It is a massive undertaking to take any musical group on tour which stands true even today. But let’s examine these undertakings from another time. When we look back at the grand tours of brass and military bands in the early 1900s, we can only marvel at the schedules they set for themselves, the places they visited, and the effect they had on local populations. Australians it seemed had an insatiable appetite for viewing the best in the business and visiting bands were not disappointed when they toured here.
Visiting bands did not come all the way to Australia just to return home again. Often, Australia was just one stop on a world tour. From reading the Trove archive we can see that the movements of the bands in foreign countries was eagerly reported on because Australians knew they were next to see them. And when the bands did arrive in Australia, each concert was widely advertised.
This was a great age of Australian and World banding. It must have been quite a sight too when each band was alighting from ships and trains which were eagerly awaited on by an adoring crowd. Parades of massed bands, dinners, receptions, concerts, photographs, articles and other events all greeted visiting bands when they stepped upon our shores. Thankfully our libraries hold some ephemera and newspaper articles from those tours, so we can imagine just what it would have been like.
This post will highlight some of the visiting band tours and will see that some bands had vast reputations which preceded them. However, the famous bands were not the only groups to visit. This post will not cover all tours or bands. Undoubtedly there might have been other bands that visited that are buried in time (more stories to uncover). However, for the bands that did visit, their tours last in memories, and even in some of the local bands that were beneficiaries of the expertise of visiting bandsmen. There are some fascinating stories that surround these tours.
Besses o’ th’ Barn Band travels around the world, twice:
The reputation of this unique brass band is well-deserved. Besses o’ the’ Barn Band from the Manchester area, England is one of the oldest brass bands in the world and has been an ensemble of excellence since its establishment in 1818 (Besses o’ th’ Barn Band, 2018a). So it was with a great deal of excitement the world over (and from the band itself) when Besses commenced its first world tour in 1906 (Besses o’ th’ Barn Band, 2018b). This first tour took them to “North America, Canada, Hawaii, Fiji, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia.” (Besses o’ th’ Barn Band, 2018b). For each performance they attracted vast audiences and it is written in their history that their visit to Melbourne was most notable with no less than “twenty-two of Australia’s finest brass bands” (Besses o’ th’ Barn Band, 2018b) preceding them in a parade along Collins St. This must have been quite the spectacle and sound! Before they arrived in Melbourne they had been in Sydney and an article from The Sydney Morning Herald in 1907 gave an enthusiastic review of their performances (“BESSES O’ THE BARN” BAND,” 1907). In July 1907 the Argus newspaper published an article which gives us an amount of detail about the parade and the massed bands that led it:
Immediately they alighted from the Sydney express the visiting bandsmen stepped across the platform into the railway yard and as they did twenty-two bands, under the conductorship of Mr. E. T. Code, commenced to play an inspiring march. Each man in those twenty-two bands contributed his full share to the volume of sound the like of which has rarely been heard in Melbourne. […] A procession was formed and heralded by the twenty-two local bands, the Besses o’ th’ Barn Band were drive up Collins Street in two drags. The street was crowded with citizens whose curiosity had prompted them to see the famous bandsmen at first opportunity.
The bands which took part in the ceremony of welcome were as follows: St Kilda City, Prahran City, Code’s Melbourne Band, South Richmond Citizens, Collingwood Citizens’, Richmond City, Malvern City, Williamstown Premier, Footscray City, Stender’s, Doncaster, South Melbourne City, Brighton City, Brunswick City, Warneeke’s, Bootmakers, Camberwell, Box Hill, Fitzroy Military, Clifton Hill, Fitzroy Citizen’s, Kyneton City, St Vincent de Paul Orphanage, St. Arnaud, Castlemaine, Maryborough, and Ballarat bands were also represented. (“BESSES O’ TH’ BARN BAND.,” 1907)
Regarding the huge crowds, an 1907 article in the Quiz newspaper from Adelaide which reported on the progress of the Besses tour thus far, noted that 70,000 people lined the parade route in Melbourne, which is a staggering amount of people for this kind of event (“Besses o’ th’ Barn Band,” 1907). Such was the popularity and reputation of this ensemble.
However, Besses did not finish touring after this first monumental effort. Not one year after they had arrived back in England, the band embarked on another world tour (“BESSES O’ TH’ BARN BAND,” 1909). As noted in their band history (2018b), “Both trips lasted an incredible eighteen months.” (Besses o’ th’ Barn Band) which was a very long time for bandsmen to be away from home. Needless to say, Besses had not lost any popularity on their next world tour and again drew large crowds wherever they went.
