The Goonhavern Banjo Band (the full story)
Tony Mansell / Skrifer Istori
Halls warmed only by the folk who had braved the wind and rain, curtains faded by time, paint peeling off walls but it mattered not, the entertainers were on stage and tonight it was the famous Goonhavern Banjo Band. They had travelled far and the audience who waited in excited anticipation would not be disappointed. The first question that springs to mind is, why the banjo? In most communities the Cornishman’s affection for bands led to a group of brass players getting together to make music but at Goonhavern that was not the case: here, it was the banjo. The answer quickly becomes apparent when you consider one man’s enthusiasm for the instrument. His passion, fostered many thousands of miles away, led to a life-long interest and to the formation of the Goonhavern Banjo Band. That man was Fred Eplett.
In the coming years Goonhavern Banjo Band would attract many players to its ranks and fill countless halls with people eager to hear its distinctive brand of music and humour. The Band was based in the little village of Goonhavern but its reputation was Cornwall wide.
Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, describes the banjo as a four, five or (occasionally) six-stringed instrument with a thin membrane stretched over a frame or cavity as a resonator. The membrane is usually a piece of animal skin or plastic and the frame is circular. Simple forms of the instrument were fashioned by Africans in Colonial America adapted from several African instruments of similar design. It was popular in the minstrel shows of the 19th century and, with the fiddle, was a mainstay of American old-time music.
So, when did it all start: when was the Goonhavern Banjo Band formed? It has been suggested that the first strings were plucked as long ago as just after the First World War – circa 1920** – but this possibly relates to Fred’s brother’s (W H Eplett) interest in the instrument rather than anything as formal as an organised band. Indeed, Derek Brooks of Goonhavern said that Fred Eplett formed the Band in the mid-1930s (possibly 1936) following his return to this country and this is given credence by an article in the Goonhavern Gazette and by former player Marina Tonkin.
** A newspaper report of the early 1940s suggests that it could have been as early as 1910.
The Gazette article also states that Fred Eplett was greatly helped in setting it up by Mr and Mrs Baden Powell of Newquay and by Frank Bogden, a professional musician in Truro, who was its first musical director.
This programme is held by the St Agnes Museum Trust and although undated, is thought to be from 1938 when Mr Frank G Brogden was the leader. (I am indebted to St Agnes Museum Trust for allowing its use)
A view proffered is that the Band was formed immediately after the Second World War and whilst this is undoubtedly incorrect we can readily forgive the error as its activities were suspended during the years of conflict** and it was necessary to virtually start all over again. A more appropriate statement would be that it was re-started then.
** A newspaper report of the early 1940s suggests that Miss Rhoda (or Rosa) Loader, a London professional entertainer, led some concerts during wartime. It seems that Mr Cuss, a former Army band sergeant took the baton for a while until he, too, left the district. He was followed by Mr Leslie Taylor of Truro.
Although the banjo was the chief instrument, and even featured in the name, there were many others which contributed to theBand’s unique sound. Furthermore, if we consider that the performances included music, comedy, magic acts, Cornish readings and even a spot of juggling it soon becomes clear that an evening with the Goonhavern Banjo Band was an entire variety show. Nor was the Band’s activity restricted to its own patch. Bookings came from far afield and when the coach arrived the large troop set off to locations from Stenalees to St Buryan and from Veryan to the Lizard. Former player Margaret Callaway recalled that one concert at St Buryan had to be cancelled when almost the entire band went down with flu. She said, “We had to contact them to say that we wouldn’t be turning up. We re-arranged the date so we did get there in the end.”
A concert at Ruan Minor also caused a problem. It was another lengthy journey and for most of the members it was into unknown territory. The clock was ticking as the coach made its way along the country roads and the pressure increased as they became aware that they had no idea where they were. They decided to ask the way and Marina Golley said that when they came across a large building with lots of lights Fred Eplett jumped out to investigate. He could be seen peering in the windows, checking to see if they had actually found the hall. Unfortunately, when he returned to the coach, he had to tell them that it wasn’t the venue, it was a shed and the only audience was about 300 chicken staring back at him.
