William Retford

William Charles Retford was born in 1875 in a cottage on the Ashley Arnewood Estate where his father was a gardener and his mother a dairy worker. He was the youngest of their children, and spent his early childhood on the estate until in 1887 the family moved to Old House in Burley.

Five years later at the age of 16 Retford’s life changed forever when a visitor to Old House offered him a job in London. That visitor was Arthur Hill from the famous violin and bow maker WE Hill & Sons. Retford moved to London where he lived until his death in 1970 aged 95. However he retained a strong affection for the New Forest and his ‘home county’ and made regular return visits until he was well into his eighties.

The apprenticed Retford was initially an instrument repairer but soon transferred to the bow making workshop. A bow is usually regarded as just a stick with hair attached which is used to create the required notes on instruments of the violin family. However this hides a craft and an art which are of equal importance to the making of the instrument itself. Only a very fine bow can bring about a first class performance. Retford was proud of his trade. He said “the art lies in satisfying the customer. Bows and violins are tailor-made to the requirements of the musician. What suits one may not suit another.”

Hill’s workshop had a worldwide reputation for excellence and employed England’s best bow makers, who created bows renowned for character and consistency. Retford was employed in Hill’s workshop for 65 years, 50 of these being workshop manager. The distinguished reputation of WE Hill & Sons meant that all of the best quality bows were sent there for repair and so Retford had access to the finest work and the highest standards. This enabled him to achieve the same level of distinction in his own work. In addition he was able to improve the weight, balance and sturdiness of the bows that he produced to meet the needs of the 20th century giving rise to the ‘Hill bow’, an amalgam of the French and English traditions.

William Retford with his wife and son, known as Billy.

After retirement from Hill’s, Retford continued to work privately producing many more exquisite bows as ‘souvenirs’ for friends and admirers until just before he died. His craft left him with a distinct physical peculiarity: the thumb of his left hand was bent almost at right angles to his palm due to the constant use of the thumb and forefinger as a ‘vice’ for holding and working on small parts of the bow.

In 1964 Retford published Bows and Bow-Makers drawing on his lifetime’s experience of bow making and restoration and knowledge of the masters of the French and English Schools.

Music was the dominant interest in Retford’s life. He made his own violin in 1901 which he taught himself to play and then was a member of an orchestra until he was 88. He also made the furniture in his home, and wrote the story of his early life in the New Forest and a volume of poetry entitled Through the Window.

Thus from a chance offer of a job, William Charles Retford became a legend in his field and is regarded as the greatest bow craftsman of his time. His bows are still highly prized by both instrument players and investors and in recent years they have sold for up to £3,500 at auction. After his death Retford’s tools and equipment from his own workshop were donated to the Bate Collection at the Faculty of Music at Oxford University.

Share this:

Follow us on social media or join our newsletter

Get in touch with St Barbe

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.