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William Wilkinson (1870-1950)


William Wilkinson was born on 22nd June 1870 in Swannington a few miles north-west of Norwich. His father was an agricultural labourer and William started off his working life on the land too. In 1893 he married Rachel Gifford (born and living in Cambridgeshire until 1891) and their first two children were born in Swannington. Sometime between 1896 and 1901 the family moved to Grantchester, south-west of Cambridge where William became licensee of the Red Lion for a short time (by 1904 there was a new publican). The 1901 census also listed him as a brewer’s drayman, a job he continued for the rest of his life, working for Bailey and Tebbut, which had been established in 1897 in the former Panton Brewery in Cambridge. In 1911 the family had moved but were still in Grantchester.


It’s not known when William took up the dulcimer – both the area where he grew up in Norfolk and the area he moved to near Cambridge had a number of players and makers in the vicinity at the same time as he was living there.

William’s grandson, Steve Wilkinson (son of Herbert Frank), remembered him playing for pleasure in Grantchester into the late 1940s, but he also knew that in earlier days William, together with some of his children, used to play for public functions, as a family band at weddings, fetes and so on. There was a family story that one winter the family had skated along the frozen River Cam, carrying their instruments, to play in Ely: skating on the frozen rivers was a popular and competitive sporting  activity in the Fens and perhaps it was also popular for more utilitarian reasons in the days when there were fewer transport options. William played by ear, and as well as the dulcimer, played the cornet and the bones – the latter skill being passed down to his son Frank and then on to Steve.


Steve had owned two dulcimers made by William – one small scale one, made specially for him when a child in the early 1940s, and later on, a full-sized one which thrown out by his mother when Steve was away on National Service in the mid 1950s, because it was full of woodworm!


William Wilkinson died on 8th February 1950.


Steve described William’s dulcimers as having a ‘signature mark of two Ws, one inverted’. He may have been describing the two upper soundholes evident in the photograph, which is a large instrument with five strings per course.

The occasion of the photograph is not known, but it probably dates from around 1920.



Photo descriptions & sources

Main photo: William Wilkinson (from Steve wilkinson)





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