GM 1914

The First World War in Greater Manchester

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Graham Thomson Lyall Victoria Cross

Born in Chorlton on Medlock, Manchester on 8 March 1892 to a Church of England clergyman, by 1901 he was living with his family in Nelson, Lancashire.

On his 18th Birthday on the 8 March 1910 he joined the Royal Navy and was stationed on the Fisgard as a ‘Boy Artificer’, a Mechanical Training Establishment. He was discharged on 1 July 1911.

He emigrated to Canada when he was 20, arriving on 9 June 1912. His occupation was noted as a clerk but on he said he would be entering employment as an Engineer on his passenger records. While living in Canada he became a member of the Orange Order.

Three days after the start of the First World War he joined the 19th Lincoln Regiment in Ontario, Canada, before completing his officer training and eventually joining the 102nd Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. In September 1918, at Boulon Wood, Lieutenant Lyall was to win the Victoria Cross for leading his men in the capture of 185 soldiers, 26 machine guns and one field gun over the two days of fighting. His achievements show that he was clearly a very talented soldier and also a great leader of men. Below is the citation for his award that was in the London Gazette on 13 December 1918:

Lt. Graham Thomson Lyall, 102nd Bn., 2nd Central Ontario R.

‘For most conspicuous bravery and skilful leading during the operations north of Cambrai. On September 27th, 1918, whilst leading his platoon against Bourlon Wood, he rendered invaluable support to the leading. company, which was held up by a strong point, which he captured, by a flank movement, together with thirteen prisoners, one field gun and four machine guns. Later, his platoon, now much weakened by casualties, was held up by machine guns at the southern end of Bourlon Wood. Collecting any men available, he led them towards the strong point, and springing forward alone, rushed the position single-handed and killed the officer in charge, subsequently capturing at this point forty-five prisoners and five machine guns. Having made good his final objective, with a further capture of forty-seven prisoners, he consolidated his position and thus protected the remainder of the company. On October 1st, in the neighbourhood of Blecourt, when in command of a weak company, by skilful dispositions he captured a strongly defended position, which yielded eighty prisoners and seventeen machine guns. During two days of operations Lt. Lyall captured in -all 3 officers, 182 other ranks, 26 machine guns and one field gun, exclusive of heavy casualties inflicted. He showed throughout the utmost valour and high powers of command.’

After the First World War, he settled in Scotland, joining the Territorial Army and becoming a Major commanding the 3rd AA Division Workshop Company, Royal Ordnance Corps. By the time of the Second World War he was a Colonal on the General Staff in Egypt, where he sadly died of heart failure on 28 November 1941.


The London Gazette, 13 December 1918

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An Oldhamer in Dublin

This blog was researched by Roger Ivens from Oldham Local Studies and Archives, and is about the Dublin Rising which took place between the 24th and 29th April 1916.

Mr J. J. Roberts, an Oldham musician, has received a letter from his son, who is the drummer at the Dublin Theatre Royal, giving his experiences during the revolt:

I went to the GPO to get a postal order, when, lo and behold! I found the windows smashed and all the cavities packed full of mail-bags, with muzzles of rifles peeping out between, so I didn’t bother going in. On Easter Monday I went to see what I thought to be another big row, so common in Ireland. I had just left Sackville Street when I found myself looking down the barrel of a rifle held by a rebel, who ordered me to go back. Thinking the rifle was not loaded I silently proceeded on my journey with the nose of the barrel poking in my back. My indifference saved me, for had I blustered I should have become a target for more than one sniper. After visiting a dentist friend I retraced my steps and once more passed over the ground that had for some time been taken from the British. I revisited Sackville Street, which was then being looted by the mob, while the rebels held the ‘enemy’ at bay. ‘Sinn (pronounced Shin) Fein’ put in modern English means ‘ourselves’. You know what a wreck Sackville Street is. And it was such a fine street in which six trams can stand abreast. The GPO, of which only four walls remain, was a building Dublin people were rightly proud of.

I was going along Merrion Square when there was a report, and a bullet whistled past me: a lovely sound when there is no shelter. Before I reached the end three more whizzed past uncomfortably near. I don’t suppose they tried to hit me but whatever they were aiming at they were nearer to me than their object which struck me as being rotten shooting. A band of rebels made a mad move by ‘taking’ St. Stephen’s Green. The squares, of which this is one, are surrounded by houses. The invaders turned all the people out and then entrenched themselves. The trenches turned out to be the graves of many of the diggers, for all who were killed were buried there. It was child’s play for the military to storm the trenches from advantageous positions, using 600-shots-a minute machine-guns. In going towards Beggar’s Bush Barracks I saw a sight which made my heart bleed. A company of GR’s returning from a route march had been fired at by the rebels, who killed some six of the unsuspecting soldiers. The poor fellow had rifles but no ammunition, so had not a fighting chance: it was murder.

