Musical Instruments

Penny whistle, tin whistle

The earliest use of the term “penny whistle” attested in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1730, in the play Bays’s Opera by Gabriel Odingsells.

Musicians with Halters about their Necks — Their Instruments strung behind, penny Whistles, Trumpets, and so forth, in their Hands.

This doesn’t tell us what a penny whistle was but clearly refers to a musical instrument of that name. What was presumably the same instrument is mentioned in a German legal text from 1680. It is written in primarily in Latin but shifts to the vernacular in the relevant passage.

I do not want to exclude the sometimes ridiculous but not untrained songs that are usually performed in the streets at night with odious music commonly called a serenade with penny whistles and jew’s harps [ein Ständtgen mit Pfennigpfeifen und Brumeisen]. Even the more skilled jesters always strike a single chord and the great dissonance of all the instruments creates various troubles for those who hear it.

The term also appears in less certain contexts and a question about what it designated applies to the review of a performance at the Covent Garden Theatre, in the 22 September 1809 issue of the London newspaper The Morning Chronicle. An announced increase in ticket prices triggered an organized wave of disruption throughout the event.

A pause of some minutes ensued, and then the cat calls, bugle horns, and posthorns began discord afresh. … This was succeeded by the usual concord of sweet sounds proceeding from penny whistles, squeaking trumpets, watchmen’s rattles, horns, catcalls, &c. &c.

A letter to the editor in the 9 September 1810 issue of The Examiner complains about the noise caused by street criers.

… persuade them, if instrument they must have, to change the hoarse window-shaking and nerve worrying mail-horn, for the light and softer cadence of a penny whistle.

The 15 June 1818 issue of The Huntingdon, Bedford, Cambridge and Peterborough Gazette and Midland County General Advertiser, notes the following about the visit of a contentious politician.

… he entered the town amid the braying of trumpets, the beating of drums, and the shrill piping of fifes and penny whistles …

Compilations of Irish and Scottish traditional music began to name the flageolet shortly after the initial printed evidence of its English form (discussed in the preceding post). The first such collection I know of was published ca. 1804.

The musical niche it recognized for the flageolet came to be occupied by the penny whistle. If consistent usage is posited beginning with the 1730 reference, the latter name may therefore have been applied to both instruments just as the name flageolet was (perhaps initially with a contextual distinction similar to fiddle/violin).

Sir Walter Scott provides a hint about the terms penny and whistle being indirectly associated, rather than simply denoting an inexpensive instrument. He writes about a church service in his novel from 1817, Rob Roy. A penny wedding is one where the musicians are paid by small contributions from the guests (mair = more).

… and the musicians playing on whistles, mair like a penny wedding than a sermon …

The penny whistle is firmly connected with rural Irish musical practice in a report about an election campaign in Tipperary, in the 14 August 1837 issue of the Dublin newspaper The Freeman’s Journal. The occasional appearance of a penny whistle may suggest that it had been accepted by these musicians more recently than the other instruments.

They are pouring in from all quarters of the country on cars and other vehicles, each containing a rustic musician, who ‘welted away’ on an old fiddle, a flute, and sometimes a penny whistle, amid the most tremendous cheering.

What appears to be a reference to a Robert Clarke penny whistle is found in the 13 July 1839 issue of The Manchester Guardian. It is a metaphor for an inexpensive object in a discussion of governmental procurement.

These advantages … have cost the leypayers of Manchester…£480. 14s. 9d.: which, we take it, is paying rather dear for Mr. Clarke’s whistle.

The Clarke Tinwhistle Company remains in operation and advertises the year of its founding as 1843, claiming that to be when Robert Clarke invented the instrument. But if the article in The Manchester Guardian is correctly read to designate his work, he would have commenced production far enough earlier to have established his reputation before the end of the 1830s.

The term tin whistle is notably more recent than penny whistle, supporting the suggestion that the older label initially designated a wooden flageolet. The first use of the material-based name attested in the OED is from the novel Brother Jonathan by John Neal, published in 1825. It includes an observation about a poet’s reading voice.

He uses big words; and reads the superb language of Job, with his little voice, very much as if he were sounding a charge, with a tin whistle; or a twopenny trumpet.

The emergence of the tin whistle is discussed in an interview with the street musician Whistling Billy, conducted by Henry Mayhew at an unspecified time in the 1840s. It was published in 1851 in the third volume of a massive compilation covering many street professions, titled London Labour and the London Poor. The interviewee is uncertain about his birthdate because he doesn’t feel as old as the twenty-two years he calculates from having left home a decade earlier at the age of twelve. He bought his first “penny whistle” three years thereafter and also refers to it as a “whistle,” “tin whistle,” and “penny tin whistle.”

