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The people’s music: The birth and growth of New Zealand’s brass band music

September 15th, 2017 By Peter Clayworth

We thank Dr Peter Clayworth for making available his talk about the history of brass bands in New Zealand before 1910, originally given in conjunction with the Turnbull Gallery exhibition An Ornament to the Town: The Band Rotunda in New Zealand. This blog is an edited version of the talk, which can be heard in its entirety on the audio player below. For those who missed the original exhibition, there will be an opportunity to view an abridged version at Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art and History in Masterton from 30 September to 10 December 2017.

Listen to the speech

Stream the talk (57 min):

The origins of bands in New Zealand

The first time a military band was reported to have played in New Zealand was in May 1843. The band of the French corvette Le Rhin, impressed locals when performing at a dinner which Wellingtons’ leading settlers had put on for Captain Berard and the ship’s officers at Barrett’s Hotel.

The Wellington settlers had formed their own band in 1842: a combination of brass, woodwind and percussion. They played for drills and parades of the Wellington Volunteers, as well as public ceremonies, balls and other entertainments. The band’s finest moment came when they played ‘The King of the Cannibal Isles’ to accompany the burning in effigy of the unpopular Governor Robert FitzRoy to mark his departure from New Zealand in October 1845. Bands formed in the 1840s and 1850s tended to be short-lived, given the transient lives of Pākehā settler musicians in the mid-nineteenth century.

Armed Constabulary fife and drum band.
Armed Constabulary fife and drum band, ca.1860s-1870s. Ref: PAColl-9765-1

Military Bands- British Regiments and Volunteers

The Northern War of 1845-6 brought the first British Regimental Band to NZ, that of the 58th Regiment from New South Wales. After serving in the Bay of Islands, the regiment was based in Auckland. The band put on many public performances in Auckland, largely as public relations exercises to counteract the bad reputation earned by drunken off-duty soldiers. The band of the 65th Regiment, based in Wellington from 1847, played often for the public with the same goal of improving the military’s image. The wars of the 1860s led to fourteen British regiments being based in New Zealand, with at least ten having their own bands.

The presence of such military ensembles in the colony encouraged settlers to start their military-style bands. In 1859, the Taranaki Volunteer Rifle Company began fund raising to purchase instruments. With the outbreak of war more Volunteer units were established in the 1860s, followed by a colonial army in the form of the Armed Constabulary. Many of these units also established bands. The Artillery Band, formed in 1864, included former bandsmen of the 58th and 65th Regiments, who settled in New Zealand after being discharge from service. The Artillery Band survives in 2017 as the Band of the Royal New Zealand Artillery. Though no longer an official army band, it is longest surviving New Zealand military band.

Unnamed bandsman in the uniform of the Wanganui Rifle Volunteers.
Unnamed bandsman in the uniform of the Wanganui Rifle Volunteers, ca.1856-1889. Ref: 1/4-004894-G

Brass Bands: The influence of Volunteering

The Volunteer Force continued on after the 1860s wars. They were in existence from the 1870s through to 1910, when they were replaced by the Territorial Force. The Volunteers were ostensibly a military defence force, but in were in many ways more of a social and recreational group. They held annual camps, drills, parades and sporting events. Volunteer Force brass bands were an important feature of the Volunteers and one of their most significant contributions to the wider society. From the 1870s onwards, a town with four or more Volunteer units could establish a Garrison Band: a combined band that would receive an annual £20 government subsidy. Competitions between Volunteer bands were an important factor in New Zealand brass band development.

Burnett’s Face brass band.
Burnett’s Face brass band, 1914. Ref: 1/2-008502-F

A range of bands emerge (1860s-1890s)

During the gold rushes of the 1860s some miners set up their own bands, usually including some brass instruments. From the 1870s many workplace brass bands were set up around the colony. These included engineers’ bands, railways bands, colliery bands and tramways bands. Some had financial backing from employers or subsidies from towns’ councils. Bands were important for civic pride, especially when performing at official functions.

Friendly societies and lodges, religious groups, sports clubs and temperance groups all sponsored brass bands. Temperance bands played at temperance functions, entertainments designed to be alternatives to drinking. Temperance band members were supposed to be abstainers, but many fell short of the ideal. There were also bands financed by public subscription and semi-professional ‘private’ bands. The first New Zealand band financed by a union, the Wellington Watersiders’ Union Band, was formed in 1911.

Temperance Ladies’ Brass Band, possibly in Auckland.
Temperance Ladies’ Brass Band, possibly in Auckland, ca.1910s. Ref: 1/2-000336-G

Most bands would play for hire at functions such as balls, race meetings and public picnics in order to raise funds. Many bands had a paid conductor/instructor, but the other musicians were generally unpaid amateurs. For the musicians, bands were a form of recreation, a place for creativity, learning skills, taking part in competitions and enjoying comradeship. Members were proud of their skills in playing and marching, and in representing their workplaces, towns or organisations.

