The Musical Stones of Skiddaw

The Richardson Family and the Famous Musical Stones of Skiddaw

The Crosthwaite Musical Stones

If you cross the threshold of the Keswick Museum and Art Gallery and look to your right, you will see two curious musical instruments. They look like xylophones, but the notes are not made of metal or wood, but from a local stone. These two objects represent a fascinating 220 year-long story full of obsession, changing fortunes, glory and international fame. The story even carries on today, with a new touring and performance schedule.
The first person to find music in the stones around Keswick was the incomparable Peter Crosthwaite. Born at Dale Head, Thirlmere in 1735, he joined the East India Company after a brief and unhappy venture into his family’s woollen business. He became a naval commander, Master of the gunboat ‘Otter’, protecting the Company’s ships against Malay pirates. He returned to to England in 1765 and undertook customs duties on the coast before returning to Keswick in 1779 and setting up a museum there in 1780.
Crosthwaite was an incredible eccentric, and a very keen inventor. His inventions included a fire-escaping machine, a portable bathing machine, a cure for smoking chimneys, a swinging machine for the benefit of health, a roasting machine and a cork-bottomed life boat. He never patented any of his inventions however and, in the case of his lifeboat, someone else took the credit for the device.
With his interest in invention, his love of novelty, and his eagerness to attract more people in to his museum, Crosthwaite’s discovery of music within the stones around Skiddaw must have been met with great excitement. In his memorandum book he records the day of his discovery:
The entry reads:

‘June 11th, 1785 found my 6 first music stones

at the Tip end or North end of long tongue’

He told people that first six notes he found on that day were in perfect tune; the remaining ten of the set took six months to find, with Crosthwaite working twelve hours a day to tune, carefully chipping away at the stone until the desired note rang true. He carved into each stone the letter corresponding to the note which the stone sounded. The result was a sort of xylophone, known as ‘Musical Stones’. Within his museum, which was situated at Museum Square at the bottom of Keswick’s Market Place, Crosthwaite set up a series of mirrors near the windows so that he could see whenever a carriage was approaching. When a carriage neared, he would bang out a rudimentary tune on his Musical Stones and his daughter and ‘the old woman’ banged a drum, rattled a Chinese gong and a played a barrel organ. This cacophony of noise pouring out of the museum was meant to attract the attention of the carriage passengers and any people passing on the street so they might come and look round.
It is unlikely that Peter Crosthwaite could have predicted how, 55 years later, his initial discovery led to international fame and royal acclaim for the next exponent of the ‘Musical Stones’; Mr Joseph Richardson.

Joseph Richardson & Sons and the Rock, Bell & Steel Band

Joseph Richardson was born in 1790 and he was a stonemason from a family of Keswick stonemasons. He was something of a musical genius and made numerous musical instruments in his youth. The Cumberland and Westmorland Herald reported in 1928 that Joseph once took his mother’s mahogany-topped table ‘of which she was very proud’ and sawed it up to make violin! As well as conducting his own experiments, it is very likely that as a child Joseph would have been familiar with Crosthwaite’s ‘Musical Stones’. During his career as a stonemason Richardson noticed for himself the curious musical ring given out by some rocks when struck. Consequently he began to test the various rocks of the Lake District for their note and collected ones that gave a pure, resonant ring, forming them into a sequence.
In 1827, whilst building houses at Thornthwaite, he found that the rocks of Skiddaw had the best tone of all and, spurred on by this discovery, he endeavoured to produce an instrument on a larger scale than Crosthwaite’s, which would have every musical note. The geological name for the rock both Crosthwaite and Richardson used for their instruments is ‘hornfel’. It took Richardson almost thirteen years to collect and shape enough individual notes of hornfels to make an eight-octave range. By day he would scour the hillside looking for suitable stones then bring them the long distance home where he would work tirelessly to cut and shape them. It was a colossal task; Joseph experimented at length with each stone before accepting or rejecting it as worthy of the instrument he was constructing. The massive task of assembling this instrument consumed Joseph absolutely, so much so that he and his family were reduced to poverty through this 13 year period. He found it hard to carry on at times but eventually in 1840 the instrument was finished.
Joseph enlisted his three sons and they began practising with the instrument and giving concerts locally. Joseph was a gifted self-taught musician who was proficient on the violin, flute and pipes. He was able to use his musical abilities to get the most out of his Musical Stones and train his sons to assist him in building an impressive repertoire. Having gained support and acclaim in the Keswick region they set off on a three-week tour of the major northern towns of England. Their reception and immediate success meant that they did not see their home again for three years. One local newspaper noted that “everyone appeared much delighted with the “sweet sound” elicited from the rugged and uncouth looking and unique instrument”. Their success encouraged them to head for London, where “The wonderful merits of your admirable instrument cannot fail to be well-received by the London public who are very musical people.”
The repertoire included selections from Handel, Beethoven and Mozart and arrangements of waltzes, quadrilles, gallops and polkas. Considerable variation in tone was achieved by using different methods of striking the notes, creating a blend of organ, piano, harp and flute sounds, though the full power of the instrument had to be withheld because of the fear of shattering the concert hall windows. The concerts were immensely popular: “The richness as well as the sweetness of the tones produced seemed to excite the astonishment of all who heard them.” In an 1846 newspaper advertisement for a Richardson’s performance in Luton, it states that the range of the instrument went from the “alleged warble of a lark” to the “deep bass of a funeral bell”. In an amusingly florid newspaper piece written in 1842 the journalist Minnie Broatch explains that Richardson’s set of Musical Stones “looks more or less like one of those toys children play with, which are called dulcimers in the toy shops, but on a gargantuan scale - they would be for giant children to play with if they were in reality a child’s toy…”
To increase the musical range, the instrument was updated in the mid 1840s with octaves of steel bars, Swiss bells, drums and various instruments of percussion, and became ‘Richardson & Sons, Rock, Bell and Steel Band.’ On 23rd February 1848 the Richardson’s played at Buckingham Palace, by command of Queen Victoria. Prince Albert was present, and a large assembly of English and foreign noblemen and women. The ‘Band’ was well received; indeed, two of the pieces were requested for an encore. According to The Times, it proved “one of the most extraordinary and novel performances of the Metropolis.” As a result, the Queen requested two further performances. However, although very impressed overall, it was noted that the Her Majesty was not amused by the sound of the Alpine bells.
Over sixty concerts were given in London alone and the ‘Band’ toured all over Britain and, subsequently, in France, Germany and Italy, being transported by train. A concert trip to America was planned, but Robert, the youngest son and the most talented player, became ill just before the date of departure and died of pneumonia. The tour was abandoned, and the instrument was packed away. Subsequently, the instrument was given to Keswick Museum in 1917 by the great grandson of Joseph Richardson. It still stands there now, as a symbol of the stonemason from Crosthwaite, his natural musical talent and his tremendous drive to achieve the goal of creating an instrument from rock which had every musical note.
Joseph Richardson is buried at Kensal Green Cemetery in London. As well as a gravestone, Joseph also has a monument there to mark his life and his achievement. The monument is the tallest obelisk in the cemetery and it reads:
‘In Memory of Joseph Richardson, formerly of Underskiddaw, Keswick, Cumberland Inventor of the Instruments of the Rock, Bell and Steel Band’
Later sets of ‘Musical Stones’ include the Till Family Rock Band, exhibited and performed upon by Daniel Till of Keswick and his two sons in 1881 at the Crystal Palace. It later toured America and is now held in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. The Abraham Brothers of Keswick, famous for their mountaineering and photography, collected a set of fifty-eight stones in the late nineteenth century, which took them twelve years and which they exhibited in their photography shop on Lake Road. But of all the lithophones, the ‘Richardson & Sons Rock, Bell & Steel Band’ was the most celebrated.

