MEMORIES OF A VBI
Oct 67 until May 73

This will be the last of my recollections of twenty years in the band service and I thought some time ago that there was one section of the band service that gets very little mention among all the memories on the Notice Board and that is the work of the detached Senior NCO’s whose title is Volunteer Band Instructor [VBI] so I thought I’d pen a few memories of my time from Oct 67 until May 73 as one of the small number of them.

On my return from the Far East on Ark Royal in 66 I was drafted to the CinC’s Home Fleet band which was commanded by Captain Roy Nash with Bandmaster Peter Hemming as his “bag man” the band at the time was held in HMS Excellent (which incidentally was where I was first drafted after being rated Musician 2nd. class as an 18 year old). Like the majority of my drafts it was a”pier-head jump” here today somewhere new tomorrow but it turned out a very rewarding move. The draft was to HMS Sultan the Naval Engineering School as Volunteer Band Instructor, (VBI). I suppose I should not have been surprised as both Roy Nash and Peter Hemming came from Salvation Army backgrounds and knew I had spent part of my youth in the Faversham (Kent) Salvation Army Junior Band. The Salvation Army was strong in the 40’s and 50’s and lots had very good brass bands and so at that time were the navy volunteer bands.

There were three Volunteer bands in Portsmouth area at the time, one in HMS Collingwood with B/Sgt Gunner Hargreaves in charge, a small one in HMS Dolphin the submarine base with the bandmaster of the Gosport Brass Band in charge and mine. There were also large RM bands at HMS Excellent (CinC Home Fleet) and the Royal Yacht Band at Eastney

When I joined HMS Sultan one of my first ports of call was the Captains Office, he informed me that all he required of me was that I continued to produce a band for morning divisions two days a week and a band for any ceremonial visits that might take place. He also mentioned that the band sometimes played in the wardroom for dinners on special occasions and that there might be other occasions where a band would be an asset. He said that how I achieved it was in my own hands, I could work my own routine and I would report to him. I had never been in that situation before, my own boss and to work my own routine and it took some time to sink in. The band was actively encouraged by the Captain for two main reasons: He needed music on the parade ground as even in the late 60’s getting a RM band was getting difficult as the bands at HMS St Vincent and HMS Nelson (RN Barracks) had already been withdrawn. His second reason was that he considered that music provided a safety valve for some of those on the Mech’s Course.

When I joined I found I had a band of around twenty, a couple of learners, a band-room sweeper and a practice room within the walls of Fort Rowner a Palmerstone Fort in the grounds of Sultan. The handover went smoothly over a couple of weeks and then I was on my own.

I was lucky at Sultan as one of the main courses was for Mechanician, these were a new layer within the engineering branch, where they took Leading Stokers and in two years very concentrated tuition produced PO Mechanicians, it was hard graft and many fell by the wayside.

My first problem was that I only saw the band three early mornings for Divisions and some of them one afternoon a week on sports afternoon and I knew this had to change. As the band members were excused all duties I instituted that the band would arrive half an hour earlier on divisions days so that we could practice marches and we would have two evening practice hours after work at 1630. The Wednesday afternoon I reserved for individual tuition for learners and members who wanted to improve their skills. It was surprising how many good brass band players there were in the engineering branch, over the years many came through who could have made members of service bands, brass band traditions in those days were excellent and the pits were still in production.

I suppose I was very lucky at Sultan in that everyone at the upper levels wanted the band to succeed so obstacles weren’t there when I requested something to do with the band. One of the thing I did find was that there I had a lot of empty time on my hands, I had no cleaning to do as I had a young stoker as Band-room Sweeper to keep all the equipment and practice room in Fort Grange spick and span, he was also a very excellent cornet player, he had been a member of a top coal mine band since before he went to school. They used to start them young up North.

One evening at practice I was remonstrating with a section of the band about the sound they were producing when one of them said “It’s alright for you Bandy, you’ve had nothing to do since Divisions, I’ve been filing a one inch square hole in a quarter inch thick sheet of steel and when I finish it I’ve got to cut and file a cube to fit though it, turning the cube all ways possible. You are lucky I’m here at all”. Well I thought I’d found what I could possibly do in my spare time.

The following day I made an appointment to see the Captain and asked him if I could join the Mech’s course and do the work-shop part, I explained my thinking and he said he would have words with the Training Commander, Two days later I was in the Commanders office where he informed me, yes I could do the Mech’s practical workshop part of the course on one condition, if I started I had got to finish it. I accepted, because it would silence any jibs from band members and also since I was a small boy I have always had tools around me. I remember once my father coming home for dinner and asking my mother what I had been doing all morning. She said “He’s been down in the cellar (my father’s workshop) all morning banging away” Dad when down and rapidly returned informing mum I had spent my time hammering nails into the top of a table he had just prepared for French Polishing. I now know why he was not best pleased. It didn’t stop my visits to the cellar but I was taught to respect and use tools and I’ve still got a garage full. I finished that course and went onto the welding course. I had excellent instructors for gas and arc but the gas man was a perfectionist. One day we were going to do copper work and silver soldering and he asked me if there was anything I would like to make. Well we had a tatty short stick that our drum major used so tongue in cheek I asked him if I could make a Drum Majors Staff. He said yes but I had to make everything, I got the measurements and a photo from the one at Excellent, the really difficult bits were the globe on top partly covered by leaves which were made from a sheet of copper and the chain which he insisted I was responsible for constructing. Cutting, bending into circles silver wire and then soldering it together to form the decoration round the staff was one of the most difficult and tedious things I’d ever done before or since.

