By J.B. Kinley
In 2003, the Rushen Silver Band will celebrate its 54th birthday. The band is one of the most popular and successful on the Isle of Man, owning its own custom-built band room, its own van and undertaking over 50 engagements per year, entertaining local people and visitors to the Island alike. However, it has never competed in a major brass band competition or ever enjoyed sponsorship from a company. What have been the essential elements over the last 50 years which have ensured the band's survival and development to allow it to become the pillar of the Manx community that it is today?
The Isle of Man is situated in the middle of the Irish Sea, approximately half way between Cumbria in England and Northern Ireland. It has a population of approximately 76 000 people and is what is referred to as a ‘Crown Dependency’, the people not being answerable to the British Parliament at Westminster but to its own parliament, Tynwald, which is the oldest parliament in continuous existence in the world, it first being convened by the Vikings in the late 9th or early 10th century. Consequently, the Island is right in the middle of the United Kingdom and yet forms no part of it or the European Union. It is, however, part of the British Isles.
The Parish of Rushen is to be found in the south of the Isle of Man incorporating the villages of Port St. Mary and Port Erin, some 15 miles from the Island’s capital, Douglas. The earliest recorded civilisation in the area was during the Iron Age and evidence of their settlements from this period can still be seen on the highest mountain in the area, South Barrule. It has always been a very rural area, the main industries being fishing and farming. However, there have been other industries, particularly the mining of lead ore which commenced at Bradda Head behind Port Erin during the medieval times and finished in the early 20th century at Glen Rushen. With the rise of tourism in the Island in Victorian times, many of the local residents in the village became hoteliers and Port Erin and Port St Mary still contain many buildings which are still or have been hotels and guest houses. A change in the fortunes of the Island in the late 1970s and the 1980s saw the Island become a major centre for the world's financial services industry due its favourable taxation system and subsequently houses in Port St Mary and Port Erin are owned by people working for banks and insurance companies in Douglas. The growth of the finance industry has also seen an increase in the number of people from off Island taking up residence, primarily from the ‘adjacent isles’ but also from places further a field such as South Africa and Hong Kong.
Origins of the band
The band can trace it's origins back to the 1930s when, in the small hamlet of Surby, near Port Erin, some of the residents came together to form a small band consisting of concertinas and mouth organs. Eventually, the band changed over to an all brass format in 1944 to become the ‘Surby Silver Band’ and rehearsed in the next settlement down the road at Ballafesson in the old bakery which was owned by a member of the band and local character, Billy Cregeen. Why the change to an all brass format was made is not quite clear. Perhaps it was the availability of instruments or printed repertoire that influenced their decision? At the time, there was another brass band in the area, namely the Castletown Metropolitan Silver Band which could be found some 5 miles away from the parish of Rushen. One might be forgiven for asking the question why players from Rushen didn't simply join the Castletown band but of course transport a mere 50 years ago was quite a different story to today. Very few people owned cars and the bus and train service were focussed on the working day, making it exceedingly difficult to travel the comparatively short distance to Castletown for an evening's rehearsal twice a week. That said, there has always been a close link (and perhaps a little friendly rivalry) between Rushen and Castletown bands with many players having played in both bands in the early days of Rushen Silver and both bands ‘borrowing’ players from each other as the need arises, sharing joint concerts etc.
The band at this time played a strict diet of Marches and Hymn tunes and were in great demand playing at church services and ‘Wesleyan Socials’ at the local Methodist chapels at Ronague, Ballafesson and Kerrowkeill. The tuition methods of the band were fairly primitive at that time, members recalling that prospective learners were given a cornet and a tutor book and were told to ‘come back when you can play’.
1949 - A change of name
It came to the attention of the band in 1949 that Port St Mary commissioners were in possession of a sum of money for the setting up of a local band. Naturally wishing to take advantage of this money, the band enquired as to the amount but Mr. Harold Karran, the clerk of Port St. Mary Commissioners was unable to reveal the amount held in trust. What was disclosed was that to take advantage of the money, the band would have to change its name to the Rushen Silver Band.
This caused much heart searching amongst the band, several of the band being very reluctant to desert the roots of the band in Surby. Indeed, the band rehearsed as two separate entities for a few weeks whilst the matter was being decided, the breakaway group rehearsing in a building opposite Rushen primary school, which is located between Port St Mary and Port Erin.