Tyler’s boot shop became a wreck in five minutes when the looters arrived. In fifteen minutes great emporiums, the finest in town, were made a heap of ruins. What could not be purloined was ruthlessly smashed. Women in shawls could be seen trying on patent-leather boots. Goods were taken away in sackloads and set out on some side street. God boots were then offered at from a shilling a pair upwards. I saw boys break into a shop and bring out an overcoat, which they offered for sixpence. Sackville Street seemed to be paved with clothing, hosiery, footwear, sweets, watches, clocks, jewellery, and things too numerous to mention. One redeeming feature was that if the goods had not been removed they would have been destroyed by fire later.
Oldham Chronicle, 19 May 1916

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Local Trooper’s Dublin Experiences

This blog was written by Roger Ivens from Oldham Local Studies and Archives, and is about the Dublin Rising which took place between the 24th and 29th April 1916.

In May 1914 Parliament passed a Home Rule Bill for Ireland, as a consequence of which Ireland was to have some form of self-government despite remaining part of the United Kingdom. Unfortunately due to the outbreak of the First World War implementation of the Bill was subsequently suspended. For some, however, home rule did not go far enough, and a revolutionary movement, the Irish Republican Brotherhood began planning what would become the Easter Rising.

The Rising, which broke out on 24 April 1916, was meant to take place across Ireland, but for various reasons took place mainly in Dublin. To the disappointment of the rebels the public did not support their cause, martial law was declared and within a week the rising had been crushed. Over 450 people were killed, 2,500 injured, and  much of Dublin city centre was destroyed.

Fifteen leaders of the rising were later executed by firing squad and 3,000 people were arrested of whom 1,800 were imprisoned without trial in England. This heavy-handed response by the British Government resulted in the growth of public support for the rebels and ultimately the movement for Irish independence.

After the rising began on Easter Monday the first troops to be used were those based in Dublin itself. The during the late afternoon and evening troops were moved from the largest military base in Ireland, Curragh Camp, by way of Kingsbridge Station. Among the troops despatched from the Curragh was Trooper Joel Taylor of the Duke of Lancaster’s Own Yeomanry, son of Councillor W. C. Taylor, of Shaw, near Oldham:

‘Since I received your last letter many things have happened in this most ‘distressing country.’…We were in Dublin not many hours after the first shot was fired, and we only came back on Tuesday. This letter will be censored, so I can tell you little of my eight days’ active service at present. At the moment I am standing to for a bit of special business. It has been devilish hot in Dublin I can tell you, and in one or two other places I have been out escorting ammunition and rations, and have heard and felt the bullets whizzing overhead though I was too excited to think of anything. Once when escorting ammunition – the stuff was loaded in cases on petrol lurries and we were on the top – I scarcely shifted the butt of my rifle from my shoulder for about 15 miles. We lay on our bellies, sprawled across the cases and we went like Hades. It would do you good to see these fellows drive. Another time the place where I was stationed was pestered with snipers one afternoon, the rebels shooting from the roofs and houses around.  You couldn’t tell where they were coming from. Bullets were flying around in fine style. Anyhow, a corporal in the lancers and myself were put in an offices at the top of a building. We had a window each. You should have seen my barricade! I put the window up about a foot, lifted a bucketful of coal on to the window sill and grabbed about six ledgers and then blazed away between them. We were being fired at from the roof and attic of a house about 300 yards away, and it was awkward to shift them. They had bombs made out of salmon tins and all kinds. Anyhow, the artillery dropped a shell through the roof and settled matters. I got plenty of guards and through the night it was a sight to see the great buildings burning. All the while the pop-pop-pop of the maxims and rifle and bombs going, and occasionally the artillery, but I had to keep my eyes skinned for snipers, as they seemed to be everywhere. I spent two nights on a fire engine. The last night I spent in Dublin I dined under the table in the Council Chamber of the Castle. The worst of it was we often got the wind up and had to turn out expecting attack. The only casualty in our lot was an officer shot in the ankle. We were most fortunate – ‘the lucky Duke’s.’ All the while we were there the weather was ideal. You would smile if you saw some of the rebels’ weapons – every description of rifle. They fired dum-dums. They had also got a lot of our rifles from somewhere. They emptied the pellets out of the ordinary 12 bore-cartridges and out bits of lead in their place and fired these and they had bayonets made out of old swords…’

Oldham Chronicle, 11 May 1916

British cavalry troops near the Four Courts in the days after Easter Week. (Image: Dublin Rebellion and Aftermath, Manchester Guardian History of War 1916. Full collection available at the National Library of Ireland)

British cavalry troops near the Four Courts in the days after Easter Week. (Image: Dublin Rebellion and Aftermath, Manchester Guardian History of War 1916. Full collection available at the National Library of Ireland)

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The Manchester Irish Volunteers in the 1916 Easter Rising

This blog was written by Robin Stocks, using sources from the Stockport Local Heritage Library and Archives. More details about a book Robin has written about this subject can be found at the bottom of this blog.

This is the long hidden story of the group of men from the Manchester area who, in the middle of the Great War, chose to go to Ireland and fight against the British army by joining the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.

It is a fascinating tale but one that had been lost to history and had only survived in rumours passed down in families.

Finding the truth became a detective story in its own right. My wife’s father used to tell us  stories he had heard about his cousin from Manchester who had been in the GPO during the rising, had been imprisoned and that he had died young as a result of hiding in ditches. He’d also been told that the family played some part in hiding deValera in Manchester when he had escaped from Lincoln prison. He did warn us, though, that none of it might be true as the family were such great story tellers.

