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22 August 2011

Barnes & Mullins 'The Bowley' Ukulele

About 5 months back I decided to invest in an up-market ukulele. You can have a lot of fun with the cheap ones, but as with any musical instrument, you very much get what you pay for. I did a lot of research and finally settled on a Barnes and Mullins model called 'The Bowley'.

The Bowley Ukulele

Barnes and Mullins is a name that I first got interested in a year or so ago when I was living and breathing banjo-ukes. I had bought a few vintage wrecks and was trying my hand at a some restoration. In fact, thinking back, the whole reason I started this blog in the first place was to share some of the photos of those early projects. At the time, I remember ferreting around the internet trying to uncover a bit of the history of the instruments. I discovered that Samuel Bowley Barnes and Albert Edward Mullins were at the forefront of the British explosion of banjos and banjo ukuleles that happend in the 20s. Whilst they initially only distributed, I'm pretty certain that they did in the end manufacture instruments themselves, or had them especially made to sell. I never did manage to get my hands on one of their instruments at the time.

Make your own Uke Box

Here's a bit of history lifted from the Barnes & Mullins website:
In 1894, Mr Albert Mullins and Mr S. Bowley Barnes started “The Jo”, their famous musical instrument journal. Specialising in all things banjo, they soon began manufacturing their own banjos as well as importing many other instruments. The original Barnes and Mullins banjos are still sought after today, with collectors seeking them out all over the world. Sadly in 1914 at the age of 40, Albert Mullins drowned when the ‘Empress of Ireland’ sank on the St Lawrence River. He was on the home leg of a 2 year sales trip. Bowley Barnes continued the business thereafter, and what he had started with his partner years earlier in Bournemouth now moved to Rathbone Place, London. In 1976, Mark Barnes – son of Bowley Barnes – moved the business to Grays Inn Road, Bloomsbury. Sadly in 1986, Mark Barnes died. He was greatly admired and respected by employees and customers alike who were quick to tell of his fair and generous nature. In 1999, Bruce Perrin – a Director since 1986 – became Managing Director and moved the business from London to the current location - Grays Inn House - a modern 46000sqft warehouse and office facility in Oswestry, Shropshire. Bruce Perrin says “We are excited about the future and are constantly looking at ways to innovate and evolve, yet Barnes and Mullins has always endeavoured to put the customer at the top of its priority list”. As of July 2009, Bruce Perrin and former B&M Sales Director Brian Cleary successfully achieved a management buy-out of the Barnes family, bringing the previous 2 years of uncertainty to a positive conclusion. Perrin and Cleary now hold the positions of Joint Managing Directors and are looking forward to the new focus this reformed partnership will bring.

The 'Jo: A chronicle of banjo, guitar and mandoline news


Just in case it's of interest; I'm also including here a brief run-down of the major British banjo ukulele manufacturers of the late 1800s and early 1900s. All this was pieced together from snippets I read on the internet about a year ago, so don't take it all as gospel...
Barnett Samuel & Son (1819-1932) London
  • Owned subsidiary John Grey & Sons (1911-1932) London, which was subsequently sold to Rose Morris & Co
Rose Brothers (1919-1920) Birmingham & London
  • Sold 'The Savana' banjo ukulele
  • Company changed its name to Rose Morris & Co (1920-1964) before aquiring John Grey & Sons and changing its name again to Rose-Morris (1964-Today)
Alvin D Keech (1918-?) London
  • Sold 'Keech Banjulele Model A/B & C' banjo ukuleles
J G Abbott & Co (1905-1934) London
  • Company was sold to Bessons Co (?-1936) London
  • Made 'The Trumelo' banjo ukulele (production stopped 1940) for Barnes & Mullins and 'The Van Allen Banjo' banjo ukulele for Will Van Allen
  • Sold 'The Monarch' and 'The Abbott' banjo ukuleles
Samuel Bowley Barnes & Edward Mullins (1894-Today)
  • Sold 'The Trumelo' banjo ukulele
Will Van Allen (1926-1930) London
  • Sold 'The Revelation' and 'The Van Allen Banjo' banjo ukuleles
Reliance Works (1988-?) Birmingham
  • Sold 'The Reliance', 'The Melody' and 'The Mirabile' banjo ukuleles
  • Company changed its name to George Houghton & Sons (?-1962) Birmingham. Later the company closed and staff joined John E Dallas & Sons Ltd
John E Dallas & Sons Ltd (1905-?) London
  • Sold 'The Dallas Model A/B/C/D & E' banjo ukuleles
As you can probably tell, I'm quite taken by the history behind the instruments, so I was naturally intrigued when I stumbled across 'The Bowley'. It was obviously made to commemorate Samual Bowley Barnes, but as far as I knew, Barnes and Mullins weren't in the ukulele market; These guys were banjo players and the closest they'd got to ukueles was with their banjo-ukes. Well, it looks like ukuleles became part of the portfolio whilst they had their backs turned.

The official spec for 'The Bowley' is:
  • Solid Spruce Top - Antique Finish
  • Solid Mahogany Back and Sides (Update 03-Jul-15: I either got this wrong when I first posted this or the spec has changed over the years, but Bowley's being advertised in 2015 are claiming Spruce back and sides. If it matters to you, please check before you buy.)
  • Rosewood Fingerboard
  • High-Quality, Open Geared Machine-heads
  • Aquila Strings

The Bowley Ukulele

The instrument looks and plays great. For me, the clincher was the 'no-frills' design and the overall vintage feel. There are no fluffy inlays or those fancy polished wood effects that are all the rage at the moment. It looks and feels like a throwback from the early days. I love it... and you will too!

