Len Smith joined St Albans City Band in April 1939, just a few months before war broke out. At the tender age of 12 it was his goal to learn to play the cornet and join his cousin, Nelson Morris and other friends of his from his home in Longmire Road, St Albans in the City Band. The Bandmaster at the time, Herbert Warwick was a painter at Napsbury Hospital and had led the band for many years – firstly on Solo Cornet from 1892 and from the early 1920’s as Bandmaster. A rather dour man with a lisp, Herbie Warwick commanded the respect of all who had played under him – his favourite saying being “…It’s no good polishing it if you can’t play it…” – a saying which probably drove many a young player away from his tin of ‘Silvo’ and back to the practice stand! Len remembers chasing after Herbie Warwick on his bike, stopping him and asking him to teach him the cornet. Later, Herbie gave Len a mouthpiece and told him once he could buzz ‘The King’ on the mouthpiece he should come back and see him. Len also recalls how at his first music lesson Herbie sent him out to fetch a pint of beer before the lesson commenced!
So it was that in the first week of April 1939 Len attended his first band practice in the Sopwell Lane Bandroom. In those days, as a junior member of the band his duties included pushing the big instruments down to the lake at Verulamium Park on the band’s handcart before regular performances there and also stoking the old stove that stood in one corner of the Bandroom. On the night war was declared in September 1939 Len recalls he was attending a band practice – halfway through an old woman who lived in a nearby cottage came running in and shouted “…the old bastard’s declared war!...”. Preparations for war were made which included the hanging of blackout curtains in the Bandroom which Len did along with Herbie Warwick. In due course many members of the band were called up which left the number of players seriously depleted. A similar thing was happening with the St Albans British Legion Band, who practiced at a hall in the Market Place, near the Clock Tower in St Albans. It was therefore decided in 1941 to form the St Albans Home Guard Band which was an amalgamation of the two bands to form one band of full strength. The aim of this band was to do parades and collect for the war effort especially during Government Campaigns such as War Bonds Week, Victory Week etc. Bob Anderson, who had played percussion in the British Legion Band became Bandmaster of the Home Guard Band. Following the end of war in 1945 Len was called up, having reached the age of 18 and spent the next three years in the Army in Germany clearing up and rebuilding after the war.
Following the war and subsequent demobbing of thousands of men, the St Albans City Band reformed in 1946 and was restored to virtually full strength through amalgamation with the British Legion Band. It quickly made a name for itself in the contest field whilst still having a strong presence in the city of St Albans. At that time the band still did a lot of marching – the band would assemble in the city centre on a Sunday morning, march to the Abbey with the Mayor and Council walking behind, attend the Sunday service there and then march back to the City centre. The Bandmaster would lead the marching and carry a whistle – when he blew the whistle you would stop playing at the next double bar. On leaving the Army in 1948 Len rejoined the City Band and went straight onto Bb Bass, the instrument he would stay on for the next 58 years! His colleagues on Bass included Bill Day, a player who often had large amounts of denture powder with him, should his teeth come dislodged at an inopportune moment! Another, more embarrassing incident occurred to Euphonium player John Irving on a march when on taking a brief break from playing to sneeze, fired his teeth out into the gutter!
Post war the Contest scene was one of interest for St Albans City Band – it was usual for the services of a professional conductor to be engaged to prepare the band for big contests. In 1948 the famous conductor of Luton Band Albert Coupe came and conducted St Albans for their trip to the Belle Vue contest and later on a professional from Rushden Temperence Band was used for several contests. Tommy Boyes, who later became Bandmaster in the mid-1960’s was also used for a number of contests. Contesting had it’s funny sides too – on one occasion Len and Nelson Morris were left behind in Brighton after the end of the contest after the coach left while they were in the pub! A side drum was also the subject of an incident when it was stowed near the open door of a coach the band were traveling on and it rolled out of the open door! At that time the band were out every weekend – if not contesting at jobs in London parks – in many of these jobs singers and pianists were also provided so the band did not have to play every item. At one contest a duet was played on Cornet by Nelson Morris and Charlie Horsley – the local paper report of the day carried the statement “…the Cornet duet was played by Nelson and Morris…!”. Needless to say Charlie Horsley was not impressed!
The band enjoyed moderate success in the contest arena during the 1950’s and 1960’s until October 1969 when the band won the Second Section Finals. However this was not the blessing that it appeared – Nelson Morris, by now Conductor decided that he was not prepared to take the band into the First Section so, after a long meeting the promotion was refused. Sadly this was the beginning of the end for the band’s contesting career and although it contested on and off for the next 25 years it was not until the late 1990’s that it became a force to be reckoned with in the contesting field.
Going back to the post war era – all things had an air of neglect at this time, not least the St Albans City Bandroom! It was decided to refurbish the Bandroom, with a new stove and new windows, which also involved the filling in of the windows at the front of the Bandroom. This was done by Nelson Morris and George Peck whilst Len mixed up the cement. Bass player Tommy Knight offered to fit the new small framed windows in and he was justly proud of the job he had done 15 foot up in the air on a ladder, until it was realised that actually the handles were on the outside and the windows opened inwards! (less said about the brain power of Bass players the better – thank you!). At that time the majority of the band were tradesmen so work of this nature was more easily done than it may be today.
In 1955 Len got married and the band played at his wedding. They formed a guard of honour and George Peck played the posthorn at this engagement. The 1950’s and 60’s were great times for the band, with Ted Longland as Bandmaster a variety of concerts and contests were played. In the early 1960’s the band took part in a radio programme on the BBC during the time Tommy Boyes was Bandmaster. Bert Golby, the long standing band Secretary was interviewed and a piece from the ‘Sound of Music’ was played. From 1967 – 1980 Nelson Morris was Conductor of the band – his appointment marked some changes – the title “…and British Legion…” was dropped reflecting the small number of ex-British Legion players still in the band. The band also stopped marching and became a concert style band. In 1967 the new uniforms designed by Hardy Aimes were purchased, along with a brand new set of uniforms thanks to a grant and loan from St Albans City Council. Although the band effectively withdrew from contesting from 1970 several high profile concerts were arranged including several at the St Albans City Hall (now the Alban Arena) and the Waterend Barn, where the proprietor was a Trustee of the band. Two concerts were played together with the Band of the Grenadier Guards, two with the Band of HM Royal Marines and one with the Central Band of the Royal Air Force at the City Hall between October 1969 and November 1972. It was in this period that Nelson Morris became the first civilian to conduct the Grenadier Guards band, and he made the front page of the paper doing so!
By 1975, when the final concert at the Waterend Barn was held on 3rd February the band was basically going downhill. After Nelson Morris retired in 1980 the band lost a lot of players from both retirement and the fact that the band went through a number of mediocre conductors very quickly. Len recalls how for much of the 1980’s he was the only Bass player. It was only due to the commitment and forethought of a few players at this time that ensured the band survived for the future. Since 1998 the band has developed beyond everyone’s expectations – Len could have scarcely imagined in 1970 the massive changes that would occur in the band over the next 36 years – we are now at about the same position as the band was in 1970 - and Len has been here every step of the way!
Nick Doolan 10th January 2006