Sitting on the stoep of “Weltevreden” in Noordhoek with Bill Selway Robson it is easy to be transported to a different time and place. The house is a reconstruction of an 18th century Cape Dutch house, built around the remnants of the old farmhouse. A great black woodstove warms the kitchen in winter and in the main rooms stately harpsichords and pipe organs made by hand by Bill wait to be played. Four stringed instruments hang on a wall, one of which is a 5-stringed ‘cello piccolo, a type of instrument used exclusively by Bach!

The "Bach 'cello" and other musical insturments repaired by Bill Robson

This unique cello – most cellos being played with four strings – was found in 1975 by a tramp going through residential garbage cans in Paarl. He recognised the battered instrument as a musical one and took it to a musical family that he knew. It ended up in Bill’s hands for restoration and to his wild joy he discovered that “the method of attaching the neck was typical of 18th century makers in Saxony- where Bach live and worked all his life! “  A just legible hand-written date on the label reads 1707, “which was just when Bach started writing his famous church cantatas, for which he needed a specially tuned ‘cello with 5 strings”! Because the instrument has been so intensively repaired it has no monetary value, but its historical value cannot be denied. How wonderful  it would be to know how the instrument came to be in Paarl in the first place.

Horses chomped on the still greenish plums on the tree nearby while we spoke of Bill’s passion for instruments of long ago and for the music that was written to be played on them. Despite the fact that he had his hand strapped up having broken a finger in a fall, the sound that he produced was, truly, music to my ears.

Bill comes from a very musical family. His father was of Scottish ancestry and played the bagpipes. Both parents sang in choirs, his mother singing with Kathleen Ferrier, a famous professional contralto. She was also a very good pianist. Bill learnt to play the piano at the age of five and from the age of twelve played the oboe. His desire to learn to play the organ was thwarted by his headmaster, Bill being punished for a misdemeanour. He eventually taught himself to play  when in his twenties.

Bill Robson in his workshopSoon after Bill’s birth in Pretoria his parents moved to the Natal South Coast where his father built a hotel, never having built anything before. Seven years later the family moved to England. Bill was put into boarding school which he hated and so chose to leave school after completing his O – levels to take up an apprenticeship at Bristol-Siddeley, a company which made the engines for the Concorde and later became part of Rolls Royce. His three year diploma entailed working in the workshop for six months of the year and attending college for the balance. At the end of the course he was encouraged to study electronics, a very new field of study in the early 60’s. He was awarded a three year scholarship to Southhampton University, but he only spent two years at the university , as he was credited with a year for his diploma course. It was with great reluctance that he left university, having thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere and the musical activities in which he was involved, but Bristol Siddley wanted him back.

When he came across an advertisement for a research post with Plessey UK, Bill applied for the post and was appointed. The company’s laboratories were housed in a converted English mansion in the Hampshire countryside and the young scientist thrived in the beautiful surroundings working on what was then a top secret project- a desktop computer! He could have worked there for the rest of his life, but the decision was made to move the laboratories to Poole, a move Bill did not wish to make. So, when Plessey SA was seeking researchers, he left England to settle in Cape Town where he had a “great field work job” working on a navigational system for the South African Navy. When a managerial decision was made that he should work in the labs in Plumstead, Bill decided it was time to quit. An outdoor man he could not be confined to an office. At the time he had just completed work on a spinet that he had been making in his spare time and before he knew it he started getting orders.

NAPAC ordered a harpsichord and the orders therafter kept rolling in. Despite the fact that he did not want to give up electronics, he never went back into the field. In the 1970s there was a boom in early music with many people seeking old instruments. At the time there was one person in Cape Town repairing violins, a nonagenarian, Victor Feinberg. Bill bought a textbook on violin making and started to build and repair violins and other instruments. He had to learn as he went along, grateful for his ability to learn from books, many of which were extremely old. In 1965 the first book ever published on making harpsichords hit the shelves, the craft previously having been passed on from master to apprentice. The harpsichord itself only came back into fashion at the beginning of the 20th century after 200 years being in disuse, when Playel created a “harpsichord” for the famous polish musician Wanda Landowska.  Today, these Pleyel instruments just look like curious grand pianos  –  and they don’t sound at all like harpsichords!

Bill Robson playing one of his harpsichords. Painting done by a friendThe new harpsichords that were being built were based on the piano, and according to Bill produced a terrible sound. An eccentric Englishman, Arnold Dolmetch, who made the first modern harpsichords in England,  built three “Beethoven pianos”, one of which was especially made in 1900 for Cecil John Rhodes for his home on the Groote Schuur Estate, where it still stands today. This piano was made of special wood and the casing designed by Sir Herbert Baker. After the death of Rhodes it was never played until the De Klerks moved into the State President’s residence. Wishing to hold a concert in her home, Marietjie de Klerk called in a series of piano-tuners to tune the piano, but no-one wished to touch it – they did not like its sound! Bill was called in to do the job and he has remained the curator of the instrument ever since.

“It took fifty years for harpsichord makers to realise that you don’t re-invent the harpsichord… you copy what the experts had made in the earlier centuries.” The author of the book published in 1965 drew and analysed old harpsichords. Convinced that the author was on the right track, Bill bought his book and also went to London to play on antique instruments, furthering his understanding of the harpsichord,  before moving to South Africa.

Now needing his own workshop and not wishing to live in the city he moved to Joostenberg farm which had been in the Myburgh family since 1691. The farmhouse was built in 1756 and has the oldest dated gable the Cape, the date 1670 is the date that the farm was established.. There is a bell on the farm that is older than the bell at the Castle.

When he got married in 1976  he bought small farmhouse between the Strand and Somerset West, dating from the early 20th century,  and then in 1980 bought a smallholding on the outskirts of Greyton for the grand sum of R6000. Greyton had no electricity so Bill, ever enterprising, set up a solar charger, a wind charger and ran a small generator for half an hour every two days so that he could do the heavy cutting and his wife the washing! The instruments were all made by hand, just as they were in the 18th Century.

Always fascinated by old buildings, Bill bought the farm in Noordhoek twenty five years ago. Having designed the extensions himself he also installed the beamed ceilings, made the windows  and doors and and did most of the ironwork – the metal fittings – in between his instrument building. He was on the spot when the new Catholic Church, St Norbert’s in Kommetjie, was being built. Fr Smeets, who was the resident priest at the time, had ordered a 17th Century organ from Belgium, but the Belgian government refused to allow it to be exported. He turned to Bill and so between 1992 and 1996 Bill built the biggest pipe organ he has ever built, (by hand, in his workshop at Noordhoek) consisting of 1000 pipes of which Bill crafted a quarter.  He became the church organist for the next five years, putting the money he received into the chapel restoration fund. Between 1998 and 2003 he organised at least a hundred concerts in the church with local and foreign artists, at one time working with Simon’s Town’s Dr Stephen van der Merwe (See who still conducts concerts in the church.   The  acoustics in the church are of the best – no carpets, no curtains and a reflective ceiling all contributing to this. Bill also holds regular concerts at his home.

Bill has self-published a book.” Midnight Mess and other stories”  is full of humorous and instructive anecdotes about his life as a passionate music maker and instrument builder, father of four, farmer and husband.

And, talking books….While reading Quarter Tones by Susan Mann I could not help wondering whether I recognised Bill in the story. Indeed I did!  Bill was interviewed by the author while she was doing research for her very enjoyable novel which is set in Noordhoek.

After 2 1/2 hours with Bill I left with his “Midnight Mess”  tucked under my arm and a sense of there being far more stories to hear from this fascinating and talented man.

For more aabout performers and musicians in the Scenic South Peninsula see