Vic Armorey died in the First World War. Thanks to a remarkable coincidence, his memory resonates ever closer to home.

RALPH Victor Armorey, still Uncle Vic to Agnes Hall though she could never have known him, was killed on the Somme in September 1916, aged only 22.

Four years later, in the Wesley Methodist chapel at Esh Road, Ushaw Moor, a fine pipe organ was dedicated to his memory and that of Charles Henry Walker, his best friend at school. A brass plaque acknowledged their sacrifice.

The chapel – “our little Bethel,”

said a booklet – had been opened in 1900, built for £630, and closed 54 years later when Ushaw Moor colliery was exhausted. The organ was rebuilt a few miles to the east, in the little tin church at Broompark.

Thereafter it was sold to the Roman Catholic church of Our Lady Queen of Peace at Penshaw, near Sunderland, and that – until a few weeks ago – was the last that Mrs Hall had heard of it.

Then something quite incredible happened. It is a story of how organ men pulled out all the stops and still got nowhere, and how serendipity once more proved instrumental.

THE family hadn’t always been Methodists. The Alderson side had, way back, been members of the historic Baptist church at Hamsterley, so many children that their names filled both sides of the gravestone.

Robert William Alderson, Mrs Hall’s father and himself the youngest of 16, was one of four brothers from the Toft Hill area who became Methodist local preachers, serving more than 200 years between them.

“They’d go out at dawn, horse and trap, preach all day and only return when it was dark,” says Mrs Hall.

Sometimes he’d hold forth at Esh Road, one of eight chapel members on the Crook Wesleyan circuit preaching plan.

“He was a farmer, a very, quiet dignified man until he got into the pulpit and then there was hell on,” recalls his daughter and particularly there may have been ructions when the preacher’s histrionics brought down the curtain that hid the organ blower and revealed her brother reading a comic.

Of her mother it was said that, so long as the door was open and the lamp in the window lit, all were welcome to join her in prayer, or simply to talk.

Mrs Hall, who lives in Durham, and whose grandmother, Phoebe Armorey, headed the organ appeal, still has her photographs of the chapel and of Uncle Vic in his Sunday-best bowler, still has the last, poignant, pencil-written letter – “Dear Mother and All” – that he sent home from Cambrai.

Ushaw Moor’s in the delightful Deerness Valley. All remains of the chapel, and of Esh Road, have long disappeared. The family thought the organ was still at Penshaw.

Now, perhaps, it is time to re-introduce to these columns the excellent Mr David Tindale.

DAVID worked for many years for Harrison and Harrison, the celebrated Durham-based organ builders, and is himself an accomplished organist.

He lives in Philadelphia, near Houghton-le-Spring, the former village police station at the bottom of his back yard now nostalgically and arrestingly restored.

A few of us had gathered there nine years ago. “It’s where the sergeant chowed yer lugs off,” a youthful miscreant mistily recalled.

“In those days you ran away from the polliss, even when you’d done nowt.”

David said he’d retired but couldn’t, still can’t, entranced by the sound of music. A few weeks back he was tuning the organ at Bearpark Methodist church, a couple of miles west of Durham, when he fell into conversation with 82-year-old Mrs Hall, who attends it.

“The conversation turned to how he was spending his days. He started talking about the organ they were installing in St Joseph’s chapel in Ushaw College, just up the road.”

The organ had come from Penshaw, where they needed something larger. David and other experts had tried all ways to find out more about it, and to learn more about Rifleman Armorey and his lost friend.

“I just put up my hand and said ‘whoa’,” recalls Mrs Hall, a retired teacher. “There were tears in his eyes, never mind mine. It’s just so incredible, they’d moved heaven and earth and got nowhere and now the organ’s back barely half a mile from where it began, rocking foundations.

Uncle Vic’s memory lives on.”

David’s delighted, too. “It’s a lovely little thing, one manual, beautiful job. It’s been tried and tested at Ushaw and it sounds just wonderful.”

It was built, around 1910 he thinks, by the splendidly named Positive Organ Company – whose founder went on the stage and married Dame Sybil Thorndyke – and was probably elsewhere before coming to Esh Road.

Mrs Hall and her family have now been to Ushaw College – “the people there were lovely” – to see and hear the organ. Richard, one of her sons, played it.

“It was a very emotional occasion,”

she says. “When I went through that door, I didn’t think I could feel like that, but it’s a lovely chapel and a wonderful setting.

“There’s new life there, it just fits so perfectly in the chapel, like it was made for it. It’s a beautiful sound, so full of melody. It’s not a great thumping thing, really light, just like it was all those years ago back at Esh Road.”

