Here at The Centre for Cultural Collections we are all too aware of how our records can fire the imagination. We witness it every day from customers who search our census returns, trade directories, newspaper reels and archives in an attempt to create links with the past. They develop a glazed look while babbling excitedly about great-great-grandmothers they never knew existed and about great-uncles who fought in The First World War. I can empathise. It’s really hard not to let your mind get carried away when you have in front of you a document from 100 years ago; a written signature becomes a hand belonging to an arm attached to a body and before you know it you feel like you’ve come face-to-face with Albert or Harold, Mary or Martha.
Curiosity spurs you on! Who were these people? How did they dress? How did they speak? What did they feel?
That’s what Folk musician Sam Sweeney aimed to find out when, in 2009, he began researching the origins of a violin bought from a music shop in Oxford. It appeared brand new but the label inside read 1915 and the name accompanying it was Richard S. Howard, Harehills, Leeds. Records revealed that Richard, a music hall performer and luthier, had carved the pieces for the violin but had left it unfinished. He was conscripted in 1915 and died two years later while fighting with the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment at Messines Ridge.
Marvellous things happen when genealogical research collides with creativity and talent! Sam Sweeney and fellow musicians, Paul Sartin and Robert Harbron, alongside professional storyteller Hugh Lupton, created an unforgettable multi-media performance: Sam Sweeney’s Fiddle was a wonderful tribute to mark the centenary of the outbreak of The First World War. I was lucky enough to get to see the show last Thursday at The Met, Bury.
The tour has now ended but you can learn more about Sam Sweeney’s fiddle on his website, Made in the Great War. And if you want more information and guidance on researching your own family’s military history please contact us at The Centre.