The Story Continues

The Richardsons stopped touring with the ‘Musical Stones’ more than 140 years ago. However, recent musical collaborations have meant that the Stones have started to go on tour once more, and a further series of concert appearances are planned over the next two years. The first of these 21st century Musical Stones tours took place in September of 2005. Keswick Museum was approached by Grizedale Arts - a contemporary art commissioning agency near Coniston - to collaborate with the musician and artist Brian Dewan from Brooklyn, New York. Jamie Barnes, the Duty Officer at Keswick Museum worked with Brian over a number of weeks and assisted him in composing seven ‘movements’ for the Musical Stones. This suite of music lasted about an hour and was performed outside, on the shores of Coniston Water, looking out across the lake towards Brantwood, the former home of the great writer, artist and social reformer John Ruskin. Ruskin was so impressed by the Musical Stones that he commissioned a set to be made for him personally. He remarked that the Stones had given him “a new musical pleasure”.
The lakeside performance by Brian and Jamie was part of the Coniston Water Festival 2005 - a country sports and art festival which had been restarted by Grizedale Arts to allow the local community to take over the continuation of the event from 2007 onwards.
A special frame and sound box was constructed to mount the stones on for the performance. Brian used 35 of the 61 slate notes for his composition. These notes correspond to the white notes on a piano. The performance was amplified and the sounds of the stones drifted across the lake and into Coniston village. The performance was also broadcast over a short wave radio station.
Brian and Jamie repeated their performance at the University of Leeds in May 2006 and will be performed new music for the Stones as part as the Liverpool Biennial 2006 in September. In this performances they were also be joined by a Chinese classical orchestra, the bells of Liverpool Cathedral and the innovative bass guitar work of Doug Wimbish!
In January of 2006 the Musical Stones reached a large national audience when they were heavily featured as part of a BBC Radio 4 documentary on Cumbrian musical stones presented by the top classical percussionist Evelyn Glennie. The documentary was entitled ‘The World’s First Rock Band’. In June 2006 the Stones went global when they were featured on National Public Radio across America.
In addition to this, Keswick Museum and Art Gallery are also involved with a large three-year project set up by the University of Leeds. It is an interdisciplinary project to find out why hornfel has musical properties, carry out scientific and historical research on musical stones and organise a series of performances.
Keswick Museum hope that all these new projects will help bring the Musical Stones to new audiences and keep this fascinating story alive for another 220 years at least.


This article forms part of the book 'Keswick Characters: Volume 1' which is available from the Museum or Bookcase of Carlisle.

Further reading

‘Rock Music’, M.C. Fagg, Pitt Rivers Museum, ISBN 0 902793 39 X
The Musical Stones on MySpace:
A CD is also available of Brian Dewan and Jamie Barnes playing the Musical Stones which was recorded in September 2006 in Liverpool. It costs £4.50. Please contact the Museum to obtain a copy (017687) 73263
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