That was a useful warning, but we were fascinated and, and over many years, tracked down  as many family memories as we could,  studied the archives, but only recently did we find the evidence proving that the  family rumours tales were  essentially  true as the Irish government began releasing  the pension applications of  those who took part in the Easter Rising. From these we discovered not only the story of my wife’s cousin Liam Parr, but also that he had been  part of a group of men from Manchester who all secretly travelled to Dublin to take part in a planned rebellion to proclaim  an Independent Ireland. These documents also showed us that that those who took part did not feel they could talk openly about their experiences for fear of being arrested for treason. Perhaps this explains why so few knew of the part played by Manchester volunteers in the Easter Rising.

Liam Parr as a young man

Liam Parr as a young man

This is the story that can finally be told. William (or Liam ) Parr, our relative, had been born in 1891 in a tenement  in Dublin  where he had become a bagpiper and Irish nationalist. He had links with Constance Markievicz’s youth organisation which was a republican alternative to the Boy Scouts. He moved to Manchester in around 1910 when he was 19. On the1911 census he was living with his aunt at 22 Tintern Avenue and working in a shop, possibly that of his mother’s family in Turncroft Lane, Stockport.  Through the Gaelic League he met Gilbert Lynch of Reddish, an active trade unionist who worked for the Reddish Spinning Company. Lynch helped organise the giant meetings when Jim Larkin and James Connolly came to Manchester to seek support for Dublin workers during the lockout of 1913.  With others Parr and Lynch formed the Manchester Company of the Irish Volunteers in 1914. This was a paramilitary organisation set up in response to the Ulster Volunteers who were opposing parliament’s plans for limited Irish Home Rule. On Sundays, members of the Manchester company would get ninepenny day return train tickets and drill and train on the moors.

When the War started, their drill instructor advised them to join up, saying, “the war wouldn’t last more than three months, and in the three months we would all be fully trained soldiers and be of service to Ireland.” Although very many Irishmen did volunteer for the British army, this group of the Manchester Volunteers decided to go to Dublin to fight for Irish independence rather than fight for the British Empire. As well as Parr and Lynch, there were two others. One was Larry Ryan of Tootal Street, Seedley. He had been born in Manchester but came from a strongly nationalist family who completed the 1911 Census form entirely in Irish. Before 1916 he worked as a clerk for J Roscoe and Sons who had a canal haulage business on the Ashton canal at Meadow Street Wharfs, Piccadilly. The other Volunteer was Redmond Cox of Warburton Street, Cheetham.  He’d been born in Ireland but had been living for the last nine years with his sister and working as a grocer’s assistant.

All travelled to Ireland in early 1916.  They would have done this in secret as they knew that they were liable to be conscripted in England and would have been arrested for treason had their plans been discovered. In Dublin, Larry Ryan and Liam Parr both joined about a hundred other ‘refugees’ (as they were known), from England and Scotland in the Plunkett family mill at Kimmage. Redmond Cox stayed in the Dublin family home of Martin Conlon who himself had family links with Manchester. The rising had been planned in secret and in the days before its intended launch, one of the leaders of the Volunteers, Bulmer Hobson, tried to call it off, as he believed it would be hopeless. He encouraged the official leader of the Volunteers to send out an order attempting to cancel all the plans. This caused huge confusion and led to the rising being delayed by a day and only going ahead with much reduced numbers. To stop him further threatening the plans, Hobson was held at gunpoint by the rebels in the house of Martin Conlon where Redmond Cox was also staying. We don’t know whether Cox was one of the men standing guard but he must have known what was happening as it was not a big house and Hobson was being  imprisoned in the front room  by men with rifles sat on the stairs. Hobson was released unharmed once the rising had begun although many of the rebels were extremely angry at him for jeopardising the plans.

On the very eve of the Rising Liam Parr introduced Gilbert Lynch to Sheila O Hanlon, a family friend, who was living in Dublin and was active in the women’s organisation of volunteers.  Gilbert and Sheila attended a ceilidh the evening before the planned start date of the insurrection and danced together until dawn, beginning a romance that would eventually lead to their marriage. The following morning Lynch and Parr heard of the attempted cancellation, but they soon also heard that the leaders had decided to go ahead anyway with the plans a day later than originally intended.

On the following day, Easter Monday, Parr and Ryan both marched to the GPO, Ryan stating that he was one of the first three to storm the building. Ryan was to spend the following week behind sandbags guarding the windows of the GPO, probably on the first floor.  Parr was sent across the road to buildings where the rebels were setting up a radio station to transmit news of the proclamation of Independence. He remained there until heavy fire forced them to retreat back to the GPO.

Liam Parr in his thirties in pipers' uniform. The badger's head sporran was characteristic of the James Connolly pipe band, but the photo would have been taken after he had moved to Manchester.

Liam Parr in his thirties in pipers’ uniform. The badger’s head sporran was characteristic of the James Connolly pipe band, but the photo would have been taken after he had moved to Manchester.

