Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Ukulele Me!

2011 is the tercentenary of the invention of the uke...
As you all know, Whitehaven (West Cumbria) is world famous for its Ukulele Industry. Thousands of ukes are manufactured here every year and shipped to all corners of the globe. Less well known is the story of how the industry started 300 years ago in a small, Cumbrian seaport and tragically, how Whitehaven ultimately lost its world monopoly on ukulele construction...

Picture, if you will, a stormy night in 1711. A Whitehaven coal picker and part-time fiddle player is combing the beach looking for er.. coal. His name is Eustace Keith Lillie, known to his friends as 'Eu K Lillie'. Bobbing, in the spumy foam, he spies a blackened, semi-circular husk and thinking it potential fuel for his fire, casually places it in his coat pocket. The mystery object is in fact
half coconut shell which has miraculously circumnavigated the globe thanks to the power of the Gulf Stream. Later in a bizarre violin/coconut/tavern accident the 'U K Lillie' (named in his honour and, over time, transformed to 'ukulele') is miraculously born.

For over fifty years Whitehaven held the monopoly on ukulele construction and distribution. The methods and materials of the Ukemasters a closely guarded secret. There is a certain irony in the fact that the secret of the ukulele was stolen by one of Whitehaven's own sons, the treacherous John Paul Jones on the night on April 23rd 1778. No, not that John Paul Jones, this John Paul Jones.

This cowardly attack by
American revolutionary forces on British soil, was in every sense of the word 'rubbish'. However during his brief stop for 'refreshments' at a quayside tavern, Jones manged to steal a prized Whithaven Uke.

John Paul Jones returned to America via
Hawaii, then an independent kingdom, which, fortuitously for Jones, had aspirations of four-string world domination. Jones managed to arrange an audience with the King who, delighted with the melliflous sound of the
ill-gotten ukulele, purchased it for the amazing sum of $1000. The rest, as they say, is history...

Today the volume of Whitehaven's ukulele production has long been eclipsed by that of Hawaii, However, the uke cognoscenti know that the greatest ukuleles available, continue to be lovingly crafted (out of plywood and ice lolly sticks) by skilled craftsmen in a certain small, coastal port in West Cumbria.

A closer look at the town plan reveals Whitehaven's ukulele heritage writ large in sand and cement.

Horse-drawn wagons once carried their precious cargoes Northwest down Uke Street to the aptly named 'George Formby Dock'.

Here stevedores worked day and night on 'Tiny Tim Wharf (North)' loading the ships that would distribute Whithaven's 'musical jewel' to eager customers around the world.
Today the picture is very different. A few Ukemasters remain in their unique 'Uke Sheds' positioned at intervals along the quiet quayside. This is indeed a tranquil spot, the silence punctuated occasionally by the bustle of tourists who flock to the Beacon Ukulele Experience. This flagship development was opened by HRH Prince Charles (a noted ukulele exponent) in 2001, in celebration of Whitehaven's elevation to World Ukulele Heritage Site status.

'Tiny' Tom Thompson, proud custodian of Whitehaven's 'Ukulele Experience'.


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  2. I do soooo love this article! Have shared it so many times! :-)