Heritage Project

‘A Little Story’ by Ted Wakins

Ted Watkins pictured conducting the band

Please note that the following transcript was typed from the above recording.  Because of the risk in mishearing and the difficulty in some cases identifying spoken words it may not be entirely accurate.

A story about the ‘Watkins’ family and its association with the ‘Spring Gardens Band’ as told by Ted Watkins (recorded in 1998)

This is a little story of the Watkins family by Ted Watkins, who all at one time lived at 218 Southampton Street, Reading. They were all brass band musicians throughout their lives. My Grandfather William Watkins was born in Wales in Symonds Yat, Ross on Wye, Herefordshire in 1855. He was a Salvation Army Major and a very good cornet player, so we are all told. He moved to Reading in about 1885 to 218 Southampton Street and still with the Salvation Army. One of his stories he told to us was he was leading a Sunday morning meeting at Silver Street, Reading, which in those days was a very rough area and a lot of Italians were living there as well {inaudible} … cornet with the band, which was only a few strong in those days, someone threw a brick or a big stone and hit him, my Grandfather, in the face, knocking his cornet away. He told me all the other bandsmen and songsters left, they were not staying there anymore, but with blood running down his face he carried on with the meeting all on his own and he played the hymn, the Old Rugged Cross on his cornet and finished the meeting with himself only.

A couple of Italian ladies came over to him, wiped the blood away from his face and the others cleaned him up. After that he was the only one they would allow to enter Silver Street for a long time, and he was going there himself on Sunday morning meetings to play his cornet and then read all the ceremonies and sing the hymns with them. He died at 218 Southampton Street in 1935 aged 80. He taught my father George Edward Watkins to play, and my Uncle, Dad’s brother, Fred Watkins, who also helped me and he was a good double B bass player, he played with the Reading Temperance Band. My father George Edward Watkins, that’s the same name as mine, we are both George Edward’s, though my friends call me Ted, but for business reasons I used to use the name George as my Dad did.

Dad was born in Symonds Yat in 1894 and died 1979 aged 85. He also lived at 218 Southampton Street from 1927 ‘til when he died. My Dad joined the Reading Spring Gardens Brass Band on baritone around 1926/27 when the band was attached to Whitley Hall. A Mr Charlie Coppuck was the bandmaster then in those days. My father took over as conductor about 1935/36 until 1970 when he retired. He’d done about 34 years as conductor and 57 years with the band altogether. He taught me to play. I started at the age of 7 on trombone, but I could not reach the last two positions on the slide as my arms were not long enough, so I took up the cornet. He also taught my two cousins who lived next door, at 216 Southampton Street, and one played the cornet, Les, and George played the tenor horn. And with my dad on his baritone we used to play quartets nearly every night. My father was also a peripatetic music teacher for brass instruments in Reading, from 1940 to 1978. He formed the first school band, brass band, at Ashmead School. All the lessons then were free. Over a hundred were in the band at one time. Seven of them now are still playing with the Reading Spring Gardens Band. He then started school bands at Prospect School, Highdown School, Bluecoat and also conducted Thatcham Band, Cholsey Band and East Woodhay, as well as Spring Gardens, a very busy man in those days. He lived only for brass bands and he won quite a number of prizes with the three bands at competitions.

The Spring Gardens Band won quite a lot in the Southern Home Counties. He also played at the skating Rink in West Street, Palmer Hall, which was promoted by a Mr Ron Bamford, and Dad had the Spring Gardens Band under his wing playing for the skaters. The band also played at Elm Park football ground from about 1953 and shared the games with Reading Temperance Band who had been playing there for quite a long period until they finished performing. We carried on and it was then the Majestic Ballroom was opened by Mr Ron Bamford, for skating also, and he asked Dad to form a dance band, but after a year or so found it too much, so I took over the dance band. Being the same name, George Watkins, I carried on with the name. This was around the late 40’s early 50’s, until it closed, and then Top Rank took over about 1960 to 1968. Again, I formed up a new band of very young musicians, with four of my old band members from the Majestic, which closed down then, I suppose it was about 1968, that was with Top Rank. My son Derek was also playing in that young band in those days and he gained a lot of experience with the good musicians he played with.