So they played it again for Ralph Victor Armorey, 9th Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Regiment, and again eyes filled with tears. Agnes Hall wipes them away even now. “It is,” she says, “a simply perfect ending.”

Singing hinnies

AN anonymous voice mail – for which, nonetheless, thanks – points us towards a Times feature on Seaham- born opera singer Sir Thomas Allen and particularly to a passing reference to Denis Weatherley, Tom Allen’s headmaster and mine.

It’s a bit part for Denis, aged 85 when he died in November 1997, but Sir Thomas is ever-anxious to acknowledge his mentor.

Then he was at Seaham Grammar School, later head of King James I at Bishop Auckland. Seaham’s changed, the singer tells The Times.

“Seaham children today have never seen men trudging from the pit. Mining was dangerous, unhealthy work but it was a community, which has been destroyed.

“In our street of 24 tiny terraced houses everyone knew everyone else. I’ve never got used to the unneighbourliness of London.”

Denis died as he would have wished, singing his heart out – singing Swing Lo, Sweet Chariot and on the line about coming for to carry me home.

His funeral service was at St Cuthbert’s in Darlington – “no drab pageant of death but a rich celebration of life”, said the At Your Service column. The star had flown in specially from Germany.

Then he was plain Mr Allen, Tom they called him. He wore homburg, Lambton Worm muffler and a coat so theatrical that it might have won an Oscar, the column observed.

The Times piece was partly to promote his appearance in Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera House. Our caller notes that on the other side of the page there’s a piece about the future of the Church of England.

“Now that,” he says, “is a different story altogether.”

SPEAKING of which, last week’s column reported on the funeral at Shotley Bridge of the Reverend Harry Lee, a man who once said there were times he hated the CofE but that he wasn’t going to give up on it now.

Harry had been curate of Nevilles Cross, Durham, in the early 1960s – Keith Bell among his confirmation class and dutifully in church for 8am “said” communion each Sunday.

“Father Lee could get through Holy Communion in 25 minutes flat,” recalls Keith, now in Brompton-on-Swale. “I’d try to return the favour by delivering his papers – Sunday Times and Observer, as I recall – so he could skim them before going back for the sung service.”

Harry was subsequently vicar of Medomsley, of Holy Trinity in Darlington and of Brompton, Northallerton. “I often wondered what happened to him,” says Keith.

“He was a lovely man.”

THE column a couple of weeks back recorded memories of former Durham police officer Barry Wood, now secretary of the North East Police Historical Society, and his appeal for police artifacts and memories from the 1950s to 1980s for next year’s annual exhibition at Beamish.

Constabulary duty, many have responded both directly to Barry and here.

Darlington lad Mel Carter, now working in China, recalls starting as a young probationer PC in Bishop Auckland, remembers the town being deserted on the Saturday afternoon of the 1966 World Cup final – “normally you couldn’t walk down the pavement on a Saturday” – watched the match at the back of Gillette’s garage.

Mel also remembers being fined £5 for having a bald tyre, an offence considered so heinous that he was transferred to Hartlepool, regarded as “defaulters’ division” because it was so rough. “Remember Captain Cutlass?” he asks.

He discovered how rough Hartlepool was when the locals turned his mini-van on its side and it made the Daily Mirror. Soon afterwards he became an engineer, instead.

ANN Birtle, the North-East Police Historical Society’s first secretary – “mainly because I was in charge of the museum at Durham police headquarters”

– recalls a control room wall being demolished as part of refurbishment about ten years ago.

The wall was covered by a map of the original force boundaries with various message points marked. The points were lit up when a patrol car radioed HQ.

The map was made up of Scrabble tile-sized bits. An officer had the wiring instructions.

After several days on the tiles, Ann packed it up in several boxes to go to the Museum of Justice in Nottingham.

Piece work, she hopes they had the time and patience to reassemble it.

THEN there’s an email from former North Yorkshire officer Steve Guest, who recalls that shortly after he joined Merseyside police in 1975, he heard his grandfather used the f-word for the first and last time.

Grandfather had also been a Liverpool bobby, a Jesmond lad rejected by his home force because he was only 5ft 11ins.

The job, he said, was – well – finished.

“Finished” is an f-word, and must suffice.

“He said I’d hear that a lot and he wasn’t wrong, not least from my father- in-law who’d joined in 1952,”

says Steve.

Steve retired in 2005, his daughter became a police officer the following year.

“I might not use the precise term,”

he adds, “but guess what I hear myself saying...”

…and finally a festive plea. I need a Santa Claus outfit, preferably fulllength, to be used on the evening of Tuesday, December 22. It’ll be returned, in good order, before the serious side of the Ho-ho-ho industry begins two days later. An email or call to 01325-505085 would be much appreciated. There may even be a mince pie in it.