Electronics, Violins and Llanelli

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Leslie John: a Llanelli violin maker and pioneer of television reception

The Llanelli Community Heritage web site that describes Joseph Edward Barton (1846-1934), a renowned Llanelli violin maker active from 1900, also describes how he constructed two early wireless radio sets. This combination of achievements is not one that would immediately come to mind, even if both are concerned ultimately with the production of sound. Violin making is craftsmanship in wood of the highest order, which demands a keen coordination of hand and eye, while the making of a radio set requires above all specialised technical knowledge.  This combination of interests was, personally for the author, all the more remarkable, as half a century later the author’s father, Leslie John (1909-1982), was both an accomplished violin maker and a pioneering constructor of electronic wireless receivers.  Specifically, Leslie John pioneered the reception of television in Llanelli, receiving in 1950 the first television licence to be issued in the town for a television set he had made himself; and then in the 1960s and 70s he became a well-known maker and repairer of violins and other stringed instruments.The following is an account of the achievements of Leslie John in these fields, and the context in which they were made. It has a particularly Llanelli flavour in that it reflects both the demands of the town's industries for technical expertise, and at the same time Llanelli's rich musical tradition.

The arrival of television in Llanelli

Leslie Joseph Harrison John was born in Rugby, Warwickshire in 1909. His father died when he was young and his mother married Tom John (1890-1972), an engineer who had come from Llanelli to work at the British Thomson-Houston factory at Rugby. Leslie John left school when he was 14 years old, having already made a mark in the world of wireless reception, as he was the first schoolboy to make a ‘cat’s whisker’ crystal radio receiver.1  Soon after, his parents moved to Llanelli. His stepfather was employed at the Thomas and Clements Foundry, and so it was natural that Leslie John should be apprenticed there when he had reached the age of 16. After he finished his apprenticeship, he took up positions as an engineering draughtsman at Thomas and Clements, then in London and Newport; and in 1940 he was appointed to the Richard Thomas and Baldwins Ltd works at Grovesend and Bryngwyn Steel Works at Gorseinon where he eventually became chief engineer.  In the late1940s his interest in electronics was rekindled, and with the guidance of technical books,2 he constructed a television receiver.In 1950, the first modern all-electronic television reception in west Wales was received at Leslie John's house at 15 Capel Road. The event dominated the front page of the ‘Llanelly Star’ of 15th April of that year. The programmes were transmitted from the BBC transmitter at Sutton Coldfield near Birmingham, which had opened only a few months previously on 17th December, 1949. The achievement was all the greater as it was anticipated that the Sutton Coldfield signal would hardly extend into Wales because it was authoritatively predicted that “the Welsh hills will constitute a formidable obstacle”.3 The programmes were actually received on two home-made sets. One was made by David John Jones a wireless mechanic of Llandafen Road, Halfway, and the other by Leslie John. As the ‘Star’ recounts, the two enthusiasts had worked independently with only partial success, and collaborated to obtain complete success at the Capel Road house, which advantageously was on high ground, and where Leslie John's aerial was considered more effective than that of David Jones. The tests were a complete success, with both  sets providing sharp images. For the record, the first modern television pictures received in Llanelli were of circus acts, and were in black and green, those being the colours of the monochrome cathode ray tubes of the period. After the tests, Leslie John went to the Llanelli General Post Office to buy his television receiving licence, but he was told that they did not stock them, as television was not receivable in this area. Later he acquired the first licence to be issued from Llanelli.

