Somme campaign reveals a remarkable tale of fame

Alan Fidler.

Alan Fidler.

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The Northumbria World War One Commemoration Project has widened the scope of the original Tynemouth project to encompass the whole of the modern borough of North Tyneside.

The remembrance of the Battle of the Somme has prompted the project to mark the occasion with a detailed review of the battle as it affected the people of North Tyneside with a travelling exhibition, which will be on view across the borough until the end of November.

The exhibition moved to Wallsend Customer First Centre (library) on July 14 and will remain there until August 11.

The centenary on July 1 of the most bloody struggle of the Great War has prompted a range of commemorative activity.

The inspired We Are Here piece of street theatre, which caught the public imagination, will probably be one of the most remembered events of the whole 2014-18 centenary period. The concept and execution of the public event, which engaged so many people in the course of their daily life on that day, will be a lasting testament not only to the sad loss it recalled, but to the power of art to engage with people in unexpected ways.

Meanwhile, the project has produced a new series of the popular ‘biographical’ tags, which are attached to the now well-established local ale Tyneside Tommy that we commissioned with Three Kings Brewery in autumn 2014.

Initially just six men from Tynemouth were featured. Now, as the geographical range of the project has expanded, a new set of nine of the innovative tags, telling the stories of men lost during the Somme campaign from across the borough, have been released and can be found on bottles on sale across the area.

In addition, to mark the co-operation of the Northumbria World War I Project in a regional research programme with Northumbria University, looking at men of the counties of Northumberland and Durham who had emigrated to the Dominions before the war, a further series of biographies has been prepared.

The further nine ‘tags’ appear on bottles of Tyneside Tommy under the title of Dominion Geordies and feature men who served in Dominion forces.

Notable among these are two men awarded the Victoria cross and a local man from Wallsend, who had a remarkable post-war career after being badly wounded at the Somme while serving with the Australian forces – an injury which led to a remarkable change of fortune and fame as a singer and performer with the newly emerging BBC.

John Collinson was born in Shiremoor and lived in Wallsend before emigrating as a boilermaker to Queensland in 1913. His remarkable story stands alongside that of the other great ‘Australian’ hero of the war – John Simpson Kirkpatrick, of South Shields – ‘The man with the Donkey’.

Collinson, after being helped by Sir Henry Wood, of Proms’ concerts fame, went on to a career as an operatic tenor and is credited with making the first recording of the famous Australian popular song Waltzing Matilda for Vocalian Records in 1926.

This remarkable co-incidence of two Tyneside men connected to the Australian history of the war and that country’s perceived establishment of a distinct national identity has already been celebrated in the case of John Simpson Kirkpatrick with a stage play.

Discussions are now taking place to recognise the place of John Collinson in the local history of his birthplace and upbringing (North Tyneside), as well as his emigration history and fascinating life.