Drummers and drums: perceptions of percussion in early Australian bands

Concord Citizens’ Band 1928 (Source: IBEW)


It ain’t the blaring cornets,
Nor the fussy old bassoon
(Though of course I’m always willin’
To admit they helps the toon.)
Nor yet it ain’t the piccolo what makes your heart go thumpin’
Nor yet it ain’t the croonin’ flutes what sets your pules a jumpin’:-
It’s the drums!
It’s the drums what makes the band
(Dean in Quickstep, 1921)

When reading and researching material related to old bands, it would be fair to say most of it relates to brass playing musicians in bands.  Of which some have been explored in previous posts on this blog.  However, what of the other musicians in the band, the percussionists and the instruments that they used?  It was a matter of how many mentions could be found.  To adapt an analogy; stories on brass bands are haystacks, stories on band percussionists are definitely needles.

It is very rare to find a photo of an old brass band that does not have the drums of the band featured prominently in the formation.  The photo above of the Concord Citizens’ Band from 1928 shows as much with the drums “posed” and the band crest visible on the bass drum.  The photo was picked at random.  The information it conveys is very typical of band photos in general (especially in the early years).  Photos aside, the sound of a band on parade, then and now, is very much defined by the beat of a bass drum and the patterns of a snare.  Mr Dean in his little ditty above alludes to this!

This post will examine three aspects of percussion in early Australian brass bands starting with some writing on percussion in general.  There are some articles on the drums themselves which was interesting to find, and included is a story on one of the many famous band drummers.  Admittedly there is a vested interest in this topic as I am a percussionist in a local brass band and a community concert band.  This post is dedicated to all those musicians who have made the percussion section their home.


We can see from early photos that percussion in Australian brass bands was limited to a side drum or two, and a bass drum.  This is no fault of the band; rather, it is the limit of the music that was written and what percussion was called for.  Bands did not see fit to expand the percussion section until music called for those instruments and it is only in later years that the range of percussion in a band was expanded to include more orchestral percussion instruments.

It was interesting then to read various mentions of side drums and bass drums (and drummers) in relation to brass bands. The main source of commentary comes from adjudicator comments in band competitions.  Thankfully, the newspapers of the day generally published full adjudicator comments so we can build a picture of their thinking.  Drums had a role to play in band music and some adjudicators comments were specifically directed to that role.

This being said, the number of comments on the drums varied.  Some adjudicators made a point of mentioning the drums in every section, others were more reserved and only mentioned them when they felt they needed to mention them.  One example of a reserved comment comes from the adjudicator of the 1928 Queensland Brass Band Championship Contests which was held over Easter in Townsville.  The article in the Townsville Daily Bulletin summarised the comments, but buried in this we find a succinct mention about the drums of the Brisbane Federal Band when performing their A Grade Oval March, “Red Gauntlett”:

The winning band, Brisbane Federal, made a fine, smart opening, cornets and drums being good. (“THE BAND CONTEST.,” 1928)

That’s basically all that was said about the drums, which is perhaps understandable. If the adjudicator felt there was something notable, he probably would have said so.

As a complete contrast, we have the comments from Captain Harry Shugg at the 1936 Renmark Centenary Bands Contests where he gave a remark on the drums for every band.  And even when a band was unfortunate enough not to have a side drum like the Loxton Brass Band as these excerpts from the comments show:

(Selection): Tempo di Marcia: No side drum.  Third cornet does not balance.  Side drum much missed.


(Quickstep): MUSIC – “Victoria”.  No side drum.

(“Bands Contests Adjudicators’ Comment,” 1936, p. 4)

The selection that all bands played was “Songs of Homeland”.

For the most part, Capt. Shugg was firm, but encouraging to all bands as it was a D Grade contest, and this included remarks on the drumming.  For the seven bands that competed, of which came from the towns of Renmark, Moonta, Loxton, Nuriootpa, Waikerie, Mildura and Berri, all of them received some comment on the drums, especially in the Quickstep sections.  Capt. Shugg knew that drums help set the mood of the march so phrases like, “Good beat off by drums” and “Good drums; band begins with smart and crisp style” (“Bands Contests Adjudicators’ Comment,” 1936) were given to two of the bands.  However, if something was very wrong, Capt. Shugg made a mention of it, of which the Berri Brass Band found out in their playing of the march “The Australasian”,

Poor toned bass drum.  Tone of the band a little noisy, cornet’s in particular; side drum much too heavy in P. passages; does not vary tone at all (“Bands Contests Adjudicators’ Comment,” 1936, p. 4)

Harry Shugg was a perfectionist, he was conductor of the Malvern Tramways Band at the time!

Perhaps the most interesting comments on drums in bands came from a Mr R. S. Kitson who adjudicated the 1933 Adelaide Royal Show Contest.  On a night that was notable for the pouring rain which affected many performances, a comment was made on the use of the bass drum in one of the sections:

Referring to the use of drums in operatic selections, Mr. Kitson said, “The use of the bass drum in operatic selections, especially in ‘lento’ passages, and on such a night, is not advisable.  Brass band arrangements are principally made from orchestral scores, and the kettle drum part is allotted to the bass drum in brass bands.  The bass drum cannot be tuned as a kettle drum, and therefore, except in martial movements, is quite of place. (Allegro, 1933)

Then we have the writing of Cecil Clarence Mullen, of whom his work was reviewed in a previous post.  In a section of his booklet, Mullen’s Bandsmen of South Street (1900-1951) he took aim at bandmasters for not training their bass drummers properly (Mullen, 1951).  We know from the analysis of his work that Mullen was opinionated and a commentator.  In summary, Mullen was of the opinion that some bass drummers did not know how to read their parts properly, that some conductors did not teach the drum parts properly (or did not care enough), and that some bass drummers used “two sticks on the march” (Mullen, 1951, p. 8) – that is a questionable opinion!

