Military music has stirred the souls of Bermudians for centuries. From its roots in the British regiments of the 1700s, to the self-taught black musicians before abolition, Elizabeth Jones explores the evolution of Bermuda’s early band music.

It would be difficult to find anyone indifferent to our own Bermuda Regiment Band and Drum Corps. When it performs in Hamilton, during the Bermuda Day Parade, for example, or in a Beating of the Retreat ceremony, just about everybody, locals and tourists alike, stops to listen and to watch. Young children are particularly fascinated as hearing the marching soldiers play may well be their first experience of live music. But the band also offers spectacle, and over the centuries spectacle has long been a major attraction.

It is also difficult to imagine Bermuda without the Regiment Band and yet compared with bands in other regiments abroad, it’s actually quite young, having been in existence for just 58 and something years. Was there, then, no military music before the band’s first public performance on October 27, 1965, when it played after the opening of parliament? On the contrary, our present band was the amalgamation of two separate Bermudian military bands, that of the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps (later the Bermuda Rifles), formed in 1896, and that of the Bermuda Militia Artillery, formed in 1903. According to author and former Regiment captain Larry Burchall, the latter had evolved from a Warwick band led by Stanley Stafford Battersbee. Both bands were in much demand although according to Michael Darling, quoted in Tony McWilliams’s Royal Bermuda Regiment Fifty Years Strong, “The BMA was always much smarter than us on parade, and they loved the military music and marching. We used to go on church parade from Warwick camp to Saint Ann’s Church, but our band could not really march and play. They were in their 50s and 60s and would soon be out of breath. The BMA guys could’ve marched from St. David’s to Hamilton and back.” Interestingly, former bandmaster and music director Dwight Robinson, quoted in the same book, said he needed from his members, “less speed more endurance. A person who can jog five miles is of more use to me than someone who can sprint two.”

First Bermuda Militia Artillery Band, 1939

However, military music did not begin with Bermuda’s first local regiment bands; it most likely began after the Bermuda Garrison was established by the British Army and Navy in 1701. By the nineteenth century, British regimental band music could be heard on the parade grounds in St. George’s, in Hamilton and later at Prospect and at Dockyard. In her Private Journal of 1864, Southern belle Georgiana Gholson Walker records how people loved to hear the regimental band’s music emanating from the barracks near them. Given there was no recorded music until after 1887 (the date the first gramophone was invented), we can understand their enjoyment. Even in the twentieth century, Ruth Thomas, as a young child, enjoyed the magical experience of hearing the band practising: “I used to think that was the most beautiful thing on God’s Earth. Because they had brass instruments and the sun used to shine on those instruments so as they moved around with their instruments glittering in the sunlight, I used to think it was all gold.”

What instruments the early nineteenth-century regimental bands played are likely to have included fifes, or small flutes, clarinets, oboes, horns, bassoons, trumpets and, of course, drums. In one of Dr Savage’s paintings depicting musicians near their tents in Admiralty House grounds the morning after a ball given by Admiral Sir G. Cockburn in the early 1830s, bagpipes are shown.

As records in the Bermuda Gazette reveal, the bands were often called upon to play in public ceremonial events and parades, just as the Bermuda Royal Regiment is today. And so, for example, when Governor Reid arrived to take office in April 1839, he was taken from the merchant steamer the Barlow to St. George’s, “under a salute from Fort Victoria, where he was received by a Guard of Honor of the 30th Regt,…. The well-organized Band of the 30th being in attendance, and playing that Beautiful National Anthem, ‘GOD save the Queen.’” In 1841, the Band of the 76th Regiment and Band of the Winchester Regiment played at the burial of Admiral Sir Thomas Harvey KCB, Naval Commander in Chief of the North American and West Indian Stations, in the Naval Burial Ground on Ireland Island.

Bermuda Militia Artillery Band Marching

In the city of Hamilton, the band of the 20th Regiment, which in her book Biography of a Colonial Town Sister Jean Kennedy says the town regarded as its own, played on the Parade (a piece of open ground between Reid and Church Street) every evening during the 1840s. Later in the century, it is recorded that the Second Battalion of the Grenadier Guards was much appreciated for its Drum and Fife Corps in 1890 when it played at a beat the retreat ceremony in St. George’s Square to general admiration. According to the Gazette, “Their style excelled any performance of this type held in Bermuda.” Perhaps their performance helped to redeem them since their posting to Bermuda had apparently been a punishment for mutiny at Wellington Barracks, near Buckingham Palace.

However, as was customary with military bands in England, a regimental band functioned as the officers’ private band, providing entertainment for the mess, as well as music for concerts and balls, such as the one given by Admiral Cockburn. The following programme the band performed in 1846 gives us an idea of the pieces they played:
We May Be Happy Yet
Dublin Waltzer
Cricket Polka
Passo-doppios Opera, Gemma de-bergy
British Navy Quadrilles
Austrian Galops
Pas Redouble Opera La Straniera
Postillion Galop

The galvanised iron bandstand in Victoria Park made in Scotland to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee is a reminder that regiment bands also frequently performed in open air concerts on the island. During the 1890s they were held in the park every Friday in the tourist season as “musical treats” for visitors. The bandstand officially opened some two and a half years after the 50th anniversary with a concert given “by the Band of the 1st Battn. Leic. Regiment under S.J. Plant, the bandmaster.” In March 1895, the Gazette reported, “The Band of the 1st Royal Regiment, under Bandmaster Barwood, gave their first open air concert in the bandstand in the above park on Friday last before an admiring throng of the inhabitants and American visitors. The selections were excellent and well applauded, an event which doesn’t often happen in open-air concerts.”