Interestingly it was on their second tour where there were some changes in the Besses personnel due to one bandsman staying on in one city, and another bandsman joining them on their tour. In a previous post, we can read the story of Besses Lead Cornetist William Ryder who absconded from the tour in Melbourne and joined the Wests Theatre Company before becoming the first conductor of the Prahran & Malvern Tramways Employees Band in 1911 (de Korte, 2018; Stonnington City Brass, 2018). This being done, it appears that Besses invited one of our most famous bandsmen, Percy Code to join them on the rest of the tour (Bradish, 1929; Gibbney, 1981). The conductor of Besses during this world tour was Mr. Christopher Smith and after the tour ended he was secured by the Adelaide Tramways Band for his services in 1911 (Seymour, 1994).
There is no doubt that Besses left their mark on Australian banding and were adored by audiences. Certainly, in the succeeding years, many fine Australian bands dominated the landscape and as we saw some ex-Besses musicians now called Australia home. Besses was one of the first bands to include Australia in their tour, but they were not the last. Next to tour was the famous Sousa Band from the USA!
Sousa heads South:
The band of John Phillip Sousa was no less famous than the Besses band, although much bigger with sixty musicians and some additional soloists in their touring party. They toured Australia and New Zealand from May 12th to August 23rd, 1911 and like the Besses band generated huge excitement wherever they went (Lovrien, 2012). In fact, the excitement had started brewing before they had even arrived with newspapers reporting expected arrival dates and schedules (“SOUSA’S BAND.,” 1911). As with the Besses tour that had just finished, the Sousa band was feted with ceremony, functions, awards, parades and large audiences – upon arriving in Sydney there was a grand parade featuring twenty NSW brass bands (“SOUSA AND HIS BAND,” 1911).
Inevitably, given the timing of the Sousa tour to the previous Besses tour, questions were asked as to which the finer band was. In an article from May 1911, the World’s News newspaper sought to answer this question from a reader (“Sousa’s Band,” 1911). The article reported on the differences between both bands and diplomatically opens the article by declaring that: “Comparisons are odious in connection with bands, as well as with politics” (“Sousa’s Band,” 1911). However, it came down to the fact that one was a brass band as opposed to a military-style band and one band was much bigger than the other. Musically, they were both very fine ensembles.
The Sousa band was a very different ensemble and they enthralled Australian audiences. However, there is no real indication that the Sousa band had an influence on Australian bandsmen, and if they did, it was not reported. One could assume the reason was that Australian bands, which were mostly brass at the time, were very much tied to the band tradition of England, not the USA.
From Australia, the Sousa Band traveled to New Zealand where they again delighted audiences and received rave reviews (White, 2018). And after this swing through the Southern Hemisphere, they returned to the mainland USA via a visit to Hawaii (Lovrien, 2012).
The Sousa tour, despite the number of places that they visited and the largeness of the audiences, did not generate a huge financial windfall and it was very expensive to take the band around the world (Lovrien, 2012). However, in 1913 a court case was heard regarding the profits from the Australian leg of the Sousa tour. From the brief flurry of newspaper articles that were written at the time, it appears that a series of contracts were entered into by the promoter of the tour, Mr. Branscombe with a Mr. Quinlan, and later a Mr. Singer over £30,000 in profits (“SOUSA’S BAND IN AUSTRALIA,” 1913). It is interesting that this case was heard two years after the tour had finished, and that these profits were not intended for the Sousa band itself.
Bythell (2000), writing on the band tours and exchanges between countries during this time says that “…the logistics and high costs or international tours and exchanges made them exceptional” (p. 229). Certainly, it was noted in the New Zealand article on the Sousa visit that the tour (through Aus. & NZ) was costing “over £2,000 per week” (White, 2018). Given the logistics of moving a sixty-piece band plus soloists around Australia and New Zealand, this figure is hardly surprising.
Despite this, the Sousa tour appears to have been a success for the band and audiences as Sousa was a renowned conductor and composer. The time frame between this tour and the previous Besses tour had not dimmed the enthusiasm of the Australian public in wanting to see these kinds of entertainments. The Sousa band did not disappoint.