Instead of a crown surmounting the globe I cast a Sultans head in the moulding shop where all the ships crests are made. In the end the only thing we purchased was the Malacca Cane.

I was in Sultan a couple of years ago and I was told that they had just sent it up to the firm that refurbishes the RM band ones that get damaged and the firm asked who made it and were told that the information has been lost in the passing years, well it was over forty years ago now.

Besides the lads on course in the band I also had Officers, Senior Rate Instructors and other members of staff and these were the permanent backbone of players. Courses started and finished and numbers went up and down but after I had been there a while I could usually provide a band of thirty plus. I think being seen joining in and grafting in the workshops alongside them made me one of them, for some I was learning their job as they were practising mine.

My lead drummer was a Chief ERA and lived over by Eastney Barracks he worshipped the ground RM drummers marched on.. I found out that he knew a few of the buglers in the Yacht Band and they taught him drum solos and marches and he passed on the knowledge and taught the band drum section. To see him out on the parade ground marching them up and down was a great pleasure for me to watch as I had never picked up a drum stick. The only problem he had was he used to sing the marches to the drummers; it was OK when on the practice ground but even the Captain heard him one day on Divisions and remarked “At least he’s got a good voice Sgt Epps”.

I had a small sextet that I used for Wardroom dinners; the leader was a Chief ERA ex submariner who could perform the post horn gallop with the best. He always took his horn to dinners and there were few nights he got away without playing if.

At Christmas I started to take the band on a round of the messes playing carols in the evenings, the last two stops were the Captains house where the band partook of a glass of hot toddy and mince pies and I always finished up at the Commanders house. The first time I had informed him we were coming but when we got there the house looked in darkness but we started playing as I had noticed a light round a shutter. Suddenly all the curtains were drawn in the drawing room the windows were opened and he had a house full of guests. He opened the front door and standing on a table in the hall was a very large silver punch bowl, the aroma that wafted out left no doubt of the contents. When we finished playing the Commander and his wife came out and thanked us, he then invited us in. I made a quick decision and got the band to case the instruments and put them in the transport. It’s a good job I did because later I had to send the instruments back and told the driver to bring them back to the band-room in the morning. We finished the evening with the Commanders wife and guests in high spirits. The band walked back into the establishment, their transport had gone. It was a gig the band never complained about doing every year.

I should imagine I am the only band senior NCO who once a month has had to stand Captains outside rounds on a moat around a fort, It came about when the Captain found out that I was the Chairman of the Sultan Angling Club, he told me that the club was responsible for the moat area and as I was chairman I was responsible. I can assure you club members knew better than leave rubbish when they finished fishing.

In the time I was there the band played in carnival processions, at one in the local village of Titchfield I dressed a group of them in boiler suits and they played all round the course twice in the back of Sultan’s Foden steam wagon. When we were coming up to the saluting base I told them softly, softly, as the Royal Marine Band was playing everyone past. It was like waving a red flag to a bull, I “hadn’t a hope in hell” and the RM band gave up and stopped playing, I raised my arms to them as we went by and there was laughter on their faces not anger. We also played the Queen Mary out of Southampton on her final trip to become a Disney Hotel as there were no other bands available. For this gig I also enlisted the help of some of Gunner Hargreaves Collingwood band. Gunner and I did a couple of massed bands concerts in HMS Sultan and Collingwood that were very well received as it was a time that wives could see the results of the practice nights when they had to have a late meal.

When I look back at the years I spent at Sultan I feel a great deal of satisfaction, I taught a lot of sailors what satisfaction could be had from playing instead of listening to music and it was something they could, if they wanted to, continue with. I have since met with ex-members who have said that the time spent in the band room playing music unwound them after they had been in the workshops all day.

One of my last jobs given to me by the Commander was he said to ” Design a band-room that you would build if the money was available”. Well I’ went back a few years ago and they eventually built it and it’s got everything I put down on the paper; sometimes dreams do come to fruition and I hope the new VBI is making good use of it.

One of those satisfying things that sometime come your way came when the wife of an ex member came up to me in the Fareham Shopping Centre and thanked me for teaching her husband to blow a b flat bass. It appeared everyone had told him he was tone deaf but I think it was because of the way he sang. After joining the learners class he made a very active member of the bass section and could certainly hold his own even on the Sousaphone which I acquired, but that’s another story..

But enough, it’s just a few recollections of some most enjoyable years I spent at the end of my service. To try and condense six years into a few pages is difficult, I started at Sultan with a band of twenty and left with forty which I was very proud of. In my time there we did numerous engagements Remembrance and Christmas church services, fetes, firework displays, carnivals anything to improve the profile of the Navy and I think the band enjoyed it, I know I did. I’ll attach a couple of photos of the band.

When I got to Eastney Jim Mason was the DOM of the Yacht Band, I’d got three months still to do because at times in Sultan I had worked during leave periods I had “on the books” twelve weeks leave I hadn’t taken. I don’t think there was anything in regulations about it but Jim said he didn’t need me except for one engagement in May and he wanted me back from leave for three days, the engagement, the Cup Final. Sunderland AFC Div2 beat Leeds from Div 1 A great ending to a very enjoyable twenty two years plus three years boy’s time, one at HMS Ganges as a Boy Seaman and two at the school.

Thank you and Good-bye

 

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