Remarkable story of the Stoneyford violin maker

by “The Digger” – April 2008


It wasn’t that long ago an old friend of mine related to me a story from the 1930’s, about an old fellow from the Lurgan area called Charlie. Charlie had taken a notion to learn the violin and had acquired one. One evening a knock came to the door. He opened the door, violin in hand, to find the next door neighbour standing there. “Ach goodness gracious, is that what it is Charlie,” she said. “Do you know what that sounded like in our house? It was like a pig eating cinders!” Of course you had to start somewhere.

In this part of the world the fiddle was one of the most popular instruments that was played around the countryside many years ago and provided both entertainment and accompaniment to the many socials and dances held in homes, barns and halls and good fiddlers were always in demand.

Gordon Grave, Glenavy Parish Church

Gordon Grave, Glenavy Parish Church

I read with interest some time ago in an old 1930 Belfast Newsletter an article written by someone known only as a “special representative.” He or she had visited a civil servant called George Barnes at his home, which appeared from my research to be in the Haypark Avenue area of Belfast. The newspaper reporter was writing about Mr Barnes’s hobby – violin making. It was reported that George Barnes had no interest violins until one day in the early 1920’s he picked one up and he decided to have a go at making one for himself. Not only was he a self-taught violin maker, but he was teaching himself to play. He appeared to be content in his workshop amongst his templates, ribs, tail pieces, scrolls, violin books and pamphlets. George was a member of a family who had military links with the 4th Hussar cavalry regiment since 1734. His grandfather had been at the charge of the Light Brigade and he himself had served for eleven years in that regiment during the 1st World War. George Barnes died in February 1964.

On 3rd April, 1854, just over six months before the charge of the Light Brigade, Hugh Gordon, a well-known resident of the Ballymacward townland, Stoneyford had passed away and preparations were being made for his funeral to St. Aidan’s Parish Church at Glenavy on April 5th. I had read the inscription on the Gordon headstone many times and passed by it, unaware of the significance and the background of Hugh Gordon, at least, not until I came across a website dedicated to the Gordons of Stoneyford, County Antrim – Violin Makers by Belfast man Michael Costello.

Michael, a proficient violin player himself, first encountered a Gordon violin on the premises of Ormonde Hall, a violin and piano dealer on the Lisburn Road, Belfast, when as a youth, he had been seeking to purchase one. It was outside of his price range at the time. That experience would, however, be the catalyst of an interest that would lead to a lifetime of research on Hugh Gordon an amateur violin maker.

Michael’s research over the years would bring him into contact directly with some of the Gordon violins, the violin moulds and templates actually used in their manufacture and manuscript linked to Hugh Gordon from the early 1800’s. Amongst the reels, jigs and hornpipes and other music in the manuscript are two pieces titled Miss Gordon’s Reel and the Stoneyford Lasses, which are more than likely linked to some of the female members in Hugh’s own family and those from the immediate district.

The Gordon family appear from those historical records that are still in existence, to have been in the area of Ballymacward from the early 1700’s. Hugh’s father John Gordon was laid to rest in Tullyrusk graveyard in November 1824. Hugh was a blacksmith and farmer. He was described in a written record made by another local man, John Simpson, a friend of Hugh, as “a mechanical genius … who could make anything.”

I have had sight of several of the Gordon violins and moulds that Hugh used in the violin making process. The materials, such as sycamore and pine, used in the construction of the violins would have been sourced locally by Hugh Gordon. Michael told me that Hugh would have made his own tools and templates, which were based on the designs of Stradivari and other notable violin makers. One of the templates was clearly marked “Hugh Gordon’s pattron, June 21st, 1850”. Amongst the collection of templates, were two bog oak fingerboards. One of the fingerboards was three quarter length in size and had been prepared for a child’s violin. Michael discovered that there was an old bog close by to the Gordon family home and suggests that is probably the source of the material. Fingerboards were normally made of ebony, but that had to be sent away for, and in the 1820 – 1850 period could have proved very expensive to obtain. The Gordon violins were stamped on the rear, below the button, and would normally have a label inside. One of the early labels known to Michael reads “Belfast 1825.” Michael estimates that Hugh Gordon may have made as many as fifty violins during his lifetime.

Hugh Gordon was married to Sarah Hood. Early records from the Lower Ballymacward area show the Hood family resided close by to the Gordon residence. Sarah died in 1887. Hugh and Sarah had 3 sons – William, who died in infancy, James and Hugh and 2 daughters Eliza Ann and Mary Jane. Mary Jane married John Scott and their son Hugh Gordon Scott eventually inherited the Gordon family homeplace. Their grave is located close to Hugh and Sarah Gordon’s at St. Aidan’s, Glenavy.

The violin making and repairing was continued by Hugh’s sons, Hugh and James.

Hugh Gordon, junior, who listed as a mechanic in various records, completed some of his father’s unfinished violins at the time of his death. Hugh is listed as a mechanic in some of the early records and Michael told me that he worked as a music shop repairman. When Hugh junior himself died we know that he had in his possession a number of both completed and unfinished violins. It appears he left the Stoneyford area and went to Scotland where he met his wife to be Martha Smith. They married in Edinburgh in 1869 and later returned to Belfast, where they can be traced to various addresses from about 1875. At the turn of the 20th century they were residing at 42, Newtownards Road, Belfast – the local post office. The street directories from that era list Hugh as the sub postmaster. Martha and Hugh both died within months of each other in 1924 and they are buried in the City Cemetery, Belfast. A son of Hugh and Martha Gordon, named Hugh Erasmus Gordon died in July 1938 and is buried at Dundonald Cemetery. The engineering traditions appear to have stayed in the Gordon family as at the time of his death he was a member of the Belfast Branch of the Amalgamated Engineering Union. His middle name, Erasmus, has been given to him on account of his grandfather, Erasmus Smith, a seaman from North Leith, Scotland.

Over twenty years ago, Michael interviewed James Crawford, an 86 year-old resident of Tullynewbank, outside Stoneyford. James recalled visiting the home of James Gordon at the Wye Bridge Road, in about 1911 and could remember him sitting by the fireside scraping at the belly of a fiddle with a piece of glass and sandpaper.

Michael’s passion for the subject was blatantly obvious when he told me that he would love to go back to the 1830’s to meet Hugh Gordon to have a conversation with him. That may be an impossibility now, but the possibility of someone turning up with another Gordon fiddle, that has perhaps been stored and forgotten about in someone’s attic would make Michael’s day. Michael would love to hear from you if you are in possession of one of these instruments. That would add to his in depth knowledge of the subject and assist in piecing together some more of the Gordon fiddle jigsaw. Some of the fiddles have turned up in Canada and America recently. No doubt some of the local emigrants in the 19th century, regarded them as prize possessions, and took them across the Atlantic.

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