Henry Potter



Henry Potter was just one of many flutemakers working in London in the middle of the 19th century.  Not as famous as Nicholson, Rudall & Rose, Boehm or Pratten, he is often confused with the earlier but seemingly unrelated William Henry Potter.  Although Henry died on 31 August 1876, his company still continues under his name.  It moved from West St London in 1970 to the same premises as George Potter in Aldershot. It is still going as Henry Potter & Co (drums) Ltd as it was in 1956 when the late George Potter made both companies Limited.

Henry Potter was born in 1810 (the same year as John Clinton) into a family with a solid musical background.  Henry’s father Samuel Potter (1772 - 1838) had enlisted in the Coldstream Guards at the age of 14 in 1786, and eventually by 1815 had risen to the rank of Regimental Drum Major.  Samuel completed 30 years service with the Guards and resigned from the army in 1817 to set up a workshop located in King Street, Westminster for the purpose of making drums and wind instruments.  Samuel seems to have concentrated on instruments with a military band connotation, such as drums, bugles, fifes, horns and trumpets. He actually wrote several published treatises, one being a method for playing the fife (1815) and the other being a manual for drums, fifes and bugles (1817).

Samuel’s son Henry (1810 – 1876) presumably learned about instrument making from his father, and continued the business after his father’s death in 1838.  By 1841 he was well established as his father’s successor, with premises at 2 Bridge Street, Westminster.  He continued in his father’s footsteps as regards the making of military instruments, but appears to have had a strong interest in flute making as well.  Clearly he must have quickly built up a good reputation as a flute maker, since otherwise it is inconceivable that John Clinton would have entrusted the manufacture of the early Clinton-system flutes to him, in particular the 1851 Exhibition model.  Henry Potter remained in the instrument business all his life, and his company remained active until around 1950.

Henry’s son George also participated in the family business, relocating to Aldershot in 1859 at which time he established his own firm of George Potter & Co.  This firm focused very much on military band instruments.  This company bought the London Potter firm (see above) in 1918 and remained active up to 2007 when it ceased trading.

Interestingly, it has not been possible to trace any connection between the above Potter family and the “other” famous Potter flute-making dynasty of Richard Potter (1726 – 1806), his son William Henry Potter (1760 – 1848) and his grandson, Cipriani Potter of the 1851 Great Exhibition Jury. It thus seems that there were two unconnected families of Potters engaged in wind instrument production in London at the same time.

There seems to be good evidence that Henry Potter was a well respected maker.  Professor John Clinton made use of his services to develop and build the flute which we have studied at Clinton 1851 Flute.  But here we look at a flute in Potter's own right.

A Henry Potter flute

From the Charing Cross address, this flute dates from between 1858 and c1895.  It's a very standard 8-key, in the large-holed Nicholson's style, but with the benefit of many years more refinement.

The first thing that may be apparent from the image above is that the head (and to a lesser extent, the foot) are coloured differently from the body.  Indeed, they appear to be rosewood, while the body appears to be cocus.  The barrel is a recent replacement in blackwood. 

Fortunately, these differences in colour are not apparent under normal light.  The parts are all (saving the barrel) stamped Henry Potter, so the seeming mixture of woods may have to remain a mystery.

Also unusual is the embouchure is drilled on the "plank" cut (tangential to the tree's growth rings).  Most flutes of the period appear to be radially drilled.

Playing qualities

So, how does it play?  Very nicely.  It's not the biggest style of flute (such as the Prattens Perfected), but more like a large-holed Rudall and Rose.  That gives it a nice balance of volume, with a hearty bottom end and a willing second octave.  Third octave is good too, and viable at least up to C''''.

Usefully, the flute works well at A440Hz, apparently without flat foot syndrome.  As we'll see, that's not quite the full story.


Examination using our "Best Pitch" approach confirms that, while the flute is capable of reaching pitches as high as 461, it is indeed at its best around 440 Hz.

Running through the most responsive indicators:

  • low octave pitch tilt - best at 437Hz
  • 2nd octave displacement - 440Hz
  • low foot notes displacement - 442 Hz
  • mid foot notes displacement - 444 Hz
  • break note continuity - 451 Hz

These are reflected in the averaged deviations:

Note that although the flute is at its best at 440Hz, it is only mildly compromised at high pitch (452).  Has Henry Potter deliberately produced a flute for all seasons?

Note also the unusual response of the foot notes (both graphs).  While earlier flutes showed pronounced flat foot syndrome, the Henry Potter's foot is marginally sharp at 440, sharp at 452 and best around 442Hz.  And while most flutes show a less flat C, an intermediately flat D and very flat Eb and C#, the Potter's D is its flattest note.

Conclusion and acknowledgements

A fine late 2nd generation flute in the grand tradition of the London makers.  Effective absence of flat foot problems and flexible tuning useful across the range of pitch in vogue would have made this a very desirable instrument.

My thanks to flute owner, Melbourne flute player Andrew Le Blanc, for permitting this analysis and publication.

My thanks too to flute researcher Adrian Duncan for biographical information on Henry Potter, and to Pete Wood of Henry Potter & Co for recent history of the company.


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Updated: 15/1/2016