1917. 25th Middlesex Regiment Concert Party

Wed, 09/24/2014 - 21:14

These men were half way through five unforgettable years.

Who: The poster they're holding identifies them as 'The famous "Number Nines" concert party of the 25th Middlesex Regt'.

They live up to their name - each man wears a nine on each shirt collar, and a natty 'number nine' hat on his head.

In their day jobs they were soldiers in the 25th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment.

Where: The poster says their show is held 'At the Grand Palace of Varieties'. If we take it literally, they'd be performing in a music hall in Clapham. (The building still exists as a theatre today, the Clapham Grand. [1])

But the note on the back of the photo identifies the photo's location as Hong Kong. The performers are wearing chinese-styled shoes, so I'm happy to believe it:

Back of image DA008

The mention of the Grand Palace of Varieties was just a reminder of home to the soldiers in the audience.

What: The poster advertised the show as a 'concoction of original Middlesses at 9 p.m. A cure for all ills, why take pills'.

It may have been a show to the public, or more likely part of the Christmas show  for their fellow troops.

When: A timeline for the battalion helps pin down the date:

  • 1915. The 25th was one of four 'Navvie Battalions' raised by Colonel John Ward. The other three battalions ended up in the trenches of France, or dying of disease in Salonika, but the 25th seemed to have had good luck [2]. As far as I can see they remained in England until late 1916, when they were ordered to set sail to the Far East [3].
  • Feb 1917, Mined at sea.  On their way around the southern tip of Africa, their transport ship, Tyndareus, hit a mine. The men stayed calm, and all were rescued by other ships that steamed to their aid. The incident, and especially the conduct of the men, was reported around the world [4]. Locally, a stone and plaque near the Peak commemorated the incident, until it was removed to England in the 1990s [5].
  • 1917-18, Singapore & Hong Kong. Newspaper reports tell of a leisurely time for the troops. Surely a welcome break after the threat of joining the western front, then shipwreck.
    April 1: Governor of Singapore inspects the troops. Half stay, and the other half continue on to Hong Kong.
    April 30: The St John's Ambulance invite 400 men of the 25th to a Chinese meal at the To Yuen restaurant, West Point, Hong Kong. "The men were conveyed to the restaurant in seven special tramcars. [...] The novelty of the entertainment evidently appealed to the men, who struggled gallantly with chopsticks."
    July 3: The Saiyingpun school visited the Mount Austin Barracks, and trounced the soldiers (13.5 - 2.5) at chess.
    July 18: The Middlesex Band play a public concert at the Victoria Theatre.
    Aug: The Rambling section report 865 individual trips made by troops in July.
  • July 1918 The party's over. The ship Ping Suie brought the troops of the 25th from Singapore to Hong Kong. There the rest of the Battalion boarded, then they all sailed to Vladivostok.
  • Aug 1918. The troops arrived in Vladivostok on the 3rd August, and were soon digging trenches. Initially, the worst enemy was the local mosquito, that descended on them in hordes [6]. Later there would be fighting. (In an odd twist of fate their allies were the Japanese, fighting together against an army of Bolsheviks, Hungarians and Germans. The Middlesex Regiment had soldiers in Hong Kong again in 1941, but then the Japanese soldiers were the enemy.)
  • Sep 1919. Ward, their commander, finally returned to England on 3 September 1919 [7]. I'm guessing the troops returned at around the same time.

So, the photo was taken some time between April 1917, and their departure in July 1918. It was a Christmas show, so that pins us down to 1917. And as a final confirmation, this type of photographic paper (see the 'Velox' stamp box with a diamond in each corner) was manufactured from 1907 to 1917 [8].

Please leave a comment below if you have any questions or corrections.

Regards, David


  1. The Clapham Grand
  2. Chapter 21 of 'Navvyman'
  3. Battalions of the Middlesex Regiment, 1914-18
  4. New York Times: 'Battalion of Middlesex Regiment Face Death Lined Up And Singing Popular Songs'
  5. Tyndareus Stone
  6. The Siberian Sojourn Volume II- Chapter 18
  7. John Ward
  8. Playle's Real Photo Postcard Stamp Boxes

Reference: EA008

Date picture taken
25 Dec 1917


One of the surprises at yesterday's exhibition was an original menu from the April 30 welcome dinner mentioned above. Amazing that this little scrap of paper has survived safely for nearly 100 years.

Regards, David

Heather Day was celebrated by the Scottish Community on 30 November and 1 December 1917 at St Andrew's Fair held at the fair grounds (Murray Parade Ground and Cricket Ground).  All money that was raised at the fair was for wounded and disabled soldiers.

As part of the Heather Day celebrations, the Famous "Number Nines" Concert Party of the 25th Middlesex Regiment was held at the Murray Parade Ground on 1 December 1917. The official programme of that evening's event included the following performances:

1917. 25th Middlesex Regiment Concert Party











The 'Grand Palace of Varieties', I reckon was a temporary stage erected for the Fair and the evening's entertainment.