Bands also frequently played at balls, sometimes given by the regiments they played for. For example, the Gazette recorded on 22 January 1825, “the Officers of the Garrison gave a Ball and Supper at the Barracks Saint George’s. Dancing commenced at 8 o’clock and was kept up with great spirit by alternate dances of Quadrilles and Country Dances, until 12 o’clock, when the ladies were let out to an elegant supper. After supper, dancing was resumed with equal spirit, until 3 o’clock, when the Company retired highly gratified, with the entertainment of the evening.”

Many balls were held in the Town Hall and Court House on Front Street. In 1817 a naval ball was held there, given by the officers of H.M. Squadron. The reporter gushes: “the pen of adulation lacks the power of describing the display of elegance and beauty at this assembly… Four sets of Dancers were in motion at once, to the music of the very superior band of Captain Sir John Lewis.” And in February 1843, at a ball held there by the 20th regiment, the Gazette says “dancing continued till 1:00 when the company withdrew to a superb supper which comprised of every luxury attainable in the colony. The superb Candelabras and Plate belonging to the Regiment gave the Supper table a most splendid appearance, and to those who had previously seen the room where the banquet was served, the whole transformation had the appearance of magic for a dark cellar was turned into an illuminated Pavilion.”

But private hostesses often engaged a regiment band, as is clear in Walker’s journal when she describes her first “entertainment”:
“The band of the 39th regt was loaned to me and I had the satisfaction of hearing my effort pronounced by those who knew a perfect success…… The band struck up God save the Queen as a delicate compliment to our English guests.” She adds, from a British point of view rather cheekily, “…but in my heart I had rather it had been Dixie.”

As important as the part the British military played in the local musical scene was, though, it would be a mistake to think there was no other band music in existence. As early as November 1822, we know that the Gazette reported processions in Hamilton and St. George’s with bands of music. Susette Harriet Lloyd in her Sketches of Bermuda (1835) mentions black musicians she saw before Abolition. She observed “real tolerable bands composed of negroes dressed in neat white uniform with scarlet facings. These musicians are all self-taught and play many favourite airs with great accuracy. This is the most surprising since they do not know a single note in music. They learn to play everything by ear and certainly have great natural taste, and love for music.”

In his book Heritage, Dr Kenneth Robinson includes interesting allusions to local bands by the Gazette. For example, in May 1834, “the fine band of the 71st regiment was in attendance, playing with its accustomed beauty and spirit, as was also the Hamilton Band.” This was at a ball and supper given at Government House under Governor Sir Stephen R Chapman. And in February1840 at Government House, Mrs Reid gave a party where “The excellent band of the 30th regiment as well as the coloured band of Hamilton, were in attendance and played alternatively.”

What instruments the local band played is not clear although Lloyd refers to “flutes and violins she heard in cottages.” Some instruments were apparently homemade. (Interestingly, a century later the renowned Talbot Brothers would make their own instruments. Roy Talbot’s bass, the famous “Doghouse,” was made out of a Swift’s meat packing case. Its neck was a bamboo pole strung with one piece of fishing line.)

Today’s Royal Bermuda Regiment Band provides musical support to marching troops

But by July 1846, there was a reference in the Gazette to brass instruments used by a local band. The newspaper reported a procession held to celebrate the twelfth year of Abolition. It mentions The Young Men’s Mechanics Band preceding the procession: “The band is of very recent formation and this will be their first appearance in public. It consists of native artisans and is the first brass band ever formed in the colony. We have heard them perform, and, considering the short time they have been preparing and the imperfect state of their instruments which are much worn, must say that they acquitted themselves with much credit.” But it also shows the challenges creating a local brass band presented: “Unfortunately, two or three instruments ordered from England, which would have been a great acquisition, have not yet been received. This individual expense of the band has been and still is very considerable…” Presumably, the band overcame these challenges because three years later they again celebrated Abolition by performing.

Friendly societies, starting up after Abolition as early “trade unions” to protect black workers, gave rise to many processions with banners and flags adding to the spectacle. As Burchall explained, in 1857 musicians and members of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows Alexandrina No. 1026 got together and formed the Alexandrina Band, for decades “playing on Lodge anniversaries or at special Church services, church bazaars and fairs, New Year and Christmas parties, dinner parties, street parades, and on other occasions.” Eventually, it evolved into the North Village Band, still in existence. Some of the original members of the Alexandrina Band, Burchall says, were probably born into slavery.

Fast forward to the twentieth century and young Kenneth “Toki” Dill became a drummer for the North Village Junior Band. Eventually, as a member of the Bermuda Regiment, his musical gift was recognised. After studying military music at the Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall, he returned to become the Regiment Band’s bandmaster and later director of music leading it to new heights of accomplishment both here and abroad. And sometime after his retirement as major from the Regiment Band, every Monday evening he was bandmaster to the North Village Community Band. In his words, “I had come full circle.”