Walsall has many fine buildings in the town centre, one of which is to be found at 29 Bridge Street. It was once well known to musicians and music lovers throughout the Black Country as Taylor’s music shop.

H. Taylor & Son, who ran the business, provided a service that was second to none, selling a wide range of musical instruments, for which tuition was available in one of their music rooms, as well as full repair facilities in their workshop.

The building, built in 1892, is well known for the finely carved stonework on the façade which features musical instruments and some of the leading composers.

It isn’t so well known that the carving was carried out by a local sculptor, John Lea, who once taught at the Science and Art Institute.

What follows was kindly sent by Mary and John Lea, who live in Australia. John is John Lea's great grandson. The articles and photographs tell the story of John Lea, and the lovely Bridge Street building, which was Grade II listed on 31st July, 1986.

An advert from 1899.

John Lea of Walsall - Sculptor, Woodcarver, Teacher of Modelling and Carving

Born in Walsall, in 1842, John Lea was the eldest child of John Lea and Sarah (nee James).

They were licensees of the Roebuck hotel in Upper Rushall Street, which had been in the family since the 18th century.  John’s Father was also a cabinet maker whilst his Mother worked as an upholsterer.  In 1856 John’s Father died at the age of 41 leaving Sarah with five children to care for.

At the time of the 1881 census John, his wife Elizabeth (Barlow) and their children were living at the ‘British Oak’ in Blue Lane East. John is listed as ‘Licensed Victualler’. The 1891 census shows the family still living at the same address although the public house is now called ‘Royal Oak’. His occupation is shown as ‘Stonemason’.

John possibly served his apprenticeship with Stone Mason, Isaac Webb.  The ‘South Staffordshire Illustrated Biographical and Commercial Sketches’ (1899) noted John Lea had worked his way up from Stone Mason's shed to being a teacher of carving at Walsall Science and Art Institute. 

The Walsall Annual Red Book lists John Lea as a teacher between the early 1890’s and 1903. In 1892 he was an Assistant Master at Walsall Science and Art Institute and teacher of Modelling and Carving at the Technical Day School for Boys. In 1903 he was an Assistant Master at the school of Art and a teacher of Modelling in Clay at the Technical Day School for 200 boys.

29 Bridge Street. Courtesy of John Wallace.

A close-up view of some of the fine carving on the facade of Taylor's shop. Courtesy of John Wallace.
Taylor’s Music Shop, Bridge Street, built in 1892, was designed by local architect Samuel Loxton (1830-1895), and built Mr. William Wistance, of Walsall. The stonework carving and sculpture work and interior woodwork were executed by John Lea.

The facade features intricately carved panels featuring musical instruments and foliage. Each bay has a frieze carved with a biblical scene. The capitals are carved with the heads of composers, Handel, Bach, Mozart and Haydn. At the outer corners of the parapet are statues of Euterpe, Goddess of Music and Melpomene, Goddess of Poetry.

In the centre of the two centre pilasters are two bas-reliefs, one of the head of Beethoven and the other of Mendelssohn. Inside the building the staircase is of pitch pine, with handrail, balusters and newels of walnut. The two principal newels are carved and surmounted with beautifully carved walnut figures, one representing a travelling musician, the other an acrobat.

Another view of the carving. Courtesy of John Wallace.

Courtesy of John Wallace.

The Walsall Advertiser of Saturday December 24th, 1892 carried a lengthy article, commenting on the erection of the building. It describes John Lea as “the Modeller for the Walsall School of Art and it reflects upon him the greatest credit, not only with regard to his ability and his taste, but a man of natural genius and rarely gifted, and we trust this specimen of his work will be appreciated by acquiring for him that due reward for its merit he so richly deserves.”

In the early 1890’s at 33 Littleton Street he established a Monumental Works with a show room, workshop and stable. A sizeable dwelling house was erected in 1894. Much of the work on the house was carried out by John Lea.  Extensive oak carving in the interior, whilst outside the front of the house was principally of carved stonework. John Lea (junior) also a Stone Mason (1872-1933) worked with his Father.

John’s wife Elizabeth passed away on the 31st December, 1901 and John died on the 25th October, 1903. He is buried in Rushall churchyard.