Redmond Cox and Gilbert Lynch were behind barricades near the Four Courts. Rebel forces numbered about 1500 and they were surrounded by about 20,000 much better armed men of the British army as well as by fire as much of the centre of Dublin burned out of control. When the rebels surrendered Parr, Ryan and Cox were arrested and imprisoned in Knutsford, Stafford and then Frongoch in Wales. Lynch had been slightly injured and was in hospital at the time of the surrender; he was spirited out by sympathetic medical staff so escaped imprisonment. Sheila O’Hanlon also served during the week in the Jameson’s distillery in Marrowbone Lane. At the surrender she was put in prison in Kilmainham gaol where the women heard the shots every morning as the leaders were executed by firing squad.

Gilbert Lynch was the only one who was able to return home. He spent the next few years in Stockport campaigning for Ireland and for workers’ rights as a member of the Stockport Independent Labour Party. He campaigned in support of conscientious objectors and then helped organise demonstrations in favour of the new Russian Revolution. He was also to take part in strikes among munitions workers and helped plan sabotage among workers who were repairing Crossley tenders for the notorious Black and Tans. The other Manchester volunteers stayed in Dublin after they were released, so they were there in the midst of the conflict with the Black and Tans.

Liam Parr travelled to England to help Lynch during the 1920 Stockport parliamentary election where they campaigned to elect an imprisoned Irish trade unionist to the Westminster Parliament. They did not expect to be successful, but used the election to gain publicity for the plight of Ireland. Parr sailed back to Dublin after the election. Here he was working for the insurance company which acted as cover for Michael Collins intelligence activities. It is likely that he was acting undercover because he was advised to ‘lie low’ after his identity was discovered in papers found in an attaché case captured during an army raid. This was at the time of the shootings in Dublin known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ and Parr returned to his family in Stockport.  His widow said his parent’s home in Upper Brook Street was raided and he was ‘knocked about from pillar to post’.

Meanwhile Larry Ryan worked as a merchant seaman on the ships between Liverpool and New York. De Valera was only one of the republican leaders who were smuggled across the Atlantic by sailors like Ryan. Many also carried weapons from America to use against the Black and Tans in Ireland. It was while attempting to smuggle arms that Ryan was arrested by the New York police and imprisoned there. He spent his sentence in the infamous Tombs prison in Manhattan, which was well known for housing gangsters during the prohibition years.

Redmond Cox worked in a Dublin mental hospital during the War of Independence. On one occasion when the hospital was raided by troops looking for Volunteers like Cox, they were thwarted when their intended victim had his colleagues lock him in the padded cell where he convincingly pretended to be a patient.

After the treaty, Redmond Cox stayed in Dublin and worked all his life in the same hospital. Larry Ryan worked as a clerk for the Irish Army, but his health never recovered from his period in prison in America and he died aged only 30 in 1924.

Liam Parr remained in Stockport and married a woman he had met in Manchester through the Gaelic League. He worked as an insurance agent and then as a plumber and became a prominent singer in his church. He had three children, the youngest of whom has given great help to this project. Liam however never fully regained his health and died in 1934 aged 41. His daughter said: “Perhaps if my father hadn’t died so young he would have written a memoir, but my mother said his memories of what had happened troubled him a lot, but time can bring about healing.”

Gilbert Lynch and Sheila O‘Hanlon married after Sheila was released from prison after serving another term during the Irish Civil War. They settled in Dublin, had children and Gilbert worked as a trade union official, eventually becoming President of the Irish TUC. He and Sheila returned to Stockport every Christmas to see his parents, and presumably his old friend Liam Parr who had introduced them to each other. Gilbert and Sheila both died in Dublin at the end of the 1960s. Lynch recorded some of his memories as an old man, and his family have helped us tell this story.

While doing our research we discovered eye witness accounts of many of those who took part in the events of 1916.  It has been wonderful to read these and to be able to see the events of that time through the eyes of those who were there. The story becomes so much more vivid when we can hear the participants recounting the ‘unimportant details’ such as eating an extra big breakfast before climbing on the roof to face snipers or having to serve food with bayonets. To be told of a man stuffing his handkerchief in his mouth so his commanding officer would not hear his teeth chattering makes his experience feel very real.

I enjoyed hearing women in the GPO arguing with Padraig Pearse when he told them to leave the burning building before the men; “You told us we were all equal- what about women’s rights?” they demanded of an obviously shaken Pearse.

We’ve only been able to tell this story because of the memories that have been passed down within families.  We have spoken to some of the relatives of Liam Parr and Gilbert Lynch but haven’t been able to track down anyone with family stories of Larry Ryan or Redmond Cox. We feel there must be others who have heard tales about their relatives from Manchester who took part. Perhaps, like us, people have heard stories but didn’t know whether to believe what they had been told. There might even be others who took part that we haven’t heard about.  We have found that family rumours can be more accurate than the history books, which had never mentioned anyone from Manchester taking part, so we know that family stories should be taken seriously. We would love to hear from anyone with memories to share.

We have produced a website and are adding new information to it as it comes to light:

and a book:
“Hidden Heroes of Easter Week- Memories of volunteers from England who joined the Easter Rising” by Robin Stocks.

Hidden Heroes of Easter Week will have a stall and give a talk at Manchester Town Hall on June 11th 2016  all day  for Manchester Histories Festival, Celebration Day.

