Arthur Nelson was more than a circus clown, he was also a fine musician. His circus, pantomime and concert act consisted of playing unusual musical instruments, his favourite being the “Rock Harmonicon”. Although Nelson in some advertisements claimed to have invented this instrument, this is unlikely. The likely ‘inventor’ was Joseph Richardson, a Cumbrian stone mason, who recognised that certain stones could be made to resonate when hit like a xylophone.


In 1827 he began collecting suitable stones, some as long as four foot six inches, laying them on a frame or bed supported by rope. It apparently took him thirteen years to perfect his instrument, and by 1842, his three sons were giving concerts around the country. Where Nelson obtained his ‘rock harmonicon’ is undocumented, but certainly by 1842, he was using it in his circus act. He continued to do so until his death.

The Boston Musical Gazzette described Nelson’s Rock harmonicon as:

“… an instrument ‘composed of forty rough pieces of stone, from the celebrated Skiddaw mountains, Cumberland, England — laid loosely on straw covered slats, and played upon with small wooden mallets, producing the most exquisite music, surpassing the piano and musical glasses blended.’ The tones produced from the stones, were good, although a slightly unpleasant sensation is produced upon the ear, from the fact, perhaps, that they cannot be so nicely tuned, as a violin or pianoforte.”

Richardson’s Rock Harmonicon can still be seen today in the Keswick Museum and Art Gallery see


Written by admatters