This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

Boys at Play

16 May 2013

The full instrumentation of a British brass band has about 27 players: 1 soprano E-flat cornet, 9 B-flat cornets, 1 B-flat flugelhorn, 3 E-flat tenor horns, 2 B-flat baritone horns, 2 B-flat tenor trombones, 1 bass trombone, 2 B-flat euphoniums, 2 E-flat tubas, 2 B-flat tubas, and 2 to 4 percussion (drums and cymbals).  So with 43 musicians the Boys' Band of Gillingham, Kent are on the large size for a brass band. They are all very young (mostly) except for one clarinet player that I suspect is the bandleader, standing with his wife and daughter on the right. Most of the boys in the front rows look under the age of 12.

The photographer was Hill of New Brompton, which was the previous name of Gillingham, (pronounced with soft G = Jillingham)  a town next to the Chatham Dockyard on the River Medway in Southeast England. In 1901 it had a population of 42,530 who found employment mainly in the ship building industry there. In addition to the navy, there were soldiers too, stationed at forts guarding the dockyards.

So with all this activity in Gillingham, I expected the history of this boys' band would be easy to find. Alas it is lost, at least on the internet. If they were from a school, that information would usually be preserved, and in this era such a large school band would be very unusual. They might be from a workhouse, that Dickensian institution where the impoverished were given room and board in exchange for their labor, and workhouse boys were sometimes organized into a band. Though there was a small workhouse in Chatham, the boys in the photo seem too well fed and too numerous to be that kind of band.

They might be boys belonging to the Sea Cadet Corps, one of the oldest youth organizations in Britain. It was established as a training program for future sailors during the Crimean War of 1854, and there was a company in Chatham. But the boys' uniforms, especially their pillbox hats, are like those of army bandsmen, not navy. An alternate version of this postcard has the caption - Lads of Kent, so I think there may be a military connection that will take more research to decipher who they are. 

The back of the postcard was addressed to Miss Playford of Finsbury Park, London and sent on July 25, 1905 from Snodland, Kent, which is 10 miles from Gillingham. It has a rather intriguing message.

Nan has not heard of anything yet. Father + her went to Maidstone yesterday to see Mr. Ellis so we don't know yet how it will turn out but he intends to carry the thing through if they ?__? no notice of Mr. Ellis letter from ?about? - Your black ?smist? I see you left it behind. For love from all E.P.

What could be the matter between Father and Mr. Ellis?

This next group of young band boys are from Switzerland, and the Knaben-Musik Basel number 74 by my count. They are a real wind ensemble with woodwinds - flutes and clarinets - along with brass instruments and drums. The brass use the European rotary valves instead of the piston valves that the Gillingham boys have. There are also four horn players, two on each side.

The Knaben-Musik of Basel has a long tradition that dates from 1841. Using Google's translation feature does not always give a clear meaning, but I think the first band was organized for a summer music festival. However as the annual event continued, the boys' musical training moved from the rehearsal hall to the beer garden, and their playing, let us say became less than acceptable. This required a band director with a strong hand and the Knaben-Musik Basel engaged Fritz Siegin, who was conductor from 1886 to 1936. I believe he must be the large man on the left wearing a bow tie and straw boater. He gave the band their motto: Was man liebt, das züchtigt man. =  "What one loves, punishes you."

So does beer.

The postcard was sent on June 20, 1910 to Herrn Joh. Hubler of Schlosshof, Binnigeer, Lasell (I'm unable to find out where that is) by his son who felt no need to add his name for his parents. But he has carefully marked an X over himself in the back row of the band. The writing is in German and as best as I can understand he arrived safely in Zug and may have a ride home.  My guess is the boy is traveling with the Knaben-Musik for a concert, as Zug is a good distance southeast of Basel.

The Fanfare of the Institution Saint Nicolas de Buzenval are very large brass band. The photographer made a heroic effort to get all 91 boys to arrange themselves elbow to elbow and horn to horn. These young musicians are from a Catholic school in the Rueil-Malmaison commune of the suburbs west of central Paris. A Fanfare is the French term for a band and here there are no woodwinds, only brass and drums. These instruments  have piston valves including the trombones, but the first rank behind the drums are holding bugles. Look closely and you can see their cap plumes are in the French tricolor.

The Institute Saint-Nicolas was opened in 1901 as an extension of a Catholic charity school in Paris, originally for orphans and poor children. It is on the grounds of the Château de Buzenval, the former home of the Duchess of Cadore who bequest the estate to the church. In 1904 the school was secularized by the French government. In 1960 it merged with another Catholic school and is now called the College Passy Buzenval.

The postmark on the front of the card is obscured but I believe it is from 1904-09. The message to a Monsieur A. Nne.(?) of Paris reads: 

Will come Sunday Morning after breakfast Thank You. Affectionately yours A. Palut(?)

