The musical ‘spies’ of Tenth Avenue

On 11 August 1914, only a week after Britain had joined World War 1, newspapers right across a country on edge reported that two brothers ‘British born but of foreign extraction’ had been arrested and charged under the Official Secrets Act.

Beers brothers at Tynemouth photo collage reimagining

Photo collage reimagining by Heaton History Group member, Janet Burn

A young sea scout from North Shields said he’d seen them, along with a third man, direct a camera at the fortifications at Tynemouth. In court he said that at 7 o’clock the previous Sunday he had seen three men, two of whom were in the dock, proceeding along the sands towards the castle. One of them had a camera. They were playing with a ball. Afterwards they sat down in a circle. The scout said he was unable to see the camera at this point. He kept observation on them and afterwards saw them upon a seat. One of them put the camera on his knee and against his breast, pointing it towards the fortifications. He tried to conceal the camera with one hand. The scout added that he at once reported the matter and the men were arrested.

In the dock, the accused were asked if they understood English. ‘We ARE English’ was the reply. ‘We were born in Newcastle’. Asked about their occupations, the elder brother replied that he was ‘engaged at a picture hall in Newcastle’; while the younger said he was in a Whitley Bay orchestra. Both men were remanded in custody for eight days.

The following day they appeared in court again. The Chief Constable said that he had made careful enquiries. They were respectable young men and he asked that they be discharged. Nevertheless, the Mayor, Councillor Gregg, didn’t absolve the brothers from all blame. He said they had brought the trouble on themselves through their own foolishness: had they been more frank at the time, they would not have been in that position. Both young men thanked the magistrate and left the court.

Similar incidents were taking place all over the country. Everyone was nervous; people didn’t really know what form the war would take; there was, as yet, no trained ‘home guard’ and boy scouts, in particular, had been asked to help with the war effort by reporting anything suspicious. We might draw parallels with the aftermath of 9/11.

Who were the brothers?

The two young men were Leo Luke (25) and Aloysius Anthony (21) Beers of 18 Tenth Avenue, Heaton.

Cartoon by Robin Beers, Aloysius's grandson

Cartoon by Robin Beers, Aloysius’s grandson

As was eagerly noted in the news reports, they were indeed of ‘foreign extraction’. Their father Simon Hubertus Beers was Dutch, although he had lived in Britain for over 50 years, having been brought to Britain by his parents as a teenager. He had married a Liverpudlian, Elizabeth Hughes, and eventually settled in the North East. Simon too was a musician as was his father before him. His sister was a singer and at least one of his bothers was a musician too.

By 1891 the family (Simon, Elizabeth and three children Adrian, Hubert and Leo) were living in Heaton, at 30 Kingsley Place and by 1901, Elizabeth had died and the family had moved to 64 Meldon Terrace. Simon had been left with 6 children. On census night, 1901 Simon was at home with 3 of them and a housekeeper: Adrian, now 16 was described as a merchant’s clerk and Joseph (9) and Aloysius (7) were at school.

By 1911, Simon and the children still living at home, Leo (22), Joseph (19), Aloysius (18) and Bernard (17) were at 18 Tenth Avenue. They are all described as ‘professors of music’. Simon is said to be self-employed; Leo, Joseph and Bernard play in theatre orchestra and Aloysius is at this point out of work. Although the boys went their separate ways, Simon continued to live on Tenth Avenue for 20 more years. He died there on 6 February 1931 at the age of c86.

Leo’s story

Leo Luke Beers was born on 18 October 1888 and baptised ten days later at St Dominic’s on Shields Road. Beyond knowing that he grew up in a large and very musical household and that he lost his mother as a young boy, we know little of Leo’s childhood. However, online records and archival material afford us tantalising glimpses into his life following being branded, albeit briefly, an alien and a spy.

We don’t know whether the arrest and the attendant publicity was a factor but it wasn’t long before Leo left Newcastle. In September 1915, the Bath Chronicle, announcing the famous Pump Room Orchestra for the forthcoming season, introduced its new first violin: ‘Mr Leo Beers… has been the leader and principal violin of the Theatre Royal, Newcastle’.

Three months later, records show that Leo had enlisted for the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. This was before the Military Service Act, 1916 introduced conscription and so presumably, Leo volunteered. However, two months later, in February 1916, by which time the Act had been passed, he applied for exemption from military service on personal and domestic grounds but asked for his appeal to be considered in private. The tribunal agreed and later announced that a temporary certificate of exemption on domestic grounds would be granted. That April, it was reported that Leo’s appeal had been heard privately by Bath City Tribunal but had been adjourned until 1 May for further enquiries to be made. Luke’s military record card shows only that he was discharged on 28 August 1918 ‘no longer fit for duty’.

