6 Sep, 2020

Curiouser and curiouser …..

That little 2 September blog about the accordion generated some comments in Comments, including the observation that the invoiced cost of £23 in 1936 would equate to around £1600 today, a surprisingly large sum.  And particularly surprising it is to me, because the family was always hard up.

My father was brought up by his widowed aunt and her daughter in a house in Smethwick that I remember very well.  Similar to hundreds of thousands of the same design, it was a small Victorian terraced home, with one ‘front room’ that was rarely used, then a back room with a fire place, a couple of chairs, a small sofa and a small dining table (and gas still piped in to the lamps), a small narrow kitchen beyond with a door into the garden – a narrow strip of land with the toilet in a shed half-way down.  Upstairs two bedrooms, each with a double bed.  No bathroom. That was it.

For the first few years of my life my parents and I lived there, together with the two women. My earliest memory, as a 3-year-old, is of being given a bath in a metal tub in front of the fire in the back room.  It was a particularly vivid memory because while I was being bathed my father entered in great excitement with a letter from a local authority telling him that we’d been given a new council house/social housing.  We three Peaces then moved, but we would visit the old house every few weeks for another 10 years to see my father’s aunt and cousin.

Dad’s aunt had been widowed in the Boer War and I’ve no idea of her financial situation other than that money was always in short supply.  It seems very unlikely that she could afford to buy an accordion for the massive sum of £23.  My father was by then employed as a milkman, delivering the bottles by horse and cart, so there was little income there also.  How is it that someone could afford to fork out, for one musical instrument, around 3 months wages for the average working man?

To see it more clearly click on the image.

I’ve now started wondering whether my grandfather in Australia might have sent some money back home for his son; but he laboured in the Penfold’s vineyards and lived in a succession of metal shacks, so that seem unlikely also.  This won’t be solved, and isn’t actually of any importance; but it’s intriguing.

And there’s more. I’ve been looking at the invoice with greater interest, and can see other strange things:

On the right the Invoice is dated April 29 1936.

On the left there’s the date March 11 1935.

Over the stamp is written 28/4/1936.

What’s going on?  Was this a normal invoice for that time, with different dates for different reasons?  If so, what are the reasons?  Any social historians out there with answers?

And there’s something else: it gives the family address as 114 Shireland Road.  It was in fact 144 Shireland Road.  I know absolutely that they lived in 144 in the mid -1930s.  No one in the family would have made a mistake with a simple address.  Something odd was happening.

It all seems rather mysterious. There are no answers.  Let it lie … possibly in both meanings of the word.


  1. I’m not socially historic (nor historically social) but I’d go with:
    Ordered on March 11th 1935,
    Paid for (or final installment paid?) on 28th April 1936 – along with 2d stamp duty
    Delivered to a neighbour’s house on 29th April to be kept for a ‘big day’.
    Not even close, I know.

  2. I have a new theory! Given the circumstances, it seems that the high price of £23 is rather unlikely. The more I look at the receipt, the more the figure 23 seems strange to me. There are four other 2s and three other 3s and none of them are the same as the 23 in the price column. At first I thought perhaps what we all thought was a 2 was in fact a first attempt at a £ sign, making the price £3.20…a modern value of around £215. This new value certainly makes more sense given the circumstances. However, looking even more closely at the 23 I wonder if the two was in fact added later, and the three increased from perhaps an original 2 (£2.20). If you zoom in, the 23 looks like a darker pen and the three looks like it’s drawn over something. Maybe someone was trying to make the value seem far greater than it actually was?
    All very strange, and a mystery unlikely ever to be solved!

  3. Excellent observations Tim Holmes! I’ve just looked at the original again and agree with all your points. The 2’s in the £23 2 0 line are very clearly different; and the 23 shows through on the reverse side much more clearly than the other writing. I’m wondering whether the total was changed to include interest (or more than first expected) because of the year+ to pay it? Or possibly something more intriguing! What I’m fascinated by though, more than this mystery, is the “Son’s accordion bill” on the envelope, highlighting Dave’s wonderful story of aunt/mum.

  4. PS – re the 114/144 address. Maybe scatty and/or dysnumeric Mr Whittlesey? In which case someone else later corrected the total?! Anyway, thanks for the welcome distraction from thinking about climate change…

  5. The description of the Smethwick house reminds me of the house in Listowel, Co Kerry, where my father grew up with his aunt (whose fiancee was said to have been killed in the first world war). We never lived there but visited as children. I particularly remember the toilet half way down the narrow garden with its carefully cut squares of newspaper on a string for use as toilet paper.

    At the time we visited, my father’s aunt/mother lived there with her sister who had returned after years in America. She must have been one of the very few immigrants who returned to Ireland. There were several siblings whose path was the more common one of emigration as young adults, marriage and an American family, and no return – hence the term ‘American wake’ for the gathering the night before departure, because the person would never be seen again.

    More social history – see what you started, Dave!

  6. Since I found myself with some time (and sanitiser) on my hands I decided to see if I could find out any more. After a little research I contacted The Accordion Shop in Rochdale https://theaccordionshop.co.uk/ . I started describing what I was doing and the man interrupted, nicely mind, and started talking, along the way he characterised himself as an accordion anorak which he then went on to prove.

    He knew of Boselli as a pre-war Italian manufacturer but had not seen or heard anything of them post war. An accordion with 120 bass buttons (like yours David) is full size and £23 or so at that time would be the right price, possibly a little low. To get a similar modern one would be £3000 to £4000 or more today. He went on to say that paying in instalments was absolutely normal because very few ‘families’ could have afforded to pay in full up front – he offered this explanation unprompted when I asked if he could think of an explanation for the differing dates……Then he suggested that there might well be somewhere the paperwork for the individual instalments as they were paid (week by week or month by month)…so there’s a task for you…

    The chap was full of information and luckily I’d called when the shop was not busy. He told me accordions were easily the most popular instruments in the 1920s and 30s and that in excess of 100,000 were made every year.

    It seems most likely that the 1935 date was when the accordion was obtained from the shop and first installment paid. The other dates are final settlement and payment of the stamp duty. I think Chris probably has it with the numbers needing to be corrected at some point but let’s not forget that inflation wasn’t a thing until 1948.

    And this might float your boat (courtesy of the Accordion Shop of course). One of the great accordion players of the 1920s and 30s Guido Deiro https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_qjXdL1u8Xo . The talented Guido’s other claim to fame was being married to Mae West. Although she was almost certainly married to someone else at the time. Possibly.


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