The story of John Grey banjos starts in the year 1830 when Jacob Solomon and his family left Exeter in Devon to settle in London and start a wholesale hardware business. Two years later, Jacob's son Henry started a fancy goods business (beads. costume jewellery and steel pen nibs) on his own. In the course of time, musical instruments were included in the Firm’s stock and a wholesale catalogue issued in 1860 by Henry Solomon & Co., of 134 & 31 Houndsditch and 27a Duke Street, included banjos ringing in price from: "No. 1, small size, each 3s. 6d." to "No. 8,, full size, pearl mounted, with vellum head and tuning screws richly inlaid, each £1 8s. 6d.
In 1861 Henry Solomon sold the musical instrument side of his business to Barnett Samuel, who had married his sister Caroline in 1849. Barnett Samuel lived in Sheffield and manufactured tortoiseshell (doorknobs, knife handles and combs but the musical instrument business appeared to offer him better prospects so he moved to London with his family and took over the warehouses at 31 Houndsditch and 27a Duke Street.
In 1869 Nelson Samuel (Barnett's third son) entered the business and eventually took a great part in the prosperity of the firm. The selling of musical instruments seems to have been a paying business for by 1872 Barnett's eldest son was taken into partnership and the title of the firm became Barnett Samuel & Sons. (It is some indication of how the business thrived to know that in 1872 Barnett Samuel moved his home from King Street in Finsbury to the more exclusive area of Clifton Gardens in Maida Vale.) The firm moved to 32 Worship Street, London, E.C. in 1878 and Nelson Samuel was given a partnership. He proved to be a force behind even greater expansion of the firm's activities. By then they were dealing with every type of musical instrument and musical merchandise-including banjos and zither-banjos made for them by the usual Birmingham and London factories.
In 1878 the firm opened the first English harmonium factory. Barnett Samuel died in 1882 but Nelson Samuel's guiding hand led the firm from strength to strength. There are no records of when they actually started to make banjos but in 1899 there is a record of the company importing "hundreds of banjo vellums from Germany for use in their factory." It would suggest they were already making banjos by this time. In 1901 Barnett Samuel & Sons became a limited liability company, with Nelson, Selim and Max Samuel as directors. By this time the firm was one of the largest musical instrument wholesalers in this country and, in addition, had established their own piano factory in North London.
The man responsible for the design and manufacture of the first John Grey banjos was Francis Beddard, an Englishman who had gone to Anierica in the late 1890's to work in the S.S. Stewart factory in Philadelphia. When SS Stewart failed in 1901 Beddard returned to England and soon after secured a job in the factory of Barnett Samuel & Sons Ltd. It was his craftsmanship and flair for knowing how to sell the banjos he made which put John Grey instruments "on the map." (His son Robert--an expert banjoist and banjo maker himself- has been on the staff of Rose, Morris & Co. Ltd. for many years as production manager.)
It is not irrelevant (as we shall see) to note that in 1914 Barnett Samuel & Sons Ltd. patented and marketed the first portable gramophone under the trade name of "Decca." With the slogan "she shall have music wherever she goes", by 1927 the sales of these portable machines was enormous and dwarfed the sales of all other goods made by the company, although the manufacture of banjos was thriving because of the dance-band boom.
In 1918 the firm founded another separate company - British Music Strings Ltd., with a factory at Monsell Road, London, N.4. With a tie-up with Olly Oakley, they were soon supplying all types of banjo strings to players all over the world. In 1927 the piano side of Barnett Samuel & Sons Ltd., was merged with Brasteds and floated as the Associated Piano Co. Ltd.
Truly the firm had become a vast empire in all aspects of the musical instrument business.
In 1928 the British Equity Investment Co. Ltd. bought Barnet Samuel & Sons Ltd. without the right to use the title of the firm. (The firm's holdings in Associated Piano Co. Ltd. and British Music Strings Ltd. were not included in the deal.) Re-named The Decca Gramophone Co. Ltd. the firm was sold by the investment company to a consortium headed by E. R. Lewis and was floated as a company under the title of title of the Decca Record Co. Ltd. The entire instrument part of the business was included in the eight shares of John Grey & Sons Lid and these shares purchased by Rose, Morris & Co. Ltd. who continued to make and market "John Grey" banjos at 32 Worship Street up to the outbreak of World War 11.
After the Rose, Morris & Co. Ltd. started to make banjos again in a spasmodic fashion. When the company was acquired by Grampian Holdings Ltd. in 1960 their factory began to turn out inexpensive banjos in quantities to meet the demand of retail shops and these instruments were labelled “John Grey". In 1967 the company entered the retail side of selling and, as a matter of policy, ceased to use the name of "John Grey," for any of its products; the banjos they make now bearing the "R.M." trademark.
Images courtesy of David Neve