Although the history and reputation of Victorian banding lie partly with individual bands, the history of the associations that they formed shows Victorian banding in a different light. This post is focused on a time period of 1901 to 1933, where, during the development of the various associations and leagues lies a somewhat rancorous battle for the heart and soul of Victorian bands of which was covered in the newspapers of the day and laid out in detail.
The focus of this post is the history of the Victorian Bands’ Association (VBA) and the eventual formation of the Victorian Bands’ League (VBL) in 1931. Tied into this is the history of various early geographical groupings of bands and the eventual move to form much larger associations. However, with association came division and as will be shown the seeds of division started much earlier than 1931. This is a tale of Victorian banding that is probably not well known to most Victorian bands people.
My curiosity has been growing over time as I wondered why there were no records that existed prior to 1931. I knew that the headquarters of the VBA had been in Ballarat, yet whatever records that may have existed were not provided to the VBL. When researching for this post the reasons became very obvious – they were two entirely separate organizations that wanted little to do with each other. The VBL had basically started from scratch.
The research for this article has been informed by involved searching through the Trove archive with the aim of building a chronology of articles and events. With this searching has come some little revelations as to the state of banding that Victoria had in the early 1900s. This history is important to the banding community as it highlights what once was, and what has survived.
1900 – 1920: The VBA
The first seeds of a State association were sown in 1901 when delegates from Geelong and Ballarat brass bands decided to form a “Ballarat and Geelong District Band Association” with the rules of the new association to be presented to a conference of bands at the next South Street competition (“BAND ASSOCIATION.,” 1901). Here we have an association that had been set up based on small geography but most importantly developed ties to the South Street competitions which became increasingly important to the band community (Royal South Street Society, 2016). It should be noted that there was already a Geelong Band Association in existence, although this small association broke up after 1908 (“BAND ASSOCIATION.,” 1908). In 1907 it becomes obvious that the VBA is expanding as they had a meeting in Bendigo where a discussion took place about lobbying the council to let them use a reserve to hold a band competition with the aim of attracting bands from across Australia (“BANDS ASSOCIATION.,” 1907). This is one of the earliest reports of the VBA promoting competitions in regional areas.
Within other geographical regions, distinct band associations started around the same time although not all of them affiliated with the newly formed VBA. In the Melbourne area, a new association called the “Melbourne and Metropolitan Band Association” (MMBA) was formed in 1906 (or 1907) by twenty-five bands (“MELBOURNE AND METROPOLITAN BAND ASSOCIATION.,” 1907). This new association formed their own rules and constitution with the encouragement of the VBA, of which a representative attended the meeting. It isn’t until a meeting in 1908 that the MMBA discusses aligning with the VBA and a committee of five is set up to investigate this (“MELBOURNE AND METROPOLITAN BAND ASSOCIATION.,” 1908). In contrast, a new Gippsland Band Association (GBA) started in 1908 and emphatically ruled out associating with the association in Ballarat (“GIPPSLAND BAND ASSOCIATION.,” 1908). It should be noted that while Gippsland bands did eventually join with State band associations, the GBA was still going in 1947 and possibly longer (“Gippsland Bands’ Association,” 1947).
Despite the seemingly good running of the association, there are some indications that some bands wanted the headquarters moved from Ballarat for various reasons. In 1917, a letter was sent to the Bendigo Citizens’ Band by the Metropolitan Bands Association proposing a shift of the next meeting of the VBA to Melbourne. This letter was read out at a meeting of the Bendigo Citizens’ Band and the responses were detailed by the Bendigo Independent newspaper in an article:
Correspondence from the Metropolitan Band Association was read, requesting the bands’ support in having the meeting of the Victorian Band Association held in the metropolis instead of at Ballarat. Several members spoke in favour of the Victorian Bands’ Association meeting being continued in Ballarat, as it was only another move to have everything of any importance held in the metropolis. The secretary (Mr. E. K. Varcoe) in commenting on the matter, said it clearly showed that centralisation was at the back of the suggestion, and Melbourne desired everything in Melbourne with the exception of the mice plague… (“BENDIGO CITIZENS’ BAND.,” 1917)
Obviously, there were a few choice words used at this meeting (by 1917 standards)!
The letter was countersigned by representatives of the Fitzroy, South Melbourne, Collingwood, Brunswick, Malvern and St Kilda brass bands and it was sent to all country bands affiliated with the VBA at the time. The Bendigo Citizens’ Band did end up sending a representative to a meeting in Melbourne. Subsequently, in a vote on the matter at a later VBA meeting, the motion to move the VBA headquarters to Melbourne was defeated 23 to 6 (“BANDS’ ASSOCIATION.,” 1917).
