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Roke & Benson Brass Band
The Founders - 1882
During the last quarter of the nineteenth and first quarter of the twentieth centuries,
there was a national campaign to control the excessive drinking habits of country and
town folk alike throughout the land. This campaign was actively supported by the
newly formed Temperance Societies, Methodists, Free Churches, Calvanists and The
The hamlet of Roke and the neighbouring villages of Benson and Berrick with Roke
Marsh in between had no less than fourteen Inns, Public Houses and established beer
retailers in 1882. With a total population of less than 1800 the availability of alcoholic
drink presented a great temptation.
From information given by the Band's longest serving member, Mr Jack Winfield
(died January 1982) and other investigations, it appears that a house opposite the
Chequers public house at Berrick, near Benson, was opened as a Coffee House to give
an alternative meeting place for those opposed to alcoholic drink.
Amongst those frequenting this coffee house were a number of farm workers from
local villages. Some were 'self-employed' which meant they undertook certain
seasonal tasks such as harvesting, ditching, hedgecutting, hoeing, thatching, carting
etc., for a pre arranged price rather than a weekly wage. This way they could earn a
little more with hard work and had more control over their homes and lives.
Thomas and George Wells with Thomas Alder and his three sons, Tom, Bill and
Harold, decided to start a bugle band which after a short period lead to the purchase of
instruments and the formation of Berrick & Roke Temperance Band. Messrs. Justins, Billings,
Currill, Harmer and Smith joined and practices were held at the Coffee House on
Tuesday and Friday evenings.
This was a truly rural Village Band formed mainly for its members' enjoyment in
making music, with public performances being the aim when proficiency had been
attained. Mr Jack Winfield related the stories of some members leaving practices
early on occasions to go 'larking' on suitable nights after harvesting time. They would
go in threes to drag fine mesh nets across the surrounding fields with one at each end
and one to gather the catch. Tom Alder used to make the nets from string and fix
wooden weights at intervals along its length. These larks were sold to Colleges in
Oxford for 7s 6d (37p) per gross. Larks nest and sleep on the ground, never in trees or
hedges, and only fly in daylight. Jack said he could remember when there were so
many skylarks in the area that at certain times of the year (probably when young were
assembling for migration) the sky would be black with flocks of many thousands.
It could be said that the times when the band members went 'larking' were the first in
a whole series of fundraising events that have enabled the band to support itself.
The first instruments were purchased from Messrs Browns of Haymarket, London,
and from that initial purchase, one bass drum still remains today.
When the Coffee shop in Berrick closed, the Band moved its practices to a room above the Post Office in Roke. (now a private house). Until 1922, when the members were able to purchase a plot of land in Chapel Lane Roke. The cost of this plot in September 1922 was £10.00 with legal fees of £1.6s.8d. A member of the band at that time Mr William Aldridge a builder from Crown Square Benson undertook the erection of the first Band Hall to stand on the site which was completed in 1923 and the total cost of the building was less than £300.
That construction, of corrugated iron and wood provided a home, Practice Hall and meeting place for the Band and its members for the remainder of the 20th Century. during those nearly 80 years it is impossible to calculate the number of new players that have been introduced to the joys of making music, and gone forward to a life enriched by banding in all its forms.
Here is Nora Wells' letter, with extracts from the Band's Centenary Booklet (1882-
My husband's father was Thomas Wells "(founder member of Roke Brass Band)
worked as a farm labourer for Mr Painter at the Cedars, Benson, and asked for time
off to play at a Band engagement. Permission was refused. After talking to his wife
who agreed to support him, he defied his master and was promptly sacked and given
notice to vacate his tied cottage at Berrick. His loyalty to the band proved very costly
at the time but made Thomas determined not to be tied again. Ralph Hutchins, who
owned the small holding at Roke Marsh gave Thomas some piece work and
permission to use a small two storey building at the end of the lane for his wife and
three small children. He never looked back and was successfully self-employed for
the rest of his life." I wonder how many would do it today!!