IT is often said that music has the power to cross geographical and cultural boundaries and bring people together, but violinist Sam Sweeney has found that it can also touch someone’s life.
In 2008 Sam, who plays violin and English bagpipes with award-winning folk band Bellowhead, had just finished his A levels and been awarded some funding to further his musical career. He decided he would buy himself “a really lovely instrument” with the money and went to a specialist stringed instrument shop in Oxford run by Roger Claridge. “I tried thirty or forty fiddles that day,” says Sam. “Then I narrowed it down to just one – I sort of fell in love with it.” He was impressed by the instrument’s sweet sound and the fact that it was in perfect condition.
When Sam got home he looked at the maker’s certificate and was surprised to find the words ‘Richard S Howard, 1915, Harehills, Leeds’. “There wasn’t a mark on the instrument and I wondered how a violin that was more than 90 years old could look like it had never been played,” says Sam who was sufficiently intrigued to get back in touch with Claridge. It transpired that he had bought the pieces of the violin at an auction in Manchester in 1993 – all the parts were in a large manila envelope but they had never been glued together. They sat in Roger’s workshop for a few years until he had time to set about finishing the violin and once it was completed put on sale in his shop. Sam was hoping to find out more about the instrument’s origins but unfortunately Roger didn’t know anything more about its history.
“There was obviously a mystery there from day one,” says Sam. “But I was only 18 at the time and it didn’t occur to me to investigate further.” Luckily Sam’s father Chris is a keen genealogist, so he decided to delve deeper and a fascinating story began to emerge. He found Richard Howard in the 1901 census where at the age of 18 he was listed as working as a stonemason, but by the time of the 1911 census he had become a music hall musician. In the meantime he had married Martha Rayton at Wrangthorn Parish Church at Hyde Park Corner in Leeds in 1906 and the couple had a daughter, Rose, later the same year. “After that it took a lot more investigating to find out what happened to him,” says Sam, “but we started to piece his life together over the next two or three years.”
Chris discovered that Richard had joined the army in 1916 at the age of 35 – as part of the 10th Battalion Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment – although it is not clear whether he volunteered or was called up. His entry into the army coincided with the May 1916 extension of military conscription which enabled the army to call up married men who, until that time, had been exempt from the draft. “We found out a bit more about him from the regimental diary,” says Sam.
The following year he was sent to the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge, a few miles south of Ypres in Belgium. It was occupied by German forces and General Haig ordered its capture. Preparations for the ensuing battle took several months and involved mines being laid under the German positions on the ridge. Early on the morning of June 7, 1917 the mines were detonated, followed by intense artillery bombardment which allowed the infantry, including the 10th Duke of Wellington’s, to advance and take the ridge. The battle was considered to be a success for the Allied Forces – their objectives had been achieved and there were relatively few casualties – but sadly Richard Howard was among them. He was one of seven men from his battalion who were killed during the fighting. Through the Commonwealth Graves Commission, Chris found out where Richard was buried in Belgium – and that might have been the end of his story.
“Then, about 18 months ago I was approached by the English Folk Dance and Song Society and asked what I would do if I were to put a project together,” says Sam. “I knew I wanted to tell this story so I got in touch with storyteller Hugh Lupton and told him the bare bones of it. He jumped at the chance and wrote an incredibly powerful piece, then I got two other musicians on board and we also got some funding from the Arts Council. Amazingly, in the last few months we have managed to track down some of Richard’s living relatives – who didn’t even know he made fiddles.”
One of those is his granddaughter Mary Sterry, Rose’s daughter, who lives in the New Forest and has been in touch with Chris. “I am completely overwhelmed by it all,” she says. “All I knew about my grandfather was that he had died in the First World War. I knew nothing about what he did – I didn’t even know his first name. I grew up in the 1950s and at that time the older generation didn’t really like to talk about anything in the past – that was the way it was and you just accepted it.” She is delighted that Richard’s story, and that of his violin, is finally going to be told through the spoken word and music. “I just think the whole thing is magical,” she says. “It is as if the past has reached out – it is so exciting.” The show is on a nationwide tour in September and includes a night at Leeds City Varieties, where Richard may very well have played in the early years of the 20th century.
“The Leeds show is the one I am looking forward to most because of that connection,” says Sam. “And a couple of months ago I went to Belgium and visited Richard’s grave to play the violin to him. I just felt that by taking the fiddle back to him, the story had come full circle – it was a very moving experience.”
* Made in the Great War is at City Varieties on September 18.