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The forgotten story of the Yorkshire choir that went on an ambitious world tour

The choir performing in South Africa.
The choir performing in South Africa.
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Stephen McClarence tells the largely-forgotten story of a Yorkshire choir that went on an ambitious world tour in 1911.

ay Midgley, a “Bradford Babe” made quite an impact when she joined a six-month world tour by a Yorkshire choir more than a century ago. The highpoint came at a concert in Toronto, when a soprano soloist suddenly fell ill and May stepped into the breach.

“At the end of the concert a tall, distinguished looking gentleman came up to me and said ‘May I congratulate you’,” she wrote home to her parents. She didn’t immediately recognise him, but after he left, she was told he was Sir Edward Elgar, the leading British composer of the day.

May ran after him and he kissed her hand. “We have all fallen in love with Elgar,” she wrote. “He is most charming (and) looks beautiful when he smiles... He is very reserved and stoops rather.”

It was the early days of an astonishingly ambitious 1911 tour by the 200-strong Sheffield Musical Union choir, regarded by Elgar as “absolutely the finest in the world”. They covered 34,000 miles and gave more than 130 concerts at 56 towns and cities all over Canada, the USA, Fiji, Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

May, in her early twenties, joined the tour with her friend Hilda Thornton (the other “Bradford Babe”) and wrote regularly to her parents, Samuel and Henrietta, who were leading lights in Bradford’s musical life. A bundle of her entertaining letters – two dozen of them, running to 45,000 words – has survived. Kept for years in an old shirt box, they’re now the basis of 12 Oak Avenue, a new book by the Sheffield-based musician Dr Christopher Wiltshire.

It throws a vivid, candid, often gossipy light on the tour, which would seem ambitious today, never mind in 1911. Sometimes travelling in a specially chartered train, the choir – recruited from Huddersfield, Halifax and Bradford as well as Sheffield – visited Niagara Falls, the Rockies, “Red Indian” reserves, the geysers of New Zealand and the South African diamond mines.

On long (and sometimes bilious) sea voyages, May saw any number of whales, albatrosses and flying fish. The smoking chimneys of Bradford and 12 Oak Avenue, her home there, must have seemed very far away. The cost – the equivalent of £6m today – was met by Dr Charles Harriss, a London-born, Canada-based philanthropist who had married a millionaire’s widow and dreamed of “binding the Empire together in music” (a bit too late for the US). He joined the tour as assistant conductor, bringing a cat and a talking cockatoo with him.

“The whole idea of this huge choir’s tour captured my imagination,” says Christopher Wiltshire. “What baffles me is how the whole thing happened. Two hundred people, 130 concerts, six months... how the hell was that done?”

The book project started after May’s great-great-nephew, Peter Dyson from Harden near Bingley, parcelled up her letters – which had been passed down through his family – and sent them to the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus, the Musical Union’s local successors. “May was quite a smart lady, obviously feisty,” he says (he never met her). “And the choir were the stars of their day, so we thought the letters might be of interest. They paint a picture of a long-lost world before television, commercial air flights, and the First World War.”

The Philharmonic’s archivist, Penny Webster, realised they were “a treasure trove” and contacted Wiltshire, a versatile composer, choral expert and adjudicator, who has worked at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, conducted the musical Chicago and collaborated with Marti Caine.

He already knew a great deal about the Sheffield Musical Union (later renamed The Sheffield Choir) and its charismatic and long-lived (1849-1944) conductor, Sir Henry Coward. Born in Liverpool, where his parents ran a pub, Coward started his working life as a Sheffield pen-knife maker’s apprentice.

Thanks to self-education, however, he achieved a doctorate at Oxford and gradually established himself as one of the world’s leading choir-trainers. He worked on the largest scale, conducting 30,000 people at Whit Sings in Sheffield parks and another 52,000 when Queen Victoria visited the city in 1897.

“He conducted choirs all over the North and Scotland,” says Wiltshire. “He would start the week in Glasgow, go down to Newcastle, across to Huddersfield, then Halifax, before finishing up in Sheffield, where he was at home on Saturday and then back on the train to Glasgow on Sunday.”

Preparing the book, illustrated with photographs and lantern slides from the tour, Wiltshire has spent many hours with the letters, which sometimes run to a dozen detailed, fluently written pages.

Most are on headed notepaper from the plush hotels where the relentlessly travelling choir stayed: the Hotel Grand Central (Sydney), the Hotel Ford,(Toronto), the Gillsy Hotel (Cleveland). The stock of notepaper at the Grand Hotel, Melbourne, must have looked pretty depleted after May left.

A gifted musician, who had studied in Bonn, she often wrote on train journeys or sea voyages. It must have seemed very novel to her parents in Bradford, to read: “We land in Honolulu this afternoon.”

Her first letter, written in March 1911 after docking in Canada, can hardly have reassured them about their daughter’s welfare and the joys of travel. “On Saturday morning nearly everybody was ill... Miss Jowett has been the worst in our cabin, she has been awfully bad... Mrs Bell looks just like a corpse... Isabel crawls about just like a little old woman... Hilda and I simply daren’t get up, the boat rocked so we heard terrible crashes of crockery...”

Her tone was conversational. “My word they did enjoy it,” she wrote after one concert. But when it came to musical standards, she pulled no punches. The philanthropic Dr Harriss composed a special piece for the choir – “a more awful thing you never heard,” wrote May. She described one tenor soloist as “very stuck up and nothing of a singer” and noted that a soprano “does look a freak”.

Not even the young Leopold Stokowski, starting out his great conducting career in Cincinnati, was spared as guest conductor of Verdi’s Requiem: “He is very clever but has a lot to learn yet.”

Elgar – joining the tour to conduct performances of his oratorio The Dream of Gerontius – was so impressed with Stokowski, however, that he arranged his debut with the London Symphony Orchestra. The composer – a great fan of the choir (“For fire, intelligence, dramatic force, they are electrical”) – was less impressed by the USA.

After a concert in Milwaukee, he wrote to his friend Alice Stuart-Wortley, wife of a Sheffield MP: “They asked me what I would take to settle in the States and conduct one of the big orchestras. I said nothing in the world would induce me to spend six months here – not 10 million dollars. This they do not understand.”

The choir subsequently made many records, including some of Gerontius. They were enthusiastically reviewed at the time, but now sound fustily Edwardian.

And what of May Midgley? Wiltshire speculates that with her obvious musical skills and keen intelligence, she would have made an excellent music teacher. But, apart from three return visits to Canada in the Thirties and Forties, her subsequent life is a mystery. And there are just two known photographs of her – one from the tour of her sharing a South African rickshaw with her fellow Bradford Babe (no-one knows which is which), the other as a seven- or eight-year-old on a faded studio portrait of the Midgley family.

As Peter Dyson, her great-great-nephew, says: “She simply disappeared without trace, just leaving these letters.”

12 Oak Avenue by Christopher Wiltshire: £6.50 (including postage and packing) 
from 0114 230 2401 (www.sheffieldphil.org).