S/Bdmr H G (Tom) 'Knobby' Knowler
Deceased 17 Nov 08
TOM KNOWLER - An appreciation.
We gather today in love and friendship to remember and celebrate the life of a dear colleague and friend who has gone before us towards the light. He has left us with enduring values of hope and energy. Ideals he utilised wisely throughout his life and particularly when he was a proud member of the Royal Marines Band Service.
Tom joined the Royal Naval School of Music at Deal on 20th April 1940 to be paid the princely sum of four shillings a week. Whilst under training he went with the School of Music when it was transferred to a number of wartime locations including Malvern and the Isle of Man. He completed his training as a musician in June 1943 having been taught to play the cornet and the trumpet. He immediately joined HMS CUMBERLAND taking part in the Russian Convoys before heading for the East Indies. In Singapore he was present as Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten took the surrender of the Japanese. In March 1946 he returned to UK where he served at Deal with Bandmaster Ernie Ough until being sent to Scarborough, another wartime venue for the Royal Naval School of Music, to assist in yet another move of the School, this time to the Cotswold town of Burford. On promotion to Band Corporal he served for two years in HMS NORFOLK and was in Indian waters during the partition of India and the new Pakistan. In 1949 Tom was attached to HMS BLACKCAP, a naval Air Station near Warrington, where he met Bet. After only two years he was drafted to HMS CLEOPATRA as part of the Mediterranean fleet. He was then appointed to HMS St.ANGELO in Malta where he was in charge of a naval band consisting of one petty officer and twelve ratings of the Maltese Navy. In 1954 Tom returned to UK to become an instrumental Instructor at the School of Music eventually becoming the Junior Wing Chief Instructor at a time when there were 350 boy musicians and buglers under training at any one time. Later he toured Canada with the Deal Staff Band and also saw service in the Royal Yacht Britannia.
I first knew Tom when he was Bandmaster of the Deal Staff Band during the tenure of Lt. Colonel Vivian Dunn. It is almost impossible for personnel serving today to accept the reality of those years for things were difficult then for the Band Service. Following the Second World War, during which 25% were killed at action stations in Royal Naval ships at sea, it was decided that the Band Service was to be entirely restructured and in 1950 for its headquarters and School of Music moved from its final wartime location of Burford, in rural Oxfordshire, to Deal. The town already housed The Depot Royal Marines where all General Service recruits and officers began their careers. The harsh discipline behind the wall of the barracks was hardly conducive to the training of boy musicians who were joining at the tender age of 14 and where sensitivity was necessarily a very real part of instrumental tuition. The desolate sound of the heavy iron gates of East Barracks slamming shut behind us after we had marched through them after our arrival by train from Burford is, for me, an enduring bleak memory. Henry George Knowler, affectionately known to all his contemporaries as 'Nobby', or Tom, was always very fair and kindly towards the band-boys and ever-helpful. One young boy, whose family home was nearby in Ramsgate, was bullied by older boys and was not really suited to Service life at all. He was often seen to be in tears. Tom, quite of his own volition, went off to see the boy's parents and together they were successful in obtaining a most unusual 'Discharge Unsuitable' recommendation for the boy. In those days there were few SNCOs who would have taken such a personal interest in a young lad and this one probably never ever knew who had saved him from ongoing teenage misery.