Eventually, after an Extraordinary General meeting of the band, it was decided to change the name and the Rushen Silver Band came into being. Once this had been decided, the band officials returned to Port St Mary commissioners to claim their ‘bounty’. It was at this point that they discovered that the sum available was a mere £19 6s 4p which again caused more disquiet amongst the band members. However, it has to be said that those voting for a change in name, regardless of any financial benefits, were perhaps blessed with foresight as the name adopted certainly represents more fully the geographical areas from which the band members are now drawn.
Apart from the change in name, the band continued with business as usual, its major occupation being playing for religious services and leading marches. Good Friday was a particularly busy day in the band's calendar at this time as in the morning the band would lead a March from the middle of Port Erin to Fleshwick (up a rather steep hill!) on the coast where an open air service would take place. After returning, the band members would board one of band member Maurice Duggan’s coaches for the trip to Foxdale in the middle of the Island to lead their Sunday School procession and service.
Obtaining suitable instruments was, at this time, also a problem as there was no readily accessible source on the Island for new or second-hand instruments. Fortunately, the band befriended a Mr Albert Rayner who worked for the Salford music firm, ‘Reynolds’ and who frequently holidayed on the Island. Mr Rayner would keep his eye open for suitable second hand instruments which came into the store and, once they were reconditioned, would bring them to the Island for the band to try whilst he was on his holidays. Indeed, it is fair to say that whilst the enthusiasm and talent of local men and women has always kept the band going, it has been the outside influence of people like Mr Rayner that has assisted the band to progress. However, the band has also always had a friendly atmosphere which inspires people both on and off the Island to be-friend them and give freely of their time to help the band to develop.
The bandmaster at this time was Leslie Cooil, a local farmer. Leslie was a larger than life character and was a very gifted singer and pianist but was unfortunately not a brass player. Consequently, he succeeded not only in training the players to play their instruments in the band but also to sing in four part harmony as a choir which must have been highly valuable from the point of improving the bandsman's tuning and intonation as well as diversifying concert programmes.
Whatever his gifts as a musician, Mr Cooil not an expert on time keeping and there were many times when the band was on the verge of going home when Leslie would eventually arrive something of an hour late! He would then proceed to rehearse the band, keeping them back for the extra hour they had missed due to his timekeeping!
A regular engagement for the band at this time was leading what was known as the ‘June Effort’. Port Erin and district had become somewhat dilapidated after the Second World War and there was an obvious drop in the number of tourists arriving. Port Erin Commissioners decided that to encourage visitor numbers, they would, in addition to a general smartening up of the village, have a parade from Darnill’s garage in the middle of Port Erin up to Bradda Glen at the top of the village where a concert would take place. The band would then lead the procession back again by torchlight. On one such occasion, the procession had had to wait for Mr Cooil the band master. Eventually, it got to a point where they could wait no longer and the procession headed off, the band at its head.
The parade had got no further than the ‘Belle View’ hotel (now the Port Erin ‘Royal’, half way up the promenade) when Mr Cooil arrived in his van. He was not too amused at the band leaving without him and he consequently stopped the parade and berated the players. He then insisted that he retune the band before they continued on their way to Bradda Glen, the rest of the parade looking on in bewilderment. The band always enjoyed the visits to Bradda Glen; indeed some enjoyed them too much and there are reports of some members of the band having to have ropes attached to them to ‘steer’ them on the march on the way home!
1953 – Coronation Day
The 2nd June 1953 proved not only a monumental day for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second but also for Rushen Silver Band as it was the first time they wore their new uniforms.
Up until this time, the band had no uniforms, only hats which were known colloquially as ‘thatch’ (as in roof!). In 1953, some second-hand RAF uniforms were obtained from ‘Newsons’ outfitters in Douglas which were then dyed and altered by a tailor living in Bradda, near Port Erin. The band wore their dark blue uniforms with red trim and gold braid for the first time on Coronation day when they performed at the level in Colby in the afternoon and then gave a concert in Port St Mary Town Hall in the evening.
