The LSO in World War I: Eli Hudson

If he were alive today, there is no doubt that the flautist Elijah Rennison Hudson would be referred to as a child prodigy.

From a musical family, he played in the Hudson family band on the pier in Skegness. They were a well-known act at the time and Eli was presented to the Duke of Edinburgh when he visited the town and played for the German kaiser when he was 12 years old. At the age of 17 he was offered an open scholarship to the Royal College of Music, and on 2 May 1895 he moved from Prospect House in Skegness to 14 Oakley Crescent in Chelsea to begin his studies.

Records at the RCM described him as “...an artist of outstanding merit. He had extraordinary executive ability and a beautiful tone, which was of considerable power and most appealing quality. Everybody who heard the college orchestra at the time when Hudson was first flute was aware at once that an artist of unusual brilliance was prominent amongst the wind instrument players. The exquisite finish of his phrasing attracted great attention, and his rendering of solo-passages was so sensitive that one came to listen especially for the parts of works in which he had a prominent share.”

Although his immediate family were musicians, he also had long standing connections with the Baptist church. Eli’s Grandfather had founded and built Reheboth Chapel, Lancashire in 1852. His great grandfather even made the journey to Plymouth Church in Brooklyn NY, where he studied the organ for five years under Professor Zendal before returning to Lancashire. Perhaps this explains why after the flute, his second study instrument at the RCM was the organ! He graduated in 1889 after winning the Silvani Award and the Smith Prize for wind players. Very quickly after leaving college his reputation as a brilliant player saw him working with all of the finest orchestras in London including the London Symphony Orchestra and Queen's Hall Orchestra, as well as the Crystal Palace Orchestra, where he was a regular soloist. He appeared as soloist in Bach’s Orchestral Suite No 2 in Prom 48 at the Queen's Hall.

Eli Hudson with flute

Although a gifted flautist, Eli Hudson wasn’t content to simply play in an orchestra and new technology and an entrepreneurial nature saw him quickly exploring other ways of working. During his time at the RCM he met and fell in love with a Welsh singer, Eleanor Jones. A major singing talent, she gave up the chance of studying in Milan to be with him and they married in 1899. They formed a trio where Eleanor used the stage name Olga and Eli’s sister, Winifred called herself Elgar after their friend, the composer Edward Elgar. During the pre-war period they travelled around the country topping the bill with their music hall act. Unlike many of the bawdy acts that toured during that time, Olga, Elgar and Eli Hudson promoted themselves as a classy act. They toured with their own stage manager who carefully arranged the stage with palms, lamps and drapes to create the atmosphere of a Victorian drawing room and they always performed in full concert dress (see pic below, a publicity shot from 1909). In his collected letters, Sir John Gielgud recalls seeing them amongst the normal music hall style of acts.

The Hudson trio publicity shot“I love to remember a fearfully grand turn called Olga, Elgar and Eli Hudson - three posh vocalists performing amid a welter of shaded standard lamps and bearskin rugs. I even played there myself once. We were top of the bill, and a great flop sandwiched between Teddy Brown and his xylophone (an enormously fat man) and the Houston sisters (who gave slight imitations of us and vastly amused the customers). There was also a silent clown called Robbins, who did a marvelous act changing his costume twenty times in front of the audience.”

As well as relentless touring, the trio both as a group and individually took full advantage of the new recording industry. Eleanor recorded under several names and was reportedly the first singer to record in Welsh. Eli made over a hundred recordings, many of them spectacularly virtuosic pieces for the piccolo. The state of recording technology at the time favoured the sound of the piccolo above lower instruments and Eli’s brilliant technique meant that he was in a perfect position to exploit the new genre. Showpieces such as The Wren and other Victoriana were bought in vast quantities. He was also a great arranger and appeared conducting various freelance bands and orchestras on disc. Some of his recordings survive although it’s impossible to know just how many recordings he made in his lifetime. You can listen to a recording of him playing on Robert Bigio’s wonderful flute website.

