R H O D E S    A N D    T H O M A S





      William Robert Thomas, known to his family as Bill, was born in Wolverhampton on 13 July 1905, the second of four sons of Hubert Robert Thomas and Eleanor Maud.  His mother was the daughter of William Wright Richardson, one-time mayor of Lincoln, who had risen from errand boy to partner in the firm of Doughty, Son, and Richardson, seed crushers, manure manufacturers and seedsmen.  She read Mathematics, English and Anglo-Saxon at Royal Holloway College, London, in the 1890s.

        Bill’s father attended Wolverhampton Grammar School and then read Mechanical Engineering at Owens College, Manchester University.  He became managing director of Edwin Richard & Sons Ltd, Portway Works, Wednesbury, a heavy engineering firm, makers of axles and springs, in particular, axles for ox-carts in South Africa and for gun carriages in the First World War.

        Bill, like his brothers, was at first educated privately, then at Wolverhampton Grammar School, and then at Oundle, boarding for five years.  There he received a sound classical and scientific education and in his last year succeeded his elder brother as Captain of the Gymnastics Team.  An early interest in keyboard playing was fostered by piano lessons on his mother’s Bechstein and by his maternal Uncle Will who entertained his nephews by playing the piano blindfold.  After the early death of Uncle Will in 1915, the Thomas family moved to Lincoln in 1921 for H.R.T. to try to rescue the Richardson family business, returning to Wolverhampton in 1924.  In his retirement, H.R.T. was for 10 years governor of the Wolverhampton Grammar School, where his portrait still hangs, and also governor of the Women’s Hospital.  He was trustee of the William Salt Library in Stafford and Honorary Secretary of the Staffordshire Parish Registers Society.

        During their vacations Bill and his elder brother Richard worked at the Brayford boatyard belonging to the family firm in Lincoln.  Here they learned to handle tools correctly and to appreciate the feel and grain of wood.  This culminated in the four brothers building an 18ft motor cabin cruiser, which was launched in September 1924.  This same year Bill went up to Clare College Cambridge, on a Scholarship to read Natural Sciences, after working for a firm of accountants for five months; and Richard started work at Taylor, Taylor & Hobson in Leicester.  At Cambridge, Bill pursued his interest in music, sang in the College choir, and frequently joined his brother and friends for trips on the rivers and canals on the “Home Maid”.  At Leicester, his lifelong friendship with J.J.K. Rhodes began after John started work at Taylor, Taylor & Hobson.

        Though his mother said he wasted his time on music while at Cambridge, it obviously laid the foundations of his lifelong hobby and work.  After graduation, Bill worked in a sugar beet factory in Kidderminster before starting in the laboratory of the British Aluminium Company at Burntisland, Fife, in April 1928.  There he lodged at Rossend Castle, then a boarding establishment run by a Miss Shaw.  By 1930 he had become interested in early keyboard instruments and visited museums to ascertain how they were constructed.  John Rhodes had set up a workshop in Leicester and their first jointly-built instrument was completed in 1932.  Discussions and ideas for modifications, and parts carefully made by hand were entrusted to the post.

        In 1934 Bill was injured in a laboratory explosion which left him with a withered upper arm and resulted in some 12 months of recuperation.  Rossend Castle proved an ideal place for Bill to develop his hobby of building and repairing musical instruments.  During World War II Bill, by now manager of the Aluminium works, served in the Home Guard.  While on Fire Watch Duty he first saw the outcrop of rock on which he resolved to build a Scottish Tower House, “Easterheughs”, at the end of the war.

        In 1946, when building regulations were tight, Bill retained the Kirkcaldy architects, Williamson and Hubbard, to translate his ideas into plans which would be passed by the Planning Authority.  The classical proportions of the music room were to give it a great feeling of space, and the turnpike staircase was designed to fit the handrail from Rossend Castle.  He salvaged stone from the villages of High and Low Binns when they became a spoil ground for the Aluminium Works.  He obtained window stones from Otterston Castle, crow-step and step gabling from The Common, and curved roof tiles from Auchtertool distillery, and many of the roof timbers were made from railway sleepers and minesweeper keels.  A local builder showed him how to use the stone and as soon as the ground floor was completed with a concrete roof, he moved in and continued building around him.  Much of the interior was finished with panelling and fireplaces from the by now derelict Rossend Castle bought for £6 a load.

        Easterheughs (“the eastern cliff overhanging the river”) faces south with magnificent views across the Firth of Forth to Edinburgh.  With its lawn and much of the garden 100ft below the house, Bill planted many unusual plants which thrived in the sheltered position, and the steep drop between house and garden formed a natural rock garden. ‘Grassy’ paths between the rocks were originally planted with thrift to avoid the need for mowing.

        By the mid-1950’s, Bill retired and devoted all his time to building the castle and musical instruments.  When the music room was completed, it became a venue for musical soirees and Bill performed on harpsichord and clavichord at informal functions in local country houses.  For many years he repaired and maintained the University of Edinburgh collection of instruments and later those at St Cecilia’s hall.  He was an acknowledged expert in his field at home and abroad, corresponding with other leading experts in early musical instruments in Europe, and visiting collections on trips at home and abroad.  He and John Rhodes published a number of papers and contributed the entry on Pitch in several of Groves’ Dictionaries of Music.

- Jennifer Berkley (nee Thomas), April 1994


Biography of John Rhodes

Papers on organology published by Thomas and Rhodes


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