They were the Newport men whose choir took the States by storm and sang at the White House, yet few in Gwent have heard of them. MARTIN WADE tells the story of the Gwent Glee Choir.

THE family of Newport woman Aimee Hibberd know all about the time the Gwent Glee Choir sang for the President of America.

Her great-grandfather William Sergeant was a member. “He was still alive when my mum was young so the story was always in the family," Ms Hibberd said.

“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. This amazing fact that he performed for the president - it's part of family folklore" she says.

The 21-strong choir, like all Welsh male voice choirs, was made up of amateurs – all ordinary working men. There was an office clerk, a stone mason, some general labourers, among others.

William Sergeant and his brother Francis, were both original members of the choir.

"They used to perform at the Great Central Hall in Newport," Ms Hibberd added. "But they were just a group or ordinary guys from Newport."

Ordinary men they might have been, but the music and the effect they had was extraordinary.

Before travelling to America in 1912, the choir had won the National Eisteddfod and went on to perform for King George V and the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace. They often sang at the Coliseum in London and entertained the Prince of Wales, the Czar of Russia and the German Emperor, but it was their visit to the US which saw their fame really explode.

The choir travelled to the States in 1912 and toured towns and cities across the country. They were a massive hit.

Ms Hibberd recalled: "Newspapers would be writing about the choir weeks before they gave their concert in a particular place."

She also tells how there would be weeks of build-up before they performed and the concerts would be review in minute details, with each song described in great detail.

She said she sees their impact as being like that of a boyband today wearing tuxedos.

“That kind of hype is something you’d see with One Direction,” she added. “They had women screaming at them, forcing them to sign autographs!”

Such was the impact they had they were invited to give private shows at the family homes of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, the Rockerfellers’, and the then president Woodrow Wilson at the White House.

They sang traditional Welsh songs like Men of Harlech and contemporary songs. 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.

They 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.

They were even asked to sing for the President's daughter's wedding, which sadly they couldn't do because they were already scheduled to sing elsewhere in the US.

After making appeals on the internet for information about the choir, Ms Hibberd somehow found recordings of the choir singing. Considering they were from a Welsh Male Voice Choir singing in the early years of recording technology, the fact she has managed to track them down at all is astounding.

"The records are made of Shellac, a kind of early plastic and need to be played on a Victrola machine," she said. "A man form Swansea fortunately had one and I managed to play one and record it digitally."

Another record came from the University of York. "They had one of their recordings in the sound library," Ms Hibberd added. "It was the first time I'd heard them sing - it was amazing."

There is a touching story about how she came to have one of the recordings. “After I'd started researching to choir, I had an e-mail from a man in Indianapolis saying he had a record and would I like it," she said.

"He phoned me up and said he'd like me to have it as I would appreciate it much more."

Ms Hibberd says she now has two out of three of their recordings and she's hunting for the third. She is grateful to have the recordings she has.

"The records are over 100 years old and I'm almost frightened to touch them," she added. "But the very fact that they made them in the first place is impressive for such a choir. They only had 100 made, so for me to have two of them is wonderful."

The recordings were made as part of their tours in the US and were classed as 'ethnic music' by Columbia Records.

After winning the National Eisteddfod, the choir had been presented with an ivory baton. The choir called this their ‘lucky baton’ as from then on their fortunes were good. However, their good luck was not to survive.

The choir had travelled to America in 1915 and had performed successfully at venues across the country. Seven members were travelling back from the United Sates when tragedy struck. The men were on the liner Lusitania when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat of the coast of Ireland. It was an act that would be remembered as an unprovoked attack on a neutral ship carrying civilians.

What is not remembered is the impact it had on the choir. Of the choristers on board David Thomas Hopkins, baritone Isaac “Ike” Talbot Jones and conductor George F Davies all perished.

Surviving members of the choir sang in their lifeboat to keep up the spirits of fellow passengers.

By chance, Ms Hibberd's great-grandfather was not on the Lusitania.

“He had flu at the time and was supposed to follow the rest of the choir over on another ship,” she said.

The tragedy led to the break-up of 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.

Despite finding so much about the choir, Ms Hibberd still finds it hard to take in.

"The more I look into it the more incredible it is," she said.

“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.”