It was not just bandmasters that drew the ire of Mullen, he had criticism for adjudicators as well,

Adjudicators are also open to criticism in not pointing out these faults to bands when doing the quickstep.  The average judge is quick to rush in with his “Out of tune at bar 20” but how many band judges have we known who have written in their notes that “Bass drummer is not playing his part correctly”. (Mullen, 1951, p. 8)

The opinions of Mullen aside, we can see that the playing of drums was noted in aspects of competition, and performances in general.  To finish this section, here is an excerpt from the first paragraph of a 1914 article published by the Cootamundra Herald regarding the newly formed Stockinbingal Brass Band:

The music loving people of Stockinbingal decided that an up-to-date and progressive town like theirs should not be without its town band; and last Sunday morning late slumberous were aroused by the blast and blare of brass to the accompaniment of the thunderous boom of a drum. (“STOCKINBINGAL BRASS BAND,” 1914)

The drums are always noted on these occasions!


Regarding the instruments themselves, they were a source of pride to a band, and also triggered memories as well.  Often featuring prominently in photos, the drums were sometimes centred, sometimes at the side, sometimes used as a table for trophies.  And it is easy enough to spot the drummers of the band as they would be holding their sticks (and not holding brass instruments!).

Kew City Band 1915?. (Source: Victorian Collections: Kew Historical Society Inc.)

Above is a picture of the Kew City Band taken in approximately 1915 when the band was on tour to Northern Tasmania.  While the band is not sitting down in a formation, they have made an effort to place their bass drum and side drum. The band crest is clearly visible on the bass drum where, despite the photo being in black and white, there is a clear distinction in some of the colours.  Fortunately, in a very rare newspaper article from 1910, there is a full description of how the bass drum was painted and what colours were originally used.

The amplification of the arms of the borough of Kew on the shell of the band’s bass drum is an artistic painting from the brush of a local artist Mr. W. D. Wentworth.  […] Two blues have, for many years, been the sporting colours of Kew and royal blue was accordingly adopted as the grounding colour, with linings of light blue.  The arms of the borough of Kew consist of a shield containing six wheat sheaves, and surrounded by the royal arms.  In a scroll at the bottom of the shield is contained the motto of the municipality, “Cresco”.  The body of the shield is in light blue, with gold outline, artistically shaded, and the artistic representation of the golden corn is richly effective.  The artists has discarded any assistance from transfers, and the whole production, with the royal arms in minutest detail, are in brushwork.  Notwithstanding that winter time is, as a rule, a dull period with bands, the Kew organisation keeps in symphony with the borough motto, ‘To Grow’. (“Kew Brass Band.,” 1910)

This was a very detailed description and there is much to suggest that the bass drum in the picture is the same one that is described here.  The band would have been very proud to parade with this drum.

Not all music involved drums and we can find examples where drummers displayed not only a talent for playing their instruments but also making them.  In 1914, the drummer of the Australian Light Horse Band, a Mr E. Fowler, constructed his own set of tubular bells out of “brass piping cut to various lengths, suspended within an oak encasement, and tuned to concert pitch” (“A DRUMMER’S INGENUITY,” 1914).  The article displayed below from the Goulburn Evening Penny Post also tells us how the said drummer practises on his instrument and that it will be “a most useful addition to the band’s equipment” (“A DRUMMER’S INGENUITY,” 1914).

Goulburn Evening Penny Post, 14/02/1914, p. 2

We know that bands come and go over the years and in 1937 it was the discovery of the old side drum of the Diamond Creek Brass Band at the local school that triggered some memories.

Memories of the times when Diamond Creek echoed to the lilting strains of its own uniformed brass band marching along the streets were revived this week when it became known that the original side-drum of many years ago is now being used at the school.

For years, the drum and a ‘cello have lain in dust at the school.  Other instruments are to be found stacked away in the hall.  The school committee had a new skin fitted to the drum. (“DIAMOND CREEK BRASS BAND,” 1937)

Drums and percussion are like many instruments, they provide meaning to organisations and people – they become a part of the musical family.  It is fortunate that we have these windows on the details and memories of these instruments here.


He could become personal, although never malicious.  To a drummer: “I love every hair on your bald head, but when I say roll on the drums — roll!!! (Cleve Martin detailing the words of Major Adkins to a drummer of the A.B.C. Military Band during rehearsal in “STARS OF THE RADIO,” 1941)

There were many individual drummers who were recognized over the early years for their talent and as such, took up regular engagements with brass bands.  This section will highlight one of these drummers who was renowned throughout Victoria at the time, and also show where drummers were similarly recognized.  To end this section will be some lists reproduced from Mullen’s booklet listing famous side and bass drummers.

Malvern Standard, 14/12/1912, p. 4

When researching for this post, there was a drummer who kept standing out, Harold Brassey Allen (“A Famous Drummer Boy,” 1912; Quickstep, 1921).  In his later years, he was famous enough to be written about in one of the weekly Herald columns penned by the colloquial, ‘Quickstep’.  In summary, Brassey Allen was recognized for his talent very early in his musical career.  In the picture here we see him in his early years, dressed in full Scottish regalia, with side drum.  Brassey was no ordinary drummer and displayed a versatility that saw him perform with pipe bands, drum & fife bands, and brass bands (Quickstep, 1921).

Brassey had already been playing side drum for a number of years with the Armadale State School Cadet unit when he joined the South Melbourne District Band in 1910 (Quickstep, 1921).  Upon leaving the South Melbourne District Band a few years later, he joined the Prahran City Band under Mr E. T. Code and five years later joined the Malvern Tramways Band of which his talent was brought to the fore through his xylophone solos and drumming (Quickstep, 1921).  He was also recognized early at the South Street contests for his talent, winning his first prizes at the age of 13 although South Street never had any formal competitions for drummers.  Brassey, and his brothers, were all superb musicians Brassey and his brother Arthur are listed in the Mullen pages below (Mullen, 1951; Quickstep, 1921).