1920 – 1929: Division
In 1924, a much more serious issue occupied a meeting of the VBA in Ballarat when a number of Melbourne based bands wanted to set up a branch of the VBA in Melbourne with the power to conduct the affairs of the VBA as they saw fit (“METROPOLITAN BANDS PROPOSAL,” 1924). The opening paragraphs of this article, and the subsequent reporting highlight some inherent division and perhaps an early reason of why the VBL came into existence seven years later.
A proposal from a number of Metropolitan bands that they should be allowed to form a branch of the Victorian Band Association in Melbourne, which came before the association at its meeting last night, was viewed with suspicion by many of the delegates, who saw in it an attempt to shift the centre of government to the metropolis. The subject was debated at considerable length.
The president (Mr E. Ballhausen) reported that Messrs Frank Johnson (Collingwood bandmaster), Ben J. Warr and Hanson had waited on the executive of the association, with a view to having steps taken to form a branch of the association in Melbourne. The secretary read letters in support of this request from the Kingsville-Yarraville, Footscray, Coburg, Prahran City, Hawthorn City, Turner’s Brunswick, Collingwood, St. Vincent de Paul, Brunswick City, St Kilda City, Newport Workshops, Malvern Tramways and Richmond District Bands. It was suggested by a committee of the bands interested that the branch should be known as the Metropolitan branch of the Victorian Band Association, the branch to consist of all bands within a radius of 25 miles of the G.P.O., Melbourne affiliated with the V.B.A.; the branch to have power to conduct all association business of the branch according to the constitution and rules of the association. (“METROPOLITAN BANDS PROPOSAL,” 1924)
The list of bands in the article that wanted change represented a number of the Melbourne based bands at the time and during the intense discussions detailed in this article they mention a “Metropolitan League” that they are up against – a league which could be assumed to represent all the other brass bands in Melbourne (“METROPOLITAN BANDS PROPOSAL,” 1924). Some of the delegates at the meeting were suspicions of the metropolitan bands’ intentions. A Mr. Hewett of the Soldiers’ Band was quoted as saying,
…the move was only the thin edge of the wedge to shift the headquarters of the association to Melbourne. Some of the bands concerned were sympathetic with the Metropolitan Band League. (“METROPOLITAN BANDS PROPOSAL,” 1924)
As can be seen in these early years, there were attempts to move the headquarters of banding from Ballarat to Melbourne, but these attempts were thwarted, mainly by the country bands who were affiliated with the VBA. The ideal aim of each association was to foster cooperation to further the aims of banding, as well as competition. However, politics were always an undercurrent. What is interesting is the inherent divide between metropolitan and country bands with the metro bands, of which are mostly A grade and powerful, trying to exert influence over the direction of the VBA. Perhaps the VBA was ill-prepared to deal with another attempt, as will be seen in the coming of the 1930s.
1930 – 1935: The VBL
The early 1930s saw the greatest upheaval in the governing structure of Victorian bands with the formation of the VBL and the demise of the VBA. The South Street Society had worked closely with the VBA for many years, and in the early years of the VBA other State band associations had affiliated with the VBA (“BAND ASSOCIATION.,” 1902; “BAND ASSOCIATION.,” 1904; Royal South Street Society, 2016). The coming years would highlight just how fickle this support for the VBA would become as the VBL came into its own.
In 1930 the VBA was still holding a regular pattern of meetings in Ballarat attended by
delegates from across the State. An article published in The Age makes mention of a proposal to divide the banding community into districts administered by the VBA (“VICTORIAN BANDS.,” 1930). This proposal was to be discussed at the next VBA State conference but there is no indication as to whether this proposal was enacted.
Just over a year later in April 1931, news broke of a new organization to be formed called the Victorian Bands’ League. This new league was to be formed by a number of metropolitan bands who were agitating to have a headquarters of banding in Melbourne. The Argus newspaper was one of the first to break the news and reported on the meeting listing all the metropolitan bands who were initially involved:
At a meeting attended by representatives of 28 metropolitan bands last night, it is decided that a new organisation to be known as the Victorian Bands’ League should be formed. Delegates from Collingwood Citizens, Malvern Tramways, Brunswick City, Coburg City, Prahran City, Richmond City, Footscray City, Essendon Citizens, Heidelberg Municipal, Mentone Citizens, Fitzroy Municipal, Jolimont Workshops, St Kilda City, Kew District, Northcote Citizens, Williamstown City, Sunshine District, Caulfield District, Metropolitan Fire Brigade and Ringwood bands stated that those bands would join the new league. Delegates from the Hawthorn City, Kingsville and Yarraville, St. Vincent de Paul’s, Oakleigh City, Kensington, Preston City, Returned Soldiers and Reservoir bands state that the subject would be discussed officially by the committees. It is understood however that within the next few days these bands will signify their intention to associate themselves with the new league. (“VICTORIAN BANDS LEAGUE.,” 1931)
A subsequent meeting of the VBA in May 1931 acknowledged the formation of the new league but was buoyed by the support of band associations from Queensland, South Australia, New South Wales and Tasmania (“VICTORIAN BAND ASSOCIATION.,” 1931). The official decision of this VBA meeting was to treat the new league with “indifference” (“INTERSTATE BANDS TURN DOWN NEW LEAGUE,” 1931).
