by Janet Smith
In memory of Brian Palmer, a life-long bandsman and for many years Bandmaster of Marlow Town Band, who gave me a great deal of the information used in this article.
Bands first appeared as part of the military trappings of late medieval Germany, and came to Britain with the Restoration, via the court of Louis XIV. By the end of the 18th century brass bands began to replace the earlier town waits and village church bands. Soon after, the French instrument maker Adolphe Sax, by inventing the modern valve system, made brass instruments much easier for amateurs to play, and in the later 19th century bands became very popular in towns, factories and religious groups. By 1900 fife and drum bands were one of the favourite activities of the military-style youth groups then in vogue.
Such a group was the origin of Marlow Town Band. When John Palmer moved with his family from Chesham to Marlow in 1906 he took in hand the fife and drum band of either the Church Lads' Brigade or the Boys' Life Brigade. At first brass instruments were added, then, during and just after the First World War, the flutes and most of the side drums disappeared. Before the war it had been common practise for bandmasters to encourage their most able players to join the local Territorial Army band, where they could get extra tuition. Several of the early members of Marlow Band, among them my grandfather, did this and, subsequently, found themselves on the Marne with the British Expeditionary Force, acting as stretcher-bearers.
By the early 1920s the band had changed substantially. A few older men who had survived the war still played, but the majority were young men or boys like my father. He had joined the band at the age of nine. In addition, John Palmer had handed over the reins of the band to his eldest son Ernie, who remained bandmaster until 1952. He now considered everyone ready to compete in the Band Contests which had been, since Edwardian times, a regular feature of brass band life. In 1924 Marlow Band won the Championship at Oxford. Brian Palmer's family still possess the conductor's baton which his father won on this occasion. A photograph of the band taken at this time shows members at a fête in the grounds of Spinfield House, resplendent in new uniforms and with Lord Terrington in their midst. Contests were generally fairly local in character, Reading and Oxford being favourite venues, but in 1939, spurred on by inside information that the opposition was not up to their standard, the band ventured as far as Fairford and returned victorious with a large cup. In the later 1950s the band fell on hard times and gave up competing, as there was no money to spare for entry fees, but in 1961, under the baton of Ernie's eldest son Brian, they recommenced competing at a local contest in Waltham St Lawrence and immediately won two awards.
In its early years, the band rehearsed in the Infants' School in Oxford Road. This was lit by gas mantles contained in white glass globes, hung high above the children's heads to avoid accidents. These were adequate to supplement daylight on a dull afternoon, but definitely not to read sheet music on a dark winter evening. The band asked repeatedly to be allowed to supplement the lighting but, as there was no electricity in the building, this would have involved the use of oil or acetylene lamps. The school governors, mindful of the fire risk, refused. By the mid 1920s, when dancing was all the rage, it also seemed a good idea to have a hall which could be used for dances and concerts. After considerable negotiation, the band acquired the use of a spare piece of land belonging to the Football Club at the south-western corner of the Alfred Davis Memorial Ground. By 1936 enough money had been raised to buy a corrugated iron building which Benny Pickton, a Wycombe shop owner, had been using as a temporary store. With the help of a few workers from Y J Lovell, a local building firm, the band erected their new hall themselves, adding a fine boarded dance floor. It took them a year!
Like most voluntary organisations, Marlow Band often had financial problems. Their most basic method of raising money was to play in the street while collecting cash from passers-by. Public collections were also taken each Saturday when the band played at football matches. Engagements to "play out" were a more certain source of income, since the band could charge a fee. An early minute book reveals that in the 1920s the band was run by a committee made up of local worthies, among them George Kendall, the estate agent. These gentlemen administered the band, occasionally arbitrated in disputes among members and sometimes gave, or acquired from others, money or instruments. This useful body seems to have disappeared during the Second World War, after which the band members organised themselves. Once the Band Hall had been built, it provided further sources of income. As well as the concerts and dances which the band ran themselves, the hall was hired out for whist drives and to the local Old Time Dance Club. Unfortunately, the hall absorbed money as well as creating it. To the basic functions of buying sheet music, purchasing and maintaining instruments and providing uniforms, the band had to add heating, lighting, rates and running repairs, as well as finding the salary for a caretaker.