The house and business premises were demolished. The information Centre for Walsall Leather Museum now occupies the site.

Taylor’s Music shop is listed by English Heritage as a Grade II building.

Courtesy of John Wallace.

An advert from 1902.

There are references to John Lea in several publications:

South Staffordshire (Illustrated) Biographical and Commercial Sketches. (1899) - see below
Mapping the Practice and Profession of Sculpture in Britain & Ireland 1851-1951. (University of Glasgow)
Sketchbook Guide to the Black Country. Written and drawn by Edmund Bealby-Wright (1996)
Public Sculpture of Staffordshire and the Black Country. George T. Noszlopy and Fiona Waterhouse. (Liverpool University Press (2005) Volume Nine)

After John Lea's death, his house was sold at auction, as can be seen from the following, which came from a newspaper cutting, kindly sent by Mary and John Lea.

Valuable Monumental Works and Residence, in Littleton Street West

Mr. Arthur J. Llewellen, at the Stork Hotel, Walsall, on Tuesday, the 17th November, 1903, at Seven o'clock in the evening precisely (subject to conditions incorporating the common-form conditions of the Birmingham Law Society).

Lot l.

(John Lea, deceased.)

A valuable corner property, known as the Littleton Street Monumental Works, comprising handsome showroom and workshop at the corner of the Wisemore and Littleton Street West, Walsall; together with the dwelling house communicating, and being Number 33, Littleton Street West, and having a private entrance with stone wall in front, until recently occupied by the late Mr. J. Lea, sculptor and stonemason. The house contains hall, entrance with vestibule, drawing room in front (with handsome carved oak mantelpiece), large sitting room (with bookcase and china cupboard fitted), kitchen, and scullery, w.c. upstairs and three bedrooms. One of the bedrooms is fitted with an excellent wardrobe.

The front of dwelling house is principally of carved stonework. There is a stable and working shed at the rear of the property, with gateway entrance, also side entrance to Wisemore.

The house and business premises were erected by the late Mr. Lea, in 1894. The property is leasehold for a term of 64 years (wanting five days) from the 25th March, 1890, at the annual ground rent of £4.7s. 6d.

Mr. T. Harrison Evans, Solicitor, 45 Bridge Street, Walsall.

From the South Staffordshire, Illustrated magazine - Biographical and Commercial Sketches. (1899)

Messrs. H. Taylor & Son, Musical Instrument and Music Dealers, Bridge Street, Walsall

Amidst the stress of industrial activity that pervades the busy manufacturing town of Walsall, it is refreshing to discover such evidences of refinement of taste that must necessarily be implied in its possession of one of the handsomest establishments dedicated as a temple to the divine art of St. Cecilia in the Kingdom.

This fine building of modern construction was erected by Messrs. Taylor and Son to replace the old premises in which their business was founded half a century ago, and which had become both too antiquated in style and too cramped in space to provide for the ever increasing requirements of their widespread trade throughout the Midlands.

The establishment, which forms a conspicuous feature of the architectural improvement of Walsall's principal thoroughfares in recent years, is from the design, and was erected under the superintendence of Mr. Samuel Loxton in the Italian renaissance style, and is of four stories elevation and basement, each being of the dimensions of 38 feet by 24 feet 6 inches, with additional building in the rear used as a warehouse.

The facade is of unique design, and is built of white Hollington and red Penkridge stones relieved by granite. The ground floor portion consists of two large windows, and an arcade doorway laid with Minton tiles in an effective pattern.

The windows and doorways are flanked by granite pilasters two feet in breadth with stone carved capitals. The next storey is also relieved by pilasters of Penkridge stone on which are carved musical instruments. These pilasters support a frieze on which are three deeply carved panels, the central one representing David playing before Saul; that to the right, the Ark entering the Holy City; and to the left the Fall of Jericho. At the sides of these panels are carved heads of Handel. Bach, Mozart, and Haydn.

Showroom number 2.

These appropriate subjects are harmoniously treated by the clever sculptor Mr. John Lea, of local fame, who, it may be incidentally mentioned, has worked his way up from the stone mason's shed and is now teacher of carving in the Walsall Art Schools.