The band was, by this time, rehearsing in an outbuilding attached to the vicarage near Rushen Church. The band's current Musical Director, Mr. Jim Crebbin, was noted as having his first spell of conducting around that time (although Leslie Cooil returned to conduct for another spell later on) and Mr. Ashley Qualtrough was chairman. The band were still playing regularly at church services but were now also engaged to play regularly at the café at ‘Bradda Glen’, entertaining the visitors. It was around this time that the band undertook its most prodigious engagement to date (which obviously shows the progress they had made from their early days), namely playing in the annual festival of music at Castle Rushen High School which was organised by Mr Harry Pickard who was head of music at the time. The band was suitably nervous as appearing on the same bill were the much longer established Castletown and Douglas bands. However, the Rushen band held its own and won many new admirers that night.
It was also around this time that the band began to appear further a field than their own parish and visits to Cronk-y-Voddy and Andreas (both in the north of the Island) crept into the engagements calendar. Indeed, the band still appears regularly in Andreas every Ascension day, leading a parade for the ‘Benevolent Society’ (one of the few remaining in the British Isles) to the local church, playing in church and on the march back to the village and in a short concert afterwards whilst the parishioners enjoy supper. Similarly, the band acquired another useful friend around this time, namely Mr Harry Rowsen who was a euphonium player with the Walkden Colliery band who again invested his time and energy finding suitable instruments for the band for him to bring to the band to try out on his holidays to the Island.
The 1960s – a time of development
Up until the early 1960s, the band had more or less stuck to its tried and tested repertoire of Marches, Hymns, Waltzes and the odd overture. However, in the early 1960s, Jim Crebbin visited Exmouth, Devon on holiday and heard the Lympston Band giving a sea side concert. Whilst it may seem fairly unremarkable now, Jim heard the band playing selections of popular songs such as ‘Round the Campfire’, music from shows like ‘the Desert Song’ or ‘White Horse Inn’ or even more serious band repertoire such as ‘Dawn of Spring’, music which Manx bands hadn't played before. Jim subsequently ordered the new music when he arrived home, thus enhancing the bands repertoire considerably. Jim became full time musical director in the mid 1960s, a post which he still holds today. (Is this some kind of record for a band within Britain?).
The band has always enjoyed good working relationships with the other brass bands on the Island. One particularly good friend of the band during the 1960s was Mr. E.J. Nicholls, formerly of the Royal Marines band and then musical director of the Douglas Town band. Mr Nicholls was always happy to share his musical expertise with other bands and would lend Rushen band arrangements to try out and became what might be termed a ‘critical friend’ to the band.
The band have never in their history appeared at a nationally graded contest such as the ‘areas’ but they have regularly appeared at the Manx music Festival (or ‘Guild’ as it is locally known), competing in most brass classes from soloists to the full band. Indeed, the band has enjoyed much success at the event over the years although they have rarely entered the set/ test piece contest. One occasion when they did enter was when the band were rehearsing in Ballafesson church hall (behind a curtain on the stage – a somewhat confined space into which the band would no longer fit, showing how the band has grown over the years) and a guest conductor was brought in who was living in Ballasalla at the time (alas, his name is lost in the annals of time). The band rehearsed Holst’s Second Suite in F (originally for military band). Whilst the band was not terribly confident and did not win any prizes for their performance that day, it is one of the first recorded instances of the band bringing in an external conductor, one which it has been pleased to repeat on many occasions since.
Another time that the band entered the test piece competition was when the set work was ‘American Sketches’ by Eric Ball. The band rehearsed it, unaware that it was the test piece for the Guild. By the time they realised, the band had been entered for the contest and could obviously play it well as they subsequently walked away with first prize!
The band has always been fortunate, due to their reputation as a friendly band, as being able to attract new players when they move to the Island. In the early 1970s, the band was joined by two players who had just left the famous Yorkshire Imperial Metals (IMPS) band to come and work on the Island – Graham Hetherington and Bob Fenton. Both had come to the Island independently to work and were soon at work, raising the standard of the band's players Many young cornet players were privileged to receive tuition from them and the effects of their work is still felt today with the then young players they taught in the 1970s now passing those same skills onto others.. Other new players who had a significant impact on the band who joined around this time included Jo Jones (who had played with Camell Lairds band) and Dave Smith (ex Royal Marines band). These were probably the first instances of players being trained elsewhere and then bringing their not inconsiderable talent and knowledge to the band, furthering the band's musical prowess.