I joined the Spring Gardens Band when I was nine, in 1929, again at Whitley Hall. At the age of 13, I was principal solo cornet and this age I won juniors, the under 18’s, the seniors and the championships solo contests, four sections in the same day at Oxford. And the adjudicator was Harry Mortimer. This was for the Southern Area Championship. I still have the cuttings of this. Although I won over 50 prizes for cornet playing, medals and silver cups. I did my first broadcast when I was 14 with the Leicester Band. Their solo cornet player went down with the mumps, or something like that, and I was asked if I would step in and play all the solos and cadenzas for the band, which I did. I was a cornet player for 37 years with the Spring Gardens Band and then took over as conductor of the band when my father retired in 1970, and I’m still going strong. 37 years as a player and now 28 years a conductor. That is a total of 65 years with the same Spring Gardens Band. I was also a peripatetic music teacher for all the brass instruments for Berkshire and Reading for 15 years. I taught at Coley School, Ashmead, Prospect, Highdown and Reading University.

I played as a 13 year old for the Broad Street Brotherhood Orchestra conducted by Fred Hill, who was also conductor of the Reading Temperance Military Band in its last years. And later years with the University Orchestra. So that with the dance band at the Majestic, brass banding, peripatetic teaching, private teaching, I was also very busy. But now only the Spring Gardens Band and a few young people I teach, for the love of it now.

My son Derek Watkins, the last trumpet/cornet player in the family, I taught him from the age of six. So he has gone up further up the ladder than any of us in the Watkins family. He played with me at the Majestic when he was 13 until he was 17 and then he joined the Jack Dorsey Big Band at the Astoria, London. That was a Top Rank Ballroom. He’s also played with Ted Heath, John Dankworth, and in America, with Count Basey, Tom Jones, he’s been with James Last for 20 years, still with him now, Maynard Ferguson, he played with him, Henry Mancini, Leonard Bernstein, and he’s done all the James Bond films that have been done. And in England he played with the London Symphony Orchestra, he plays with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and he’s thought of as a wonderful player by some of those top musicians. He is also a top session musician, he’s on the tv about four times a week, so Ron I’m sending you a list of some of his recordings and films and pop groups etc he has worked with over the years, and I can assure you we are very proud of him. The shows he’s on at the moment are the Cilla Black shows, Generation Game, Stars in Your Eyes, the Des O’Conner Show, course he does all the Come Dancing, to name just but a few. He’s come a long way since he was a young lad, and he was playing with us in the old Spring Gardens Band. I forgot to say that in about 1958 my Dad took Derek and three other lads from Ashmead School band, they entered a quartet competition championship of England at the De Montford Hall, I think it was Leicester, that was in 1958 and they had quite a big competition there and quite a lot of entries and they done marvellous and they came 3rd, that was for the quartets, very good for that time when they were so young. I think they were the youngest quartet there.

Also, I forgot to mention previously that my Dad’s brother Uncle Fred, he also had a son, Bill, and Dad taught him to play a Bass and he was a very good player. He played with us for a quite a while and then he left and went to the Reading Temperance Band with his father. Unfortunately, he died quite young, in his late 40’s I think it was. That was another member of the band we had, in the family, the Watkins family. And just as another interest the band used to compete at the old Crystal Palace, they had eight sections going on all day long there, right from the eighth section to the championship. We started in the eighth section and year after year we worked ourselves right up until we won the second section which was the Grand Shield, after that you went into the championship but unfortunately before we could get there the old Crystal Palace got burnt down. And then they decided then to hold the competitions at the Alexandra Palace, but before that came on the war broke out and therefore we didn’t even go to that. And quite a number of band chaps got called up so we disbanded for a while and then all formed up as a home guard band. It was headquarters division Yeomanry House and we had a quite a big band then, but of course it was all the youngsters that were too young to go in the army and all the old men like me. There was about 30 altogether, and we used to march through Arborfield Camp and that.

We had quite a good band and then when the war finished, one or two came back, one or two didn’t come back, and we struggled for a little while. But then we entered Southern Home Counties Competition, we won quite a few of those, so what with the Crystal Palace contest we won and London Home Counties we done very well. But things had got a little bit hard up with the finances so we can’t afford to go to competitions now ‘cause it’s too expensive. But we just carry on doing concerts and charity shows, but the band is still going strong and I’m still going strong. I also had a lot of thanks for my Dad’s brother Fred, my Uncle Fred, he gave me quite a lot of tuition when I was a lad, going in for solo competitions, so I’ve got a lot to thank him for. Unfortunately, he’s no longer with us either, so I’m the only Watkins person in the band at the moment, so I keep the name going. And we shall be at practice Thursday so if you want to come along and listen to us, do so.

All the best for now then, and this is from Ted.

– Transcript compiled by Rebecca Devaney on 26th October 2017