Lt. Col. Dunn, when Principal Director of Music Royal Marines, served at Deal for seventeen and a half years ruling with a rod of iron! He was largely unapproachable and his views could rarely be challenged. I can, however, recall two men whose courage allowed them to stand up to the man when it was vital that someone should. One was the Drum Major, Charles Bowden BEM and the other was Bandmaster Tom Knowler. Tom was small in stature - but then so was Admiral Lord Nelson! He recognised that he needed to be a buffer between the Colonel and the musicians and to fight for fairness at all times. This he did and the men loved him for it. In those days, when all capital ships of the Royal Navy carried a band of musicians, drafting of instrumentalists, with little prior notice, to and from ships throughout the world was a constant concern particularly for those in UK who were married and had children. Being appointed to a band elsewhere meant vacating ones married quarter and having to personally find alternative civilian accommodation. For musicians at Deal this was an ever present worry for the Drafting Office was next door to Vivian Dunn's office and there was a connecting door! As the Bandmaster of the Staff Band Tom always tried to smooth the way for everyone around him - often at considerable personal risk. There was an occasion when the band had to go to London for a live broadcast. On reaching the BBC studio Terry Parker, the band's music librarian, realized in horror that although all the rest of the music scores were present and correct he had forgotten to bring the three solo parts of the trumpet Trio 'Nine Busy Fingers' that was to feature in the broadcast. Being alerted to this Tom asked the three soloists if they would play the Trio from memory rather than cause havoc and this they did. The Colonel never knew and as a result the librarian didn't get a 'draft-chit' away from Deal that would have necessitated his family losing their married quarter. Ray Alberry, a trumpet player in the Staff Band at the time has told me that Tom could accept pranks played upon him without getting too upset. As a trumpet player himself, but often too busy with band administration to sit in at all rehearsals conducted by the Colonel, Tom was often required to transpose some parts of the chosen music. This meant reading the notation as it was printed in the score but playing the notes up or down by a given pitch such as a minor third, etc. To make it easier, especially for the regular Thursday Night public orchestral concerts Tom used to write out on a piece of paper the ACTUAL notes needing to be played referring to this at the appropriate time. It was not unknown for this slip of paper to mysteriously disappear until about ten bars before it was needed! Band members at the time also recall how the Regimental Sergeant Major, whose word was law in every other situation, was never ever permitted to inspect the Staff Band when it was on parade. Tom, junior in rank, just forbade it and his stance was never successfully overruled. A friend says that throughout his own entire career, also as a SNCO in the Band Service, he always tried to emulate the fairness and courage of Tom Knowler.
Nineteen years ago, when an IRA bomb killed eleven young members of the Royal Marines Band Service here, our town went into deep shock. Tom arranged for St, Saviour's Church at Walmer, of which he was a Warden and stalwart member of the choir, to immediately be an ever open place of peace and contemplation for those seeking a quiet place to be alone with their thoughts after visiting the memorial bandstand opposite on Walmer Green. In the church he filled one window area with his own Service memorabilia in a nostalgic attempt to concentrate the minds of visitors on the accepted family aspect of the Band Service of the Corps where rank is not important but where comradeship and sensitivity is all. His efforts were greatly appreciated by the bereaved many of whom had come great distances to be close to where their loved ones had been so cruelly murdered. Tom arranged for me to speak at a particular evensong in the church. To conclude my words I had arranged for a recording of the Band Service Memorial Fanfare, 'To Comrades Sleeping', to be played. It had been composed in 1948 for the dedication of a set of fourteen silver trumpets as the memorial for those members of the Band Service who had died in the 2nd World War. To enable this to happen I had, on the previous evening, placed a portable music-system in the gallery above the nave. I carefully made sure that the tape was positioned correctly and that, because the unit was left switched ON, all that would be required would be for someone up there to press the start button at the right moment next day during the service. Arriving early and sitting quietly at the front of the church as the congregation arrived I thought I would just check to ensure that nothing amiss had occurred overnight so I went up to the gallery. I was so very glad that I had for dear Tom, as was his duty, had switched off all the power in the church at some stage which meant that had I not checked, and realigned the machine, depression of the start button would have resulted in the congregation being treated to the blast of a Radio 1 programme instead of the fanfare. It would have been totally devastating for me but when told about it Tom thought it would have reminded people of the much lamented earlier Sergeants' Mess pantomimes!
Over recent years Tom remained a remarkable man whose sense of humour and indomitable spirit was ever present. His courage as he faced the inevitability of the outcome of his final illness was notable for its unselfishness. He was again the man of courage he had been all those years ago when he regularly stood up for those with no voice and for whom the future was an uncertain place. In saying our personal farewells today he would want us to temper our sadness with the sure and certain hope that we will meet again. Until that day comes we should continue to carry forward his personal values of hope and energy in our uncertain world. After his example it is the least we should do!
Hoskins 27th November 2008