This post was originally written as a local history project for Yarra Libraries, October 2017.
Around the City of Yarra are dotted many reminders of bygone days. Given the history of the area, this is perhaps not surprising. However, when looking at some buildings sets the mind to wondering if they were ever used and by whom. This is the case with the many bandstands in public gardens in the City of Yarra. Logic would dictate that if a bandstand had been built, then there must have been a band to play on it. Delving into various histories and newspaper articles of the area would indicate that this was the case; that there were once brass bands located in the various suburbs. Yet they are not here now and there is little physical evidence to indicate they existed aside from written articles and other histories.
For just over fifty years the brass bands served the suburbs of the City of Yarra and this post will provide a brief history of bands located in Collingwood, Fitzroy and Richmond. They existed in a time when there was little recorded or broadcast music and the local population went and saw their bands play on a regular basis. As one Collingwood resident remembers,
They used to have a bandstand there in the Darling Gardens. They’ve since built a new one of the same design. They used to have bands there every Sunday and we would sit in the Gardens. Sometimes the Salvos, sometimes the municipal band.(Collingwood History Committee, Carringbush Regional Library, & Collingwood Council, 1994, p. 38)
The bands were engaged with their communities and were always out and about performing, marching and competing. They were also at the behest of their Local Councils who at times supported the bands, but at other times tried to influence other outcomes. As will be seen, other external factors also had affected the running of the bands. However, the fact the bands existed is exciting enough and their stories deserve to be heard.
The Collingwood Citizens’ Band:
Out of the three main bands that once existed in the City of Yarra area the Collingwood Citizens’ Band is the most renowned due to its many successes in Australian and local band championships (Royal South Street Society, 2017). This success was mainly due to the prowess of the band under their famous conductor, Mr. Francis Charles Johnston who was known as “Massa” Johnston for most of his conducting career (Rasmussen, 2005).
We first hear of a band in Collingwood with an article from 1901 which outlined the professions of bandsmen outside of the banding lives (this article also included a band that had Fitzroy in its name) (“SIM’S FITZROY MILITARY BAND.,” 1901). The band mentioned in the article is the Collingwood Imperial Band and it is not until 1904 where a series of public meetings were held with the aim of forming a new citizens band. From the articles of the time, the Collingwood Imperial Band agreed to merge with the new Citizens’ Band and thus the Collingwood Citizens’ Band was officially born (“COLLINGWOOD CITIZENS BAND,” 1904). The Collingwood Council, which facilitated the meetings, also wanted to form a juvenile band however it is not clear whether this band was ever started.
From an article published in 1915 by the Bendigo Independent newspaper, we can finally see list of the Collingwood Citizens’ Band competition successes up until this date (“THE COLLINGWOOD BAND.,” 1915). Here we see a band that has been crowned champion band many times over, mainly from participating in the Royal South Street events. The cups and shield evident in the photo certainly reflect this. This competition success continued for many years and decades, no doubt helped by the influence of conductor Massa Johnston, who also conducted many other bands at the time to competition success (Rasmussen, 2005).
Collingwood Citizens’ Band had a fine reputation. They used to practice every Sunday morning at Collingwood Football ground. We could hear them quite clearly. They had tremendous volume. They sometimes used to march. (Collingwood History Committee et al., 1994, p. 38)(Collingwood History Committee et al, 1994, p. 38)
There are numerous articles dating from the 1930s and 1940s which shows the band performing in many concerts, parades, and other events. They also competed in competitions interstate and around Victoria, and because of their reputation, they were invited guests at other band events. The Royal South Street Society did not run a band contest every year so Collingwood participated in other events. In the early 1950s their conductor Francis “Massa” Johnston passed away and the band played at his funeral (“Tribute to Bandsman,” 1954). This perhaps sounded a death knell for the Collingwood Citizens’ Band and it is not long after this date that we see no more articles about their activities. It is unclear as to which year the band officially ended.
Collingwood Citizens’ Band were a remarkably stable ensemble for their time, especially when compared to neighboring bands. They had an enviable contesting record and were the pride of the municipality. Their history is well noted, and it is hoped that we might see some of the physical artifacts come to light.