Herald, 17/09/1921, p. 5
Horsham Times, 18/02/1941, p. 2

Drummers were recognized for other reasons as we see in this bold move, for 1941, the Warracknabeal Brass Band admitted two female side-drummers into the band, Misses Bette Clark and Margaret Vaughan (“WOMEN DRUMMERS IN WARRACKNABEAL BAND.,” 1941).  As we can see, The Horsham Times certainly gave the information in the headline, but most of the article was not about their ability as drummers.  Rather, it was about the fundraising for their uniforms and what kinds of uniforms they were going to wear!  No doubt the inclusion of two female side-drummers in a rural brass band was due to the Second World War which was raging at the time.

Below are Mullen’s lists of famous side-drummers and bass drummers who have appeared with bands competing at the South Street competitions.  Given that Mullen’s lists only go to 1951, there were likely to be several more famous drummers after this time.  However, once again we can thank Mullen for his effort in compiling these lists of names.

Excerpts from pp. 53-54, “Mullen’s Bandsmen of South Street (1900-1951), Noted Bass Drummers. (Source: Jeremy de Korte’s Personal Collection)
Excerpts from pp. 54-56, “Mullen’s Bandsmen of South Street (1900-1951), Side Drummers and Kettle Drums. (Source: Jeremy de Korte’s Personal Collection)


The early bands clearly valued their drummers and drums and people took notice of them.  We have seen how bands were marked up or down for the quality of the drumming in their playing, and where bandmasters were criticised for not teaching their drummers the correct parts.  We have seen where the instruments themselves had meaning to bands and also where the drummers developed their own substantial reputations.

The percussion section of a band is always a special place to be and no doubt the early drummers thrived in the band environments.  We say thank you to these drummers for their work which set the scene for future percussionists in community bands.


Allegro. (1933, 21 September). BANDS AND BANDSMEN : Show Contest Marred by Heavy Rain. Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1931 – 1954), p. 8. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article47003081

THE BAND CONTEST : Adjudicator’s Comments. (1928, 11 April). Townsville Daily Bulletin (Qld. : 1907 – 1954), p. 11. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article61026813

Bands Contests Adjudicators’ Comments : COMPLIMENTARY REFERENCES TO PLAYING THROUGHOUT : Decidedly High for D Grade, Says Capt. Shugg. (1936, 29 October). Murray Pioneer and Australian River Record (Renmark, SA : 1913 – 1942), pp. 4-5. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article109291574

Concord Citizens’ Band. (1928). The Internet Bandsman: Vintage Brass Band Pictures: Australia [Photograph]. Retreived from http://www.ibew.org.uk/vinbbp/phot16030.jpg

DIAMOND CREEK BRASS BAND : School Drum Revives Memories. (1937, 12 November). Advertiser (Hurstbridge, Vic. : 1922 – 1939), p. 9. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article56846146

A DRUMMER’S INGENUITY. (1914, 14 February). Goulburn Evening Penny Post (NSW : 1881 – 1940), p. 2. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article98833598

A Famous Drummer Boy—Master Harold Brassey Allen. (1912, 14 December). Malvern Standard (Vic. : 1906 – 1931), p. 4. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article66391732

Kew Brass Band. (1910, 22 July). Reporter (Box Hill, Vic. : 1889 – 1925), p. 4. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article89698715

Mullen, C. C. (1951). Mullen’s Bandsmen of South Street (1900-1951). Melbourne, Vic.: Horticultural Press.

Osborne, B. (1915?). Kew Band. Victorian Collections : Kew Historical Society Inc. [Photograph mounted on card of the Kew Band while on tour in Tasmania]. Retreived from https://victoriancollections.net.au/items/58269a46d0cdd11284b9d7ac

Quickstep. (1921, 17 September). BANDSMEN’S GOSSIP : The Art of Drumming. Herald (Melbourne, Vic. : 1861 – 1954), p. 5. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article242423372

STARS OF THE RADIO : Founder of the National Military Band : Picturesque Major Adkins. (1941, 27 November). Portland Guardian (Vic. : 1876 – 1953), p. 1. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article64402540

STOCKINBINGAL BRASS BAND. (1914, 09 January). Cootamundra Herald (NSW : 1877 – 1954), p. 5. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article139522962

WOMEN DRUMMERS IN WARRACKNABEAL BAND. (1941, 18 February). Horsham Times (Vic. : 1882 – 1954), p. 2. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article72689341

Early female brass bands in Australia: they were rare but they made their mark


If one were to read various articles or histories of brass bands or view photos from a period from 1900-1950s, they would notice an almost total lack of material relating to women playing brass instruments.  This is not to say that women were not involved in brass banding with the many women’s’ auxiliaries supporting bands.  However, when women did play brass instruments it was reported very differently to male brass bands.  It did not help matters that some articles from newspapers were patronizing in tone and that female brass bands when they were formed, were treated as a novelty – until they started playing!

It was a different time, and in the period from 1900 to the 1950s society was in almost constant upheaval with two world wars and the Great Depression to contend with.  However, people craved things that were familiar to them so in some cases where male brass bands were not available, a female brass band was formed.  The Salvation Army was at the forefront of female brass bands but even their bands were treated as a novelty.  What is evident from the research is that there were pockets where female brass bands were welcomed, but in other quarters attitudes were hard to shake.

This is an aspect of Australian band history that is probably not well known, however, it is important to recognize the fact that while female brass bands were rare, they certainly made their mark and paved the way for more females to join bands in the latter half of the last century.  The story here will cover some of the more notable female brass bands that were formed, and some personalities.  Yes, there was some underlying sexism, and this will be touched on – we wonder at these attitudes today.  These historical pictures and articles tell an amazing story of life and from this, we can see the achievements of female band musicians.

