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Open Features: A 5 Shilling Bet That Helped To Win The War

Journalist and art critic David Hammond tells of the birth of one of the Twentieth Century’s most famous songs.

Stalybridge, a small, pleasant and rather old-fashioned town on the Manchester side of the Pennines, played host to famous film director John Schlesinger and production team from JL Vic films.

Floodlights came on and cameras whirled as scenes were shot for “Yanks,” a highly entertaining feature film telling of Anglo-American romance during World War II.

Hidden away in a side-street in Stalybridge, about 100 yards from where the film crews were operating, stands a small plaque which records what, at the time, seemed a much less significant event than the film-making.

There was no multi-million-dollar budget for a humble variety show which kept local textile workers entertained at the town’s Grand Theatre back in January, 1912. And it must have appeared an incident of little real consequence when Jack Judge, a comedian appearing in the show, sang a new song he had written, and asked the audience to join in.

But the song Judge sang and which the plaque commemorates was to become world famous and was to play its own part in two world wars.

It would be sung by many nationalities and in different languages, in jungle and in desert, in the Middle East and the Far East, as well as throughout Europe. For the song was “Tipperary,” the ditty about an Irishman visiting London but still feeling “there’s no place like home.”

The song was, as we shall see, a hastily composed number, but one which became the world’s best known marching song and which inspired and heartened both troops going to war and the families they left behind them.

“Tipperary,” which by the end of World War I had sold a record 8 million copies, was written as the result of a chance incident.

Jack Judge, who was lodging in Stalybridge while appearing nightly at the Grand Theatre, later explained how he came to write it: “Just after midnight on January 30, some friends and I came out of a club near the theatre, where I made a 5s bet that I could write, compose and sing a new song on the evening of the 31st.

“I had not the slightest idea of my lucky Tipperary song until, on my way home, when I overheard a man telling another, ‘It’s a long way to . . .’ - some place or other about which he must have been inquiring.

“I was immediately inspired, pounced upon the long way title, added the word ‘Tipperary,’ did a little thinking until bedtime, and, after a fish breakfast in the morning, I completed the song in about the time it has taken me to tell this little story.”

The rehearsal, which must have been a rather hasty affair, took place in the taproom of the Newmarket Inn, near the theatre, with Horace Vernon playing the piano, and some of the pub’s regulars joining in. Judge sang the song, making good his wager, at the evening performance at the theatre, where he had the backing of a small orchestra.

Everyone at the Palace that night agreed it went with a swing. Jack invited the stage hands to join him in front of the audience, and they marched round behind him, beating kitchen utensils to the time of the music.

Another act in the same show was Berzac’s performing seals, and the story has it that even the seals flapped their flippers in evident enjoyment of the music!

But though the song pleased audiences, Judge found it difficult to get it published. He went from one publisher to another until Bert Feldman, one of the biggest publishers of the day, agreed rather reluctantly, to offer him just £5 for the copyright.

In 1913, a year before the world was to be plunged into a disastrous war, the song was launched in the Isle of Man, at Douglas, by Florrie Ford, a 15-stone ‘darling’ of the music hall, and it proved an immediate success with holidaymakers from Lancashire and Yorkshire, as well as from Ireland.

It was during the first year of the war, however, that the song mushroomed to fame. George Curnock, a British journalist, was in Boulogne, covering the departure of British troops for the Front. Standing beside him was a young war widow. They heard the marching men, who had been singing Boer war favourites like “Soldiers of the Queen” and “Dolly Grey,” launch into a new song: “It’s a long way to Tipperary.”

“What is that song they sing?” the widow asked Curnock. As he explained to her the meaning of the words, tears began to fall down her cheeks. “Ah, it is indeed a long way they are going. Poor boys. They do not know, they are so full of life,” she said, stifling her grief.

The story Curnock wrote for his newspaper in London was based round “Tipperary” and the widow’s sorrow. The newspaper published the words and music of the song along with the report, and soon, all Britain was singing Jack Judge’s rousing, cheerful song.

By the end of 12 months, around a million copies had been sold – an amazing feat in those days. On the different war fronts, “Tipperary” was soon the number one favourite. It became a kind of national anthem among marches. Tipperary, the men felt as they sang it, was not just a town in Ireland. It represented home, their home town, their family, all the friends they had left behind. It encouraged them to stick with it. “It’s a long way. . . but my heart’s right there.” They bore in their mind’s eye a picture of what life would be like when they were home after the war.

“Tipperary” proved a popular number in peacetime too. But Jack Judge the comedian could probably have wished for not better tribute to his Stalybridge-born song than when a writer described it as “the soldier’s anthem that helped to win the war.”


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