Whistles weren’t so common then, they weren’t out a quarter so much as now. Swinden had the making of them then, but he wasn’t the first maker of them. Clarke is the largest manufactory of them now, and he followed Swinden.

This unequivocally contradicts the assertion that the instrument was invented by Clarke, who would have gained the dominant position he had at the time of the interview during the seven years preceding it. Given the 1851 publication date, the latest conceivable time for the interview would have been 1850. This could plausibly set the outset of Clarke’s factory production to 1843, with his innovation being a method for making tin whistles from sheet metal.

However, the extent and intricacy of Mayhew’s compilation does not reasonably permit the interview to have been conducted at the last possible moment. It is therefore likely that Clarke began making whistles a number of years before 1843. Since he was born in 1816, if the 1839 reference was indeed to him, he would have taken up the craft by the time he turned 20 and gained rapid success. The 1861 UK census lists his profession as “Tin Flute Maker,” also indicated for some of his family members.

Whistling Billy doesn’t say who made the whistle he was using but Mayhew notes an intriguing detail about its design and the sound it produced.

He then inserted the wooden tongue of the whistle into his nostril, and blowing down it, began a hornpipe, which, although not so shrill as when he played it with the mouth, was still loud enough to be heard all over the house.

This comparative description of the whistle’s loud shrill voice suggests a smaller instrument, which is consistent with reports of Clarke’s first model being in high G. This in turn implies that others made this size, which is still in common production. More significantly, Mayhew raises a question about what a whistle’s “wooden tongue” might have been. The wooden block in its mouthpiece is not a prominent visible attribute nor can it be characterized as a tongue. That would, however, be an appropriate designation for the flat bit at the upper end of a flageolet. It is seen on metal instruments into the 20th century, as this one in the 1904 Sears-Roebuck catalog.

The triple label Whistling Billy used for the instrument appears elsewhere and no less a figure than Charles Babbage complains about being disturbed by a “shrill … penny tin whistle,” in his autobiography from 1864. The overlap between whistles made of wood and metal is illustrated by two photographs of the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894). One provides the banner image for this post, taken from a posthumous biography. It shows him playing an English flageolet in bed — the antithesis of a noisy environment. The other shows him playing a cylindrical tin whistle (in a staged ensemble with people who don’t even know how to hold their instruments) and is included with the preceding photo in a recently compiled album.

Both cylindrical and conical tin whistles are currently marketed as flageolets, penny whistles, and tin whistles. Most makers now produce the cylindrical design, which also has archeological precedent. The Museum of Scotland houses the so-called Tusculum whistle, made of brass or bronze. It was found with pottery dating from the 14th and 15th centuries underneath the floor of a medieval house excavated in North Berwick in 1907. Here is a photograph from the museum’s online catalog.

Photo © National Museums Scotland

And here is one of its current display.

Stevenson’s affection for the instrument is reflected in a letter describing plans for giving the title The Penny Whistle to what ultimately appeared as The Child’s Garden of Verses. He adds to the long list of comparisons between it and a fife.

     Nor you, O Penny Whistler, grudge
        That I your instrument debase:
     By worse performers still we judge,
        And give that fife a second place!

One of the better performers, whom we’ve already met, is discussed in the 14 July 1860 issue of The Lancaster Gazette and went on to become the mascot of The Clarke Tinwhistle Company.

Whistling Billy, but he is now dead and gone poor man, attended all the [wool] clippings in the neighbourhood with his penny tin whistle, and before the dance began in the room where they had dined, he was delighting the company with different popular airs on his whistle. He could do anything with his whistle though it was often dry [i.e. in jest]; he could put it up one nostril and whistle as well with it there as if it were in his mouth.

Subscribe to this discussion
Notify me by email about
This will be displayed with your comment
This will not be displayed with your comment
Clicking the name displayed with your comment will redirect to this address

1 Comment
Inline Feedback
View all comments
7 June 2022 11:32

I have really enjoyed this article! I own several Clarke whistles, including the Original with the wooden fipple which can be moved around slightly to create a different tone, though I cannot imagine playing it through a nostril! Its interesting to find out how old these types of instruments are, in how many countries they are found, and the various slight variations in style and manufacture that can produce such a different tone. I have also heard the whistle played by professional musicians who prove that these simple folk instruments can be just as sophisticated in the right hands of a maestro like flautist Sir James Galway. He makes these instruments sing.