Each of the three boys' bands had a different heritage, but all developed for similar reasons. One reason was to provide vocational training on a musical instrument which might offer a boy a skilled trade if he persevered and had talent. The second was to give wayward boys a disciplined activity to occupy their time and keep them out of trouble. And the third reason was to promote the institution or town by giving concerts. There is a real sense of pride that comes from these boys smartly dressed in band uniforms and showing off their musical accomplishments.

Of course the income from the sale of postcards helped to pay for all instruments too.

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Today the band from Basel continues to provide music for Swiss youth, though since 1990 it now includes girls.  Recently there has been a controversy that the name Knaben-Musik was sexist because it means Boys' Music. Though the group has removed the hyphen to rename itself just KnabenMusic, they are apparently fooling no one and may have to change the full name.

Here is a recent video of the drummers of the KnabenMusic Basel performing at an outdoor concert. It takes little imagination to hear the same enthusiastic music played by the boys of Gillingham, Busenval, or Basel.

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Follow the link to Sepia Saturday
where everyone gets a turn to play.


Brett Payne said...

Your bands get bigger and bigger. Binningen is a mere 3 km to the south-west of Basel, and now part of the metropolis, although it's difficult to tell whether it was urban or rural in 1910. There are buildings called Wohngenossenschaft Schlosshof and Kindergarten Schlosshoff shown on Google Earth in the vicinity of Binningen.

Gill Edwards said...

I love the first postcard, that message is so intriguing, id love to know what it means. I know a family called Playford and i have family in Snodland funnily enough but they are not connected.

Gill x

Sharon said...

Some mystery in there. The band in the final photo is huge.

I loved the boys on the drums. I was drawn to the boy in the middle. Although his facial expression didn't change, he seemed more natural than the others?

Bob Scotney said...

A fine tribute to the 'boys in the bands.'

Kristin said...

I tried and tried to make out the missing words in the first message, to no avail. An intriguing story.

Howard said...

Fascinating as always Mike. This is my transcription of the text on the first postcard -
Nan has not heard of anything yet. Father and her went to Maidstone yesterday to see Mr Ellis so we don't know yet how it turns out but he intends to carry the thing through if they take no notice of Mr Ellis' letter from about your Black Shirt. (I see you left it behind you Love from all E. P.

Postcardy said...

It was interesting to see that the boys playing drums in the video are holding the sticks in their left hands the way I was taught when I played the drum in the school band. I was told a couple of years ago that they are now teaching holding the sticks the same in both hands.

Wendy said...

The value of a music program has not changed all that much. Your photos and history have changed my perception of the past. People were more caring and progressive than I gave them credit for.

Nigel Aspdin (Derby, UK) said...

What I love about some old post cards are that they were simple "SMS" or "Email" messages,for sometimes important, sometimes "tweetish" purposes, often written late in the day as the last post in UK cities was late, indeed the last postal delivery was in the region of 6-8 pm. I recall this from one of Brett Payne's blogs......"GREAT FIRE IN DERBY, SAW MILLS DESTROYED, EXTENSIVE DAMAGE … the two partners in the firm Mr. A.H. Smart and Mr. W.W. Elsom, returned to the office in the evening, and with their cashier Mr. Morgan, were busy with their books when, at exactly a quarter to eight, a postman who was delivering letters told them their yard was on fire. On looking through the window the awful fact was at once manifest, for flames were already shooting high into the air....." and the story gets sadder....its still still worth a read of that old blog.....

Brett Payne said...

Nigel - That link takes one to the article reproduced on my mirror blog, hosted by Wordpress. It's easier to read in the original form here.

Karen S. said...

I adore your last photo! Great postcards again too. I'm still smiling! Yes, boys with be playing long into the world of music if you give them a chance! I fear band in our schools is not the most popular, but it goes up and down with through the years. I find the teachers lately (in the schools I know) tend to direct children in other directions, like choir! Both are worthy choices.

Kathy Morales said...

I love a good drum cadence. Glad you included it! I think the lady addressed in the first card left her black shirt behind. Or possibly her black skirt.

Helen Bauch McHargue said...

Fascinating. I loved the drum performance too!!

Little Nell said...

I think Howard is right about the transcription - which I read after screwing up my eyes for quite some time! We Sepians do like a challenge. Loved the boy drummers performance too.


Great series!!
They did play, music...
An Australian band would have been a perfect addition here.
Still, enjoyable post!!
Just how many photographs do you own?!?

Alan Burnett said...

I should have realised that any theme including the concept of "playing" would be perfect for you. Great photographs. I regret to say that the traditions of young kids being in such brass bands in these parts has diminished - it is now the exception rather than the norm.


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