Playbill for Leeds HippodromeAlthough they were active long before the charts were broadcast every week, they had a huge hit with The Sunshine of your Smile. The music was rumoured to have been bought from a tramp that Eli met, and after arranging it, it became a huge hit. Unbelievably, it is still available to buy online!

By 1904, as well as performing in some of the first LSO concerts, the trio were travelling the length of the country, frequently with their three children in tow. Before the outbreak of war, Eli Hudson had gained celebrity status as a flute player, a piccolo player, conductor, arranger, music hall star and recording artist. It’s what music colleges today would call a "portfolio career".

War Breaks Out

Things changed with the outbreak of war however. Whilst many men joined up at the outbreak of hostilities, Hudson, at the age of 37, didn’t straight away. A war which was going to be over by Christmas probably didn’t need a 37 year old flute and piccolo player in its ranks. However, Hudson was approached by an old colleague of his, Seymour Hicks who had arranged for some entertainment to be taken out to the troops in France and Belgium. It was being billed as The National Theatre and “the Front”. Hudson was famous enough to be a major act to entertain the troops. One of his recordings, "Old Nick," was actually taken on a 78 record into the trenches by Lt C.R. Tobitt of the Royal Engineers to listen to on his wind up gramophone!

Announced on Christmas Eve, 1914 and arranged in conjunction with the war office, a number of well known artists offered their services. The playbill was announced in the Evening Post on 13 February 1915:

UNIQUE PLAYBILL
THE NATIONAL THEATRE AT “THE FRONT.”
A Tent. A Roadside. A Hospital. Anywhere.
SOLDIERS.
Fellow-countrymen of whom we are so proud,
and to whom we owe so much,
By permission of Fild-Marshal (sic) Earl Kitchener of Khartoum, O.M., G.C.S.L, etc Secretary of State for War,
And with the approval of Field-Marshal Sir John French O.M., K.C.M.G., etc Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force.

We, your brothers and sisters, have come over from England to try and entertain and amuse you during New Year’s Week, and to bring you “A Message from Home.” You have only to command us, and we shall be proud to give you the best entertainment in our power. At any time And At any Place.

The playbill for the concerts was full of enthusiastic praise for the quality of entertainment which was being presented to the troops. Seymour Hicks proudly stated that, “It’s a long, long way to Tipperary. But not too far for us, bless you." They were at great pains to stress that the show would actually be better than anything the troops had seen before.

Ellaline Terrise will sing more sweetly and act more charmingly than ever for you. Seymour Hicks will perspire more freely. Ben Davies will sing as he has never sung before. Gladys Cooper will act and look more like her postcards than they do. Ivy St Helier will delight you as she has always done. Willie Frame will make you laugh as much in France as he does in Bonnie Scotland. Och, Hi! Will Van Allen will patter and play all day. The Cinematograph will show you thousands of feet of amusing films. Come in Soldiers. God Protect you and your brave Allies. Long Live England! Vive La France! Bravo, Brave Belgium! The price of admission is our gratitude to you.

The patriotic feelings being stirred back in England and the mass enlistment by young men probably had Eli Hudson feeling that he could do his bit for King and Country. I wonder how he felt coming from the music hall theatre and performances with the LSO, when he first encountered the the theatre of war. An article written about the concerts paints an interesting picture of what they found. The reporter followed the party to a concert took place in the casino at Boulogne which had been converted into a military hospital. All the green tables were laid aside and replace with beds. When the party arrived, the troops' sweetheart (one of many) Gladys Cooper distributed postcards with pictures of herself which had been signed by all the performers. Whilst I’m sure the injured troops were glad of the autographs, I imagine that most of them were more interested in the picture of Miss Cooper. She of course went on to star in films for many years and amongst others, received an Academy Award nomination for her role as the mother in My Fair Lady; she was later to become Dame Gladys Cooper DBE. As well as these cards, she also distributed New Year cards with a specially composed song by A. Wimperis which was called Your Country Needs You. Part of the chorus runs

We are really proud of you For you’ll be among the first When the shells begin to burst. And we love you for your courage too Oh we think you’re simply splendid every one.