From 1939 the band once again found itself seriously depleted, as its members, including all three of Ernie Palmer's sons, were conscripted to fight in the Second World War. Better organised than in 1914, the government held back some men to help the war effort on the home front, so that, as well as older men and boys, the band retained a few younger men in reserved occupations. In my father's case, this involved surveying the sites of everything from tank traps and pill boxes to complete army and RAF stations over a large swathe of southern England. In his spare moments he cycled to band practise twice a week and played at dances for locally stationed members of the Forces, as well as getting married. I still have the Napoleon's Hat clock, complete with presentation plate, which the band gave him.
In 1945 the town was ready to enjoy itself, but remarkably short of opportunities to do so. There was a cinema, but most films ran for at least five days. Local drama and operatic groups had not yet reassembled themselves. In 1946, with the majority of its players demobbed, the band, which now proudly called itself the Marlow Town Prize Silver Band, re-formed. For the next ten years the dance floor, in which the band had wisely invested, saw frequent and enthusiastic use. Twice a year, with the main hall blacked out, the band took to the stage and gave a concert, backed up by such delights as an amateur performance of The Holy City and the young ladies of Betty Haley's Dancing School, who entertained their indulgent audience with displays of tap-dancing and acrobatics. My spell-bound, seven-year-old self sat entranced in the close darkness, listening between turns to the quiet crackle of embers in the Tortoise stoves. In summer the band played in Higginson Park, although Marlow Urban District Council could never be persuaded to give them a fee. Councils in other towns - Maidenhead and even Aylesbury - were more generous, so, as a coach cost only ten shillings (50p) to hire, they became well known in the area. Not all their engagements were played for money. They regularly attended Armistice Day parades in the town and surrounding area, and also gave their services free for charitable events. As late as 1957, by which time their own finances were almost in ruins, their annual report related proudly that they were the only local organisation to have organised a full-scale event to support World Refugee Year.
From its earliest years the Band had been in demand to play in public. Before the National Health Service was formed, health care funds were raised locally, often through Hospital Sunday parades. A photograph of the band taken in about 1912 shows them at the junction of Station Road and Station Rise during such a parade, and includes both Ernie Palmer and my grandfather. They were hired to play at many local fetes, including Cliveden, where my father remembered plates of dainty cucumber sandwiches from the Big House being handed round among rather disconsolate band members, who would have preferred something more substantial! Carolling was a regular Christmas activity, not only in the town, but in the whole area. Cookham was particularly rewarding, as the owners of the many large houses not only gave generously, but expected to provide seasonal refreshments. As the evening progressed and the band got merrier, chaos occasionally ensued, as when the band took one fork in the road and the drummer in the rear, unable to see round his instrument, took the other. Later they had a regular annual engagement at the Rugby Club Fête and barbecue. One-off engagements included a large Society wedding in Farnham Common and a visit to Chalfont Colony. Recently the band has spread its wings and played much further afield, fulfilling engagements at South Coast resorts and taking part in exchange visits with a German band. Each year they play in the Enclosure at Marlow Regatta, and until recently played at Phyllis Court for Henley Regatta, too.
By the mid 1950s, as the golden years of amateur entertainment drew to a close, the band faced serious competition from more professionally organised and up-to-date events, as well as from television. For some years they had depended largely on the proceeds of whist drives and old time dances, run jointly by a few Band members and other interested parties. The performing rights payments for the dances were, unnoticed by the Band Committee, footed by the Band, which discovered rather late in the day that, at some time, the fees had overtaken the profits made by each event, so that the Band was subsidising the dances. When this was noticed, in mid 1958, the dances were stopped and the Hall caretaker's services dispensed with, so that the whist drives had to stop, too. Thus the Band was left with no regular income, had also lost its Bandmaster recently and now lost many of its players.