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Michael Balling: The Hallé’s Pioneering Pre-War Conductor

The First World War most commonly evokes scenes of battle. Images of casualties. The home front. The Soldier poets. Poppies. Remembrance Day. And so much more.

What is perhaps rarely shed light on is how truly all-encompassing the effect of this “war to end all wars” was – how it also had a dramatic impact on the lives of people that did not lose family members, or experience the trenches, or work in a munition factory – or were not, in fact, involved in the war in any active capacity at all.

In the case of Michael Balling, German conductor of Manchester’s famous Hallé Orchestra, we find one such example.

Orchestras are often highly international organisations, musicians frequently having to leave their home country in order to find work abroad. The Hallé itself was founded by a German, whose name it bears to this day: Carl Halle from Westphalia, born in 1819 into a musical family, who anglicised his name to Charles when he came to England after the revolution of 1848.

This German tradition continued with Hans Richter, who was conductor from 1899 to 1911, and further with Michael Balling, whose undoubtedly great contribution to Manchester’s – and indeed Britain’s – musical history forms the bedrock of this story.

When the First World War broke out at the beginning of August 1914, and therefore near the end of the summer break, a great many of the Hallé Orchestra members were scattered all over Europe, visiting their families and friends. Michael Balling was one of them. In the correspondence that has survived from this time and the anxious months and years that followed, his letters from and to Gustav Behrens stand out due to the quiet, but nonetheless heart-wrenching drama they contain.

Gustav Behrens (1846-1936) can be considered one of the most influential businessmen of his time, certainly in Manchester. His father was Jacob Behrens, who in 1838 had been the first textile export merchant to be established in Bradford and soon after set up business with his brothers in Manchester, which Gustav (Jacob’s eldest son) joined in 1871. For his charitable and educational work, through which he improved many aspects of society, Jacob Behrens was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1882.

Gustav very much followed in his father’s footsteps. Not only was he director of Midland Railway for 45 years, he also had great interest in Manchester’s cultural progress. In 1896, he and two others founded the Hallé Concerts Society, and he was its chairman from 1913-1924. In his obituary, the Manchester Guardian wrote that “no man did more than he to add ‘sweetness and light’ […] to the rather grim philosophy which governed Manchester’s development. He was an example of the good European.” It is therefore not surprising that he and Balling became good friends, as the rest of this article will confirm.

After Hans Richter had given up the post of conductor in 1911, it was decided to have several guest conductors over the following season, before eventually appointing someone new. One of these guest conductors had been Balling, who is often referred to in the literature on the Hallé as Richter’s protégé – but it was certainly Balling’s idealistic approach to devising concert programmes and his excellence as a musician that recommended him. As Michael Kennedy writes in The Hallé Tradition: A Century of Music,

“Balling had made his name in Manchester before he took over the Hallé […] by his conducting of the city’s first performances of The Ring in English. […] By giving Edinburgh The Ring before any other provincial city had heard it Balling made musical history in Britain.”

Professionally, Balling was not someone afraid of risks or adventurous enterprises, as his biography reveals.

Portrait of Michael Balling (1913)

Balling was born to poor parents in Heidingsfeld-am-Main in 1866, but was able to follow his musical talent by means of scholarships. In his lecture on Balling, held at a Viola Congress in Kronberg, Germany, on June 11 2003, Donald Maurice recounts that Balling was intended by his father to become a shoemaker, butwon entry to the Royal School of Music at Würzburg as a singer. As a violin student of Hermann Ritter (1849-1926), he won a viola-alta as a prize and was encouraged to take up this instrument as a serious pursuit.” The viola-alta is a larger version of the viola, and Balling quickly became a fervent advocate, preferring it to the standard viola. He is even said to have pioneered it as a solo instrument in the UK. Eventually becoming the youngest member of the renowned Bayreuth Orchestra, Balling apparently made his solo debut when another player missed his cue. From his back seat, Balling broke the silence and played the part himself!

An extraordinary career had begun. As Maurice further notes, “Balling’s rapid ascent in the orchestra led on to invitations to Wagner’s house, where he became acquainted with the important musical personalities of the day, musicians such as Hans Richter and Humperdinck.”

Then, in 1893, a new opportunity arose: the Harmonic Society of Nelson, New Zealand, was looking for a new conductor. The man this position was offered to, a German called Schultz, had second thoughts. Balling, said to have been recovering from a nervous breakdown at the time, knew Schultz and offered to go in his stead.

Though Nelson was generally considered to be quite a cultured town, Balling soon found that sport was undoubtedly the main event. Nevertheless, his first performance playing the viola-alta, thereby also introducing the instrument to New Zealand, met with a spell-bound audience and raving reviews.

But more importantly, for Balling, Nelson presented a chance to do some pioneer work. Having befriended two influential townsmen, the plan to found a conservatory after the German fashion was soon conjured up and set in motion. Accordingly, in his two years in Nelson, Balling made a remarkable contribution to the cultural life of the city. The Nelson School of Music exists to this day and their website recalls that “Balling made a strongly favourable impression on all who met him.”

