WHEN Bellowhead’s Sam Sweeney visited violin maker Roger Claridge’s shop in Oxford, he was drawn to a fiddle carved, but never assembled, by one Richard S Howard of Harehills, Leeds, in 1915.

So began the then 19-year-old Sweeney’s journey to The Unfinished Violin, on tour and in the recording studio, via appearances on BBC Breakfast and The Antiques Roadshow.

First he created Sam Sweeney’s Fiddle: Made In The Great War, a live show that toured from 2014 to 2017; next he made The Unfinished Violin, his debut solo album of instrumentals inspired by The Great War, released through Island Records last November.

From this week, he is touring a concert version of The Unfinished Violin, in the company of Rob Harbron, on Anglo concertina and harmonium, Jack Rutter, on acoustic guitar, Ben Nicholls, on double bass, and Patsy Reid on fiddle, visiting the National Centre for Early Music in York on Monday.

“Two Bellowhead band members had bought fiddles from Roger,” recalls Sam. “I went in and he said, ‘you play what you can find in the shop, while I disappear into the garden’. I must have played 25 and immediately fell for this amateur violin. It was only later that I discovered the story behind it, and if you’d asked me 10 years ago if I believed in tales like this I would have told you where to go.”

Claridge had come across the violin by auction, in pieces, in an old Manila envelope, assembled it and put it on sale. Sweeney subsequently used it for numerous albums and countless gigs, and set about digging into its history, whereupon he uncovered the fateful tale of Richard Howard, a Leeds music hall performer called up in 1916 to the Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment. He would lose his life in the Battle of Messines on June 7, 1917.

“Richard Howard’s story wouldn’t have been uncovered if it wasn’t for my father, Chris Sweeney, who’s a genealogist. He’d been in the health service all his working life, but also became interested in genealogy, and it was this violin that sparked his intrigue, and now he’s doing it professionally,” says Sam.

“Inside a violin, nine times out of 10, there’s a maker’s certificate and Roger had noted the name Richard S Powell and Harehills, 1915, but the mystery was that it appeared to be brand new.”

Sweeney senior first consulted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission records, then found Richard S Howard listed as a music-hall entertainer in the 1911 census. From there, his marriage certificate and birth certificate led from Richard and his wife Martha to a daughter, Rose, who lived in Verdun Terrace, a road that no longer exists in Harehills, Leeds. On went the chain to Rose’s daughter, Mary, tracked down through a letter to her brother on account of her “strange” maiden name, Botherway.

“He got in touch with Mary, who never knew her grandfather’s story and was fascinated by what we told her,” says Sam.

“Last summer we visited the Battle of Messines battlefield. They’d arranged a Richard Howard walk; there were about 100 people with us and we ended up at his grave. Mary read a poem, I played the fiddle, and a bugle player played The Last Post.”

The tune Sam played, from Howard’s Duke of Wellington regiment, was the beautifully mournful The Wellesley. “Playing that over Richard Howard’s grave was incredibly emotional,” he says.

It now forms the centre-piece of his 16-track album, recorded at the invitation of Island Records. “I said, give me a few days to think about it, because I really didn’t want to create a jingoistic, patriotic album, but after some research, it was very clear that there would be loads of great tunes, and great stories,” says Sam, who is spreading those stories anew on tour.

l Sam Sweeney, The Unfinished Violin, National Centre for Early Music, York, May 6, 7.30pm. Also, Sweeney in conversation with NCEM director Delma Tomlin, 7pm to 7.15pm; free to ticket holders. Box office: 01904 658338 or at ncem.co.uk.

Charles Hutchinson