Television pictures of a primitive kind had been received in Llanelli in 1933 on a home-made receiver by William J Nicholas and Hugh W Jones who were electrical engineers based in Chapman Street. The ‘Llanelly Star’ reporter who witnessed a demonstration at the house of WJ Nicholas in Mount Pleasant, described the set as resembling a “bacon-slicing machine”,4 (a description understandingly resented by WJ Nicholas),5 as the image was created by synchronising the images in the studio with an image created at the receiver via the light thrown through tiny holes which pierced the outer edge of a revolving disc. This was the Baird electromechanical system, which was used from 1930 by the newly founded BBC to make simultaneous sound and picture transmissions on a regular schedule from their Brookmans Park transmitter. However the electromechanical system was limited by the fact that the 30-line image was of poor resolution compared with the all-electronic system, with its 405-line system, which  by 1935 had made the electro-mechanical system obsolete. William Nicholas and Hugh Jones must have been notable as television pioneers of the 1930s, as they visited the BBC studio in Portland Place, met the engineer in charge, and were actually themselves televised.6 

Soon after the pioneering achievement of 1950, television took off in Llanelli, boosted by the opening of the Wenvoe transmitter in 1952, and by the decision to televise the coronation in June 1953. A problem with the early television reception was interference with the signal from electrical equipment, and reception in Llanelli was enhanced when the electric trolleybuses were replaced with diesel.7

Violin making

Leslie John’s stepfather, Tom John (1890-1972) was a boy violinist in the Capel Als orchestra from 1903 to 1913. This musical talent was passed on to Leslie John and to Tom John’s daughter Elsie John (later Elsie James) (1922-2014) who played the viola as an amateur for many years in Aberystwyth. The younger brother of Tom, Dan John (1901-1994), also played the violin but was better known as a long-standing member of the  Llanelli Male Voice Choir. Leslie John’s musical talent was nurtured by a musical environment not unusual in the Llanelli of the interwar years. While working in London, he gained Associate College of Violinists in 1930, and in addition was a capable player of the viola and cello; he played in the augmented orchestra of Capel Als led by Elvet Marks; and later he taught himself to play the piano. In the 1960s and 70s Leslie played in string quartets with amateur musicians around South Wales, and he played at the annual Cheltenham string quartet festivals together with his sister, Elsie. In Llanelli one of his fellow string quartet players was Cecil Jenkins of the well-known Llanelli bakery family.The instrument making started with Tom John.8 The author has records of repairs that he made in the 1920s to instruments  for the music master at the famous Rugby School, and it was in Rugby that he made his first violin, a half-sized instrument. When he returned to Llanelli he continued to make violins at his house at 12 Corporation Avenue. In 1930 he exhibited two violins in the National Eisteddfod at Llanelli. He subscribed to ‘The Strad’, the magazine for those involved in making and repairing instruments belonging to the violin family. In 1946 he had a letter published in which he posed the question often asked of violin makers: “How long does it take to make a violin?”. Altogether Tom John made about six violins until he retired from instrument making in 1961.

Leslie John had been a skilled craftsman from an early age,  and in 1935-36, he made his first instrument, a cello, which is still in the author’s possession. He was just 26 years old. However until the 1960s he pursued other interests, and concentrated on his career;  from 1951 to 1958 he was Chief Engineer at the South Wales Steel Works of Richard Thomas and Baldwins at Machynis, Llanelli. With the closure of the works in 1958, he took on a less demanding position at the Steel Company of Wales works at Velindre. Thus it was that in 1961 with more time available, and with the retirement of Tom John from violin making and repairing, Leslie John took up instrument making more seriously. Then in 1971, when he finally retired from full-time employment he was able to dedicate himself completely to the craft. The twenty years from 1962 were his most productive period. His total output is not known, but it is recorded that by about 1973 he had made twelve violins, six violas, two cellos, a harp and a lute.9 For the later cellos Leslie John chose birdseye maple for the ribs and backs. This is not an easy wood to work with, however the end result is an instrument of great sonority and visual beauty.

