THE Grand Theatre, one of Wolverhampton's most prestigious buildings, was opened 120 years ago to great acclaim. Its seating capacity was a staggering 2,151, and after the opening ceremony had been conducted by the Mayor of Wolverhampton, Alderman Charles Mander, and his wife in December 1894, the famous D'Oyly Carte Opera Company performed Gilbert and Sullivan's Utopia Limited.
The evening was an outstanding success with many hundreds of people having to be turned away for lack of space. Speeches full of praise followed, congratulatory telegrams, including one from the actor Henry Irving, and a celebratory dinner that was enjoyed after the performance. The stage had been set for artists such as Charlie Chaplin, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving to follow suite, and in later years Marlene Dietrich and singer Ella Fitzgerald would grace the boards at the Grand.
But no performance or speech at the Grand Theatre could have been more important than the one delivered just after the Great War Armistice by the incumbent Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, and this unique anecdote from the history of the Black Country was imparted on an audience inside Bilston Town Hall last Tuesday (August 12) by former Bilston councillor and life-long historian Tom Larkin.
In a speech that was part of the Black Country Memories Club's Great War commemorations, Tom delivered a local history lesson like no other. He wouldn't mind us describing him as an old war horse, especially when it comes to his knowledge about local politics and local history. But by bringing the two subjects together on this occasion it was like presenting manna from heaven for this 84-year-old wily gent. Tom stood impassioned at the lectern against a dramatic backdrop designed and co-ordinated by Megan FitzGerald Plummer and other members of the BCMC, who had managed to transform the Town Hall stage into the profile of a Flanders trench, with poppies sprouting from a row of sandbags, and Tom described the aftermath of the First World War as being almost as ugly as the fighting in the trenches.
He said: "I'm not here to talk about battles and honours, defeats and victories and the glorious dead, although wherever we live in the Black Country we will never forget the ultimate sacrifice paid by so many between 1914 and 1918.
"I'm here to talk about the effects the Great War had on the Black Country, and the home truths that were to dominate politics way past the end of the Second World War."
Tom spoke about the General Election that was called within days of the last shot being fired on November 11, 1918. "The Black Country, like other industrial centres throughout the land, had answered the call during the war to increase munitions' production and other essential hardware to win the conflict, and the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, being a very canny politician, recognised the Black Country as the ideal battleground to launch a winter General Election.
"In those early post-war days Lloyd George was a national hero, hailed as the man who had won the war, and it was to the Grand Theatre in Wolverhampton where he came to deliver his iconic speech which in hindsight now includes one of the most infamous lines in political history - 'Building a land fit for heroes'. He promised comprehensive reforms to deal with poor education, housing, health and transport, a monumental task at the best of times, but in 1919 there was no escape from the home truth. The war had cost this country in the region of £6 billion."
Every so often during his narrative Tom would pause, not directing his words like a machine gun, but giving time for a specific statement to register its importance, like a sniper taking aim and hitting a target from a long distance. He mentioned the strikes that were called in the coalfields and on the railways after these industries were handed back into private hands from being Government controlled during the war; the General Strike of 1926 and how it effected the ordinary bloke in the street; and the Great Depression of the 1930s.
For many, both here in the Black Country and further afield, the words Lloyd George had spoken at the Grand, 'A land fit for heroes', seemed terribly hollow as they fought hunger, unemployment and awful living conditions. The state of housing in Bilston was so bad the town became known as the slum capital of England.
As part of the Great War 100th anniversary commemorations at Bilston Town Hall there were several standing exhibitions in the room, including exhibitions recognising the 70th anniversary of D-Day, some generalising about conditions, others focusing on Black Country men who had fought and died. However, the most poignant display of all filled the screen at the centre of the stage.
As Tom described the home truths and effects the First World War had had on the Black Country, a series of pictures, showing suffering, comradeship, care for the wounded, a soldier picking a bunch of poppies from the battlefield, the destruction of buildings, the weeping of women and children, and many more Great War images, were projected and repeated in sequence over a five-minute period. Every time they came into view they made a bigger impression and reinforced the statement: "This should have been the war that ended all wars!"
Ballads - See Page 14