Lord Harris: from luthier to lord and back again

Charles Harris of Oxford

The violin making world is full of fascinating characters: often researching a maker turns into an enormously detailed dive into social history! Charles Harris of Oxford stands out as one of the great examples of a maker whose life story wouldn’t be out of place in a historical novel.

Although we can think of several notable exceptions (John Lott II, luthier turned elephant trainer springs to mind), instrument makers tended to stick to their career once they had made it through the extended apprenticeship period. The story of Charles Harris II is fascinating because life had other plans.

Early life

Charles Harris the second, often referred to as Charles Harris of Oxford, was born in London in 1791. His father was Charles Harris senior, a customs official turned violin maker. Harris senior made instruments for the London trade and was the first teacher of Samuel Gilkes. His wife was Marian Dew of Oxfordshire: this detail will become particularly important in due course!

Harris junior spent the early part of his life in London, training firstly with his father and then with John Hart. Hart himself was a former apprentice of Samuel Gilkes: delving into any of the centres of violin making in the 18th century reveals a similarly interconnected web.

 Marriage and move to Oxford

Charles Harris II was still in London age 23, when he married Elizabeth Fletcher at St George in the East, Tower Hamlets, in May 1814. By 1816 the couple have moved to Woodstock near Oxford, where Elizabeth gave birth to two children in the same year. They went on to have a further 6 children over a 14 year period. Happily and perhaps unusually, all the children survived into adulthood.

The family did not stay long in Woodstock: around 1819 they moved to the village of Adderbury, north of Oxford. We know that the couple’s fourth daughter, Sarah, was baptised in Adderbury in 1820. The Adderbury decade appears from the outside to be a time of relative stability for Harris and his family despite the death of Harris senior in 1823.

Marriage certificate for Charles Harris and Elizabeth Fletcher

The marriage certificate of Charles Harris and Elizabeth Fletcher

Inheritance: the story gets interesting!

Everything was to change when Harris inherited an estate from his cousin John Marten Watson at the age of 37. Actually, the inheritance wasn’t quite as grand as it sounds: a quarter of the estate had been sold off in 1576 and it was this portion that Harris inherited in 1828. In addition to the physical land and buildings, Harris was passed the rights and privileges of a lord of the manor. It’s not clear whether Harris set great store by these intangible rights, however we do know that Harris attempted to build a great manor house suitable for his growing family on his land.

Watson had already sold off some land and bequeathed both land and funds to other people in the will, meaning that Harris inherited an estate which struggled to provide a living as once it had. A further complication was that the lordship and land were interlinked: they were intwined in an entailed estate which stated that both were to pass together ‘from right heir to right heir forever’. This entail meant that selling off some land to raise capital was hugely complicated.

Watson clearly expected that Harris would be able to support himself by farming the land that was left to him, however this venture never took off, probably because Harris’ skills lay firmly in the world of violin making! We know that the locals referred to him disparagingly as ‘Lord Harris’, perhaps taking offence at the airs and graces of a stranger who was ill suited to rural life.

Insurmountable debts

The house was completed in 1836, eight years after Harris took charge of the estate. Starting the project before he had managed to set up a secure income as a farmer meant that he became increasingly in debt, raising mortgages on the new house as well as the three properties left to him. The way out was to seek a Private Act of Parliament to dissolve the entail and allow Harris to sell land to a neighbour. This was completed in 1837, when Harris sold Charles Cottrell Dormer the entire 116 acre estate, retaining only the land on which his own properties stood. Harris was left with just 7 aces of his inherited land, not nearly enough to make a living as a farmer. 

Somehow, even this desperate act was not enough to pull Harris back from the brink. Just 3 years later, he mortgaged all properties for the sum of £1,200. In April 1840 he then signed an agreement to sell what remained of the estate with this debt in place. By this point he has left Steeple Aston and give his details as a Musical Instrument maker of No. 1 Broad Street, Oxford.

Things continued to go from bad to worse for poor Charles Harris and on the 1st of April 1843 he was finally declared bankrupt. He died on July the 3rd, 1851 in Radcliffe Infirmary. The cause of his death was recorded as phthisis, now known as tuberculosis. Charles Harris of Oxford was buried in Steeple Aston on July the 7th, 1851.

Harris death certificate showing date 3rd of July 1851 and cause of death

Charles Harris’ death certificate, 1851

Charles Harris and William Ebsworth Hill: shaping the future

Despite, or perhaps because of, all that was going on in his life, Harris continued to make violins during his tumultuous existence. Following the death of Henry Lockey Hill in 1835, Harris took on his son William Ebsworth as an apprentice. This association means that the Oxfordshire maker turned failed member of the landed gentry had a direct impact on the development of the British violin in the 19th and 20th centuries. William Ebsworth Hill went on to found one of the most successful violin businesses in history: it cannot have been lost on poor Harris that he lacked the business acumen which allowed others to thrive.

So there we have the story of poor Lord Harris! We see him as fascinating not only for his own unique story but also as one of the links between the the fairly obscure London makers of the late 18th century and the almost frighteningly efficient Hill workshop which ushered in a very different era.

Further information

We are delighted to have a Charles Harris violin for sale, made around 1820 during his time in Adderbury.

Harris of Oxford violin for sale

Violin circa 1820 by Charles Harris of Oxford