Māori band arriving at the Basin Reserve, 28 March 1900.
Māori band arriving at the Basin Reserve, 28 March 1900. Ref: PA1-o-127-12

Māori Brass Bands

Māori adopted and adapted a range of Pākehā musical forms throughout the nineteenth century. In the 1870s and 1880s some Māori communities began forming their own brass ensembles. The community based at Te Oreore in Wairarapa, held haka performances for audiences in Masterton and Wellington in 1876, in order to raise funds for band instruments. Māori also carried out fund raising drives in their own communities. Some Māori leaders, such as the Muaupoko rangatira Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui (a.k.a. Major Kemp), sponsored their own bands.

By the 1890s, Māori communities around New Zealand, even in remote locations such as Ranana on the Whanganui River and Karakanui on the Kaipara Harbour, were establishing brass bands. They bought elaborate uniforms, similar to those of Pākehā bands, and hired experienced Pākehā bandleaders to train the musicians. Small communities were struggling to survive economically, but bands were regarded as worth spending money on as they were important for community morale. Māori bands performed at a wide range of functions, including civic occasions. In 1894 the Pakipaki Native Brass Band (from Hawkes Bay) gave a concert at the Napier Clive Square band rotunda, before sailing to Gisborne to play at a meeting of the Māori Parliament at Muriwai. In addition to playing at hui and tangi, Māori bands were hired to play at race meetings, regattas and picnics. The Otaki Native Brass Band was popular with both Māori and Pākehā audiences, particularly at the annual Otaki Maori Jockey Club meeting.

Group portrait of Salvation Army Brass Band, probably in the Christchurch region.
Group portrait of Salvation Army Brass Band, probably in the Christchurch region, ca.1910s. Ref: 1/1-024079-G

Salvation Army

The Salvation Army used brass band music as a form of religious praise and to draw attention to their message of salvation. In 1883, the first Salvation Army bands were established in a number of New Zealand towns, including Dunedin and Wellington. Salvation Army bands were at first prohibited from playing in the streets of many towns. Bandsmen were arrested and gaoled, as well as having larrikins throw things at them. Before long, however, Salvation Army bands became an accepted part of the New Zealand scene. The Army followed a policy of supplying their own instruments and approved books of music; they did not join in band competitions. In the male dominated brass band world, the Salvation Army stood apart for encouraging female musicians, including setting up several all-female ‘lasses bands’.

Band Contests

Official brass band contests began in 1880 with a competition between Volunteer Force bands. The Invercargill and Oamaru Garrison Bands dominated competitions in the 1880s and early 1890s, while the Wellington and Wanganui Garrison Bands dominated from the late 1890s through to the 1910s. Competitions were very popular, drawing many entrants and large audiences. People took great deal of civic pride in their bands. A band that won a major competition would be welcomed home like a victorious sports team.

Postcard of the Lyttelton band rotunda, 1910-1911.
Postcard of the Lyttelton band rotunda, 1910-1911. Ref: MS-Papers-12098

The Golden Age 1880s-1910s: The many roles of Brass Bands

The period from the 1880s through to the 1910s has sometimes been referred to as the ‘Golden Age’ of brass bands. During this period brass bands were one of the few forms of free outdoor entertainment available to the general public. Brass music was also successful because it was loud enough to be heard at crowded public events. Bands became very popular, with many newspapers running regular brass band columns.

Bands played for public entertainment, with evening concerts in halls and outdoor performances during the day in band rotundas. They were called on for dances, balls and charity fund-raising, as well as organising their own fund-raising events for band expenses. Bands were an essential presence at civic functions: for welcoming visiting dignitaries, celebrating victorious sports teams, and opening buildings, bridges, and railway lines. Bands provided the beat for Volunteer drills, parades and reviews. In war time they led the marches of departing troops and played at receptions for the returning heroes.

The brass band provided the mood music for both solemn and joyous occasions. Bands played at funerals of significant public figures, lodge members and important unionists, as well as at tangi for Maori leaders. Brass bands also provided the music for parades and other events on public holidays such as anniversary days. Bands were prominent in religious parades, lodge events, reunions, bazaars and exhibitions.

Friendly societies sports, Collingwood, 1897.
Friendly societies sports, Collingwood, 1897 (detail). Ref: 10x8-0974-G

During the 1880s to 1910s period, workplaces, schools, religious groups and unions put on large-scale picnics and excursions on public holidays. Labour Day picnics in the larger centres were attended by thousands of people. In an age with fewer holidays, fewer entertainment options and less personal transport, large groups of people would attend picnics and travel together on boats and trains for organised excursions. Brass bands performed at the picnics and on the excursion trains and boats.

