silver (very heavily tarnished, of course), not the ‘German-silver’ which has been standard for over a century, and the ‘pads’ for the lowest two notes were pewter plugs, which went out of fashion a very long time ago:

Foot joint of the Lee flute

On this page I will relate the history of the instruments, then deal with the piccolo, then (on a separate page) the flute and finally the flute’s maker. Click on the links in the previous sentence to go straight to the different sections.


Ray told me that he inherited both instruments from his grandfather who was born in 1865 and married in Melbourne in 1895. His father had passed them on to him as the most musical of his generation of the family, but Ray played trombone so, while he valued them, he never did anything with them. When I found out how old the flute really was, I asked Ray for more on the family history. He wrote:

My grandfather, Arthur Hosken, was born in Ballarat in 1865 and later moved to Melbourne. His father, my great-grandfather, was Rev. William Henry Hosken, born in 1821 in Cornwall, England and as a minister was appointed to Victoria in 1861. His calling took him to Melbourne, Ballarat, Daylesford and Maldon. He had 5 sons and 7 daughters. We have a lot of information on him – but no mention of musical interest! However it may be likely the flute belonged to him originally.

It is chronologically possible that Rev. William bought the flute (new or second-hand) in England and brought it with him to the colonies but, on sociological grounds, I feel it just as likely that he bought a second-hand flute in Victoria for young Arthur to play. A woodwind instrument is not very useful in helping a minister lead the congregational singing, since the player can’t sing at the same time!

Arthur didn’t only play as a young lad. In the collection of music that came from Ray Hosken with the flute and piccolo is a ‘Tutor for the Flute … by Otto Langey’ published by Hawkes and Son, London, with Arthur’s name on the title page in quite mature handwriting. Hawkes and Co, established around 1860, only became Hawkes and Son in 1889. The Langey tutor is far from a beginner’s book – anyone who finished it could hold their spot in any orchestra in the colonies – so Arthur was (still?) a serious student at the age of 24 or more.

The rest is pure speculation. The normal course of development of a flute player is to play flute until he or she needs a piccolo for band or orchestral work, then buy one if he/she can’t borrow one. I am inclined to assume that’s what Arthur did, especially since the piccolo seems to be so much younger than the flute.

The Piccolo

The piccolo is complete and original: dark brown wood, tuning slide, 6 post-mounted keys of German-silver. From the style of the keys I guessed the date at about 1890 and Terry McGee and Rick Wilson didn’t disagree though, as Terry said, ‘without a name we have little to go on.’ The only unusual thing – for its time – about the piccolo’s design is the arrangement of the short and long F keys, with one hole serving both keys.

piccolo F key
The piccolo’s F key mechanism

I don’t know exactly how unusual it is but I looked at twenty-five 6-key piccolos in the Dayton C Miller collection without finding one like it. Purely on the basis of his excellent site I then asked Rick Wilson about it and he said:

“Yes, that is unusual.  I have not seen [it] on a piccolo. But I have seen the arrangement on flutes. For example, on a seven-key flute by B. Pentenrieder of Munich, c.1840.” He sent me a photo of the Pentenrieder flute showing exactly the same arrangement, with the short F lever hooking around the key cup to end under the long F lever.

I commented that, “If the idea was around since 1840, makers mustn’t have found it very  satisfactory or it would have become the standard well before 1890. It does seem to be inherently slower, heavier [in action, I meant] and more fragile than two separate keys,” and asked if anyone had tried the reverse, making the long F a lever to lift the short F key.

He replied, “Two separate F keys does seem to be most satisfactory as far as reliability goes — and, as you know, that became by far the most common system. … I don’t know when the system on your piccolo was first used, although certainly by 1840. But it could be much older. I know that the system of making the long F a lever to lift the short F key was used by Heinrich Grenser by 1800. And I have flutes by Tabard (Lyon, c.1825), Liebel, and Streitwolf (Goettingen, c.1830) that have this latter system of F keys.” He attached a photo of the Liebel, too – generous with his time, as enthusiasts so often are.

So the odd F keys don’t help with the dating. The simple-system 8-key flute changed very little between 1870 and its demise about 1920, so I guess the same is true of its little brother. The biography of its owner suggests a date in the first half of this range – if Arthur bought it new or relatively new when he was between 15 and 35, that would be between 1880 and 1900. The measurements of this piccolo are: Overall Length 305 mm, Sounding Length 258 mm, McGee Indicator (C# to D# ) 127 mm (see http://www.mcgee-flutes.com/flutelengths.htm for definitions and comparative measurements).

The piccolo after cleaning


It has a hairline crack the whole length of the barrel. The whole barrel is lined with brass, however, so the crack is no barrier to playability. The barrel was reluctant to come off the slide, but responded to firm twisting action; it was actually a bit too loose after I cleaned it. The head cork fell out as soon as I bumped it when I was cleaning the bore. It was in fairly good condition so I just popped it back in – a bit closer to its correct position. I was then able to play BAG in bottom and middle registers and measure pitch – pretty close to A452 fully closed and quite warm (30 C – this is Townsville!); I managed an E once, but the F and Eb pads had disintegrated.

I rethreaded the joint, which made it look better and helped seal the joint, and bulked up the stopper cork with a slip of paper. These changes helped me get a stronger sound, especially in the lower register, though I suspect the tuning slide is still contributing a leak.

I oiled it a week after I got it, and the wood went from a very dark brown to a solid black: ebony, for sure. I took the problem keys (F and Eb) off, too, and temporarily replaced the pads with (bright aqua!) closed-cell foam plastic. They worked well enough but I still had leaks which turned out to be due to the (original) pads on the C and Bb keys. Temporary solutions (don’t ask) let me play fairly well all the way to the bottom of the range.

Pitch does seem to be somewhere between 445 and 455: at 30C it was about 452 when right in, and 444 when pulled out 6 mm (a long way for such a small instrument) but the low register was out of tune with itself, and there are too many variables (stopper position, leaks and my poor piccolo technique) for me to be very confident of my results. The long-term solution is to replace all the pads and the stopper cork, and tighten the slide to make sure it is airtight. None of that is too difficult but I put the piccolo aside to look at the flute.

The Flute

Bernard Lee, Flutemaker