The design of the upper stories is perfectly in keeping with the portions just described, the whole being surmounted by a rich pediment, and at either coving the coping is embellished by figures six feet in height, one representing Euterpe, the Goddess of Music; and the other Melpomene, the Goddess of Poetry.

Before entering upon the details of interior arrangement we may first invite attention to the effective display in the windows. That to the left of the entrance is devoted to a show of pianofortes and organs, and in front of these are tastefully arranged copies of sheet music with their artistic illustrations, and albums in elegant bindings, including the latest productions of the most eminent composers and writers of the day.

The window to the right, of air-tight construction, is appropriated with an extensive assortment of smaller instruments, including violins, both old and new, mandolins, guitars, banjos, zithers, accordions, concertinas, and every description of requisite and accessory for musical practice in each branch of that diversified art.

A view of the shop.

On entering the spacious interior the visitor is at once cognisant of the dominant note of the arrangements and appointments throughout, the two newels at the entrance to the staircase being surmounted by two handsomely carved figures, one representing a man playing a mandolin, and the other in the pose of a dancer, while even the windows in the rear of the saloons, and on the staircase are of stained glass, reproducing either musical instruments or characters associated with some phase of the art.

Showroom number 3.

A noteworthy feature in the ground floor department is the immense collection of violins, of which from 150 to 200 instruments form the average stock, which includes some splendid specimens of the old masters as well as the more modern makers, of all sizes and sorts, ranging from 5 to 20 guineas.

Zither-banjos are also very much in evidence, and yet more so the pianos and organs, which include such well known and eminent makers as Messrs. Bechstein, Steinway, Justin Browne, J. and J. Hopkinson, J. Brinsmead, Broadwood, Rud, Ibach Sohn, Collard and Collard, Kirkman, Knauss, Schiedmayer, Russell, Eavestaff, Hemingway and Thomas, Rowinski, and the celebrated Brooklyn Pianofortes.

The last named instruments are an especial success in Walsall and district, being an excellent instrument at a medium price in which are combined in an exceptional degree all the qualities of a good piano, together with a powerful tone, light touch, and great durability. They are of very beautiful design and are brilliantly finished. Lining the passage leading to the offices are cases for all kinds of instruments, and at the end are the apartments for the clerical and accountancy staff.

A view in the Workshop.

The firm, although doing an extensive cash trade, having also established an immense connection of hire purchase customers on the three-years' system of payment, a department that has developed of late with leaps and bounds, necessarily involving an enormous amount of correspondence.
Ascending by the fine staircase to the upper floor, we note three stained glass windows with photographs of Beethoven and Gounod, with Mendelsshon as a centre piece.

On this level are the music rooms, each provided with a piano and other instruments required by the Professor for giving lessons to the pupils. Beyond this is the No. 2 showroom for pianos, of which large stocks are on view by the makers whose names are already given.

Ascending another flight of stairs, No. 3 showroom is reached, the principal feature in this department being a numerous selection of organs of various designs and makes, among which are represented the manufactures of Estey, Mason and Hamlin, Story and Clark, Bell Organ Co., etc., the prices of which vary from £5 to 125 guineas, and in this room are also pianos of the cheaper class at prices ranging from £8 to £25, and second hand instruments that have had a little wear but are still serviceable for general purposes.

A corner of the staircase.

The fourth storey is arranged as workshops, wherein old pianos are renovated and old organs restored to their pristine condition; although the firm frankly explains that the old-fashioned instruments can never be made as good as the modern ones, they can be turned out under skilful treatment as perfect as when they first left the factory. Here, also, repairs are executed in violins, banjos, bows, etc., and among the implements in use are massive steel cramps for heavy repairing work to pianos, and in contrast the lighter cramps for violins and smaller instruments; in fact, the equipment of this department, in common with the entire arrangements of the admirably organised establishment, are completely well-ordered in every detail; “a place for everything, and everything in its place”  being the mot d' ordre throughout, the services of skilled London workmen being employed, and the closest personal supervision exercised by the principals in each branch, commercial and operative.

An advert from 1976.

Views of the shop from July 2017:

An advert from 1968.

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