The Fitzroy Bands:
Of the three bands that were located in the City of Yarra area, the Fitzroy bands were probably the most unstable and it is sometimes hard to tell where one ensemble ended and another one began! We first see mention of a band in Fitzroy in 1885 where there is an article detailing the results of an intra-band sports day (“CITY OF FITZROY BRASS BAND.,” 1885). As mentioned in the history of the Collingwood band, another article details the professions of bandsmen although this article makes mention of the Sim’s Fitzroy Military Band – perhaps this was a private ensemble, but this is the first and only mention of this particular band. In 1906 a letter is written to the editor of the Fitzroy City Press advocating a new ensemble that is hoped will emulate the success of the neighboring Collingwood brass band (“FITZROY CITIZENS’ CONTEST BAND,” 1906). Certainly, in the coming years, the Fitzroy Citizens’ Band did taste competition success, and in 1915 competed against the bands of Collingwood and Richmond in several sections (Royal South Street Society, 1915).
Other bands were evident in Fitzroy such as the North Fitzroy Band however it is unclear as to their fate. Of interest is that in 1911 a public meeting was held where it was decided to ‘help’ form the current Fitzroy City Band into the Fitzroy City Citizens’ Band (“FITZROY CITIZENS’ BAND,” 1911). Hence the confusion over timelines and history when bands reportedly kept changing their names. In 1925 the Fitzroy City Council, in all its wisdom, accepts the services of the ‘Turners’ Brunswick Band’ and this ensemble become the new ‘Fitzroy Municipal Band’ (“SUBURBAN ACTIVITIES.,” 1925). Why the council would accept the services of a neighboring private brass band is unknown, however the consequences are that the existing Fitzroy Citizens’ Band and the new ensemble agree to absorb the members of the rival band, depending on the council decision – the council agreed to the Turner proposal (“SUBURBAN ACTIVITIES.,” 1925).
In 1937 the local council provides money to the Fitzroy Municipal Band for the purchase of new uniforms with the tender for manufacture passed opened to local traders (“New Uniforms for Band.,” 1937). Over the coming years, it is unclear what happens to the Fitzroy Municipal Band although it can be assumed that the Second World War intervened and the band went into recess. Of interest is that in 1941 there was a meeting held about establishing a boys’ band in Fitzroy, and perhaps a junior choir (“BOYS’ BAND FOR FITZROY,” 1941). There is no evidence to suggest this ensemble was ever started. Progressing to 1945 we see that a new Fitzroy Brass Band has been formed and is already doing performances – this new band was formed at the insistence of the local council (“NEWS FROM THE SUBURBS,” 1945). Four years later in 1949, we see possibly the last mention of the Fitzroy Brass band with a photo of their conductor playing the trombone at an event in Elsternwick (“Two Kinds of Band Music,” 1949). There is no indication of when the Fitzroy Brass Band ceased to be active.
The Richmond Bands:
The story of the Richmond City Band is well-known due to the excellent research undertaken by the Richmond & Burnley Historical Society. Like the Collingwood Citizens’ Band, the Richmond Band also competed on a regular basis and won many prizes. While Richmond didn’t last as long as the Collingwood or the Fitzroy bands, the Richmond Band earned a reputation for being a fine ensemble (Langdon, 2014).
As with most municipalities, there were often many brass bands that were formed, but not many survived. In 1905, we see the Richmond City Band in “conflict” with the neighboring, and newly formed South Richmond Band over some event; this required council mediation to resolve (“RIVAL BRASS BANDS.,” 1905). Coming to 1916 we see the Richmond City Band gaining the use of a new band room which was located behind the Richmond Town Hall (“Richmond City Band,” 1916). Unlike other neighbouring areas, Richmond was lucky enough to have a boys’ band formed and this band gained success at the South Street competitions (“Richmond Boys’ Band.,” 1918; “Richmond Boys’ Band Making Fine Progress.,” 1918; Royal South Street Society, 2017). This Richmond Boys’ Band also traveled and are noted as having marched in an Armistice Day parade in Nar Nar Goon in 1918 (Heather, 2016).
Sadly, the Richmond City Band fell victim to events outside their control. In 1926 a fire destroyed their band hall and they lost instruments, uniforms and sheet music (“FIRE AT RICHMOND.,” 1926; Langdon, 2014). This, and the fact that many band members were being employed in other musical endeavors plus a council wanting four local bands to merge meant that the Richmond City Band days were numbered. In the 1930s the band ceased running in its current form (Langdon, 2014).
