Sam Sweeney’s Fiddle: Made in the Great War

Sunday 13th September saw renowned folk musician Sam Sweeney arrive in Barnard Castle to perform his fantastic show Sam Sweeney’s Fiddle: Made in the Great War.

The show tells the simple story of the life of Sam’s fiddle, bought in Oxford, 2009. It had all the appearance of a new instrument but the label inside gave the date 1915 and the name Richard S Howard. Research revealed that the violin had been made, but never finished, by a luthier and some-time music hall performer from Leeds called Richard Spencer Howard.  He had signed up in 1916 at the age of thirty-five and less than two years later fought at the Battle of Messines in West Flanders, Belgium.  His violin had been left unfinished in his workshop. The carved pieces of the fiddle lay in a manila envelope for nine decades until they finally made their way into the hands of Oxford luthier Roger Claridge who set about finishing the instrument in his workshop.  Over ninety years after Richard Howard began working on the fiddle it was finally finished and placed in Roger’s shop.

Through original music composed by Sam and his accompanying musicians Rob Habron and Paul Sartin and finely-crafted story, delivered by master storyteller Hugh Lupton – the quartet brought the story to life. Unadorned and without ego, the gathered facts of Howard’s life were fleshed out, taking the audience from his home life surrounded by family, friends, the music hall and his workshop in Leeds – to the front line, and in turn his demise.

I was lucky enough to be accompanied by The Cream Tees, Heart of Teesdale’s youth folk orchestra, who were all enraptured by the show, following the simple sounds and songs that were produced between the 3 musicians on fiddle, clarinet, harmonium and concertina. As we left the music hall (a highly suitable venue, given the context of the show), we noted there were few dry eyes in the audience – as the tale came to its unavoidable close.

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Lieutenant Oswald Walton of Bowes

One young man whose name is not on the World War 1 Bowes Museum Memorial is Oswald Walton. Although he lived in Bowes for a short time as a child, his family had a deep connection with the parish,at least to the middle of the 17th century. His father, Rev. John Milner Walton, was born at Lowfield, attended Bowes School, and, thanks to the Parkin Scholarship, went on to study at Pembroke College Oxford, eventually taking Holy Orders. He was curate at Bowes between 1894 and 1898, during which time he organised the fundraising for the Church clock, installed to mark Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. During the time at Bowes, Oswald’s brother Brian was born.

Lieutenant Oswald Thomas Walton of 18th Squadron Royal Flying Corps died on 12th April 1918, aged 24. At the time of his death his father was rector of Langton-on-Swale, Northallerton where the family had lived for a number of years.

 The 1901 census shows Oswald, aged 7, at Langton with younger brother, Guy. Oswald’s birthplace is given as Darlington but Guy had been born in Bowes, in 1896. By 1911, there are five children living at home. Brian the oldest is 19, born at Kirby Ravensworth, he was presumably away at school in 1911. Oswald’s birthplace is narrowed down to Croft Spa. Guy has been joined by a younger brother Alan aged 5, born at Langton. The year of Guy’s birth in Bowes coincides with a flyer, signed by his father, distributed around the Parish. Funds were being sought to erect a clock in St.Giles’ Church to mark the Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897.Oswald was a pupil at Worksop College and is remembered on the War Memorial there.

Oswald was buried in the H.A.C cemetery in Ecoust-St.Mein. The enemy positions from Doignies to Henin-sur-Cojeul, including the village of Ecoust, were captured on 2 April 1917, by the 4th Australian and 7th Divisions. This cemetery was begun by the 7th Division after the battle, when 27 of the 2nd H.A.C., who fell (with one exception) on 31st March or 1st April, were buried in what is now Plot I, Row A. After the German counter-attack near Lagnicourt on the 15th April, twelve Australian gunners were buried in the same row. Rows B, C and part of D were made in August and September 1918, when the ground had been recaptured by the 3rd Division after five months enemy occupation. The 120 graves thus made were the original H.A.C. Cemetery. However, after the Armistice graves were added from the battlefields of Bullecourt and Ecoust and from a number of smaller burial grounds, there are now nearly 2,000 1914-18 war casualties commemorated in this site.

By Ann Hughes