Henry Handley was born in 1839, the son of a bricklayer, and was initially apprenticed to the glove industry. However, he soon showed a prowess for violin making and eventually chose this as his career, only retiring from work in 1927 – just four years before his death in 1931, at the grand age of 91. He was still a member of the Cathedral Orchestra up until his 86th year.
His workshop and home was next to Worcester’s historic Lich Gate off College Street and opposite the Cathedral.
Handley is believed to have been a friend of Worcester composer Sir Edward Elgar – not surprising really, as he repaired violins for the Elgar family music shop just round the corner in High Street and as the composer began his working life as a violin teacher.
It is testimony to Handley’s meticulous and painstaking craftsmanship that during his very long life he made just 106 violins, 10 violas and two cellos. He struggled with varnish and some of his early instruments show signs of blistering, but he obviously went on to master this process too in his later creations. His instruments have a tone described as ‘silvery’.
City historian, the late Bill Gwilliam, in his book Worcestershire’s Hidden Past, says Henry Handley “plied his craft in a quaint little workshop, surrounded by a delightful clutter of odds and ends of instruments and implements.”
It was in his 80th year that Handley completed his 100th violin, and he went on to date his last instruments by putting inside this verse:
Neath the shadow of Worcester Cathedral tower
I worked on his fiddle for many an hour,
In my eighty-third year I fashioned the whole,
Now it needs but a player to bring out the soul.
Henry Handley’s home and workshop next to the Lich Gate was among the many properties pulled down in the mid-1960s to make way for the Lychgate shopping development.
There is an example of Handley’s work in the city collection and currently on display in the museum gallery at Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum. This was purchased with support from the V&A Purchase Grants Fund.