Leslie John also made two harps, and a lute of extraordinary beauty and delicacy, which is in the author’s possession. One of his achievements was to make from the same batch of wood, a quartet of instruments, two violins, a viola and a cello for a family who played together, to provide them with instruments that would harmonise to a greater degree than with four instruments of different origins. His instruments were sought after, and sold mainly locally and by amateur players. However this was not exclusively so: a few years ago attending a family funeral in Sweden the author met a player who still possessed a violin made by Leslie John, which he valued enormously for its quality of sound; and at least one of his instruments was used by a professional string quartet.

Like all makers of instruments of the violin family, Leslie John followed the dimensions and methods established by the great 18th century Italian makers of Cremona, of which Antonio Stradivari is the most famous name. However he could also be inventive, and in 1975 he made a portable practice cello of his own design for a Mr Frisch of San Diego, California, a cellist who wanted an instrument that would be both nearly silent for practicing in hotel rooms, and foldable so that it could be easily transported, but with the dimensions of a real cello with respect to the playing.  The novelty of Leslie John’s design was that the instrument converted into a carrying case with the neck, strings and bow packed away inside. There was even room for some clothes; it was described by the Press as the world’s first “suitcase cello”.10

During these years his workshop was a converted bedroom in his house at Capel Road, Llanelli. He had tools that would have been familiar to Stradivari, many of which he had made himself or which had been made by Tom John. A matter of great concern to any violin maker is the varnish. The Cremonese makers of Stradivari’s time used an oil-based varnish, the recipe of which has disappeared, and this presents a challenge to those makers who believe that the varnish contributes importantly to  the tone of the instrument. Leslie John corresponded with violin makers around the world exchanging experiences of different varnish formulae. The oil-based varnish “dries” by a chemical process that is accelerated by ultraviolet light, and thus  varnishing an instrument is normally a summer activity. Leslie John used the washing line in the garden to dry his violins, but the Llanelli sun is not as reliable as that of Stradivari’s Italy. This disadvantage was overcome by constructing a cabinet, large enough to accommodate a cello, lined with fluorescent tubes which emitted light with a high proportion of ultra violet wavelengths, not unlike those used in modern tanning parlours.

It is a great advantage for a violin maker to be a competent player as well. Once Leslie John had assembled unvarnished a newly made instrument - whether it were a violin, viola or cello - he would try it out by playing some of his favourite pieces. If he felt that the tone lacked a certain quality, then he would remove the front off the instrument, and adjust and modify the instrument, adding here and taking away there, to improve the tone.  The success of his instrument making is judged not by prizes in competitions, but rather by the pleasure players got from actually playing his instruments. As well as possesing a good tone (and there are many different types of good tone), the instruments were very playable. 

Electronics, violins and Llanelli

By profession, Joseph Barton was an early electrician, Leslie John a mechanical engineer. Both achieved much in the fields of electronics and violin making, and must have had, without any formal training in physics, an intuitive feel for the physics involved to be so successful in producing what are two quite different sound-producing systems. But what did Llanelli culture provide? In the case of Leslie John we have seen that he and his family participated in the rich musical tradition of the town. At the same time,  in  his working life he responded to the technical demands of the local industries of the first half of the 20th century. Thus a pioneer of television and a maker of violins is perhaps not so surprising a product of Llanelli’s heritage.

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Notes and Citations

Philip John is an old boy of Llanelly Grammar, now a retired Professor of Plant Biochemistry living in Oxford.
The author is most grateful to Paul Oram for encouragement, and to Lyn John (no relation) for providing sources on early television in Llanelli.

1 Daily Mirror (undated) 1924
2 Such as Admiralty Handbook of Wireless Telegraphy, 1938,  and WE Miller’s Television Explained (3rd Edition, 1949)
3 Wireless World p. 14, January 1950
4 Llanelly Star January 10 1933
5 Television p. 298 August 1933
6 Llanelly Star August 23 1952
7 Llanelly Star September 6 1952
8 South Wales Evening Post August 22 1969
9 Llanelli Star (undated)  ?1973
10 Western Mail September 22 1975

Publication of Musical Instruments made by Leslie H. John January 2017