The visit of a Belgian Band during the First World War:
The Besses and Sousa bands were undoubtedly famous, but that did not stop other promoters searching for bands that might tour, which is exactly what happened during the early stages of the First World War. In 1915, a band from Belgium visited the country and apparently went on tour through Australia and New Zealand. (“MUSIC.,” 1915). A paragraph in a Leader newspaper article from May 1915 provides some detail on this band, but the band had no name – they were simply known as the Belgian Band:
A Belgian Band comprising some of the finest instrumentalists in Belgium, has been engaged by J. and N. Tait for a tour of Australia and New Zealand, commencing in June. […] After considerable trouble, many cables and much correspondence, the band has at last been got together, and will prove on its arrival one of the finest aggregations of talent that have yet visited Australia. The band comprises of 28 instrumentalists, recruited from the foremost bands of Brussels, Antwerp and Ostend, and augmented by half a dozen English players, and will be conducted by the brilliant M. Phillipe Meny, a remarkable musician, whose reputation is not only Belgian, but European. (“MUSIC.,” 1915).
The reaction of the Australian press to this visit was understandable. A number of articles expressed admiration that the musicians had actually left Belgium, while also expressing sympathy and solidarity with the Belgian people under German occupation. An example of this kind of article was from the Daily News in Perth (“THE BELGIAN BAND.,” 1915). Notwithstanding the circumstances of this visit, the band drew the interest of an Australian public and received good reviews for their performances (“Visit of Belgian Band,” 1915). In an act of decency, the band promoters donated all profits to “…the Belgian Relief Fund and the Wounded Soldiers Fund” (“BELGIAN BAND VISITS AUSTRALIA.,” 1915).
First came the Royal Marines, then came the Guards:
After the war, visits from overseas bands resumed quite early on with a visit from the Royal Marine Band, H.M.S. “Renown”. This band was brought to Australia by J. and N. Tait, the same promoters who engaged the Belgian Band in 1915 (“RENOWN BAND.,” 1920). The Royal Marines actually visited twice; their first visit was in 1920 and they followed up with another visit in 1927. The concerts of 1920 received some very favorable reviews with one article printed in the Argus praising the sound and playing of this ensemble, and making a comparison of conducting styles with the great Sousa (“Concert by Renown Band.,” 1920). On the second tour, a concert in Melbourne was presented as a massed bands concert in combination with the “Returned Sailors and Soldiers Memorial Band” and the “Victorian Railways Military Band” with the Lord Mayor’s Hospital Appeal Fund the beneficiary of the proceeds from the concert (“FOR MAYOR’S FUND,” 1927).
In 1934 the Band of the Grenadier Guards visited Melbourne as part of the Centenary of Victoria celebrations, with a subsequent tour of Australia as well. There was some initial confusion as to which Guards band was going to visit with the Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards and Welsh Guards being mentioned in some press (“GUARDS’ BAND VISIT.,” 1933). It seems there was also some objection to the tour on the part of the Musicians’ Union. A letter to The Herald in September 1933 berated the Union for their stance with the writer stating that “Their visit will be education and beneficial to our unemployed musicians.” (Musician, 1933). A visit to Australia by a band of this caliber was beneficial to all who witnessed them (not just unemployed musicians). The band made a special appearance at the South Street competition of 1934 with a concert presented to an appreciative audience which included the Duke of Gloucester who was also visiting Australia (“South-street Band Contests.,” 1934).
These two British military bands were highly regarded, and it appears that their tours were more genuine with concerts in combination with Australian ensembles and presenting inspirational performances. There was no comparison with the previous tours of Besses and Sousa as these were again, very different groups. However, Australians were no less enthusiastic about the visits of these bands and made them feel very welcome.
What we have seen here is only a small sample of the bands that visited Australia within a shorter time frame. Each group was very different, yet they elicited an amount of excitement from the Australian audiences, bandsmen and public authorities. Yes, they were expensive undertakings. But musically they were invaluable. This truly was a great age of banding.
