In late 1917, a young mother and the wife of a serviceman received the telegram she and millions like her had dreaded. Her husband had fallen on the Western Front. She wrote to his commanding officer for further details. Also grieving and shocked, the soldier’s mother wrote to his unit’s sergeant, asking for the return of his possessions and for further news on his death and final resting place. The story above was replayed time and time again during the First World War but, in this case, the wife was my great grandmother and the mother was my great, great grandmother.
The soldier was Private Alfred Adams from the 243rd Company, Machine Gun Corps (MGC). For the family the scars of his loss would run deep, to the extent that his name and the details of his life were rarely spoken about. Many years later, all that was left of his life were a few photos, a chair and a couple of other objects, and his business card. There was no correspondence to speak of, although there was a letter. It was written by his commanding officer, Lieutenant P Young, in a follow-up to Maude. It was dated 8 December 1917 and proved to be the key to unlocking the past and finding Private Adams:
Dear Mrs Adams,
I read the letter your mother-in-law wrote to my sergeant and so I write to you again to tell you your husband was killed by a shell when working in a trench. He was killed instantaneously and suffered no pain at all. He was buried by a Church of England clergyman in a British Cemetery and I myself had a cross made and I went and saw it put up.
He had already sold some of the goods sent out of the parcels and so we are continuing to sell them as they were mostly promised already, and I will send you the money. I pray and hope you may be comforted,
Yrs sincerely, P Young, Lieut. 243 Machine Gun Coy BEF, France
Young had listed the unit in which he and Alfred fought and my parents discovered that 243 MGC Company (Coy) was assigned to 31 Division on the Oppy-Gavrelle sector during 1917. The National Archives holds both the divisional and company diaries, the latter recording the death of Alfred and those who fell with him on 26 November 1917. The entry is fairly stark to modern eyes and shows just how dangerous the Western Front could be, even when ‘fairly quiet’. It runs as follows: ‘Situation fairly quiet, enemy artillery fairly active during afternoon. Few shells fell in the vicinity of TYNE BATTERY one dropping in the trench causing 7 casualties to this company i.e. 4 killed 3 wounded. One section in rest and training.’
Frustratingly, the individual files held on Private Adams have been destroyed, along with 60% of all the other soldiers' files from the First World War due to a Luftwaffe bombing raid in the Second World War. Meanwhile, the Corps’ files and other histories were lost in a storage fire during the early 1930s. Returning to the odds and ends we had of Alfred’s, somehow my mother had obtained pages copied from an autograph album in which he wrote the following:
Scribbling in albums
‘Avec grand plaisir’
I'm scribbling in yours.
Alf Adams, March 28 09
So Alfred, I could see, liked to be called Alf. Born in 1887, he came from a relatively humble southwest London background. His father, William, was an insurance agent, while his mother, Eliza, and his two sisters, Constance and Winifred, completed the family. Constance was something of an artist and drew a bright and vivid still life of fruit rather than sign the same autograph book.
Revolutions per minute
My mother had also discovered that Alf had gained a place at Battersea Polytechnic as a teenager. He studied basic physics and, for that time, the brave new world of electronics. A school-leaving reference for Alf from one of his teachers has survived, emphasising his potential and good character. Finishing his studies, Alf decided to carve out a career in the music industry.
The record business had come a long way fast since the first phonograph was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877, with the gramophone proving to be the game-changing device. It was developed by Emile Berliner a German-American inventor and used discs that offered a growing selection of music, with the sound quality improving markedly after 1894. By the early 1900s discs that could run for up to 4 minutes were available, while Edison had responded with improved-quality cylinders that could reach 4:30 minutes. However, the great inventor was fighting a losing battle as gramophones were soon gracing middle- and upper-class homes across the Western world.
Records were selling by the million by 1910 and, while nowhere near the heights achieved in the second half of the 20th Century, serious money was already being made. The energy that infused this industry could be compared to the internet start-ups of the early 2000s and, just like the dotcom boom and bust, it often seemed there were plenty of companies trading one day and falling by the wayside the next. But while there were many casualties, a new, viable industry was created nonetheless. Globally, the field was soon dominated by the likes Columbia and Victor and, in Britain, Emile Berliner’s Gramophone Company Ltd.*
*In 1909 the company introduced labels depicting Nipper the Dog listening to a gramophone accompanied by the legend ‘His Master’s Voice’, abbreviated to HMV.
Alf’s main problem at this stage would have been liquidity; he needed a partner with serious collateral to invest in a record company start-up. It is impossible to know how he came to know Joe Cooper of Cooper Brothers, a wholesaler with properties on 45 and 63 City Road, 17 Clerkenwell Road, and branches in Manchester and Cardiff. Joe and Alf appear to have formulated a partnership quite quickly as Alf lists himself as ‘music manager’ in the 1911 census and followed this up with the business' first adverts by March 1912. Joe and Alf called their joint venture the Coliseum Record Company and it was listed at 67 Sugden Road, Clapham Common, which was Alf’s home address for the time and is evidence of how small the operation must have been to start with.