Unfortunately, there appears to be no definitive list of female brass bands in Australia. However, due to the rarity of female brass bands, others have attempted to create a listing and the list by Gavin Holman has included the more notable Australian female bands (Holman, 2018).  Hopefully, in the near future, a more substantial list will be produced.

Photograph of the Streaky Bay Ladies’ Brass Band, 1933

Enter the Salvation Army:

Daily Telegraph, 16/08/1905, p. 8

The Salvation Army has always been well-known for the quality and musical standard of their brass bands, and this reputation has stretched back for many decades.  So it was near the start of the 1900’s that the Salvation Army, having run male brass bands for many years, started a female brass band and it is from this decision that the Daily Telegraph publishes an article in 1905 with a patronizing headline (“AN AMAZON BRASS BAND.,” 1905).  This is but one early example where the formation of a female brass band is treated as a novelty, despite being formed by the Salvation Army.  As can be read in the article, part of it focuses on the uniforms the members will be wearing, but nothing on the women playing instruments.

This band is taken on tour and is used as a demonstration band in various towns and cities.  On the 8thof February 1906, the Barrier Miner newspaper covers the visit of the “Austral Brass Band” to town and the article is a perfect display of attitude giving way to admiration (“THE AUSTRAL BRASS BAND.,” 1906).  As the reporter has written,

Some curiosity has been aroused by the advent in Broken Hill of a ladies’ brass band having for its name “The Austral” and being comprised of 21 lady performers dressed in Salvation Army costume.  As these bandswomen took the tram to the southern suburb last night, many observers speculated on what their bright faces must suffer when puffed up at the end of a bass instrument or when trying to sustain a long passage on the cornet.

From the opening number is was easy to see that the Austral Band is one that is worth listening to.  The bandswomen do not stand when rendering a selection, but are seated in four rows, and seem to exert themselves no more than is absolutely necessary.  The effect of the music in the piano passages is much sweeter and less masculine than a men’s band, while the forte portions of the selections are surprising in their volume of sound.  The attention to time and harmony which was evinced in last night’s performance discloses the long training which the Austral Band must have been through under a good master.”

Very much an article of two halves and the language is varied.  Unfortunately, the perception that females should not be playing brass instruments due to the aesthetics of playing is one that is published occasionally, as will be seen in a later article.

Salvation Army “Austral Lasses” Band, 1906 (Source: IBEW)

Around the States, but mainly in South Australia:

The formation of female brass bands was not consistent across Australia and it is evident that in some States the idea of female brass bands was not supported.  Nevertheless, it is interesting to note where they formed (and which bands they were).  Holman (2018) has listed these bands as having existed in the time period from 1900-1950:

New South Wales:

  • Silver City Ladies’ Brass Band (Founded in 1940)
  • Sydney Ladies Brass Band (1930-1945)


  • Brisbane Ladies Coronation Brass and Reed Band (Active in 1940)

South Australia:

  • Burra Cheer-up Girls Brass Band (Founded in Nov. 1915)
  • Clare Girls’ Band (Active 1914 – 1918)
  • Largs Orphanage Girls’ Brass Band (Active from 1921)
  • Streaky Bay Ladies’ Brass Band (Active from 1919)

(pp. 71-73)

As can be seen, by this list, South Australia had a number of female brass bands during this time and as Holman has written that this was mainly due to bandsmen enlisting in the armed services for WWI, and the women stepped forward to form bands (Holman, 2018).  Certainly, this was the case for the bands from the towns of Burra and Clare (Sara, 2014).  The Streaky Bay Ladies’ Brass Band was formed in 1919 and built themselves up over many years (“A LADIES’ BRASS BAND.,” 1919).  The Largs Orphanage Girls’ Brass Band is interesting as it was obviously formed in the same manner as other orphanage bands, although by looking at the photo in their article they included woodwinds as well (“WEEK’S PICTURES,” 1923).  The playing from this orphanage band was well regarded and appreciated (“THE BRIGHTON CONTINENTAL.,” 1922).  The photos below attest to the presentation and demeanor of these ensembles.

Courier-Mail, 07/03/1934, p. 10

Both New South Wales and Queensland had female bands, but these were formed much
later than the bands in South Australia, although obviously, the Salvation Army female band is an exception.  The Silver City Ladies’ Brass Band was formed in Broken Hill in 1940 and the Brisbane Ladies band was formed around the same time (“Concert To Mark Formation Of Women’s Brass Band In City,” 1940; Holman, 2018).  On a side note, it is the idea of a female band forming in Brisbane that brought out another bout of sexist (and instrumentalist?) behavior in the media with the publication of a letter in a local newspaper in 1934 (“That Ladies’ Band,” 1934).  As can be read in the letter, the language says it all and mirrors that of the writing from 1906 – old attitudes don’t seem to go away.  In later years, as mentioned in a previous blog post, a girls’ brass band was started at Balranald High School and a picture of them is in this article from 1949 (“GIRLS and a BRASS BAND,” 1949).

The story of the Sydney Ladies’ Brass band will be brought up later in this post as it has a special story which is interlinked with a story from Victoria.

Clare Girls’ Band, 1914 (Source: IBEW)
Brisbane Ladies Coronation Brass and Reed Band, 1940 (Source: IBEW)
Silver City ladies’ Band, 1940 (Source: IBEW)

Female bands in Victoria?:

Victoria has long been regarded as a center of bands however when it came to female bands there was a distinct lack of progression.  Through research, it appears that the first real proposal for starting a female brass band appeared in 1937, which is late compared to South Australia (“LADIES’ BAND PROPOSED,” 1937).  One could perhaps view this as a battle against bandsmen conservatism.  However, in amongst this came the remarkable story of Hilda Tansey who eventually became Australia’s first recognized female band conductor (Bound for Australia, 2014).

