THEY performed for the biggest names in business, politics and even royalty, yet many people in Newport have never heard of the Gwent Glee Male Voice Choir.
The 21-strong choir cracked America in the early 1900s in a way which wouldn’t be seen again until The Beatles, giving private shows at the family homes of steelmagnate AndrewCarnegie, the Rockefellers’, and even president Woodrow Wilson at the White House.
The group, who on their early tours from 1912, were all from Newport before later adding members from further afield in Gwent, were hailed by papers across America as “The World’s Greatest Singers”, and their shows were promoted as must-see events for communities from Salt Lake City to Texas.
Performing traditional Welsh songs like Men of Harlech, as well as hits of the time and renditions not heard before like The Blue Danube, the choir was invited to perform at the unveiling of the first ever Christmas tree at Madison Square, New York, in 1912, singing to more than 5,000 people, before winning the National Eisteddfod in 1913 and going on to perform for King GeorgeVand the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace later that year.
But tragedy would strike in May 1915 when the ocean liner RMS Lusitania, carrying seven members of the choir, was torpedoed by a German U-boat, killing David Thomas Hopkins, baritone Isaac “Ike” Talbot Jones, and conductor George F Davies.
The tragedy fragmented the choir, with the four members who survived the disaster going on to set up their own group, singing about how they survived the tragedy.
For 26-year-old Aimee Hibberd, from Gaer, the mystery surrounding what happened to the group, who seem to disappear from records after 1917, and why so little is known of them in their home city has become a passion.
The former Newport University student’s greatgrandfather, William Sergeant, and his brother, Francis, both from the Baneswell area, were original members of the choir.
“My gran, Gwen Sergeant, always talked about her dad and how he was in the choir.
She had a picture of them all, which we now have in our house, and it just got me thinking I wanted to know more about them.
“I can’t believe they were so famous in America, people used to scream for encores and physically prevent them from leaving the stage, yet no-one in Newport has heard of them and I think we should be proud of them.
“To me I sort of think of them like the Backstreet Boys, with women screaming at this choir of men in tuxedos, forcing them to sign autographs,” she jokes.”