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Archive - Wednesday, 19 March 2014

. Battered Darwen banjo key to a Great mystery

Lancashire Telegraph: Photograph of the AuthorBy Gill Johnson »

IT’S a case that even a retired Canadian deputy police chief is finding hard to crack.

Lancashire Telegraph: Alec Somerville with the banjo at the Canadian War Museum.  Picture courtesy of the Canadian War Museum.Alec Somerville with the banjo at the Canadian War Museum. Picture courtesy of the Canadian War Museum.

But the answers to the puzzle inside a 100-year-old banjo, believed to have survived in the WWI trenches, lie here in East Lancashire.

So 83-year-old Alec Somerville has asked Bygones readers to help him solve the mystery.

It all began two years ago when Alec, who was a northern lad before emigrating to Canada — he now lives in Donegal — bought this rather battered banjo from a man in Darwen who had found it while clearing out an old house.

He originally had the idea of restoring the instrument but the writing on the back of the skin head made him investigate.

Lancashire Telegraph: A close-up of the signatures inside it. Picture courtesy of the Canadian War Museum.A close-up of the signatures inside it. Picture courtesy of the Canadian War Museum.

It showed a date, Paris, Aug 24, 1917, alongside 28 names of Canadian soldiers.

But then there were six other names that relate to Darwen and Blackburn, one dated 1928 and another from 1982.

These read: Mary Walsh, England, 1928; Annie Walsh; J Walsh, Darwen, England; Joe Walsh, Blackburn, another which is difficult to read but is in similar handwriting and then Stephen Bromley, aged 14, 1982.

Said banjo-playing Alec: “There are several mysteries here, such as who owned the banjo and what were the soldiers doing in Paris, away from the battlefields, that day in 1917?

“But the biggest is trying to find a connection between Canadian soldiers in the Great War and Darwen.

“How did this instrument end up there from The Western Front?

“One idea is that it could have been brought to Darwen by a returning British soldier who acquired it in France from the Canadians who were going home.

“This might mean a man of the East Lancashire Regiment, the York and Lancaster Regiment, the Lancashire Fusiliers — all part of the East Lancashire Division in Amiens at the end of the war.”

Alec has researched the soldiers and discovered they were of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, who joined between 1914 and 1918 — so it’s likely that the banjo was still at the front in the summer of 1918.

Aged from 18 to 42 when they enlisted, he knows one of the soldiers died in 1919 from the Spanish flu, one took until 1933 to die from poison gas, while the rest, he believes, survived the conflict.

Alec said: “From their enlistment records, most of them were in E Battery, Royal Canadian Artillery — and the 'war diary' of that unit has many of their names in there.

“What I am hoping is that we may be able to trace some of the Darwen/Blackburn people since that is the clue as to how the banjo ended up in Darwen from The Western Front.

“ I do know that Canadians with British birthplaces or relatives were allowed extra leave to visit them when the war ended, it also helped with the jammed troopships to 'home', but what is the connection with Darwen here?

“Was it a camp worker, a military hospital nurse, a relative, a friend?”

Alec has now donated the banjo to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa but before he did he was filmed with it on The Somme, for a special BBC Antiques Roadshow WWI programme, which is set to be broadcast at the beginning of April.,+England,+United+Kingdom&hl=en&ll=53.904338,-1.318359&spn=16.587597,53.393555&sll=49.303974,-84.738438&sspn=18.333341,53.393555&oq=Darwen,+England&hnear=Darwen,+Blackburn+with+Darwen,+United+Kingdom&t=m&z=5