The cited blog post outlines much of Hilda’s life in brass banding. In summary, Hilda learned brass from her father and traveled with her father around Victoria (Bound for Australia, 2014).  Her father (who was a noted bandsman in his own right) eventually became the bandmaster of the Traralgon Brass Band and it is here where we first see a picture of Hilda with her Tenor Horn sitting in amongst the other band members (see below) (Bound for Australia, 2014).  This was obviously an extreme rarity in Victorian banding to have a young female playing brass in a proper brass band.  Yet soon after this photo was taken, Hilda is listed as a member of the Traralgon soloists that were entered in the A.N.A competition (Melbourne) in 1917 (“Bandsmen to Compete at A.N.A Competitions.,” 1917).  Hilda’s career in bands progressed from this time.

Traralgon Brass Band, 1915?

The Sydney Ladies’ Band:

The Sydney Ladies’ band deserves special mention for being the most well-known of all female brass bands in Australia, and even more so after Hilda was appointed conductor in 1934 (Bound for Australia, 2014; Holman, 2018).  Again, much has been written about the Sydney Ladies’ Band by Holman and the Bound for Australia blog post, so this is a summary of the life of the band.  The band was formed in 1930 but had early financial difficulties however Hilda and other ladies took it over in 1934 and had the debt repaid through member contributions, paid engagements and social functions (Holman, 2018).

The band was quite busy in Sydney and participated in numerous parades and other events (Bound for Australia, 2014).  In 1936 the band broke even more ground by becoming the first female brass band to enter the City of Sydney Interstate Band Contest in the Open D Grade section against eight male brass bands (“WOMEN’S BAND,” 1936).   During the years of WW2 the band was involved in entertaining troops at various camps, however, later in the war years “the R.S.L. refused to let the band march on ANZAC Day 1945, and this was a contributing factor to the members’ decision to disband.” (Holman, 2018, p. 73).  As for Hilda Tansey, she kept up with her brass band activities and is seen in a picture from the 1960s playing with the Randwick District Town Band (Bound for Australia, 2015).

Sydney Ladies’ Band, 1934 (Source: IBEW)


Against some odds, there were female brass bands in Australia and these bands, for the brief time they were in existence, made their mark and gained favorable reputations.  It is unfortunate these bands did not survive; however, it is shown that their legacy lives on.  Who is to say if they were ahead of their time as some bands were started out of a social necessity, whereas other bands were started as recreation and training for women and girls.

We can look back at those times and wonder what it was like and thankfully there are the articles and photos that allow us to do that.  We can also look back and wonder at the attitudes and language from some quarters where they felt that women should not play brass instruments due to aesthetics! Nevertheless, where there was a will, there was a way as Hilda Tansey clearly demonstrated with the Sydney Ladies’ Band.

I hope that the history of female brass bands becomes better known in Australia instead of the patchwork of little histories.  In amongst all the other histories of banding in this country, this is one of the special stories.

Burra Cheer-up Ladies Band, 1918 (Source: IBEW)


AN AMAZON BRASS BAND. (1905, 16 August). Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW : 1883 – 1930), p. 8. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article237688608

THE AUSTRAL BRASS BAND. (1906, 08 February). Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW : 1888 – 1954), p. 3. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article44491455

Bandsmen to Compete at A.N.A Competitions. (1917, 11 December). Gippsland Farmers’ Journal (Traralgon, Vic. : 1893 – 1896; 1914 – 1918), p. 2. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article88813153

Bound for Australia. (2014, November 29). Hilda and the Sydney Ladies’ Brass Band. Blog post Retrieved from https://boundforoz.wordpress.com/2014/11/29/1779/

Bound for Australia. (2015, January 31). Dockside with the Randwick District Town Band. Blog post Retrieved from https://boundforoz.wordpress.com/2015/01/30/dockside-with-the-randwick-district-town-band/

THE BRIGHTON CONTINENTAL. (1922, 20 January). Southern Cross (Adelaide, SA : 1889 – 1954), p. 1. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article167027361

Brisbane Ladies Coronation Brass and Reed Band [photo: 15733]. (1940). The Internet Bandsman: Vintage Brass Band Pictures: Australia. Retrieved from http://www.ibew.org.uk/vinbbp/phot15753.jpg

Burra Cheer-up Ladies Band [photo: 6239]. (1918). The Internet Bandsman: Vintage Brass Band Pictures: Australia. Retrieved from http://www.ibew.org.uk/vinbbp/phot16239.jpg

Clare Girls’ Band [photo: 3428]. (1914). The Internet Bandsman: Vintage Brass Band Pictures: Australia. Retrieved from http://www.satiche.org.uk/vinbbp/phot3428.jpg

Concert To Mark Formation Of Women’s Brass Band In City. (1940, 08 March). Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW : 1888 – 1954), p. 2. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article48343327

GIRLS and a BRASS BAND. (1949, 17 December). Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 5. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article22799163

Holman, G. (2018, April). Women and Brass: the female brass bands of the 19th and 20th centuries. Acadmia.edu. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/36360090/Women_and_Brass_the_female_brass_bands_of_the_19th_and_20th_centuries

LADIES’ BAND PROPOSED. (1937, 27 February). Weekly Times (Melbourne, Vic. : 1869 – 1954), p. 30. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article223891110

A LADIES’ BRASS BAND: Formed at Streaky Bay. (1919, 31 May). West Coast Sentinel (Streaky Bay, SA : 1912 – 1954), p. 2. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article168197030

Salvation Army “Austral Lasses” Band [photo: 1877]. (1906). The Internet Bandsman: Vintage Brass Band Pictures: Australia. Retrieved from http://www.satiche.org.uk/vinbbp/phot1877.jpg

