Arthur Tilley's family were dairy farmers and horse dealers in Surbiton, Surrey. He was introduced to the banjo in early boyhood by a friend bringing one to his home on a wet evening. The two boys amused themselves with the crude 7-string instrument in a harness room and as the banjo could not be taken away because of the pouring rain, Tilley had it in his possession until the next time his companion visted them. In the meantime he taught himself the three chords in C and, in addition, had picked up enough to make his friend jealous and take the instrument away in high dudgeon.
Having been bitten by the "banjo bug" and having no chance to buy an instrument, the young Tilley set to and made one. His interest in the banjo gradually increased and after hearing Huntley & Lee (of the Haverly Minstrels) play at a private recital in 1881, he discarded his 7-string home-made "tub" banjo and made himself a more modern five-string model which was the start of his venture into commercial banjo making. The census of that year has him as a "painter, musician & vocalist"
He established a workshop for making banjos and in 1884 was granted a patent for a banjo with a flange to take the tension brackets instead of the conventional shoes, preceding Temlett by four years in this connection.
At first Tilley banjos had only 16 frets (more than sufficient at the time) but when he became a recitalist at various concerts and exhibitions, in which he played solos of his own composition "in keys considered impossible on the banjo," he found the need for the full complement of frets and fitted them to all his instruments. He was awarded a First Prize Medal for his banjos at the Inventions Exhibition, Kensington, in 1885, and a year later he organised a group of six players who toured the whole of England and did much to advertise his banjos.
Tilley was one of the first in England to use a plectrum on the banjo. With Jack Thomas, Dick Edmunds and Arthur Creswick and calling themselves "The Riverside Quartet." they used to go on the river in a boat on summer evenings and play waltzes composed by Tilley in single-note four-part harmony which was most effective. Later they appeared at concerts professionally and packed whatever hall they appeared in. This success led to Jack Thomas starting "The Stavordales" (q.v.).
In 1889 Arthur Tilley started to make zither-banjos and in that year filed a patent for a zither-banjo in which the lower half of the hoop was made of wood and the upper half ("being called a bezel or cap") was of metal.
By 1894 his entire output was zither-banjos and it was said he exported to every corner of the world. In 1892 he had an accident with a lathe when a drill struck his eye and permanently impaired his sight, but Tilley zither-banjos continued to be made in their hundreds until the outbreak of World War I, while he was still living in Surbiton ( the 1911 census shows him incorrectly bourn in 1850)
Shortage of materials at the time appears to have forced him to give up the manufacture, for in 1918 he was working in an aeroplane factory. His instruments were always well made and have always been highly prized.
Images courtesy of Keith Knight