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24 September 2014

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40,000 in Heaton Park

If you took your stereo down to Heaton Park, how many people would turn up to listen? Almost a century before the BBC Proms in The Park, a Manchester gramophone salesman drew a crowd of 40,000 - playing his record collection!

Crowd in Heaton Park, 1909

BBC Proms in the Park takes place on Saturday with 15,000 people expected to turn out to watch the BBC Philharmonic perform live on stage in Heaton Park. The finale to the evening, will be a live link up with the Last Night of the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall for a flag-waving patriotic sing-along.

It’s the first time the Proms event has gone urban – and been staged in a city venue. But Heaton Park has a tradition of playing classical music to the masses which dates back almost a century...

William Grimshaw
Gramophone King: William Grimshaw

That tradition was started early last century by William Grimshaw from Prestwich. Grimshaw originally sold bicycles from his shop on Bury New Rd but expanded his trade to include the new invention of the day – the gramophone.

In 1909, William Grimshaw listened to the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso perform at the Free Trade Hall. He wanted to share this experience with the ordinary people of Manchester so, a few days later, he took his gramophone to Heaton Park and played recordings of Caruso to an assembled crowd of 40,000 people!

"He always liked the public and I think that was why: because he wanted to bring pleasure, to bring music to people who weren’t able to afford it"
Susan Cahal

Local papers such as the Manchester Evening Chronicle and the Crumpsall Guardian reported that the trams from Manchester and Bury were unable to cope with the huge numbers of concert-goers.

An extract from the Sound Wave and Talking Machine Record, printed in December 1909 reports the occasion as follows:

“In the course of his tour of the provinces, Signor Caruso’s engagements took him to Manchester on September 13 and with his usual enterprise, Mr Grimshaw gave a Gramophone concert in Heaton Park on the following Sunday embracing all the items sung by Caruso… A vast crowd, estimated to number at least 40,000 assembled to hear the Gramophone.”

Enrico Caruso - by Caruso
Caruso: by Caruso

Caruso himself wrote to Mr Grimshaw expressing his thanks and appreciation of the way his voice had been reproduced. He even sent Grimshaw a signed cartoon of himself! (see below)

Photographs show crowds dressed formally in Edwardian suits and dresses, wearing caps and hats all listening attentively. Indeed, in the words of the Prestwich and Heaton Park Guardian…

“… they remained as if spellbound from the moment of arrival to the close of the programme, which, it is hardly necessary to say, was intensely enjoyed.”

Grimshaw was the first man in England to give gramophone concerts in the open and the idea spread rapidly around the country. He was soon contracted by Manchester Corporation to hold them in Heaton Park for several seasons and the popularity of these events grew and grew.

Susan Cahal, great-granddaughter

In effect, he was the very first club DJ in the world. And for his tour bus? He used a Prestwich Co-op horse-drawn milk cart to transport his equipment to the Park.

William Grimshaw’s great-granddaughter is Susan Cahal who lives in Radcliffe. She says his concerts were so popular he became known across Lancashire as the Gramophone King.

"He always liked the public and I can only imagine that was why: because he wanted to bring pleasure, to bring music to people who weren’t able to afford machines in the home.

Poster for Gramophone concerts
A poster of one of Grimshaw's concerts

"In 1907, he told the Manchester Corporation that an extra large horn would enable large crowds of people who couldn’t afford equipment of their own to hear music in the open air which was becoming available on records.” 

She added: "As things were at the time, they didn’t have the same publicity to advertise events, and I think it was absolutely wonderful and very far seeing."

Far seeing indeed. Almost 100 years later, Heaton Park will be filled with the sounds of classical music again thanks to Proms in the Park. Grimshaw, I think, would approve.

last updated: 09/09/05
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