Sara, S. (2014, April 25). Burra Cheer-Up Ladies Band: Keeping the music alive during war’s dark days. ABC News. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-04-25/burra-cheer-up-ladies-band/5404654?pfmredir=sm

Silver City Ladies’ Band [photo: 9302]. (1940). The Internet Bandsman: Vintage Brass Band Pictures: Australia. Retrieved from http://www.ibew.org.uk/vbbp-oz.htm

Sydney Ladies’ Band [photo: H2009.32/8]. (1934, October 6). State Library of Victoria. Retrieved from http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/336537

Talbot, O. M. (1933). Photograph of the Streaky Bay Ladies’ Brass Band [photo: PRG 155/2/1]. State Library of South Australia. Retrieved from https://collections.slsa.sa.gov.au/resource/PRG+1555/2/1

That Ladies’ Band. (1934, 07 March). Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954), p. 10. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article1177047

Traralgon Brass Band [photo: 6409]. (1915?). The Internet Bandsman: Vintage Brass Band Pictures: Australia. Retrieved from http://www.satiche.org.uk/vinbbp/phot6409.jpg

WEEK’S PICTURES——IN AND AROUND THE CITY. (1923, 17 March). Mail (Adelaide, SA : 1912 – 1954), p. 26. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article63776526

WOMEN’S BAND: In Interstate Contest. (1936, 18 January). Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), p. 11. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article17222570


Victorian State school brass bands: their legacy lives on

Collingwood Technical School Band, 1944 (Source: IBEW)


The formation of bands in State schools, involving part-reading and real ensemble as distinct from a squad of youngsters all playing the single melodic line, affords the boys – and would also afford the girls – an excellent opportunity for a musical education.  As they advance in their studies the boys are in all probability invited to practise with the senior bands in their districts.  They become bandsmen; they find good occupation in their leisure, their minds are disciplined, and everyone knows that the good bandsman is never a bad citizen”

(“THE EDITOR’S BATON,” 1929, p. 1)

…as stated by the Editor of The Australasian Band and Orchestra News in 1929.  The Editor was undoubtedly writing from his point in time. However, the story of Victorian State school bands starts well-before this time and continued on to form a much greater legacy.  To understand this story will put the Editor’s words into context.  The formation of school brass bands was as much about education as it was about banding and music.

Like their community band counterparts, some Victorian school bands developed remarkable reputations and were involved in occasional controversy.  We can see this not only through the newspaper articles of the day but also writings in books from eminent educationalists.  Perhaps we can also view their formation as ‘being in the right place and the right time’ as there was a bit of good-luck that led to their widespread creation.  Who knows what might have happened if all the pieces of the puzzle had not fallen in place together?

This post will present a brief history of the Victorian State school brass bands as a whole, rather than telling the history of each individual band.  The history will show how some of the greatest brass band personalities of the day were involved in training the young and what banding did for some schools. It can also be shown how the reputation of Victorian school bands spread beyond the State and there are even some interesting stories of school brass bands in other states.  It is important we recognize the contribution of school brass bands within the fabric of brass banding in this country.

Beechworth School Band, 1931

The early efforts:

 History can be fickle and to try to pin down a definitive start date of school brass bands is difficult, if not impossible.  It must be recognized that communication was somewhat difficult in the early 20thCentury across Victoria and news of the efforts of one town might not get heard of in another town.  This being said, the schools were not the first institutions to start younger brass bands.  Two Orphanages, St Augustine’s in Geelong and St Vincent de Paul in South Melbourne both started brass bands.  These brass bands were started in the middle to late 1800s and developed fine reputations as well as achieving ongoing competition success – the St Augustine’s Band was already asking for support for a new set of instruments in 1898 (“ST. AUGUSTINE’S ORPHANAGE BAND.,” 1898).  In 1918 a different kind of boys band was started in Richmond and for its short existence became a local, if not very large institution (“Richmond Boys’ Brass Band,” 1918).

The first instances of school brass bands being started come from country areas.  In 1913, a meeting was held in the town of Berringa which is south of Ballarat with the aim of forming a school brass band, which they did using the instruments from the defunct Berringa Brass Band (“BERRINGA.,” 1914; “BERRINGA,” 1913).  A year later another school brass band was started in Bairnsdale in East Gippsland where they made the claim of being the first in Australia (“State School Band.,” 1914).  These weren’t exactly auspicious starts to school brass bands in Victoria (or Australia) and it wasn’t until the mid-1920’s when a true school brass band movement was started.

The Gillies Bequest:

 In 1925, a bequest to the value of £10,000 was made to the Education Department of Victoria from the estate of the late William Gillies (Hansen, 1932).  This amount of money was to be dedicated to achieving three purposes;

The encouragement of instrumental music in schools, leading, it was hoped, to the increase of village bands and family orchestras.

The encouragement of the art of reading aloud – with special emphasis on reading aloud in the family circle.

The encouragement of nature study, again with the object of making home life, especially in the country, more attractive.

(Hansen, 1932, p. 79; “MUSIC AND READING ALOUD.,” 1925)

The Gillies Bequest, as a perpetual fund, was gratefully received by the Education Department and a plan to implement the will was undertaken with teaching representatives (“MUSIC AND READING.,” 1925).

The bands form up:

Argus, 21/08/1926, p. 29

In terms of providing money for instrumental music, the interest arising from the Gillies Bequest was invaluable at the time (and in subsequent years).  It is from this time that the formation of school brass bands (drum & fife bands and school “orchestras”) gathers pace.  A picture of the newly formed Northcote Central State School band appeared in The Argus newspaper in August 1926 – and here we see one of these historical discrepancies as it probably wasn’t the first school band (“FIRST STATE SCHOOL BAND AT PRACTICE.,” 1926).  In 1928 there’s even more activity with the formation of the very famous Hyde Street school band, the West Preston School Band and discussions are held regarding the formation of a band for the Prahran Technical School (Hyde Street Youth Band, 2015; “Junior Brass Band for Prahran.,” 1928; “WEST PRESTON SCHOOL BAND.,” 1928).  Unfortunately, it is unclear just how many bands are formed during this initial time.