The Band’s repertoire was as varied as the instrumentation and the venues. Many of the items were typical banjo pieces but many weren’t and needed some clever transposing to suit the Band’s composition. Margaret recalled one piece which began with a drum roll. She said, “The audience seemed a bit confused but then stood up as they thought it was the National Anthem. It wasn’t so they all sat down again.”
The music was of a different age and some of the titles would not pass the politically correct rules that we live by today but back then they seemed innocent enough and no one appeared to take offence. These are just a few of the pieces which regularly appeared on the programme: A Swanee Sing-Song, Amazing Grace, Black and White Minstrels, Children of the Regiment, Cossack Memories, Dam Busters March, Darkie’s Dream, Entry of the Gladiators, Evergreen Waltzes, March from A Little Suite, Overture Medley, Savoy American Medley, Skater’s Waltz, Syncopated Shuffle, Take Your Pick (a solo usually played by Rita Jacka), The Everlasting Waltz, Three Jolly Sailormen (a trio usually played by Rita Jacka, Terry Julian & Margaret Stevens) and the William Tell Overture. Another popular piece was Orpheus in the Underworld or, as Mr Moyle, MD during the 1950s/60s, often joked in rehearsal, Orpheus in his underpants. He always said that he ought to stop saying it in case he inadvertently announced it in a concert.
Merv Davey (alias Dr Folk), folk aficionado and current Deputy Grand Bard of Gorsedh Kernow, provided this arrangement of minstrels music by Emile Grimshaw. It was passed to him on the death of his uncle, Edgar Veale, some 30 years ago. Merv’s mother, Mary Veale, and Edgar were members of the Band and this was one of the pieces they played.
The first musical director was Frank G Brogden. This is confirmed by a brief history in the 1967 edition of the Goonhavern Gazette which goes on to say that he was followed by Miss Rosa Loader, Mr Frank Cuss and Mr L Taylor. However, it then implies that Mr Moyle took over in 1955, a statement which Marina Golley refutes as he was certainly in place when she joined in 1950. From this we can say that Mr Moyle was in charge during the 1950s and 1960s and possibly a few years earlier.
W (Billy) E Moyle was a brass bandsman. He was born in Camborne in early 1904 and began his musical career with the famous Camborne Band. In 1922, when he moved to Newquay to work, he joined Newquay Town Band as solo cornet. Shortly after that he moved to Canada where he played trumpet and piano in a travelling circus – possibly Barnum and Bailey’s. Illness forced his return to this country and in the late 1920s he attended the London Guildhall School of Music where he gained his LGSM qualification. He then moved back to Newquay where he played piano for the silent films at the Old Pavilion Cinema and led a dance band – Billy Moyle and his Super Dance Band – which won the Championship of Cornwall in the 1930s. He did not enjoy good health and during the Second World War he worked for Kershaw Optical Works making bombsights. He played cornet with Yeadon Old and St Hilda’s Bands and later became cornet player and bandmaster with the famous Brighouse and Rastrick Band, deputising for the well-known conductor, Eric Ball. In 1947 he returned to Newquay Town Band as musical director.
The activities of Goonhavern Banjo Band were suspended during the war and it seems probable that the man who resurrected it was Fred Eplett, the original founder. Whether it was Mr Taylor or Mr Moyle who then wielded the baton we cannot be sure but Mr Taylor’s inclusion in the two 1950s photos surely points to his continued involvement despite Mr Moyle having taken over by then.
Clearly, Billy Moyle was a major factor in the Band’s success. He was never satisfied with anything less than a good performance always reminding the players that the public did not want to pay for a yard of pump water. Terry Knight of St Agnes, formerly of Troon, Mr Moyle’s nephew, recalled that it was always a big occasion when the Band came to their village. He said, “I suspect that they might have come to Troon more than some other places because of my uncle’s family connections. The concerts were held at St John’s Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, in the Sunday School Room. It would have been in the mid-1950s, before television had really taken a grip, when a good quality light entertainment event would fill the room with probably as many as 120 to 130 people. Village concerts with locals performing at the chapel were a frequent occurrence and always well-supported but the Goonhavern Banjo Band was that bit special: these people had travelled! I guess that it was an exciting time for a young professional musician and Billy Moyle probably took to some of the American music trends. I’ve always imagined that his interest in the banjo and dance bands might have been encouraged there but I’m not aware that he ever played the instrument, certainly not well enough to teach it.”
