The Grand's WWII Minesweeper Fundraiser
Leeds Grand Theatre played a great part in raising the morale of the people of Leeds during the Second World War, keeping shows running throughout – with extra measures in place in case of an air raid.
On World Heritage Day, we’re looking at the part Leeds Grand Theatre played during the Second World War. A discovery in our archive has revealed that Leeds Grand Theatre, along with the generous audience members, also played their part supporting the war effort, donating items and money to a series of minesweepers between 1940-42. With regular weekly updates printed in the show programmes, we’ve been given a fascinating insight into life onboard the boats and the activities of the theatre staff.
Written by Bryony Jameson
On 15 July 1940, The Grand’s Resident Manager Cedric Bowden launched the Marconi Fund in the programme of Good Men Sleep At Home. The announcement featured a call to audiences to ‘help us to send periodically a parcel to the members of the crew’ of the Minesweeper Marconi.
The first parcel would contain ‘biscuits, sweets, and cakes’ followed by a second parcel of ‘woollen and knitted articles’. The first week alone raised ‘the splendid amount of £6 0s. 3d.’ via a ‘Lifebuoy Collecting box in front of our Seascape…in the main Foyer of the Theatre’.
The ‘Seascape’ would become a prominent fixture in the coming months, with letters and notices from the crew displayed in the foyer for all to see. Sadly we’re unsure if any of these survive and are yet to uncover them in our archive.
As well as monetary donations, there was a huge drive for knitting from audiences and staff alike. With the theatre providing the wool and pattern instructions, ‘lady attendants will be hard at work knitting during the week, and will, I know, be only too pleased to show you the garments in the making’ (September 1940). A total of ’20 pairs of Sea Boot Stockings’ were completed in weeks, followed by pullovers – twelve of which were created by ‘the nurses at the First Aid Post in Meanwood’.
The crew of 25 were also treated to ‘eatables’, tobacco and even sports gear requested by the Skipper (G. Noble): ‘We have lately formed a football team, but are handicapped for playing gear, so if you could do anything we should be deeply grateful. The lads seem to enjoy a game when they get the opportunity and it is certainly good for them. They would like to play in blue jerseys and black shorts. Also if your patrons have any old books, magazines etc., they would be much appreciated’ (September 1940).
Requests for books were clearly popular with the people of Leeds as ‘so many books have now been sent from this theatre to the crew, that I fear the Marconi will not hold any more at the moment’ (November 1940). Further requests included a ‘second-hand cornet, as they were forming a band on board…Mr. Edwards, our cornet in the orchestra, managed to purchase one at a very reasonable figure’.
Between 1 July 1940 and 22 February 1941, a grand total of £78 5s. had been raised by the patrons of The Grand. Parcels of varying contents (OXO cubes, chewing gum, gramophone records, tobacco) continued to be dispatched every two to three weeks. Visits from crew members on leave were also a happy event, with ‘a great welcome from all staff’ being given (April 1941).
The ‘Marconi News’ wasn’t all light-hearted though, in June 1941 news came that ‘one of the Marconi crew lost his life…after having been transferred to another ship’. Repeated reminders were issued of ‘how much the boys are appreciating the parcels’ to keep spirits up. Long periods of silence weren’t uncommon, with weeks going by and patrons – and staff – worrying.
On 20 September 1941, Marconi sank following a collision during an air raid in the North Sea off Harwich Essex. Thankfully all the crew were safe and would be relocated to another Minesweeper.
With the Marconi no more, ‘the staff of this theatre…all expressed a wish to adopt another Minesweeper’ (October 1941). The Skipper of the Marconi had been moved to ‘a much bigger ship’ and it was agreed to find another ‘about the same size as the Marconi’ – less knitting required! They decided on the Firefly, ‘a sister ship of the Marconi…[with] a crew of 24’ which had ‘never been “adopted” before’.
As before, the staff commenced their knitting and ’17 pairs [of] Sea-boot Stockings, 3 Pullovers, 8 Pairs of Gloves’ were posted with call outs for ‘ordinary blue woollen socks’ to be ‘handed in at Box Office at any time’ (November 1941).
A regular occurrence in the updates is the support from visiting artistes, with announcements at the end of performances for donations. Sometimes the total raised was split 50/50 with the performer’s own campaigns, but some calls for donations went entirely to The Grand’s fund. A few examples include: the De-Lovely Frances Day who raised £30 12 s. split with the ‘Frances Day Penny Fund’, Arthur Askey asked during the pantomime Jack and Jill (February 1941) raising £23 3s. split with his own minesweeper fund ‘Playmates’, and film favourite actor Leslie Banks raised ‘the magnificent figure of £40 7s. 6d.’ from just two performances (December 1941).
The generosity of the audience members can be seen in the sacrifices made, with rationed ‘contributions in the form of ingredients, such as sultanas, currants (or eggs!!)’ (February 1942) allowing ‘Four 2lb cakes (baked by one of our staff)’ to be sent to the crew. One particular update tells of ‘a patron…who wishes to remain anonymous’ who ‘is not taking her holiday away from home this year, [and] has forwarded the amount which she would normally have spent on railway fares’. The money from this ‘charming gesture’ was then ‘distributed amongst the crew’ (July 1942).
HMT Lord Melchett
In September 1942, the Firefly was ‘taken away for other duties and the crew scattered’. With the news that the Skipper and ‘a certain number of the crew’ were being transferred to HMT Lord Melchett, the theatre management stated that they felt ‘that it will be the wish of all, that we now adopt this minesweeper in place of the Firefly’.
Donations kept coming in, so much so that in November 1942 the theatre announced that ‘the Lifebuoy Collecting Box has…been removed from the Foyer’. In December they used the funds to forward ‘individual Postal Orders to the members of the crew, as a Christmas Gift to the Ship’s company’.
Unfortunately, December 1942 was the last minesweeper update that appeared in the printed programmes. The space where they usually appear starts to be filled by star photos. We have no idea why these stopped especially as there was clearly still an appetite from patrons. HMT Lord Melchett continued in service until 1946, even being converted to a danlayer in 1944 for D-Day, so we can only guess at why the fund stopped.
The photos below (courtesy of IWM) show minesweeper crews of the time including those based in Harwich, where both Marconi and Firefly were stationed at a time.
Leeds Grand Theatre Buildings Fund
As a Grade II listed building, we want to preserve Leeds Grand Theatre for future generations, making it more accessible, sustainable, and comfortable; everything we do will enhance your experience as a customer. All donations will be fully invested in ongoing projects, including improved access facilities, changing our lighting to LED, and investing in a new Flying system.
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