The formation of school brass bands drew some interest from the wider band movement hence the editorial in The Australasian Band and Orchestra News in 1929.  It is easy to see where the Editor is coming from; he writes as an observer and passionate advocate for brass bands and training the young.  However, the language is opinionated and somewhat inflammatory and, in some cases, he misrepresents the facts.  Part of the opening paragraph is a perfect example:

Signs have not been wanting that the promulgation of the brass bands movement in the State schools of New South Wales, Victoria, and elsewhere in Australia is rather resented by some of the headmasters and passively regarded by many of the others.  Various complaints have come from certain localities in which suggestions for State schools bands, made in zealous good faith by bandmasters willing to do the lion’s share of the work, have been coldly shouldered off by the men who should have been first to welcome them.

(“THE EDITOR’S BATON,” 1929, p. 1)

It was probably not the best idea to insult school headmasters if you want them to build band programs in their schools. The Editor goes on in his editorial to wax lyrical about the problems of headmasters – this takes up much of the first page (“THE EDITOR’S BATON,” 1929).  In fact, much of the article is about criticizing the educational ideas and conduct of headmasters, but his concerns about schools finding bandmasters are misplaced. For example, the first bandmaster of the Northcote Central School brass band and the Hyde Street band is none other than Frank “Massa” Johnson, the famous band conductor who was in charge of many other famous bands in Melbourne. (Rasmussen, 2005).  The first conductor of the West Preston school band is the bandmaster of the local Preston band (“WEST PRESTON SCHOOL BAND.,” 1928).  So not only did the school bands form, they were run by the best bandmasters in the business!

The school bands come into their own:

Horsham Times, 10/10/1930, p. 2

In the next decades, the number and reputation of the school bands expanded, and the first competitions were undertaken.  In 1930, the very first competition was held between State school bands in the Exhibition Buildings which involved bands from “Albert Park, Ascot Vale West, Armadale, Coburg East, Coburg West, Footscray, Northcote, Preston West, Princes Hill, and Wonthaggi” (“BAND MUSIC IN SCHOOLS.,” 1930).  The contest was attended by the Minister for Education and Director of Education, Mr M. P. H.ansen (“BAND MUSIC IN SCHOOLS.,” 1930).  In another boost to the status of the school brass bands, the adjudicator at the next South Street Eisteddfod was a very famous bandsman from England, a Dr Cyril Jenkins who was visiting Australia at the time and commented on the quality of the school bands (“JUDGE PRAISES SCHOOL BRASS BAND.,” 1930; see also “NOTED MUSICIAN.,” 1931).

In 1932 a book was published by the then Director of Education, Mr M. P. Hansen titled Thoughts that Breathe.  In this wide-ranging and progressive book (for its time), Mr. Hansen covers all manner of educational theory including advocating for more clubs and associations in schools, of which he devotes a whole chapter to this subject (Hansen, 1932).  More importantly, Mr. Hansen comes across as a strong and measured advocate for school music programs and he details, as a result of the Gillies Bequest, just how far Victorian ensemble programs have grown.  By 1932 in Victorian schools there are, “31 brass bands, 9 orchestras, 13 fife bands and 23 violin classes” (Hansen, 1932, p. 79).  This is quite remarkable growth. By 1937 the number of school brass bands has apparently risen to 50 in Victoria and 20 in New South Wales (“BANDS IN VICTORIA,” 1937).

The Advertiser, 23/05/1936, p. 12

The reputation of school bands is also growing during this time and in 1936 the Princes Hill school band goes on a tour to Adelaide (“PRINCES HILL STATE SCHOOL.,” 1936).  The touring band is greeted with much interest and the bandmaster of Princes Hill was invited to speak on the benefits of forming school brass bands, which, Adelaide apparently didn’t have at the time (“SCHOOL BANDS IN ADELAIDE,” 1936).  Reputations are also growing through competition success.  The Hyde Street school band in particular is noted for a runs of multiple competition successes from 1931 – 1966 (“AROUND THE SCHOOLS: THE ARGUS JUNIOR,” 1947; Hyde Street Youth Band, 2015).  The school brass bands had their own association running competitions – the Victorian State Schools Band Association and competitions specific sections for school bands were run at the South Street Eisteddfod in Ballarat (Royal South Street Society, 2017).  In one instance, a competition was run at the Zoo (“SCHOOL BAND CONTEST,” 1939).

School brass band competitions, like those in the senior band world, were not always without controversy and in a noted competition in 1950 a protest was registered by the Hyde Street school band against the band from East Kew alleging that East Kew Victorian Bands’ League registered musicians in their group (“School to lose band award?,” 1950).  Obviously, there was this stigma, and the perception that school-age musicians who also played in VBL bands were of a higher standard.

The musicians of the state school bands progressed on their instruments and many of them joined community bands in their localities.  As detailed in an article from 1937,

The Department of Education is utilising a substantial portion of the income from this bequest for the promotion of school boy bands, and these are already becoming first-class recruiting grounds for senior bands.  Footscray City Band at present includes in its membership 22 former players of the Hyde-street (Footscray) school, which has been champion school band for several years past.  Recently a band has been formed at East Kew (the East Kew Junior Band) to enable boys from the East Kew school band to continue their musical activities after leaving school. It is composed almost wholly of boys from the school band


Unfortunately, in some areas, the local band ceased to operate, but this sometimes proved a benefit to local schools who were the beneficiaries of their instruments.  Such is the case in Cranbourne where in 1940 where the local band ceased to function and handed all of its instruments to the local school and scout group (“Cranbourne,” 1940).