Twins Rita and Roma Jacka
A place where the players were always well-received was at Silverwell, a scattered community where few people lived within easy walking distance of the venue. The Band played there on a number of occasions but for one evening, around 1960, conductor Billy Moyle was unable to attend. In his place he had enlisted the help of his friend Edgar Floyd, the musical director of St Stythians Silver Band. Silverwell Chapel is located down a long lane and anyone familiar with it will sympathise with Edgar in his efforts to find it. He drove around for ages before giving up and returning home. Margaret Calloway said, “He was most upset to think that he had let us down but that wasn’t the only problem, the piano was feet out of tune”. Nevertheless, the concert went ahead and it is probable that I was in the audience. The ladies took to the stage in their black pleated skirts, white long-sleeved blouses, black waistcoats and white sashes with GBB (Goonhavern Banjo Band) embroidered in red. The men, too, looked the part in their black suits with a satin stripe down each trouser leg.
Marina Golley recalled that Edgar Floyd was a regular and popular replacement when Mr Moyle was unavailable. She said, “To be honest, he was a bit less strict than Mr Moyle but not always easy to follow as he had a very different conducting style. There were 20 to 30 members in the 1950s and Rita Jacka, Terry Julian and I were the lead banjo players. I also sang duets with my sister Thelma (later Rowling) for a couple of years. We practised in Fred Eplett’s bungalow in Goonhavern and travelled to engagements on a Newquay Motor Company coach.”
Terry Julian was 14 when he joined in 1954. He recalled the many long trips to outlying venues and said, “On one occasion we went all the way down to St Just and played in a large hall, it was full to overflowing”.
The Band in the 1950s
Back row: Unknown, Silas White, Baden Powell, Mr Taylor (MD), William Henry Eplett, Edgar Veale & Glen Pedlar
Middle row: Elsie Lavin (née Roberts), Rosie Penna, Dorothy Powell (née Hitchens), Rita Jacka, Roma Jacka & Elsie Millis (née Veale)
Front row: Fred Eplett & Howard Rule
(I am grateful to the Goonhavern Old Cornwall Society for help with some of the names)
John Roberts now lives up-country but was born in Truro and returns to holiday in St Agnes as often as he can. He had three relatives in the Band, from the Rule family,Howard, Beryl and their son Derek,and he follows in their footsteps in playing the banjo. He said, “The closest the band would have got to a bass sound would have been the baritone instrument – back row far left, and the little terz guitar in the back row far right (1950s photo). Neither would have had a big influence but Howard (Rule) might have provided a bit of a deep thump with his bass drum. Interestingly, my recording of the Band has plenty of bass on it,possibly supplied by the clavioline (keyboard) of a youthful Derek Rule.”
Many players have passed through the ranks of the Band and this collection of regular and less regular performers is probably far from complete but it has been compiled from the collective memory of a number of people. As ever, mistakes do occur with such lists and if you have been omitted then I apologise. Likewise, some of the dates are guesstimates and I can only say that wehave done our best.
Pamela Barrett (or Bassett) was a soprano and appeared as a soloist on programmes from the early 1960s.
Pam Bellamy was a soprano singer from the early years.
Jack Benney delivered the ever-popular Cornish readings during the 1960s.
Raymond Blee played mandolin, drums and was a tenor singer. He probably joined in the early years and his name was still included as a soloist on a 1969 programme.
Henry Caerhart was from Newlyn East and is best described as a comedic singer. He was a member from the early years and named as a soloist in a 1960 programme. One of his favourite songs was “Chips & Fish” and another was a humorous version of “I’m shy Mary Ellen, I’m shy”.
Shauna Dawson was a contralto, probably during the late 1960s. Margaret Callaway said that she was only about 16 and had a beautiful voice.