Much the same thing can be said for Balling’s cultural impact on Manchester.

“On June 10, 1912, at the annual general meeting of the Hallé,” Michael Kennedy recounts in his book The Hallé Tradition, “tribute was paid to Balling for the zeal with which he had started on his duties.”

A zeal that clearly did not abate over time. Moreover, the eminent music critic of the Manchester Guardian, Samuel Langford, wrote of Balling’s first performance with the Hallé that “the society has hardly ever, to our knowledge, given a finer concert.” Amusingly, Balling called Langford simply “Esel” in his letters, due to the initials “S.L.” sounding like the German word for “donkey”!

Also, Balling’s zest for reform and improvement was reflected in the fact that “[h]e was the first Hallé conductor publicly (on 29 November 1912) to call for municipal aid to the concerts; he ensured that the orchestra was paid a six-month salary instead of a fee per concert; and he advocated the building of an opera house in Manchester, with a resident company to serve Liverpool, Leeds, Bradford and other centres.”

It thus becomes apparent that Balling was not an idealist with his head in the clouds, but rather a pragmatic visionary. C.B. Rees (One Hundred Years of the Hallé) writes of Balling that “he had the highest standards; did not believe that great art should be judged by its success or failure at the box-office; and he expressed his views in uncompromising terms.” Kennedy agrees: Balling “saw the post of permanent conductor as Hallé himself had done – not merely as an orchestral position but as a medium for spreading the gospel of fine music to as many people as possible.”

From his letters to Gustav Behrens, it seems that Balling was very happy in Manchester and would never have left his post voluntarily. On 30 December 1914, he writes from his “home” in Partenkirchen, amongst the Bavarian Alps:

“Wether this letter reaches you or not – that I dont know but I will send it off by the way via Oldenzaal. I hope you and your family all are quite well also your brother and sister in Bradford. We should like so very much to hear from you how you all are – and how things are going with the Hallé Society. – Some time ago I had a letter from the sister of Willy Cramme wherein she told me that the Concerts were going on allright and that Manchester was just as usual – I was very glad to hear that – but naturally I should like to hear a little more about it – especially about the ??? – and about the choral concerts etc. – please do write and tell us something about it all – if you have time to do so. […] – of course I know it is allmost impossible to send letters – but still I think it is easyer to send a letter from England as to England. – We had so far a very mild winter and a very pleasant one as far as weather is concerned – of course here amongst the mountains very little can be heard and seen of the great doings out in the world and it is allmost as if all is but a dream – but now and then one sees an officer or soldier who stays a week or too here for a rest. An old english colonel stays here in P. with his daughters and I see him sometimes – he quiet aggrees with me – if one is unable to be activ it is best to be far off from it all. – I nearly was going to america for this season but when I heard that it was not very safe travelling I thought it better to stay at home with my wife and let music as a profession for this winter anyhow be other people’s doings […]. Poor old Richter [Balling’s predecessor in Manchester] gets very old and he now and then writes very silly letters to the Newspapers – “Newspapers” I never was a friend of them but now I think they are villany itself – I wonder how your “Esel” (S.L.) gets allong now? […] how long ago it seems that I played Billiards at Holly Royde [=the Behrens’s home in Manchester] – I wonder whether that happens again?”

Unfortunately, Behrens could not give Balling much hope. In his letter from 20 July 1915, he replies:

“The times, as you rightly say, are terrible. The loss of life all round apalling… Noone could ever have thought that civilized nations would tolerate a continuance of such wholesale slaughter, which affects not only present but future generations. We here are all well, I am glad to say. My three eldest sons are serving in one army + my youngest is in Serbia, assisting the Serbian Relief Committee. My sister in Bradford will be very pleased to have news about you + the […] family. I am sending your letter on to her.

Now as to business: Even if it were possible for you to come here, I fear that feelings of nationality, which unhappily affect even artists, make it impossible to resume old + cherished relations. You are of course perfectly free to enter into engagements in America as it would, under the existing circumstances, be unreasonable to bind you to your English contract.”

In fact, Balling’s place was – and probably had to be – filled very quickly. In an editorial article entitled “The Need for Music”, published in the Manchester Guardian on 9 September 1914, the pragmatic approach towards the new vacancy is revealed:

“The essentially English character of our orchestras will be demonstrated by the negligible difference which the war will make in their constitution. Mr Balling’s absence will be chiefly felt but a season of guest conductors, chiefly British, will be by no means unwelcome, and will help towards a more just appreciation of their merits. […] The days are surely not so far distant when the foreign conductor, except as a guest, will be as superfluous here as in Germany itself. In the choice of music, a moderated ambition will be wise and generally acceptable. We do not abate at all our general advocacy of contemporary music, but at the present moment music a little removed from the turmoil of affairs will give us the best relief from the strain of them. It will be found, too, that music this year must not be for the adept only, but for the populace. The emotions of the people are much stronger and more warmly welded together than in normal times, and they need an art which will provide them with a common expression. […] …granted the necessary dignity, the simpler our music can be the better.”