With them, they also brought a new selection of music, further enhancing Rushen’s reputation as one of the most entertaining on the Island. Music which may have been around for several years elsewhere such as the ‘the Lazy Trumpeter’, ‘Paint Your Wagon’ etc. appeared in the bands pads . In 1977 / 78 the band also benefited from the many new arrangements of popular music appearing for band in the wake of the Brighouse and Rastrick band's chart success with the ‘Floral Dance’.
By the early 1970s, the band had moved to a small practice room in Port St Mary. The room was not terribly big and was barely big enough to accommodate the band. The rehearsals tended to be slightly uncomfortable, particularly when the lack of space was combined with drummer Harold Salisbury chain smoking his way through rehearsals. The band room was, coincidentally, beneath Port St Mary Youth Club. Members of the band who learned to play at that time remember the benefits of going to band to have their lesson as they would also go and play a few frames of pool afterwards – always an attraction for young lads who might have given up playing due to ‘jibes in the playground’ about them being in the band. However, this was (perhaps unintentionally) the first step in one of Rushen’s success stories of being able to develop young talent in the band and (more importantly) being able to keep them – namely, providing a social scene for the players.
The band has always encouraged families to become part of the band and there are still many generations of the same families still in the band now. This has always been one of the great strengths of the band but it can occasionally backfire as happened in the late 1970s when one family had to leave the band for domestic reasons, leaving 7 vacancies within the band. Fortunately, the active recruitment and training policy of the band ensured there were sufficient junior band members who were available for rapid promotion to the senior band to fill the empty positions
The band continued to add to its concert venues, including playing at the newly erected ‘Sea Terminal’ at the Douglas Ferry Terminal where hundreds of people from all over the British Isles and beyond listened to the band as they waited for their boat along with the many visitors and locals alike who made a regular pilgrimage to the regular band concerts 5 nights a week given by the Island’s bands until they were moved to an alternate venue in the early 1990s.
The idea of the band having its own premises had always been a goal of the players of the band since its inception (indeed, it is mentioned in the bands membership cards from the early 1950s). There had been a few attempts for the band to acquire its own building before hand, including three members of the band (Ted Clague, Jim Crebbin and John Watterson) dismantling an old hut at the local private school (the ‘Buchan’) for use by the band in the late 1970s. Although this took approximately sixth months to complete, the scheme eventually came to naught and the hut was subsequently sold on for further use.
Eventually, in 1980, fund raising was started by the band under the chairmanship of Ted Clague. The band was also assisted by the newly formed Ladies Committee who subsequently became known as the ‘Friends of Rushen band’. The input of the ‘Friends’ over the years can not be overestimated as this dedicated band of supporters has raised thousands of pounds towards band funds enabling the band to purchase many items they wouldn't have been able to afford otherwise and allowing the band to concentrate on music making.
In 1981, the foundations of the new band room were laid on land donated by the Radcliffe family in Ballafesson. The band members, led by Cyril Watterson and Bobby Bridson laboured through 1981 and 1982 (assisted by the junior members in the summer holidays ). In fact, the whole band room (with the exception of the roof) was built by the band members. In 1983, the band room was finished at a cost of £18000 and with no debts to repay. To celebrate the opening of the band room, the band marched from their then current band room in Port St Mary to the new one in Ballafesson. Appropriately enough, the march ‘Home Again’ was played as they marched into Ballafesson, as the band was truly ‘Home Again’, the new band room being very close to where the band had first rehearsed all those years ago.
The early 1980s were not without their upsets as another domestic upheaval caused the band to lose another family but again there were sufficient junior members to fill the vacancies created. Indeed, the band's training programme really was coming of age and the 1980s will be remembered for the band training three players who would ultimately join HM forces bands, namely Graham Clague (Marines), Simon Tuck (Army) and Richard Watterson (Army- in fact, at the time of writing, Richard is currently band master of the Blues and Royals band and is awaiting a commission).
On completion of the major band room project, Ted Clague stood down as chairman to be replaced by John Watterson. John always took the welfare of the bands younger members very seriously and realised the importance of a band social scene to keep the younger members of the band involved. It was from this that the annual band camp was born. The band would arrive at Glen Wyllin Camp Site (in the North of the Island) on Friday night to give a concert in lieu of camp site rent. John would have various activities arranged for the younger members of the band including walks, games and barbecues which would keep people occupied until Sunday lunchtime.
