The number of items that became in short supply in wartime is staggering. Not only was there no space for frivolous consumer goods on ships bringing imports into the country, but domestic manufacturers were turning their factories over to the war effort so the most surprising things became hard to find. One such area was musical instruments. The harmonica was a popular instrument because it was cheap and could be placed in a pocket, allowing it to be easily carried around by troops anywhere they went for a quick burst of music with comrades. By 1943, however they were hard to find and one budding musician, a Mr Kirk of Luton, wrote to Ronald Chesney the harmonica player asking for any advice in finding an instrument. Sadly the reply he received was less than encouraging:
Chesney was born René Cadier in London to French parents, Marius, a silk trader, and Jeanne (nee Basset). As a child, he learned the piano, but his career choice was influenced by a toy mouth-organ placed in his Christmas stocking one year, along with hearing Larry Adler playing the chromatic harmonica (one with a button-activated sliding bar), which led him to buy his own.
On leaving London’s French Lycée school at 16, he became a professional harmonica player, anglicising his name to Ronald Chesney, and established himself as a virtuoso when he toured ABC cinemas to perform between films. He made his radio debut on the BBC National Programme’s Palace of Varieties in 1937 and played in many other such shows, eventually combining classical music with Gershwin, Cole Porter and even boogie.
Exempted from serving in the forces during the second world war after having a TB-infected kidney removed, Chesney played his part by teaching musical skills to the troops and other listeners in the radio programme Let’s Play the Mouth-Organ (1940). His own eponymously titled show followed in 1941 and 1947, along with long runs in the radio series Variety Band-Box (1944- 51) and Workers’ Playtime (1949-56).
He would go on to become a script writer for many popular comedy shows including ‘On the Buses’ and he died in 2018 at the age of 98.
Our Mr Kirk clearly got lucky and managed to find some harmonicas as he wrote back to Ronald Chesney and received this reply:
From the letter, we can see how popular the harmonica was amongst soldiers, in 1939 a harmonica could be purchased for as little as 1/6 making them very much an instrument for the masses, whilst the work of both Larry Adler and Rodney Chesney had made them a mainstream and popular instrument amongst the young.