HMS Despatch Ship’s Band Photograph

It was once very common for Royal Naval warships to have their own band. Usually these ships were the larger vessels in the fleet such as cruisers and battleships and the band was made up of volunteers form the ship’s company who could play an instrument. Membership of a band was remarkably meritocratic and based upon an individual’s abilities rather than rank or rate and ship’s band often drew their members from ratings, officers and marines. These bandsmen were paid a small supplement to their pay and very popular with the ship’s company and officers so would have had certain additional perks such as being invited to posh dinners ashore when in foreign ports to play. Today we are looking at a large photograph of the ship’s band from HMS Despatch:

HMS Despatch was a Danae class light cruiser launched during the Great War and she served on the China Station from 1923 to 1927, the West Indies from 1928 to 1930 and in the Mediterranean from 1934 to 1938 and it is on one of these deployments that our photograph was taken, the band having been established in 1923. The band is positioned around the ship’s senior officers who sit front and centre:

The Royal Marine bandmaster can be seen in the back row holding his mace:

The drummer, wearing a sheepskin apron, is to the left of the shot with his drum resting on the deck in front of him:

The rest of the band are playing a variety of brass instruments including different euphoniums:

And trumpets and cornets:

The advantage of these instruments is that, with the exception of the drum, they are not particularly large which makes storage of them aboard ship slightly easier. In the 1890s the following description was given of music aboard ship:

Then as to secular music. Ships of a certain size are allowed a properly trained band. Bandsmen, as a rule, receive their instruction on board the training ships, as I explained before. They are there taught two instruments, wind and string. After they have passed out of the training ships, they are employed as bandsmen only in sea-going ships. The duties of a band are to play in the evening, and sometimes during any heavy work, such as hoisting in boats, &c. Besides this, when the ship is in harbour, it plays at 8 a.m., when the colours are hoisted, not only our own, but also all the foreign National Anthems of those nations whose men-of-war happen to be present. So you may hear half-a-dozen different National Anthems consecutively. At this time also the men are generally cleaning guns and arms. So the band continues to play some lively and inspiriting pieces, to render the work less irksome, I suppose…

But the voluntary secular music takes place after the of the ship and drills are over. The bluejackets like to congregate on the forecastle in the peace of the evening indulge in a clay-pipe and perhaps a hornpipe and songs besides ” yarning and working.” They bring whatever instruments they may be the happy possessors of to play or improvise accompaniments. The concertina, banjo, guitar, piccolo, and sometimes a fiddle are the general favourites.

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