David Docking lived in Mithian and travelled by train from Mithian Halt to Goonhavern and to Newquay for banjo lessons with Rita Jacka and Mrs Powell. He joined when he was 14 years old, in the mid-1940s, and was a member for about three years, when
Morley Grubb and Richard John Baden Powell were in the Band. David said, “My mother was really keen that I should be a member, but for her I would have given up. The rehearsals were held at Morley Grubb’s at Reen Cross and, as far as I can remember, Mr Eplett was the conductor. When we went to St Agnes the concerts were in the old cinema and Goonown schoolroom.”
Fred Eplett may well have learned to play the banjo from his brother, William Henry. When he returned to Cornwall in the mid-1930s he began playing again and was largely responsible for the formation of the Band.
William Henry Eplett probably began playing the banjo as long ago as 1910 but perhaps that was for personal amusement as there is no suggestion of a band from as long ago as that. It was probably another 25 years or so before he became a part of the Goonhavern Banjo Band.
Mrs Gertrude Grubb played the keyboard and was a member from the early years.
Morley Grubb played the banjo in the Band from the early years.
Mr Hinton played the banjo in the Band from the 1950s. Unfortunately no one has been able to recall his first name.
Jock Henderson was listed as a guitar soloist in some of the 1959 & 1960 programmes.
Fanny Hill and Mrs Tickle were a comic duo from the early years.
Rita Jacka was Fred Eplett’s cousin and during his period in the army she learned to play the banjo. She went on to become the Band’s brightest star and achieved considerable success at the All-England Championships in London. During her time as a member, from the early years to 1972, she was lead banjo and invariably played a solo at the many concerts.
Roma Jacka played the keyboard, probably from the 1930s or 1940s. Her name appeared regularly on concert programmes and she was probably a member up to the closure in 1972.
Trevor Jewell played the banjo and was a member from the early years.
Terry Julian joined in 1954 and regularly appeared on programmes as a banjo soloist up until 1968. He was a talented player and, like his tutor Rita Jacka, had success at the London championships. He also joined with Rita Jacka and Marina Tonkin for banjo trios.
Gerald Kempthorne played banjo in the band for about two years during the early 1960s. Apparently his instrument was unusual in not having a back.
Tommy Knight was a bass singer, probably from the 1940s.
Trevor Lavin played the string bass, or bass fiddle as it was often called, during the early years. He lived in Truro and when he left the coach he would walk home with the instrument on his head. He often joked that he would be arrested one day.
Rosa Loader was an accordion player from the early years.
John Marks was a guitarist and a soloist in the 1960s.
Peter Marsh represented the brass section with cornet solos in the late 1960s.
Peter Marks also appears as a cornetist. Could it be that there is an error here and that he and Peter Marsh are one and the same person?
Vic Meek was a magician from 1949 to 1972. His widow, Joan, told me that Ken Meek, his brother, often helped with the tricks.
Elsie Millis played a banjolin, an instrument which was a cross between the banjo and mondolin. It can be seen in some of the photographs as a truncated banjo.
Joe Millis played bass banjo from the 1940s.
Billy Moyle junior was the Musical Director’s son. He was a percussionist and appears on a 1960 programme as a xylophone soloist.
Dorothy Moyle played the keyboard and sang duets with Margaret Stevens during the 1960s.
Morris Moyle was a baritone/bass singer during the 1960s.
Sylvia Nicholls was a soprano singer and took part in many concerts during the late 1950s to 1965 or later. She was married to Philip Reed who also played in the Band.
Baden Powell and Mrs Powell both played banjo and were members from the early years indeed, they are credited with being two of the prime movers in the formation of the Band.
Alfred Parker was a banjo maker from Penzance and a member of the Band during the 1960s.
Lyn Pearce played the keyboard but we do not know exactly when.
Carol Pedler played the banjo, probably from the 1950s, and was a regular soloist during the 1960s. She also sang duets with her father, Glen.
Glen Pedlar was a guitarist, a hill billy singer, folk singer and comedian. Many people looked forward to his slot on the programme and he always received a huge round of applause. He joined in the early years and was still appearing as a soloist in the late stages of the Band’s life.
