Doncaster’s Military Bands

Doncaster’s local regiments – Militia, Volunteer, Yeomanry and Territorial, all at varying times had bands which enhanced the regiments’ reputations. Dr. Miller joined the Militia in the Seven Years War of 1756-63 and may have been involved in its music; later, in the 1790’s, he wrote a march of the 5th West York Militia. The volunteer regiments organised during the French wars of 1793-1815 had bands. The Doncaster volunteers gave their instruments to the corporation when stood down in 1814 in the hope of a permanent band being formed; the Bawtry Volunteer Infantry’s band was paid for by Lord Galway; and the West York Yeomanry, whose band mustered six trumpets and six bugles in 1803, had this placed on a permanent footing in 1821. The latter earned an excellent reputation throughout much of the 19th century under Bandmasters Clegg, in office in 1837, Thomas Dodgson, Doncaster violinist, concert organiser, music shop proprietor and dance band ‘fixer’ 1854-64, Hemmingway 1865-77 and Samuel Suckley from 1877 onwards. Suckley composed songs, dances, notably the waltzes Elsie and Yorkshire Dragoons and the polkas Doris and Marguerite, marches and novelty numbers like The Jolly Blacksmiths; he was also organist of St Philip’s, Sheffield. By the end of Suckley’s tenure, the regiment had become known as the Queens Own Yorkshire Dragoons. The band was heard throughout the century when the regiment mustered annually in Doncaster – one of the town’s big social events.

The local Militia, the 3rd West York had a band too, in 1798 this was a fife and drum band of 20 players. Drum Major Francis Clough had charge of a reed band of clarinets, fifes, flutes , bassoons, keyed bugles, two french horns and drums. He retired – on a pension of a shilling a day – in 1837 after 37 years’ service.

The Band’s high point was during the Crimean War when the militia was activated and posted to Ireland. Its Bandmaster was George Birkinshaw of Barnsley who recieved £130 per year plus £2 per month lodging allowance. At first his brand was all brass, but a reed band which he had formed in the Curragh in 1855 numbered 30 and there was also a bugle band under the Bugle Major Clark. Birkinshaws band was reckoned the best militia band in the army. He and Clarke repectively composed a Scottische and a galop, named after the regiment. Clarke directed a 3rd West York’s Band in the 1860’s with distinction. In the 1860’s it had 33 performers and cost £315.

On his return from Ireland in 1856, Birkinshaw conducted the brass band formed of Plant Works employees, which won many prizes in contests in Doncaster and elsewhere. When the Plant established its own Volunteer Company in the war scare of 1859, the Band became the Doncaster Volunteer Band, initially under the direction of Birkinshaw, who composed dance music and marches. In the 1860’s the conductor was one J. Redfern, who was followed for many years, later in the century, by S. Wilson. It gave many concerts locally, both outdoors, in Regent Square and on Hall Cross Hill, and indoors. Unusually, for a ‘Military’ band of an infantry regiment, it remained all brass.

Militia, Volunteers and Yeomanry were absorbed in 1908 into the Territorial Force, the local infantry element of which was the 5th K.O.Y.L.I. Its Band could be heard locally, during the Great War and at times thereafter; at a concert it gave at the Arcadia – now the Civic Theatre – in 1930, its conductor was stated to be J. F. Stokes. The Doncaster Area’s five Home Guard battalions formed in 1940, and stood down in 1944, all appear to have had bands, though little information is available as to their strength and instrumentation. Doncaster no-longer has a military band of its own; but the musicians it contributes to regular bands are in a sense heirs to the tradition nurtured by Dodgson, Birkinshaw and Suckley.

by Philip Scowcroft.