31 comments:

  1. The Bowley is a top little instrument. I was drawn in by the same vintage, no frills, old school look and feel of it. Love mine!

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  2. Hey ukulefty! Thanks for commenting. Yes... the Bowley is special. I don't play mine anywhere near as much as I should. I see from your blog that you've got an eleuke too! Spike your hair and check out http://ukeland.co.uk/

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  3. Just bought their new Calthorpe soprano. Was looking for a "bell" sound with plenty of sparkle and depth. It ticks all the boxes and looks beautiful as well.

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  4. Plot34! I missed the arrival of The Calthorpe! I'm glad you brought my attention to this. It does look like the Bowley with a few extra sparkles. I wonder where the name comes from? Now you've got me started! Ha ha. I am soooo easily lead ;-) Are you going to do a review for us then? Thanks for commenting.

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  5. wonder where the name "The Gresse" comes from to, love this uke but for the opposite reasons what with the spalted maple and inlays etc,If anyone knows I would be interested

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    1. The Gresse comes from Mr.B&Ms favorite haunt in London i believe, a restaurant i think

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    2. An excellent piece of trivia Brian. Thanks for sharing!

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  6. B&M are on a roll! I love the Gresse! It just works! A beautiful uke. Haven't got a clue where that name comes from.

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  7. you got the spec wrong according to SUS it was All Solid Spruce body
    Spruce Neck
    unless they B&M just change it now

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    1. I see the page you're referring to Anon. Either I got it wrong from the start or the spec has changed from when I wrote this in 2011. I'll stick an update in for people like you stumbling across this page in the future. Thanks for the comment.

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    2. great review and history background i ordered one and loved it thanks for the review and the superb video u did tiptoe from the tulips u got a good voice x

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    3. Thanks for the comment Anon, and even happier that you like you B&M. I'd forgotten about that video. It was sort of done as a dare that one. I almost pull it off ;-)

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIwOC2nYRig

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    4. And, no I can't type ;-O

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    5. You are all quite right on commending the Bowlly, it is a great uke but i do wish that they would build it with quality tuners, the collars are made of plastic för heavens sake, im changing mine to grover B2s friction tuners.

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    6. It's so nice to get a comment that isn't spam at the moment! Welcome to the club Brian. I saw quite a wonderful B&M 5-string banjo a couple of weekends ago in a shop in York. That one certainly looked like it had all of the bells and whistles in terms of hardware. They've got what it takes to make some absolutely top spec instruments for sure. I guess it is a trade-off against price at the end of the day. Look on the bright side though... It gives you a chance to pimp it and make it all your own! ;-) Ha ha. Thanks for commenting.

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    7. Ha ha yes you're quite right and pimped it shall be ...Greetings from Sweden and thanks 😊

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  8. I'm a novice just about to purchase his first ukulele.
    I tried the gresse concert at a shop and quite liked it.
    I'm after a sharp/attack sound, would you recommend it / suggest other models? many thanks! Luca

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    1. I haven't played any of the other B&M models Luca, but I'm sure this will be fine for you. I'm sure that you will experiment with string to get the sound you like. Go for it! ;-)

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  9. Thanks for the quick reply! out of curiosity would you recommend any other brand aside B&M? (I'm actually based in London so it very well depends on what brands would easily be available here!).
    anyway the calthorpe the bowley and the gresse all see nice choices!
    will keep you posted

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    1. I'm on US time, so my hours are all screwed up! Ha ha. I'm going to be controversial and recommend you consider a custom-built uke from a luthier. It will be a one-off, or part of a limited run that longer term will have more meaning to you. Plus, you help keep food on the table for an artisan! Just a thought. Doesn't mean that can't also have a factory uke too ;-)

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  10. Thanks, very good idea! will probably go down that route in the future.

    I couldn't resist and placed an order for the concert gresse, should arrive today. I also found your post about the wonderful books by the quiet american, will order some of their paperbacks today.
    Awesome.
    Thanks for your help
    L

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  11. It might be late to comment on this thread but I've just found it while looking for information on the Barnes and Mullins Gresse soprano ukulele. I bought one last week in Dublin. It is lovely to look at and sounds great. I read on the Barnes and Mullins site that it was named after Gresse Street in London's Fitzrovia district.

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  12. It might be late to comment on this thread but I've just found it while looking for information on the Barnes and Mullins Gresse soprano ukulele. I bought one last week in Dublin. It is lovely to look at and sounds great. I read on the Barnes and Mullins site that it was named after Gresse Street in London's Fitzrovia district.

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  13. Never too late ukalily. Welcome to the B&M club!

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  14. B&M's own website says that the Bowley has a solid spruce top, and solid spruce back and sides.
    http://www.bandm.co.uk/barnes-and-mullins-ukulele-soprano-the-bowley.html

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    1. It certainly does now... but did it always? ;-) I probably made a mistake somewhere along the line; Spruce would make a lot more sense...

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  15. The Bowley has always been spruce - I remember when they launched

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    1. Thanks for the clarification Barry. I must have made a mistake.

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  16. I have a 'bowley' it's awesome..sounds like the old days and has a very playable neck..

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    1. Sounds like a great endorsement my anonymous friend. Welcome to the club!

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