As for the photo postcard, the Hong Kong Telegraph on 3 December 1917 announced that "A Fong" (the photographer) had taken 14 splendid photos of the Heather Day festivities and that the photos were available for public viewing at Messrs. A Tack and Company's store at 26 Des Voeux Road. Perhaps that is the origin of the photo.

Thanks Moddsey, that's an excellent find. I'm very pleased to see that it confirmed as a Hong Kong photo.

So there was an actual 'Grand Palace ...', not an imaginary name as I'd guessed.

Regards, David

PS Please could you jot down the source (newspaper & date) over on the clipping page?

Hi - I have just found this photo and website link by doing research into the 25th Middlesex Regiment. I'm currently researching family tree and have found my great grandfather was part of this regiment who went to Vladivostok. Would anyone know the names of the people in the photo above in the off chance that perhaps he was one of them? Probably a long shot but worth a try!



Hi, I have just come across this photograph and I may be able to offer one name as a member of the concert party! My Grandfather John Richard Callard was a sergeant in the Middlesex Regiment and was a member of a Middlesex regiment concert party that entertained the troups in Siberia.  When I was 7 yo he taught me some Russian and the cyrillic alphabet and spoke about his time in Siberia.  I also know that he caught malaria - this could have been in Singapore or in Siberia.  

He joined up in 1915 and served in France and was not initially in the 25th regiment.  He was back in London in mid June 1919 when he got married. 

I am not certain that he was a member of the Number Nines but I doubt that there were too many concert parties there at this time.  I do not have any photos of him at this time so I cannot definitely identify him but I suspect that he is the one holding the poster.  My Aunt was not able to provide any additional information about him during this time but I am trying to see if other relatives have photographs or other information about him during this time.

Have you been contacted by anyone else with suggestions of who might be in the line up?



Hi John,

Thanks for writing. I haven't heard any other suggestions about who is in this photo. It would be great to identify them, so fingers crossed some of your family photos can turn up a match.

Regards, David

At last week's Stampex I saw another copy of this postcard, but with writing on the back. The seller kindly let me note it down (may not be 100% correct as the handwriting wasn't very clear):

No.9 Concert Party
25th Middx Regt. Hong Kong
Standing Left to Right: A.G. Crane, P.Howard, A.E.Tonslin, H.Fowler & H. Norris
Sitting: W.G.A. Picking, E.L. Marchesi & C. Parsons
Heathers Day Fete
Nov 30 - Dec 1, 1917

I have more about the story behind “The Famous Number Nines”.

The key is what they’re wearing, basically a variant of prison fatigues. Knowing the RN system, I wondered whether this was an army equivalent to the RN’s punishment system.

From what I can find out it isn’t. The probable answer is instead to be found in Eric Partridge’s marvelous A dictionary of slang and unconventional English. Therein he tells us that Number Nine was the 1820-1850 slang for the old Fleet Prison (because of its address at No. 9, Fleet Market. So it was around as a bit of slang at society’s demotic end and by 1915, by which time the Fleet Prison (demolished 1846) was long gone, looking for a home.

By one of those wondrous military derivations it became army slang for the regimental quack (military slang for the MO) in 1915, not because the quacks were prison warders or natural gaol bait, but rather because they administered a punishment equivalent to a prison term, the famous No 9 pill. It was their standard remedy for constipation (a perennial army complaint), so shorthand for a purgative and a stretch in purgatory.

Hence, by another wondrous mental shift, Number Nines as of 1917 became the army slang for prunes, those splendid breakfast movement encouragers of prep school days…a term for prunes I can still recall both my grandfather and father using when I was a boy!

So, the concert party name was an elaborate spoof on the regimental medical officer and staff, the army punishment system and, self-referentially, to the probable effect of their act on the audience.

I realise, by the by, given what we now understand about Number Nines, that a further clue was there in the notice: “…their concoction of original Middlesses".

There is an NZ Army story of a standard, sub-unit medicine chest with 14 numbered bottles of tinctures and pills. In bottle No. 9 was a concoction (there’s the word) of colocynth, the standard purgative of the day, which included ginger, rhubarb, etc. as well as the main ingredient, colocynth (citrullus colocynthis, aka bitter apple, bitter cucumber, desert gourd, egusi, vine of Sodom, or wild gourd (!) - marvelous recipe in John Savory, A companion to the medicine chest, and compendium of domestic medicine, 2nd enlarged ed., London: John Churchill, 1840, p.35).  

My suspicion is that ‘Middlesses’ is a play on molasses…but I can’t find any obvious early 20th century military medicinal reference.



To put icing on the cake, for those who can remember Bingo (Housey-Housey), the caller traditionally announces the drawing of nine as "Doctor's Orders....Number Nine". That's real cultural penetration!


I have an account of the incident regarding the Tyndareus hitting the German mine off Cape Agulhas, referred to by David above, written by a soldier who was present named Sydney Catt.

It makes interesting reading and if anyone is interested I can forward a copy . (tideswell27@hotmail.com).

Incidentally the Tyndareus Stone, also referred to above, was originally displayed in the National Army Museum in London following its shameful return to the U.K. It has now been put into storage in a warehouse elsewhere in the country! There is a very small group of us in Hong Kong who are actively campaigning to have it returned here - but it is not proving easy.