In other words: the course that Balling had taken with his programmes, slightly – but not overly – challenging the musical tastebuds of the British public, was to be, if not abandoned, at least suspended. The claim that Balling’s and other musicians’ absence made no real difference to the orchestra is an expression of unhidden nationalism and, though deplorable, hardly surprising. Although it is of course true that the orchestra, the concerts and Manchester in general managed to go on without him, Balling himself certainly was not able to leave his life in Manchester behind. His letter from 2 February 1916 is indeed, as Kennedy simply puts it, “[a] sad letter.” Balling enquires after various (former) members of the orchestra, and goes on to say that

“I am hard working in the garden – by and by I forget alltogether that I am or was a musician! well potatogrowing is perhaps a more usefull thing to do than to conduct the Orchestra! – Will you kindly remember me to all of your family also to Forsythens, the Hallé committee but not to S.L. and Brand Lane [= a “rival” orchestra in Manchester] […] Today two years ago I was at Bradford! – it seems to me 10 years! – but I must no longer trouble you and the Censurer and therefore better finish up […]. With kindest regards I still remain and allways shall do so – Yours very sincerely

Mich. Balling.”

Apparently, Behrens and Balling kept in touch throughout the years, but Balling would never return to England. His career continued to prosper in Germany, but he was not forgotten in his former adopted home. A ‘London Letter’ (regularly sent ‘By Private Wire’ from 149 Fleet Street, EC4) published in the Aberdeen Press and Journal on 13 June 1925, entitled “An Operatic Suggestion”, proposes Michael Balling for the post of conductor at the prestigious Covent Garden Opera House:

“…Covent Garden has always been both international and cosmopolitan, and there is no reason why we should not have an international and cosmopolitan conductor. Why not Michael Balling? For years he has been conductor at Bayreuth, with the Wagner tradition at his fingers’ ends. He has played and conducted in Australia, was Sir Frank Benson’s chief d’orchestre, and last, but not least, succeeded Dr Richter as the conductor of the Hallé Orchestra, and was a popular personality in the North of England. A man of great geniality, with an intense admiration for everything English, Balling has always been persona grata with both orchestra and singers, and would seem ideally fitted for the Covent Garden appointment.”

I could not find any hint as to whether Balling was indeed ever considered for this position, but even if he had been, it would have been too late. Having become the conductor in Darmstadt in 1919, where he stirred up the usual concert repertoire just like he had done in Manchester, he died there only six years later, at the age of 59, on 1 September 1925 – and thus not even three months after the above letter was published. Obituaries were published in several British newspapers, amongst them the Manchester Guardian, who gave a lengthy account of Balling’s travels and various professional engagements.

However, the story does not end there!

21 years and another World War later, a letter to the editor appeared on 5 November 1946 by no less than John Barbirolli, one of Balling’s successors as conductor of the Hallé, containing a touching appeal to Manchester residents. He had received a “moving letter from the widow of Michael Balling, whom many of your readers will remember with affection as a very talented conductor”, telling him that her husband’s prized possession, the concert programmes from his time with the Hallé, had been lost in the fire that destroyed their house in Darmstadt during the war. Barbirolli asks the readers to send any programmes they may have kept from Balling’s seasons on to him so that he in turn could send them to Mrs Balling, who, like her husband, “had valued [them] highly and hoped [they] would be a reminder to their son of a beautiful past.”

This was met by a wonderfully enthusiastic response, and two months later, another letter from Barbirolli quotes the heartfelt reply he got from the very moved Hertha Balling, thanking him and the readers. She wrote:

“This again proves to me that the spiritual bonds are the strongest of all, outlasting even the evil of such a deadly war.”

Even if Balling’s time as conductor of the Hallé was sadly curtailed, his life’s plans falling victim to the arbitrariness of war, it cannot be denied that Balling had a lasting effect on the people of Manchester and the city’s cultural life. His concern for music and musicians alike, as well as for the advancement of the cultural life of a city, be it Bayreuth, Nelson, Manchester or Darmstadt, make Balling a man ahead of his time. Who knows what more he could have achieved in a more peaceful age.


This blog post was researched and written by Carlotta Dewald, a volunteer at Archives+.



Aberdeen Press and Journal – June 13, 1925.

Entry on Balling in the Darmstadt City Lexicon

History of the Nelson School of Music

Kennedy, Michael. The Hallé: 1858-1983: A History of the Orchestra (Manchester; Dover, NH: Manchester University Press, 1982).

—. The Hallé Tradition: A Century of Music (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1960).

Maurice, Donald. “Michael Balling 1886-1925 Pioneer German Solo Violist with a New Zealand Interlude”

Rees, C.B. One Hundred Years of the Hallé (MacGibbon & Kee, 1957).

Sir Jacob Behrens & Sons Limited: The First 150 Years

The Manchester Guardian – 9 September 1914; 5 September 1925; 5 November 1946; 4 January 1947;

WWI Letters from the Hallé Orchestra

Wikipedia: Portrait of Michael Balling



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George Victor Furnish

This Blog was written by Cynthia Hollingworth, a volunteer with Trafford Local Studies


Amongst Trafford Local Studies’ archives is a small collection of one man’s personal memorabilia.  Its creator, George Victor Furnish, kept certificates of his parents’ marriage, his own birth and his mother’s death, as well as two small presentation items: his mother’s communion certificate and what was obviously a gift from his father to his mother before their marriage.

