Whistle belongs to a group of woodwind instruments called “fipple flutes” (fipple is the term still used today to describe the block in the mouth piece that constricts the air to produce sound). Originally called “vertical flutes”, they were made of bone or clay. In the 17th century, the term “Flageolet” was used to describe a fipple flute with four finger holes on the front, and two thumb holes on the back.
Whistles were (and still are) called by many different names, including Fipple Flute, Vertical Flute, Flageolet, Tin Whistle, Penny Whistle, Tin Flute, Feadóg Stáin (Irish name) and others.
Early in the 19th century, English-made whistles started to appear with the six finger hole arrangement that we see today (also some with the traditional thumb hole and keys). In 1843, Robert Clarke of England made the first “Tinwhistle”, borrowing the design from a wooden whistle that he owned. The Clarke Tinwhistle Co. still produces whistles today (see more about the Robert Clarke Story on the Original Clarke Tinwhistle Page in our Online Catalog).
In the 1950’s the plastic mouthpiece was introduced, and a cylindrical (straight tube) was used to replace the traditional conical (tapered) bore of whistles like the Clarke.
The Low D Whistle was introduced about 25 years ago by Bernard Overton of Overton Whistles. It has grown by leaps and bounds in popularity since this time, and continues to be a highly sought after instrument.
No one seems to be quite sure how the term “Penny Whistle” originated. It is generally thought that Robert Clarke originally sold his tinwhistles for a penny, or the term was used because people used to throw pennies to whistle players in the streets as they played.