Chapter 5: War
The outbreak of war in 1939 brought problems to The Party. Although many of its members were in protected occupations, they had to work long hours, on awkward shifts. Others were called up for military service, and The Party had to face the possibility of disbanding for the duration of the war. It did not take the members long to realise that they could perform a valuable morale-raising function - concerts for troops in camp and in hospital, concerts in works canteens, fund-raising concerts to provide comforts for servicemen and refugees. Nor were the needs of The Party’s own members overlooked; a comforts fund was set up and donations were regularly sent to serving members. Despite abnormal wartime stresses and strains, the chairman Morgan Williams and the conductor Willie Davies kept The Party going. When Roy Wagstaffe, the accompanist, was called up for national service a Mrs Kathleen Davies quickly stepped into the breach. Programmes were no longer printed. Transport to concert venues created problems owing to fuel-rationing. Winter journeys in the blackout could not have been pleasant. The Party’s services were constantly in demand, and despite all the problems, the demands met willingly and conscientiously. Because of its depleted strength, The Party frequently combined with other local choirs, one of which, The Cowley Congregational Womens Own Choir was conducted by Mrs Williams, wife of The Party’s chairman.
The Party was caught up in some of the more emotional events in war-time Oxford. It took part in a pageant at the Town Hall in 1942, promoted by the Ministry of Information to highlight the importance of women’s work. Among those appearing on the platform were actors Roger Livesy, Eric Portman, Robert Beattie, Leslie Howard, Leslie Banks and Ralph Richardson. The Party sang the Dachau Anthem, a work composed by a young Austrian musician while he was held in a concentration camp. It took part in 1943 in Oxford’s Salute to The Red Army - a parade through the streets of the City, followed by a concert at the Town Hall, where The Party joined with fervour and enthusiasm in the singing of the final item "The Internationale". Among those present were Brendan Bracken, Minister of Information, and Quintin Hogg, Oxford’s member of Parliament. The Party’s wartime repertoire included not only the Internationale but also The Stars and Stripes, the latter being a regular finale at concerts for American servicemen stationed at Cowley Barracks and the Churchill Hospital. It sang at a Labour Party May Day Parade and gave its services at a number of concerts in aid of the 35th L.A.A. Regiment Oxford Prisoner of War Fund. It participated in a number of Sunday evening concerts organised by the City Parks Department as part of the Holidays - at - Home campaign. One such concert in the Town Hall had unfortunate consequences. The audience, 900 strong, consisted mostly of young people, and The Party appears to have misjudged the mood of the occasion. A section of the audience disrupted the performance so persistently that The Party eventually walked off the platform, led by an angry Willie Davies. This incident was reported at great length in local papers, and was followed by a shoal of letters to the editor, arguing the pros and cons of the young people’s behaviour. It was a painful experience for the organisers and The Party.
Letters of appreciation from many sources are recorded in the scrap books. One reverend gentlemen wrote pointing out that the members had given freely of their limited spare time to give pleasure to others, even though they were working long hours in the Cowley factories, producing armaments for British troops. The Party’s activities in both fields represent a commendable contribution to Oxford’s war effort.
An Alan Course cartoon, courtesy of The Oxford Mail