Harriet's communion certificate


Resignation book

While all these things open a tiny window for outsiders to see into the family’s lives, there are other things which are specifically related to the First World War.

George Furnish snr. married Harriet Harrop in Hulme on 1st August 1896, and their son, George Victor, was born on 4th August 1897.

Furnish family group

The Furnish Family

The censuses show that he was their only child, and he seems to have remained a bachelor, living in the family home on Chorlton Road, Hulme, until the early 1960s.

George Victor served with the Loyal North Lancs. Regiment in the First World War, and was clearly an accomplished artist.  He created an album of photographs taken during that time, with autographs of his friends, and also his own delightful pen-and-ink sketches.

Sunbeam car

Lady, fur collar

Red Cross ambulance

Other photographs also show George in his army uniform, and would indicate that he was promoted eventually to sergeant, although his medal records list him as Private Furnish.

Raw Recruit

Raw Recruit






He may have been wounded or gassed in 1918, as there is also a photograph of him with a group of men in convalescent uniforms.
Convalescent group

The fact that he had been transferred to the Labour Corps by the end of his service would seem to bear that out, and he has some autographs bearing the address ‘Haigh Lawn’.  This was a Red Cross hospital in Bowdon during the First World War, so these may have been staff and a fellow-patient.

Cynthia Perkins' autograph

Haigh Lawn autograph

He was still serving with the army in early 1919, in Lechelle, on the Somme, and there is a contemporary account, in a letter from 2nd Lieutenant J. F. Pomeroy to the O/C 35th Labour Corps, of an incident involving Sergeant Furnish:

Pomeroy letter 1

Pomeroy letter 2

The letter describes how Sergeant Furnish and his companion, Private Wisher, were walking in the woods when they spotted 3 recently-escaped German PoWs.  In spite of the fact that the Germans were big men, and armed, while they themselves were neither, they gave chase, and eventually overpowered and captured the fugitives.  A note in the margin shows that the heroes were awarded 14 days’ special leave for their efforts.Woods photo

George Victor Furnish died in 1969, but his little collection still breathes life into the history of just one man amongst so many others.


G V Furnish

George Victor Furnish



TRA294 – Records of George Victor Furnish (Trafford Local Studies)

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John Readitt Victoria Cross

John Readitt was born in Clayton, Manchester on the 19th of January 1897 and lived there for the majority of his life. He was the middle child of John and Hannah Readitt.

By the time John was 14 he was an assistant Clogger in his father’s shoe business. They lived above the shop on Ashton New Road, Clayton. John was a keen footballer, playing in the Manchester Sunday School League, and he must have been thrilled when his father told him that the business had signed a contract with Manchester United that meant for the next ten years they would make and repair their players boots.

When John enlisted on the 12th April 1915, aged 18, his profession was listed as Bootmaker so he had progressed further in the family business. He was assigned to the 6th Battalion of the South Lancashire Regiment. His Battalion moved to Egypt in February 1916 and then to Mesopotamia. On the 25th of February 1917 at the Second Battle of Kut, he won the Regiment’s second Victoria Cross of the War.

The London Gazette of the 5th July 1917 told the tale of how he won the prestigious honour:

‘For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty when working down a broad, deep water-course. Five times he went forward in the face of very heavy machine-gun fire at very close range, being the sole survivor on each occasion. These advances drove back the enemy machine guns, and about 300 yards of water-course was made good in an hour. After his officer had been killed Private Readitt, on his own initiative, organised and made several more advances. On reaching the enemy barricade, he was forced by a counter-attack to retire, giving ground slowly and continuing to throw bombs. On supports reaching him, he held a forward bend by bombing until the position was consolidated. The action of this gallant soldier saved the left flank and enabled his Battalion to maintain its position.’

His heroics were also described in the Empire News dated 8th July 1917 in less formal and rigid language:

‘Here the enemy counter-attacked, but in spite of the fact that the enemy concentrated on him a deadly fire and every sniper in the Turkish ranks seemed to be shooting at him, Readitt never abandoned his so-as-you-please style of retirement. Whenever the enemy pressed him too closely he would just turn and let them have a bomb, which scattered them in all directions. Finally he was joined by another bombing party and then he made his most determined stand. Under his leadership, the bombers drove the enemy back once more, and after a fierce fight the whole position was captured and consolidated. The Turkish commander whom we captured later in the day, said he had never seen anything finer than the way that stripling (Readitt is only 20 years of age) had stood up to a whole army.’

As a result of his bravery he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant and officially received his Victoria Cross from George V on November 26th 1919 at Buckingham Palace.

After the war John spent some time in the Horton War Hospital in Epsom suffering from influenza as part of the wider Spanish flu pandemic that infected 500 million people across the world between 1918 and 1920, thankfully John survived and returned to Manchester and started working for the family business again. He was a modest man and rarely talked of his bravery but he did visit Hyde Park in 1956 for the event to mark the Centenary of the Victoria Cross.  He died in 1964 and is buried in Gorton Cemetery.




Lancashire Infantry Museum

The London Gazette 5th July 1917

Empire News 8th July 1917



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