These words seem a little odd to have sung to the troops in the circumstances, as all of the troops were injured - they were indeed, among the first. The report continues.

"One man was lying prostrate, with the cradle in front which indicates grave injury to the leg, had his left arm strapped to his side, but he applauded by smacking the cradle in front of him with the flat of his left hand. Others could be seen keeping time to the music with their feet by the rise and fall of the red blankets."

The idea of the forces' sweetheart is still alive and well, be it a model or film star, nothing much has changed in the 21st century. However, the type of music provided now is very different. You don’t need to do much more than imagine Eli Hudson and his sister Olga performing, of all things, piccolo duets to modern day troops, to see how much tastes have changed. However, piccolo duets is what they got in 1915 - it’s a miracle that the Germans didn’t surrender on the spot. Casting aside modern feelings though, it seems that whatever they played, it was a huge success with the reporter informing us that,

Newspaper reports on Eli Hudson in the trenchesThunders of applause greeted the flute and piccolo duets of Eli and Olga Hudson.

Seymour Hicks and his entertainers were at great pains to express how much pleasure they got from being given the opportunity of “lightening for a spell the labours and perils of our troops.”

Although the reports of jollity from these concerts is heartening to read, the reality of the situation in Europe was darkening. You only need look to the neighbouring columns of the newspaper on the same day to read about prisoners of war being shot and a chilling article which has the headline

NO MORE LAUGHTER
THIRTEEN THOUSAND WIDOWS IN DUSSELDORF
GERMANS REALISING THE TRUTH

After the experience of playing three or four concerts a day in various locations in France and Belgium over the Christmas and New Year period, Eli Hudson returned to London and to his former life, playing in the LSO in the increasingly sporadic concert dates that were still in the schedule and filling up the rest of his time with touring with the trio. It’s impossible to speculate on how the events of the war affected him. Whether the news of increasing number of casualties affected him, or maybe what he saw on that tour in 1915 changed his mind or whether or it was simply conscription, Eli’s life, like many during that time was about to turn its final corner.

On 3 January 1917, almost two years to the day since he returned from Boulogne, Eli Hudson made the short journey from his house to the Town Hall in Chiswick to enlist. Sydney Moxon, a trumpet player from the LSO, had enlisted in exactly the same place two years earlier. He had been Seargent Bugler in 15th Battalion of the London Regiment. On 25 October 1916 he had been carrying a wounded colleague back to the field hospital in the Salient. He was hit by enemy shells and killed. Surely, under three months after his friends death, Eli must have had his colleague on his mind as he joined up that morning. He was appointed as a Private #764433 in the 28th Battalion of the London Regiment (Artists Rifles), and trained at the Officer Cadet School at St Johns Wood. By March of 1917 he had finished his training and was recommended to be transferred to either the Siege Battery or Anti Aircraft division. On the 31 August 1917 he gained a permanent commission as 2nd Lieutenant Special Reserve of Officers in the Royal Garrison Artillery. Military records at this point are incomplete, many of them were destroyed in World War II. We don’t know exactly where he went at this point. There were rumours that he was involved in some kind of gas attack, but I can not find any evidence 100 years later. What we do know though is that his military career ended with him serving in the 46th Anti Aircraft Company of the RGA. Whatever happened to him during his time in the army, his health deteriorated rapidly and his concert work gradually faded as the war ended. His teeth deteriorated, his lungs grew weak and around Christmas time, he gave one last performance in the Queen's Hall in London.

A few days later, he was admitted to the Queen Alexandre Military Hospital in London but sadly, on 18 January 1919, he passed away from cancer of the stomach or liver depending on which record you read. He was 42 years old and his death was front page news around the country. He was buried in a war grave in Highgate Cemetery and his name is on the war memorial in the entrance hall of the Royal College of Music, alongside a generation of lost young musicians.

Eli Hudson in RGA uniform

The last photograph of Eli Hudson