145695597 Australia extends the glad hand of welcome to Sousa and his band [postcard]. (1910). David Elliott theatrical postcard collection. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-145695597
145704095 Besses o’ th’ Barn Band  [postcard]. (1907). David Elliott theatrical postcard collection. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-145704095/view
THE BELGIAN BAND. (1915, 24 May). Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950), p. 7. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article81173645
BELGIAN BAND VISITS AUSTRALIA. (1915, 20 June). Sunday Times (Sydney, NSW : 1895 – 1930), p. 6. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article120796314
Besses o’ th’ Barn Band. (1907, 09 August). Quiz (Adelaide, SA : 1900 – 1909), p. 8. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article166338966
BESSES O’ TH’ BARN BAND. (1909, 04 November). Table Talk (Melbourne, Vic. : 1885 – 1939), p. 13. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article145853191
Besses o’ th’ Barn Band. (2018a). History of Besses: A Glorious Past. Besses o’ th’ Barn Band. Retrieved from http://www.besses.co.uk/about/blasts-o-th-past/history-of-besses
Besses o’ th’ Barn Band. (2018b). History of Besses: From Whitefield to Wellington. Besses o’ th’ Barn Band. Retrieved from http://www.besses.co.uk/about/blasts-o-th-past/history-of-besses?showall=&start=1
BESSES O’ TH’ BARN BAND. WELCOME TO MELBOURNE. (1907, 29 July). Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 7. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article10125983
“BESSES O’ THE BARN” BAND. (1907, 15 May). Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), p. 13. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article14867586
Bradish, C. R. (1929, 05 September). Prominent Personalities : PERCY CODE | CONDUCTOR OF NATIONAL BROADCASTING ORCHESTRA. Table Talk (Melbourne, Vic. : 1885 – 1939), p. 13. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article146712994
Bythell, D. (2000). The Brass Band in the Antipodes : The Transplantation of British Popular Culture. In T. Herbert (Ed.), The British brass band : a musical and social history (pp. 217-244). Oxford: Clarendon Press ; New York : Oxford University Press.
Concert by Renown Band. (1920, 04 June). Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 9. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article1708206
de Korte, J. D. (2018, 02 March). William Ryder: The first conductor of the Prahran & Malvern Tramways Employees Band. Blog Post Retrieved from https://bandblastsfromthepast.blog/2018/03/02/william-ryder-the-first-conductor-of-the-prahran-malvern-tramways-employees-band/
FOR MAYOR’S FUND: Renown Band Concert. (1927, 06 May). Herald (Melbourne, Vic. : 1861 – 1954), p. 19. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article243915027
Gibbney, H. J. (1981). Code, Edward Percival (1888-1953). Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. Retrieved from http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/code-edward-percival-5707
GUARDS’ BAND VISIT: Centenary Tour Almost Certain. (1933, 10 October). Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), p. 8. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article205104515
Lovrien, D. (2012, 13 June). The Sousa Band 1910-11 World Tour. Blog post Retrieved from http://sousamusic.com/sousa-band-1910-11-world-tour/
MUSIC. (1915, 15 May). Leader (Melbourne, Vic. : 1862 – 1918), p. 35. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article91368715
Musician. (1933, 11 September). GUARDS’ BAND VISIT. Herald (Melbourne, Vic. : 1861 – 1954), p. 6. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article243423748
RENOWN BAND. (1920, 05 July). Register (Adelaide, SA : 1901 – 1929), p. 5. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article62924146
Seymour, C. (1994). Adelaide’s Tramway Band. Trolley Wire, 35(4), 3-10.
SOUSA AND HIS BAND. (1911, 14 May). Sunday Times (Sydney, NSW : 1895 – 1930), p. 2. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article120777076
SOUSA’S BAND. (1911, 09 February). Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 7. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article10877792
SOUSA’S BAND IN AUSTRALIA: Question of profits: Writ for £7926. (1913, 01 October). Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), p. 8. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article196234795
Sousa’s Band: An interesting question asked by readers. (1911, 13 May). World’s News (Sydney, NSW : 1901 – 1955), p. 18. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article128266800
South-street Band Contests. (1934, 02 November). Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), p. 16. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article205082990
Stonnington City Brass. (2018). History of Stonnington City Brass. Stonnington City Brass. Retrieved from https://www.stonningtoncitybrass.org.au/history.html
Visit of Belgian Band: An enjoyable concert. (1915, 10 August). Queensland Times (Ipswich, Qld. : 1909 – 1954), p. 7. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article121995771
White, T. (2018, 13 July). Memory Lane: A famous musician brings his band to town. stuff.co.nz: Manawatu Standard. Retrieved from https://www.stuff.co.nz/manawatu-standard/lifestyle/105412732/memory-lane-a-famous-musician-brings-his-band-to-town