If we are to take anything from the stories of these three bands it is that history is fickle and fragmented. There is much that we don’t know. The bands were very much part of the society of their time and while the local populace displayed pride in their bands, this often did not extend to local government. I’m sure that if the bands had survived to this day, as quite a number of Melbourne’s brass bands have done, then they would be thriving with new musical energy.
Allan Studio. (1911?). Collingwood Citizens’ Contest Band [Photograph]. [phot15975]. The Internet Bandsman Everything Within, Vintage Brass Band Pictures : Australia. http://www.ibew.org.uk/vbbp-oz.html
Band contest, City Oval, Ballarat. (n.d.). [Photograph]. [phot7343]. The Internet Bandsman Everything Within, Vintage Brass Band Pictures : Australia. http://www.ibew.org.uk/vbbp-oz.html
BOYS’ BAND FOR FITZROY. (1941, 18 February). Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), 10. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article205297038
CITY OF FITZROY BRASS BAND. (1885, 08 April). Sportsman (Melbourne, Vic. : 1882 – 1904), 4. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article229822096
THE COLLINGWOOD BAND. (1915, 04 January). Bendigo Independent (Vic. : 1891 – 1918), 2. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article219867088
COLLINGWOOD CITIZENS’ BAND. (1904, 13 February). Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), 10. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article197229077
Collingwood History Committee, Carringbush Regional Library, & Collingwood Council. (1994). In those days : Collingwood remembered : memories of Collingwood residents / interviewed by the Collingwood History Committee (3rd ed.). Carringbush Regional Library in association with the City of Collingwood.
FIRE AT RICHMOND. (1926, 27 February). Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), 29. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3736962
FITZROY CITIZENS’ BAND. (1911, 17 July). Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), 9. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article196208248
FITZROY CITIZENS’ CONTEST BAND. (1906, 17 August). Fitzroy City Press (Vic. : 1881 – 1920), 3. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article65662507
Heather. (2016, 08 November). Celebrating the Armistice at Nar Nar Goon in 1918. Casey-Cardinia: Commemorating the Great War: 1914-1918. http://caseycardinia1914-1918.blogspot.com/2016/11/celebrating-armistice-at-nar-nar-goon.html
Langdon, D. (2014). Brass bands. Richmond & Burnley Historical Society Newsletter, 31(5), 2 & 4-6.
New Uniforms for Band. (1937, 10 March). Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), 16. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article205600050
NEWS FROM THE SUBURBS. (1945, 15 February). Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), 5. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article206859489
North Fitzroy Band, Melbourne. (n.d.). [Photograph]. [phot2121]. The Internet Bandsman Everything Within, Vintage Brass Band Pictures : Australia. http://www.ibew.org.uk/vbbp-oz.html
Rasmussen, C. (2005). Johnston, Francis Charles (Massa) (1880-1953). In Australian Dictionary of Biography. Retrieved 12 October 2017, from https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/johnston-francis-charles-massa-13009
Richmond Boys’ Band. (1918, 23 February). Richmond Guardian (Vic. : 1917 – 1918), 3. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article93810988
Richmond Boys’ Band Making Fine Progress—May Develop into Military Brass Band with over 100 Performers. (1918, 06 July). Richmond Guardian (Vic. : 1917 – 1918), 2. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article93811606
Richmond City Band. (1916, 07 October). Richmond Australian (Vic. : 1914 – 1916), 2. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article119691234
Richmond City Band. Ballarat Compts 1906. (1906). [postcard : printed, b&w]. [a04257]. State Library Victoria, J. D. Meade postcard collection. https://www.slv.vic.gov.au/pictoria/gid/slv-pic-aab44040
RIVAL BRASS BANDS. (1905, 24 October). Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), 6. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article199417022
Royal South Street Society. (1915, 23 October). 1915-10-23 Brass Band Contests. Royal South Street Society. Retrieved 13 October 2017 from https://results.royalsouthstreet.com.au/results/1915-10-23-brass-band-contests
Royal South Street Society. (2017). Results. Royal South Street Society (1891-2016). Retrieved 13 October 2017 from https://results.royalsouthstreet.com.au
SIM’S FITZROY MILITARY BAND. (1901, 18 April). Tocsin (Melbourne, Vic. : 1897 – 1906), 5. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article197522624
SUBURBAN ACTIVITIES. (1925, 30 June). Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), 17. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article2132043
Tribute to Bandsman. (1954, 18 January). Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954),4. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article206089857
Two Kinds of Band Music. (1949, 14 November). Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), 4. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article189488717