The best of Dorset in words and pictures

A happy band

Pamela de Figueiredo tells the story of the Durnovaria Silver Band

durnovaria silver band,Dorchester
The Durnovaria Silver Band in the Borough Gardens, Dorchester, in 1947. Founder member Edwin Otter is in the centre of the front row, with his wife Kay to his right and his son Michael seated at her feet.

‘To provide musical entertainment at public events’ is the somewhat terse description of Dorchester’s own brass band put out on the website In fact, the Durnovaria Silver Band does much more than that if note is taken of their attendance at many of the town’s most important civic events, the funds they raise for charity and the contributions they make to good works. In a twelve-month period, the band can cover fifteen to twenty local fetes, around ten civic engagements, private concerts and weddings and, over the festive season alone, collect more than £1000 in just two mornings by playing carols opposite Marks & Spencer in Dorchester, which also says a great deal for the generosity of the people of Dorchester.

durnovaria silver band,Dorchester
The band marches down High West Street on Remembrance Sunday 1988 on the way to the War Memorial

But why Durnovaria, the Roman name for Dorchester? Ex-mayor of Dorchester and E flat bass player Colin Lucas, whose association with the band stretches back to 1947, explains: ‘Durnovaria Silver Band was founded in 1936 but before that, when every town and village in Dorset had a band of some sort, there was a Dorchester town band. It received civic funding and then ran into difficulties. When a new band tried to form, it was prevented from using the name of the town until some debts had been cleared, so they called themselves the Durnovaria band instead.’

The band was the idea of a quartet of brass players, keen musicians who were members of the Salvation Army. Edwin Otter, his wife Kay, Harold Hawker and Eric Symes left aside any council funding to build around themselves enough talent from the town and surrounding villages to win the West of England Brass Band Championship within twenty years with a full complement of players. In this time they had kept the band going during the years of the Second World War, finding opportunities to practise and to provide entertainment whenever and wherever possible. ‘They managed to continue, helped by those not required for active service, along with service personnel who were posted in the area,’ says Colin. ‘Kay Otter had a fine singing voice, which was always used to best effect.’

durnovaria silver band,Dorchester
Playing in Dorchester’s twin town, Lübbecke, in 1990, with Bill Aird conducting. The band returns there in June this year.

Edwin Otter was an experienced musician who expected and exacted high standards from the group. ‘He was a ruthless conductor and those who didn’t match up to his expectations soon left,’ says Colin. Under his direction the band competed and won many festivals, winning the Championship in 1956 and eventually entering the prestigious Brass Band National Finals.

Before his death in 1983, Edwin Otter took the band to Normandy on a number of occasions with the civic group involved in the twinning of Dorchester and the French town of Bayeux. Representing the town, they played in the cathedral there and at major events. In 1968, during the official twinning ceremony, they met fellow musicians from Westphalia, Germany, who had also been invited. This meeting was the beginning of a firm and lasting relationship between Durnovaria and the Lübbecke Schützen Musik Corps, personal and significant friendships that were to lead to the eventual twinning between Dorchester and Lübbecke. The musicians made exchanges between families and friends, forging happy relationships, and a formal link was made when the two towns twinned in 1973. On one occasion while visiting Germany, Durnovaria even had the distinction of playing in Berlin, the first foreign civilian band to play there since the cessation of hostilities in 1945.

durnovaria silver band,Dorchester
Veterans’ Day in Dorchester is now an annual event for the band. Elizabeth Carter conducts outside the Keep in June 2006.

The two towns had much in common, for as well as established bands, they each had a brewery. Christopher Pope of Dorchester’s Eldridge Pope Brewery had always been a strong supporter of the Durnovaria Silver Band and for over twenty years was the band’s President. The breweries exchanged trees, an oak and a linden, and Mr Pope always made sure that a keg of bitter accompanied the band on visits to Germany for all the musicians to slake their thirst.

These links continue today between banding families and through the Dorchester-Lübbecke Society. The Lübbecke band made an official visit to Dorchester in 2003 and the Durnovaria Silver Band is to return the compliment by visiting Lübbecke in June 2008.

The visit will be led by the Musical Director, Elizabeth Carter, who took over the baton in 2004. In September 2007, Mrs Carter graduated from Sheffield University with a BA (Hons) degree in Brass Band Studies. She has been with the band for thirty years and her progression since joining as a young cornet and flugelhorn player with military training, to being first the conductor’s understudy and then finally appointed leader, has been remarkable. Some years ago band membership dropped to fewer than ten but at the present time, under her direction, it is going from strength to strength with a complement of thirty players. She remains passionate about her commitment to banding traditions, to loyalties, to strong bonds of friendship and community and to Durnovaria in particular.

‘In 1972, when I was in the Wrens, I was stationed on the Royal Naval Air Station at Culdrose and joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Band, where I learned to play the cornet. I played in naval bands wherever I was posted and when I went to Portland as a civilian I joined Durnovaria.’ Today, band members are happy that she did. They held a special party when she graduated to celebrate the occasion, presenting her with an inscribed case of conductors’ batons.

For quite a number of the musicians, playing with the band stretches beyond thirty years and between them they have many memories. There was the time they made up the backing group for Vera Lynn, who flew in for an afternoon of nostalgia. At the end of the session she said, ‘Thank you boys,’ much to the amusement of the women in the band. In the winter of 1989, the year of a great storm on Portland when the sea overwhelmed the sea defences, the band had an engagement there that left them stranded when the only road to the mainland became impassable. The night was spent in the Masonic Hall, where they played Christmas carols in waltz time to keep everyone entertained.

Brass banding (a ‘silver’ band is the same, it’s just a matter of colour) attracts a curious mix of men and women. In Durnovaria they come from a wide range of backgrounds occupations and professions, travelling from all over Dorset and from as far afield as Axminster to practise weekly or to play for engagements. They do so at their own expense, simply for the love of it. They also pay a membership fee for the privilege. The band can lose valuable members when young players leave for university, although the principal cornet, Neil Watts, an accomplished musician from the Scots Guards, has been with them since 1987 and the training band now benefits from his tutorage.

durnovaria silver band,Dorchester
Elizabeth Carter conducting the band on a summer Sunday in the exotic surroundings of Abbotsbury Gardens

‘One of my most difficult tasks,’ says Mrs Carter, ‘is to select the repertoire. I have to consider not only what our audiences like to hear but also what the band members would like to play. They have a varied taste in music so, with a rich mix between classical, baroque, blues and pop, it is quite a task finding the right music each year. The band is a happy band and they do enjoy themselves, but I want them to be stretched, to improve their technique and ensemble skills.’

The contribution the band has made to teaching and nurturing the musical talent and ability of the young people of Dorset is considerable. Young musicians have honed their skills with Durnovaria to become professional, to move into orchestral playing, to turn to teaching and to join top-ranking bands of all kinds. ‘It gives children and young people an outlet for their musicality, to go on to other things,’ says Mrs Carter. The training band not only provides free tuition to all ages and abilities but also will arrange for the free loan of instruments.

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