Folk musician’s new album has poignant link to tragic First World War hero from Leeds

Sam Sweeney plays the violin next to Richard Howard's grave at Ypres in Belgium.
Sam Sweeney plays the violin next to Richard Howard's grave at Ypres in Belgium.

They were lovingly crafted by a music hall performer from Leeds during the dark days of the First World War.

Richard Howard, from Harehills, had worked as a stonemason before taking to the stage and he showed his practical side by personally cutting the parts of a new violin in 1915.

Richard Howard.

Richard Howard.

But the instrument was never completed, as Richard joined the Army in 1916 and died the following year in Belgium at the Battle of Messines.

Its parts were finally assembled after an Oxford-based violin repairer bought them at an auction in 1993.

And now, more than a century after Richard began work on it, the violin has been used on a new album by acclaimed folk musician Sam Sweeney.

It features music that was popular around the time of the Great War, including The Rising Of The Lark, The Girl I Left Behind Me and The Wellesley.

The latter piece has special significance for Sam, as last year he played it on the completed violin in a performance at Richard’s grave at Ypres.

Held on the eve of the 100th anniversary of his death, the performance was attended by dozens of people, including Richard’s granddaughter, Mary Sterry, who read a self-penned poem in his memory.

Sam said: “Playing that tune over Richard Howard’s grave was incredibly emotional. We were all just stood there sobbing.

“He was unknown, no one knew anything about him, no one would ever have visited his grave, and all of a sudden there I was playing his fiddle to him.”

Speaking about the long-forgotten violin’s new lease of musical life and the part it has played in telling Richard’s story, his granddaughter, Mary Sterry, 74, from Hampshire, said: “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.

“I just think the whole thing is magical. It is as if the past has reached out – it is so exciting.”

Sam’s album, The Unfinished Violin, is out now and can be purchased from Amazon.