The term music manager is not what we today have in mind. Back then, the job primarily related to selecting pre-recorded songs to buy under licence from lists supplied by the early recording companies who would often press the discs as well. Alf organised the rights purchase and how many discs he wanted to try and sell, which was where the main risk came in. Order too many or too few and the company would either make a loss or miss a golden opportunity. No doubt Alf kept his eyes and ears open to the tastes of the record-buying audience at all times. The margins in these early days must have been extremely tight.
Music for money
The company grew rapidly from these small acorns, with Cooper Brothers likely to have been in charge of distribution. There was also a companion label called Scala, although this seems a separate concern in which Alf was not involved. The business plan that worked best for Coliseum was simple: sell the records cheaply and try to sell lots of them. At 1/6d or about £6.40 at today’s real-term value, it proved a viable formula.* Given that Joe was the distributor, it seems likely that the bulk of the profits went to Cooper Brothers. However, Alf was doing well for himself too; he soon had two shops in Southwest London, including one on Lavender Hill. My grandfather also mentioned a third shop in central London, although this cannot be confirmed and one suspects it was probably a muddled reference to one of Joe’s outlets.
*The modern figure discounts labour value and economic cost. Factor these in and a record would equate to anywhere between £35 and £50 (between $50 and $75). Given this, one can see why records were considered a precious item to be treated with great care.
Strange as it might seem today, selling both gramophones and bicycles was seen as the perfect pairing. Listening to gramophones was considered more of a winter pastime, which meant spring and summer witnessed lower sales. Music shops would sell bicycles to cover the seasonal dip and, given that their main market was men in their 20s to 40s, it was considered a good fit. The formula could also work the other way around: Curry’s – the electrical goods store that is still a major force in Britain – started life as a bicycle manufacturer but set up its own record label during this period that was called ‘Curry's Cycle Co.’ Alf followed the trend and sold bicycles and bicycle parts in his shops. Interestingly, Les continued this part of the business when he eventually took over. Apparently there was an old gramophone still in the shop long afterwards, a sad relic of what had gone before.
The early labels on Coliseum records were green with yellow writing, although this would change as the years progressed. There was also an industry in-joke: the letters S and F on early labels signified “Silk Face”, which was a slight dig at the Edison Bell label’s “Velvet Face”.* Some of Coliseum’s many early songs included Elgar’s Salut d'amour by the Maxim Instrumental Quartet; Rock of Ages by M C Vincent; and Sally O’Malley sung by Billy Williams, a famous Australian-born entertainer. In fact, Williams was possibly the most sought-after recording artist in Britain for the time, giving an acclaimed Royal Command Performance in 1912. The price tag on Coliseum’s release reflected his popularity, coming in at 2/6, or £10.40 at today’s real value. Through its ties with Beka, a German company discussed in more detail below, Coliseum was able to release other songs by Williams in 1912 and no doubt a tidy sum was made in the process.
*Edison Bell was based in Peckham and its prestigious name stemmed from the company acquiring an early licence to sell Edison phonographs from the 1890s. It lost these distribution rights in 1904 but somehow kept the title.
Only three pictures of Alf survive from the pre-war period (see below), although they reflect his progress in the world. Each picture shows a neat man, hiding his youth behind an Edwardian moustache. The first photo is with Maude and both are well dressed; Alf wears a fob watch, a three-piece suit, boater hat and carries a walking cane, while Maude is wearing a wide-brimmed hat and an expensive-looking outfit with silk cuffs and lapels. The photo with Ron as a baby shows a family moving towards even greater respectability, with Alf wearing a frock coat and his boater replaced by a top hat. However, these photographs were formal and staged to show Alf and his family at their best. More interesting, perhaps, is the image of Alf and Joe. This is both formal and informal and, while neither man is smiling, their faces look friendly enough. The setting is relaxed and, with the crescent moon and stars scenery, somewhat theatrical. Was this a trade fair of some kind?
My grandfather told me he thought Alf sold records into Germany. In fact, Alf was having many of his records physically pressed in Germany, which was often a cheaper option than making them in Britain. In this instance, the company was Beka. However, with British customers increasingly suspicious of all things German, Coliseum took the precaution of having the legend ‘Recorded in England, Reproduced in Prussia’ on its labels. For obvious reasons, relying on a German company presented major problems once war was declared. But luckily for Coliseum and others, the pressing of discs was shifted to the Lindström/Fonitipia factory in Hertford that was owned by Lindström and Beka. The latter now tried to promote itself as pro-British and, in October 1914, declared: ‘All [our] records are British made through and through in a British factory, at Hertford, by British Labour.’ Coliseum also responded in kind, with its labels stating: ‘Manufactured throughout in England’. In the event, Beka’s British operation was liquidated by the government and its assets organised into the Hertford Record Co., which would be bought up by Columbia in 1916.
The disruption of war on the British music industry can be seen in the sales figures. For example in 1913-1914, the Gramophone Company Ltd. recorded 3.34 million units sold. This dropped to 1.36 million records sold for 1914-1915. The industry was quick to respond by investing in and expanding British pressing operations or, as in the case of Columbia, buying up appropriated German assets. For the Gramophone Company Ltd., sales were back up to 3.45 million for 1915-1916 and kept growing from there. No doubt Coliseum had experienced similar difficulties, albeit on a far smaller scale. But in a couple of years this would have been the least of Alf’s worries.