The next glimpse we have is some nine years after the war ended, by which time Leo was 38 years old. On 17 June 1927, he set sail from Liverpool to Quebec as a member of the ship’s orchestra, returning two weeks later. Interestingly in the ten strong ensemble, there were two other musicians from Heaton: Vincent Caygill of 19 Heaton Grove and John Robert Young of 149 Rothbury Terrace.

Leo Beers in later life

Leo Beers in later life

Leo spent the latter part of his life living in London. He died in December 1975 in Kensington.

Wishy’s story

Aloysius Anthony Beers was born on 1 November 1892 and he was baptised on 13 November, also at St Dominic’s. Like his brother, Aloysius didn’t stay in Heaton long after the start of the war. By December 1915, he was living in Glasgow and was married to Margaret Paterson, a ‘mantle maker’. On 6 January 1916, just four weeks after their wedding, their son Adrian was born. Aloysius too played in a ship’s orchestra at one stage. He sailed from Glasgow to Montreal in April 1931.

Aloysius Beers (extreme right) with other members of a ship's orchestra

Aloysius Beers (extreme right) with other members of a ship’s orchestra

We know too that in the years following World War 2, the brothers were reunited again. For a time, Leo was living with Aloysius, Margaret and other family members in London.

It’s because his son became at least the fourth generation to inherit the Beers family’s musical talent that we can add some colour to the raw data from the archives. Aloysius was referred to in Adrian’s obituaries as ‘Aloysius ‘Wishy’ Beers, ‘a Glaswegian’ (though we know, of course, that he was in fact originally a Geordie!) double-bass player who taught his son to play cello, piano and double bass and played with him in Glasgow music halls. Adrian became a classical musician of the highest order. He played in world famous orchestras and ensembles and was a good friend of Benjamin Britten. The Melos Ensemble, of which he was a founding member, played at the 1962 premier of Britten’s ‘War Requiem’ in the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral on 30 May 1962, the original cathedral having been destroyed in World War 2.

Aloysius’s granddaughter, Jackie Khan, has kindly provided Heaton History Group with additional information about the family. She told us that that Leo and Aloysius’s elder brother Hubert was a musical hall artist who used the stage name Jock Macpherson.

Brother Joseph John Septimus Beers (born 8 April 1891) was, like Luke, a professional violinist until he enlisted with the 2nd Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. He died in active service on 10 July 1917. He is buried in Coxyde Military Cemetery in Belgium. Jackie said: ‘Joseph was killed in Flanders on the battlefield in 1917, found shell-shocked, sitting holding his hands over his ears, with fright on his face, dead’.

Sketch by Heaton History Group member, Mark James

Sketch by Heaton History Group member, Mark James

We don’t know whether Adrian’s father, Aloysius, was in the audience at the premier of ‘War Requiem’ but his son performing this powerful anti-war piece of music on such a symbolic national occasion will have been emotional for him, as he recalled not only his own wartime experiences but also his brother’s death.

Aloysius died just a few weeks later on 25 June 1962 at the age of 69. Adrian was awarded an MBE in 1990 for services to music and died in 2004.

Postscript

But that’s not the end of the story. The Beers musical genes have been passed down another two generations. Aloysius’s great-granddaughter and Adrian’s granddaughter is a very talented pianist and composer. Jean Beers has just spent a year as Composer in Residence at Eton College where she composed a piece of music for a symphony orchestra, commemorating World War One and inspired by the death of her great great uncle, Joseph John Septimus Beers.

Her aunt, Jackie Khan, who kindly found photographs of Leo and Aloysius and commissioned her brother, Robin, to produce a sketch especially for our website and exhibition, said; ‘They [the Beers of Heaton] would be very proud of her, as would her grandfather.’

Music continues to thrive in Heaton too, of course. Fittingly, there is even a well-established and still flourishing ensemble called ‘Tenth Avenue Band’, founded in 1988 at Chillingham Road School on the very avenue where the Beers had lived.

Heaton Avenues in Wartime

Heaton History Group has been awarded Heritage Lottery Fund funding to enable it to research and recount the impact of World War One on a Tyneside neighbourhood. If you would like to get involved by helping with research, illustrating the stories we uncover, mounting exhibitions or organising events – or if you have information relating to WW1, especially relating to Heaton, including First to Tenth Avenues, please contact: Chris Jackson, Secretary, Heaton History Group via chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

There is a related exhibition of original documents and artworks in the lounge bar of the Chillingham pub on Chillingham Road. It is planned to run until May 2016. The display will change approximately every two months.

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