1786: a time when Mozart was alive, George III was King, and Samuel Potter was enlisted in the Coldstream Guards at the age of 14. Samuel published a piece for two fifes and bugle in 1800 and married in 1802, in St George’s Hannover Square, the church made famous by George Frederic Handel. In 1810 he was able to realise his dream of starting a musical instrument company when first son, Henry, was born. Samuel was already a very big figure in Royal and military music but, as an officer of the British Army, he was forbidden to form a company. However, his plans were obviously well-laid and instead he started the company in the name of his newborn child, on his very birth date.

The company started as specialists in drums, fifes and bugles quickly establishing itself and soon diversifying into other areas of music and the Military. In 1817 Samuel was given the title Sergeant and Drum Major and later that year left the army to pursue his business full time immediately publishing his Manual for Drums, Fifes and Bugles.

Advert for Henry Potter & Co. kettle drums
Advertisement for Henry Potter & Co. kettle drums 'as supplied in sterling to the Royal Horse Guards'

Expanding the Potter Name

The expanding business necessitated moves to three premises around Westminster, but it was not until well after Samuel’s death, in 1836, that Henry Potter moved to its famous shop in Charing Cross in 1860, where it was to remain for many decades.

The Potter family tree is full of interesting, entrepreneurial characters and dynamic, engineering inventiveness was strongly passed down. Take William Squire Stevens, for example, one of Henry’s many grandchildren from his seven children. Squire was the first man to use ether as an anaesthetic in England, in 1846, and such was the importance of this that “Squire’s inhaler” can still be found in the Science Museum today.

Harry and William, two of Henry’s sons, carried on running the company, and a third, George, went with one drum maker, to Aldershot to open a new branch in the High Street, later to move to what became known as “Potter’s Corner”. As it remains today, Aldershot was one of Britain’s most important military towns and with the London market nicely taken care of, George went there to exploit pastures new. Starting initially as Henry Potter in Aldershot, the companies split officially around the mid-1850s, with a developing rivalry that became fierce, but always friendly and productive.

The nearest Potter's ever got to large-scale manufacture was when fifteen people were employed assembling brass instruments. Despite various busy periods, the Potter family deliberately avoided mass production, preferring instead to concentrate on highly specialist products in niche markets.

Flutes Letter from W G Dunham Massy, Lieut-Col Commanding 8th Lancers Drums Trumpets

Continuing the fine tradition

George Heath and Bill Allen are the crucial link in the chain from Potter’s origins to the present day, having spent their entire working lives with Potter’s as drum maker and paintwork specialist respectively. Both were born right at the start of the 1900s, and therefore contemporary with Henry Potter’s grandchildren. They worked for some forty-five years until the business moved full-time to Aldershot in 1970, where they were responsible for passing on their experience to the young trainee, Pete Woods.

As the new boy, Pete was introduced to all the trades, which at that time were usually kept very separate. As and when required he worked in the three departments; the "drum shop", the "flute shop" and the "bugle shop", picking up the broadest range of skills from such great traditional craftsman as Heath, Allen, and the mainstay of the metalwork shop, Harold "Smudge" Smith.

Henry Potter & Co. Ltd continues to focus on specialist products, meaning that the company can stay true to the ideals of tradition, reliability and excellence that have made its name.