As early as 1956, though the Band Hall roof had been in urgent need of repair, no funds to cover this were available, but the band had been distracted by organisational problems and had not taken the problem seriously. Now the situation was rapidly worsening, with no possibility of earning any money. By the end of 1957 many of the band members had, for a variety of reasons, left and attendances at band practise were very poor. It was no longer possible for the band to undertake any fund-raising engagements, and public performances were only possible with the help of guest players from other bands. The local council was threatening that, if the roof were not repaired, the band's Public Hall Licence would be revoked. At this point the hall was put up for sale, but no-one was prepared to take it on. The band obtained estimates for the repairs and discovered, once again, that they could not afford them. Eventually the local Sea Cadet unit suggested that if the hall were given to them for use as a Headquarters, they would undertake to fit out a room for the band's use, with storage for their equipment, and also give them facilities to rehearse twice a week. After initial hesitation, the Band Committee decided that this, kill or cure, was the only way forward.
Parting with their hall proved to be the band's salvation. Relieved of the constant need to raise money for maintenance and taxes, they were able to concentrate on playing, plough money earned into cleaning and refurbishing instruments and equipment, and to recruit and teach new players. It was at this time that boys from the Borstal at Finnamore were regularly brought down to play with the band. As other bands struggled with increasing rents, Marlow Band was free to focus on music, and gradually, as numbers increased, the band became viable again. By the 1980s the original hall building was too dilapidated to be worth further repair and the Sea Cadets raised the money for a purpose-built brick headquarters, but still with space set aside for the band.
Over the years the composition of the band has changed greatly. A list of names, which my father added to a photograph of 1924, shows the band as overwhelmingly local. Most of the players were craftsmen or manual workers, and the furthest any of them travelled to band practise was from Cookham Dean, a cycle ride away. These men needed instruments, uniforms and all their other equipment to be provided by the band committee, which was apt to find its meetings beset by the need for a new E flat base or the urgent provision of boys' tunics. Very early photographs show men wearing their own clothes with peaked caps and webbing instrument slings, but the First World War set new standards and 1924 band members are resplendent in braided tunics and caps, with leather belts and slings. These uniforms were used until the outbreak of the Second World War, by which time they must have been in very poor condition. In 1945 the band acquired and modified a set of war-surplus firemen's uniforms. By the 1950s, not only were these wearing out, but men were less eager to appear in militaristic clothing. After some thought, it was decided to abandon formal uniform in favour of maroon blazers, to be bought by the bandsmen and worn with grey flannels. This established a principle which still stands today, although now, as well as blue "day dress", band members wear tuxedos and cummerbunds for evening concerts. By the 1970s, when my father retired from the band, it was made up principally of teachers and professional men and women, some of whom travelled considerable distances to play. These people not only bought their uniform, but expected to provide and maintain their own instrument. This tradition continues down to the present day.
Over the past century, from my grandfather's generation; men who walked or cycled to practice twice a week, giving up every weekend of the year to play with the band, to the present one; people who arrive from all points of the compass by car and give up their annual holiday to fulfil an engagement on the South Coast or play abroad, the Band's many members have been united by dedication to their music. Their director since 2000, Ian Young, trained in the tradition of local brass bands, has taken them to new heights and new locations. Their exchange visit with a German band brought to fruition a long held ambition of his own. Throughout the years, even in times of adversity, Marlow Band has produced amateur players of distinction who have made very fine music in a superb tradition, giving great pleasure both to their audiences and to themselves.
Britannica 2002, Standard Edition
Marlow Band Minute Book, 1918-1929
Marlow Band Minute Books, 1955-1959
Marlow Band Account Books, 1955-1959
Memories of Brian and Ethel Palmer, recounted first to Rachael Brown and Lynne Rimmer as a recording for the Marlow Society, and later to me.
Memories of my father, Edward Smith, recounted over the years. He also preserved the early minute book, which has now been returned to the Band.
My thanks are also due to Marlow Town Band chairman, Ken Hall, who loaned me the minute books and accounts covering the period when the Band were in financial difficulties, and provided many photographs.
SMITH, Janet - Marlow Band in The Marlow Historian, Volume 6, published by the local History group of The Marlow Society, 2011, ISSN 1477-2183
For further information contact The Marlow Society, PO Box 3078, Marlow, SL7 2WQ