Where were the girls?

 When reading about the school bands in past years, the perception, especially in Victoria, is that the school brass bands were only for boys.  Certainly, there was no written rule stopping girls from joining but it must be assumed that educationally, it was not something that girls should do, or could possibly be interested in.  This was a situation that didn’t change for many years in Victoria. However, over the border in New South Wales, it was very different.  We see in an article in 1949 that the Balranald School Band not only had girls participating, but they were regarded as very good musicians too (“GIRLS and a BRASS BAND,” 1949).  This might be a rare example, but it shows the different attitudes on display at the time. The issue of gender and instruments is an interesting issue to explore – but might be for another post.

The bands in later years:

Things always change and in the world of school brass bands, this was no different.  We know that some school bands survived or evolved.  The Hyde Street school band evolved to become Hyde Street Youth Band and out of all the school bands, this one was the only band to survive as a brass band (Hyde Street Youth Band, 2015).  Other school music programs evolved to set up new ensembles such as concert bands which included woodwind instruments.  It must be assumed that some bands just ceased to exist, and the only memories are from photographs and old school records.  There were so many school bands in the 1930’s and 1940’s – it would be interesting to know what happened to some of them.


 The story and history of school bands is fascinating and could probably be better explored through the research of additional records.  This being said, the newspapers of the day did detail an amount of history and it’s quite fascinating to see what the bands achieved. Certainly, there were a foundation for senior bands in their local areas and local bandmasters were involved. They were a product of their time and their legacy won’t be forgotten.

Northcote School Band, 1937


AROUND THE SCHOOLS: THE ARGUS JUNIOR State School Band Champions. (1947, 23 September). Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 6. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article22509356

BAND MUSIC IN SCHOOLS: First Contest To-day. (1930, 17 May). Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 27. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article4087822

BANDS IN VICTORIA: High Musical Standard: Is Public Appreciating Lacking? (1937, 07 December). Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), p. 10. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article205550598

BERRINGA: Boys’ Brass Band. (1914, 27 May). Ballarat Courier (Vic. : 1869 – 1880; 1914 – 1918), p. 8. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article73303543

BERRINGA: School Brass Band. (1913, 05 May). Ballarat Star (Vic. : 1865 – 1924), p. 6. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article219185791

Cranbourne: Exit Cranbooure’s Brass Band: State School and Scouts benefit from sale of instruments. (1940, 10 July). Dandenong Journal (Vic. : 1927 – 1954), p. 9. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article216062113

THE EDITOR’S BATON: Bringing up the boy to the band. (1929). The Australasian Band and Orchestra News, XXV(2), 1 & 3.

FIRST STATE SCHOOL BAND AT PRACTICE. (1926, 21 August). Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 29. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3803920

GIRLS and a BRASS BAND. (1949, 17 December). Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 5. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article22799163

Hansen, M. P. (1932). Thoughts that breathe. Melbourne: Robertson & Mullens.

Hyde Street Youth Band. (2015). History: Where did we come from? Hyde Street Youth Band: Established 1928. Retrieved from http://hsyb.org.au/about/history-2/

IBEW. (n.d.). Beechworth School Brass Band, 1931 [picture: 9055]. The Internet Bandsman: Vintage Brass Band Pictures: Australia. Retrieved from http://www.ibew.org.uk/vinbbp/phot9055.jpg

IBEW. (n.d.). Northcote School Band, Melbourne, 1937 [picture: 9041]. The Internet Bandsman: Vintage Brass Band Pictures: Australia. Retrieved from http://www.ibew.org.uk/vinbbp/phot9041.jpg

JUDGE PRAISES SCHOOL BRASS BAND. (1930, 10 October). Horsham Times (Vic. : 1882 – 1954), p. 2. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article72645899

Junior Brass Band for Prahran. (1928, 27 June). Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), p. 9. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article202295373

MUSIC AND READING ALOUD: Object of Large Bequest. (1925, 01 June). Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 10. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article2122525

MUSIC AND READING: Bequest for Encouragement: Department’s Grateful Acceptance. (1925, 02 June). Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 19. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article2122677

NOTED MUSICIAN: Views on Australian choirs: Dr. Cyril Jenkins’s Visit. (1931, 20 January). Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), p. 8. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article16747310

PRINCES HILL STATE SCHOOL: Band’s Visit to Adelaide. (1936, 22 May). Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), p. 4. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article204828552

Rasmussen, C. (2005). Johnston, Francis Charles (Massa) (1880-1953). Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. Retrieved from http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/johnston-francis-charles-massa-13009

Richmond Boys’ Brass Band to Make Debut at Racecourse Carnival for Blind Soldiers—Amazing Growth of Notable Movement that will Bring Fame to This District. (1918, 12 January). Richmond Guardian (Vic. : 1917 – 1918), p. 2. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article93811136

Royal South Street Society. (2017). Results. Royal South Street Society (1891-2016). Retrieved from https://results.royalsouthstreet.com.au

SCHOOL BAND CONTEST. (1939, 29 August). Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 4. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article11234823

SCHOOL BANDS IN ADELAIDE: Brass Instruments Preferred. (1936, 23 May). Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1931 – 1954), p. 12. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article35434199

School to lose band award? (1950, 25 August). Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 3. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article22911796

ST. AUGUSTINE’S ORPHANAGE BAND. (1898, 01 March). Geelong Advertiser (Vic. : 1859 – 1929), p. 1. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article150368016

State School Band. (1914, 26 May). Bairnsdale Advertiser and Tambo and Omeo Chronicle (Vic. : 1882 – 1918), p. 2. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article75096821

WEST PRESTON SCHOOL BAND. (1928, 16 May). Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 22. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3928715