Thomas Haxby and Banks

The following description is available as spoken word in the 'Listen' section.

Banks Musicroom at 18 Lendal was one of the most popular music shops in York. At the time of its closure in 2023 it was the UK’s oldest musical retailer still trading.

Banks Musicroom on Lendal in 2022.

The first music shop in York was opened in 1756 at the sign of ‘the Organ’ on Blake Street by Thomas Haxby, a ‘singing man’ and organ tuner at the Minster. Before Haxby opened his shop, musicians would buy their printed music and musical supplies from stationers. Appetite for music-making in the home increased significantly across English society in the eighteenth century, which resulted in a higher demand for musical instruments and sheet music.

Haxby was well-placed to respond to that market - his shop was entirely dedicated to selling music, musical supplies, and musical instruments of his own manufacture and that of others.

Haxby is now considered to have been one of the most important provincial instrument makers of his day. A square piano which he made in 1792 can be seen (and sometimes heard) amid the Georgian finery of Fairfax House. Two similar pianos, a harpsichord, and a violin all by Haxby are in the Castle Museum.

Square Piano in Fairfax House made by Thomas Haxby in 1792.
Image courtesy of York Civic Trust.

In 1788, Thomas Haxby passed his music shop on to Samuel Knapton, who eventually moved premises in 1803 to a shop on Coney Street and went into business with his son, Philip. In turn, the business was passed down to Knapton’s apprentice, William Hardman, in 1829, and then on to Hardman’s apprentice, Henry Banks, in 1855. This was the start of the Banks family business.

Portraits of Samuel Knapton (left) and Philip Knapton (right).
Images courtesy of York Museums Trust.

Banks became an internationally recognised name in music, and the family were known by many as rather memorable characters. Gillian Sowray, who had a summer job at Banks (then located in Stonegate) in the 1970s, recounts what it was like to work for Miss Janet Banks, who ran the company from 1960 to 1980:

It was very chaotic. If you were an organised sort of person and wanted routine and regularity, it wasn’t the place for you. You had to be prepared to muck in, do anything and never mind the chaos behind the scenes. Miss Banks was very eccentric, but very nice with it. You either got on with her or you didn’t, which is why some people didn’t reign very long.

She was not very tall, short grey hair, national health glasses and always wore a suit, and usually a tie. Smoked like a chimney which was quite worrying if she fell asleep in her office. When I say office, there wasn’t a desk, it had a fairly high counter but with no counter space free, and piles of music, she’d carry everything with her in baskets.

Quoted in Van Wilson. Stonegate Voices (York: York Archeological Trust, 2009), p.144.