Chester Rae was a guitarist and a member from the early years.
Philip Reed was an accordionist and clavioline keyboard player. He appears as a soloist on a 1960s programme playing the accordion and was a member of the Band during the 1950s to 1965 or later.
Elsie Roberts was a banjo player from the early years.
Beryl Rule was a banjo player from the early years.
Beryl Rule’s 5-string 1930s banjo. It is surprisingly heavy as I discovered when I held it. (Photo: John Roberts who had three relatives in the band)
Derek Rule played the keyboard and the bassoon whilst still a schoolboy, in the 1950s. He was also the organist in the City Mission, Kenwyn Street, Truro (now the One-eyed cat restaurant).
Howard Rule was a percussionist and played the drums during the early years.
Margaret Stevens (later Callaway) joined in 1958, when she was 17, and was still a member when the band disbanded in 1972. She said, “Rita Jacka gave me a mandolin but I soon transferred to banjo.” Margaret also sang duets with Sylvia Nicholls.
Marina Tonkin (later Golley) began learning in 1947 under the watchful eye of Rita Jacka. She said, “We all had to read music but I already played the piano so I was alright in that respect. It took me about three years to reach the required standard but before I could take part in concerts I had to have an audition with Mr Moyle. I passed and joined the Band in 1950. I played for eight seasons but when I married in 1958 I was needed on the farm so I gave up and sold my banjo in case I should be tempted back; all of the instruments were owned by the players.” Marina also sang duets with her sister, Thelma Tonkin (later Rowling).
Eric Tregonning was a banjo player from the early years.
Edgar Veale played the violin and the banjolin and was probably one of the early members.
Mary Veale played the banjolin and was a very early member.
William Waters was a banjo player and a member from 1944 until the late 1940s.
Sheila Waters (later Roberts) was a banjo player and a member from 1948 until about 1951. She sometimes joined Rita Jacka for duets.
Silas White was a comic singer from the early years.
Kevin Williams was a guitarist and appeared as a soloist in 1968/69.
A 1969 programme lists the members providing guitar duets as Dawn, Kevin (possibly Williams) and John but we are unsure of the surnames, I’m afraid.
Returning to the 1960s concert at Silverwell Chapel it is clear that the good folk have enjoyed their evening and now, as the last strains of music fill the hall and the concert draws to a close, there is the reassuring sound of a singing kettle. It is time to put away the instruments and enjoy the typical Cornish spread which the ladies have prepared. Soon, the players will be clambering back onto the Newquay Motor Company Coach and making their way back to Goonhavern having notched up yet another concert in the Band’s endless list of public events.
The Band during the late 1950s
Back row: Mrs Powell, Rosie Penna, Elsie Roberts, Elsie Millis (née Veale), Roma Jacka & Rita Jacka
Middle row: Unknown, Silas White, Baden Powell, Mr Taylor (MD), Edgar Veale & unknown
Front row: Fred Eplett, Howard Rule & Glen Pedlar
(Mr Taylor still appears as the MD although Mr Moyle had taken over well before this time)
The 1960s marked the end of an era. Local talent had once filled village halls but now,radio and television brought the superstars into our living rooms. Brass bands and choirs were faced with dwindling audiences and although the Goonhavern Banjo Band was still popular it was increasingly viewed as of a different age.
Sadly, the Bandclosed in 1972. Lookingback there is no single reason why but by then Fred Eplett had died; he had been the driving force. The Band also lacked a drummer and with a few players leaving for various reasons the enthusiasm simply drained away and no further bookings were taken.
So ended the Goonhavern Banjo Band; it had delighted audiences for over a generation, achieved a near-cult following for almost 40 years and forged a reputation which persists to this day.
My thanks to Derek Brooks, Margaret Callaway, Merv Davey, Marina Golley, John Jackett, Terry Julian, Terry Knight, John Roberts, Jean White and St Agnes Museum Trust who have provided me with information for this article.
My thanks as well to the Goonhavern Old Cornwall Society for its interest and co-operation.