Another outside influence on the band was the visit in 1983 of the South Leeds Concert Band under the direction of Graham Hetherington who had returned to Yorkshire some years before. The quality of music-making by this young group inspired many members of the band to think ‘if they can do it, so can we’ and the repertoire provided for the band's joint items in concerts provided further variety and challenges for the band. This more ‘up-to date’ music including arrangements of pop music also led to the formation of the band's music committee to assist the musical director to produce four programmes of contrasting music for the summer season which can be played in rotation. It also inspired members of Rushen Silver Band to join the Manx Youth Orchestra, where new friendships were formed with members of other bands and the craft of orchestral music making was learned (as well as concert band music with the Manx Youth Wind Orchestra), thus broadening the musical experiences of the bands players.
The band was involved in the massed band (directed by Onchan Silver Band's Gordon Astill) for the opening of the first Island games in 1985. However, the band suffered a great loss in 1985 with the death of Ernie Broadbent who had been a stalwart member of the band since concertina times and who was real character of the band movement. His lifelong devotion to the band was celebrated by a joint concert given by Castletown and Rushen bands.
The band acquired new uniforms in 1986 supplied by Brayshaws of Leeds to replace second hand ones which were acquired some years before from the Poynton band of Cheshire. However, one of the band's staple concert venues was due to close in 1989, namely the Ocean Castle hotel where the band had played since the early 1970s. Fortunately, rescue came in the form of Castletown band that had always played at the rival ‘Royal’ hotel down the road in Port Erin. Castletown very generously offered to share their engagements with Rushen band, again demonstrating how well the two bands have worked together over the years.
The band's good relationships with other bands on the Island were further evidenced and celebrated towards the end of the decade by the band's participation in the Douglas Town Band Centenary Concert in 1987 and the Ramsey Band anniversary concert in 1989 which had all of the Island’s massed bands together in the Royal Hall of the Villa Marina.
The 1990s and beyond
The 1990s dawned mobile with the purchase of the band's first vehicle, appropriately registered as R58 (RSB!) 1 MAN. The number of younger players in the band became such that transporting them to concerts became an issue (unless parents were available to provide transport) that the only solution was a minibus/ van which was funded by the Friends of the band.
The decade also saw the development of the social side of the band. From the late 1960s onwards, members of the band had regularly attended the British Open contest until it ceased to be held at Belle View. In the 1990s, the band revived this tradition but this time the contest of choice was the Spennymoor ‘Brass in Concert’ contest in County Durham. This proved to be an illuminating and inspiring trip for members of the band, many of whom had never heard a championship section band and were unaware of what bands can be capable of. Such was the impression that it made on the band's then chairman, William Fargher, that the trip was arranged again in subsequent years with younger members of the band having their travel subsidised so they could also be inspired by the top ensembles present at the contest.
A friendship also developed between Soprano player Dave Bridson and brass band alumnus Roy Sparkes to such an extent that Roy became the first external conductor to take the band through a study weekend. Several such visits followed over the next few years and other visitors were welcomed to the South of the Isle of Man to take the band for a weekend course, the most recent being Mr. Richard Evans who is now the band's musical advisor.
The mid 1990s saw the forging of links with the Farndon & District Brass Band, near Cheshire whose musical director was Manxman, John Kinley. This saw several members of the band visit Farndon to assist by playing at various contests such as Pontins, the Rhyl Entertainment Contest and the famous Whit Friday marches, thus expanding the experiences of the members of the band further. The link also led to the band undertaking its first ‘foreign’ (!) tour to England to join with the Farndon band in John's final concert with that band.
And so the story goes on. The band, through various reasons, lost several players in 1996 but such was the devotion of the players to the band that people simply moved from their original instrument (which they may have been playing for many years) and, in the true spirit of banding, simply moved to another to fill a vacancy. The band keeps going from strength to strength, acquiring more new uniforms in 2001, an extension to the band room in 2002 (to cope with teaching more and more learners on a Friday night), and a new van in 2003.
All of this has been done by people who simply enjoy playing their instruments and, more importantly, enjoy entertaining people. No one is ever bigger than the band – the band is everything and the members are always prepared to be flexible to keep the band going. Perhaps many of the top bands of adjacent Isle should take a look at what goes on in the south of the Isle of Man. Perhaps they might learn a lesson or two about how to run a band and what the true spirit of banding and indeed music making is all about?