Bands also added to the atmosphere of sports events, horse race meetings and regattas. Travelling circuses would often have their own brass bands. Many skating rinks would regularly hire bands, as did recreational venues such as the ‘notorious’ Vauxhall Pleasure gardens in Dunedin.

Bands were also involved in many events connected with the labour movement. They played at Labour Day events and eight hour day parades. Bands also led the marches during protests and strikes. Workplace bands would often take part in these events, regardless of whether they were directly funded by unions. Bands that were strongly connected with a workplace were often composed of union members who wanted to support their fellow workers.

Members of a brass band gathered around a grave, ca.1890s.
Members of a brass band gathered around a grave, ca.1890s. Ref: 1/1-016834-G

Sabbatarianism: The fight to play on Sunday

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century there was no real weekend in New Zealand. Sundays were a day off work for most workers, but there was usually only one other afternoon off: a ‘half holiday.’ The half-holiday was held on different days in different parts of the country, as decided by local voters. In some areas it was Saturday, in others usually Wednesday or Thursday. Bands often played in public areas, including band rotundas, on the half holiday.

Playing on a Sunday was more problematic in the late nineteenth century. Sundays were still subject to strict sabbatarianism in much of country at that time. In 1885, the Naval Brigade Band sought permission from the Dunedin City Council to play in the city’s public gardens on a Sunday. The Dunedin Minister’s conference wrote opposing the request on the grounds that it would be a breach of the Sabbath. The request was refused following a split vote, with the Mayor making the casting vote refusing the band permission to play.

Some bands tried to get around such objections by holding concerts of sacred music on a Sunday. The Cromwell Brass Band tried this in 1886, but the police issued summonses for blasphemy to three members of the audience. The police also announced their intention of prosecuting the band for ‘sacrilegious nuisance’, although it is not clear if this was carried out. Salvation Army bands did play on Sundays, clearly seeing this as the Lord’s Work rather than a breach of the Sabbath.

In the early twentieth century attitudes to the Sabbath became more relaxed. By the 1910s it had become common for bands to play for audiences in parks and other settings on Sundays. Bands did tend to emphasise that this was wholesome family entertainment.

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Justine Ryan
16 August 2019 10:19pm

Thank you for your reply. Maybe you have dune information or pics on William John Rowe. He was my great great grandfather
A well-known bandmaster, Mr. William John Rowe, died at the home of his daughter, in Ponsonby, on August 29, in his sixty-ninth year. He arrived in Auckland with his parents about 58 years ago from Penzance, Cornwall, when aged 10. The family went to Thames, where later, Mr. W. J. Rowe became very well known at the various mining camps on the Thames goldfields in the old days. He also had charge of the Salvation Army Band, and the Hauraki Brass Band for some years. On leaving the Thames he came to Auckland to take over the Onehunga Municipal Brass Band, of which he had charge for some twenty years.

Jay Buzenberg
7 August 2019 10:16am

Sorry Justine, apart from a few mentions on Papers Past, we can’t locate anything readily about Sydney Rowe. There may be some information in the Peter Newcomb papers, but you would need to come in and look through the collection: https://tiaki.natlib.govt.nz/#details=ecatalogue.513843

Justine Ryan
5 August 2019 8:43pm

Do you have any information on a Sydney Rowe who was a member of the Onehunga brass band. He played solo tenor before being wounded in 1915 in Gallipoli

Eric Gosse
22 April 2019 2:25pm

I greatly enjoyed your Band History. I play for the Kerepehi Brass Band starting in 1953. Our Bandmaster Mr G L Vivian was more than courageous starting a band the hard way in a small rough country village. Still going, 32 playing , this week Wed band Practice, Thurs Paeroa and Ngatea Anzac services, & on Sat for the NZ Army Tunnelers Gilmore Park Memorial Dedication by Mayor of Arrass, France. Mostly Wahi & Thames Miners. Held 70th Reunion with Concert in Paeroa Hall. I started on Baritone, for Kerepehi, then Matamata Citizens, Trombone for Otorohonga, then Euphonium for Tauranga Brass, Trom for Tga Orphans Club orchestra & Tga Choral Society. Full circle now Trombone at Kerepehi plus helping other groups. I plan to get what I can on our local band histories. You certainly found some marvelous old photos . Our present Bandmaster Brett Lowe can play every instrument, is a skilled Arranger,Jazz & Dance Band Leader etc.
Cheers Eric Gosse
Brett's New Internationals - Prohibition Big Band

Jay Buzenberg
5 February 2018 4:29pm

Thanks for your question, Rob. We'll get one of our research librarians to look into this a little further and they'll get in touch with you.

rob hunt
12 January 2018 1:10pm

I am writing a history of Auckland Grammar School Music and that includes brass bands that were at the school from the 1920s.
A prominent man involved in the first band was G.W.BOWES, and he was succeeded by Jack BUCKLEY, and he was followed by a guy named CHRISTIANSON.

Do you have any information about these men ??