The VBL, in a proactive move, sent its officers into country areas to meet with district bands. In June they headed to the Goulburn Valley region and met with representatives from the Shepparton, Kyabram and other bands and in July traveled to Bendigo to attend a conference of Bendigo bands (“NEW BAND LEAGUE.,” 1931; “VICTORIAN BANDS,” 1931). The VBL had simple, but effective messages for these country networks; that the VBA wasn’t functioning properly for Victorian banding and the VBL wanted to set up district associations and competitions. The result of these meetings was that the Goulburn Valley bands were enthused by the new league and apparently bands attending the Bendigo conference promised that they would affiliate with the VBL.
In August, the VBL had its first substantial endorsement when the South Australian Band Association (SABA) broke away from its affiliation with the VBA and decided to endorse the VBL (“CONTROL OF BRASS BANDS,” 1931). It’s interesting to note that only a few months earlier in May, SABA had apparently indicated that it still supported the VBA.
It was in September that the VBL showed off its strength when it organized a massed bands event to be held at the MCG. The Sporting Globe newspaper enthusiastically reported on this event, shown by these extracts from the article:
Under the auspices of the newly-formed Victorian Bands’ League, a concert will be given at the Melbourne Cricket Ground tomorrow by 30 massed bands, which will march through the city, starting at 2.15.
Not for many years has such a gathering of bandsmen been held in Melbourne. More than 700 bandsmen will take part in the recital of which a Fox Movie-Tone film will be taken. (“Bands League,” 1931)
In October the VBL gained the affiliation of the South Street Society who were going to resume band competitions in 1932 under the auspices of the VBL (“VICTORIAN BANDS’ LEAGUE.,” 1931).
Obviously, the VBL had very proactive since it was formed in April and such expansion and activity had not gone unnoticed by the VBA, which had initially shown indifference to the VBL. At a Ballarat conference called by the VBA in November and attended by representatives of fourteen bands, consideration was given to the developments of the new league, however, the VBA still didn’t consider it to be a real threat to its survival (“BAND CONFERENCE.,” 1931). A final resolution of the meeting was “to wait upon the mayor and councilors of Ballarat and the South street society with the object of bringing about unity in the band movement, the governing center to be in Ballarat” (“BAND CONFERENCE.,” 1931).
Coming into 1932 with the VBL firmly entrenched in the banding world and the VBA fighting for survival, there has been no slowing in the activities of the VBL. In January the VBL staged another massed bands event at the MCG. This event was reported on by a newspaper from Tasmania of which praised the VBL for its initiative and lambasted the VBA for “failing to co-operate new League” (“Victorian Bands,” 1932). The VBA in the meantime continued to hold meetings of its remaining affiliated bands and tried to emphasize that their best interests did not lie in the VBL with its perceived “centralization movement” (“COUNTRY BANDS’ WELFARE.,” 1932). By August the VBA had lost the affiliation of the two Ballarat bands which were forced to affiliate with the VBL due to the South Street Society band competition being run by the VBL (“SOUTH-ST. BAND CONTEST.,” 1932).
In 1933 we see the last meetings, and the demise of the VBA with reports noting the affiliation of most other State band organizations with the VBL (“BAND UNITY MOVE,” 1933). At a final meeting in July 1933, the VBA reports that it “will shortly consider its future policy” and that “since April, the association has not received any registrations of bands” (“VICTORIAN BAND ASSOCIATION.,” 1933). After these articles, there are no other reports on the activities of the VBA with reports on banding activities focused on the VBL.
Such was the state of banding over a period of just over 30 years. This wasn’t just a story on the VBA and the VBL, it was a story on the loyalties of the banding movement and the politics. The repeated actions of the metropolitan bands in driving change had an effect on unity, but it also brought some unity to the movement and new energy. Perhaps the VBA did not have that same drive or had become too complacent with belief in its own longevity. There are probably many questions still to be asked and hopefully, further details will come to light.
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Victorian Bands: A Great Demonstration. (1932, 09 January). Voice (Hobart, Tas. : 1931 – 1953), p. 8. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article218850147
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