Joe Vial was a child prodigy, amazing audiences with his violin performances from a very young age. He was often featured in the local newspaper;
‘Last but not least was the youthful Joe Vial, who executed a number of violin solos with a perfection of tone and expression that reflected the very highest credit on this rising young artist and his capable teacher (Mr Edwin Vial) who has every reason to feel proud. (Maitland Daily Mercury Aug. 21 1906)
The boy was from Maitland, in country New South wales. The following year his mark of 144 in the advanced grade at the State musical examinations won him a silver medal from the NSW Royal College of Music, the youngest ever recipient.
Joe was awarded a scholarship through London’s Royal College of Music to study in Leipzig, Germany at the city’s conservatorium. He left Australia on August 12 1912.
In mid July 1914 his father Edwin received a glowing report on Joe from Cour Hurter, one of the most prominent professors in Leipzig. But then, everything changed.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire was assassinated in Sarajevo on July 28. European military alliances then came into play, ultimately leading to World War I.
Within a few weeks Germany had invaded Belgium. In support of Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany. Innocent people were caught up in the widening conflict, including Joe Vial.
On September 14 the young violinist was heard speaking English in the streets of Leipzig. He was arrested, and gaoled as a British subject, and thus an enemy alien.
At the beginning of October a report from a German official insisted the prisoner was in the best of health and required no financial assistance; ‘He only wishes an opportunity to wash himself. An assurance has been given that the desire will be satisfied.‘ (The Bathurst Times Oct. 5 1914)
Unfortunately Joe did not remain well for long. The standard prison fare was described by a Mr Sturrock, who also spent time as a British prisoner in Germany and had met Joe. He said they were given only; ‘dry bread and water with some thin soup at midday.’ (Daily Telegraph May 27 1915)
Worse still, Joe’s cellmate was a Frenchman who was ill with TB (Consumption). As Joe became ill with the infectious disease himself be begged to be moved, but his request was repeatedly denied. Medical treatment was also withheld and it was only when he was barely able to walk that he was freed in a prisoner exchange after being interned for five months. Friends helped him travel to Rotterdam.
From Holland he was taken to St. Catherine’s Hospital in the coastal town of Ramsgate. It operated as a sanatorium, as the sea air was thought to help patients with consumption.
Finally, a letter to his parents arrived from Joe; ‘I suppose you will be surprised to get a few lines from me. It is not my fault that you have not heard from me. I wrote several times from Germany, but got the letters returned….I was a prisoner for five months, locked up in a cell all day, with a little window. I could not see anything. It was miserable. It nearly killed me. Only for a friend of mine, Mr Van Rompsey, I do not think I would have seen all at home again. I can be pleased and thankful to God that I am out of Germany. Only that I was so ill I would have never got to England’. (Maitland Daily Mercury May 25 1915)
Joe’s condition was far more serious than he realized. Mrs Annie Barnes, who assisted people in his situation on their arrival in England, wrote to Edwin about the transfer to the sanatorium and said;
I feel bound to tell you, though it makes my heart ache to have to do it, that the doctor feels there is no hope of his recovery. The disease has got so far advanced that it is beyond remedies. (Maitland Daily Mercury, May 21 1915))
With financial support from friends and supporters, Mrs Vial travelled to England to help care for her son, and to bring him back home. She took Australian made gold brooches with her as gifts for ladies, including Mrs Barnes, who had been particularly kind to Joe. How hard it must have been for his father, waiting at home.
Mr Edwin Vial has received a letter dated August 13th, from Mrs Vial in which she says that their son is still looking thin and ill. She wheels him out on the beach at Ramsgate, which is not far from the hospital, and he enjoys the outings very much. He is not strong enough to walk far. His mother is giving him plenty of the best nourishment, and she is strongly of the opinion that the sea voyage to Australia will benefit him very much. Mrs Vial says he has brightened up wonderfully since her arrival. (Maitland Daily Mercury Sept. 24 1915
Another reason why Mrs Vial was anxious to leave Ramsgate was that Zeppelins were falling round the hospital. (It would later be hit and had to be evacuated.)
The shipping companies required the Vials to travel in a state cabin with private lavatories and baths attached, at a cost of £200. It was understandable given the fear of consumption. Once again there were fundraising events at home to cover the cost;
The public are reminded that tonight the grand concert will be given in the Mechanics Hall in aid of the fund for bringing home Mr Joe Vial to Australia. This gifted young artist was the victim of German brutality while studying music in Leipzig, and his health has in consequence been most seriously impaired. A splendid programme has been arranged, and some visiting artists of note have kindly given their services…’ (Singleton Argus)
Sadly, Joe died a week before he was due to board the ship. His loss was felt very deeply, not just by his family and friends, but by the community that had so supported him for so long.
Below are photos of Edwin and Winfred Vial, published to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary in 1943. Ironically the world was at war again, and the accompanying article looked back to the internment of their beloved son in 1914.
NOTE – since completing this piece a relative, Mr Bob Vial, has told me that Winifred was granted a small pension by King George.